‘You guys should try to practice magnanimity and not be so petty.” 

I was talking to my 11- and 13-year-old stepchildren soon after my wife Madeleine and I entered a second marriage for both of us 40 years ago. The children were arguing about a small task in the kitchen, like whose turn it was to empty the dishwasher. I was trying to be a good stepdad. My words fell on deaf ears. Of course they did. I wasn’t realizing that such a task for them was not a small matter. 

As I was writing this article, I asked both of them if they remember the incident. They don’t, but I sure do. This small failure in good step-parenting has led me to seek a deeper understanding of magnanimity.

My introduction to the virtue of magnanimity came when I was studying Aristotelean philosophy during my six years in the Dominican Order. Thomas Aquinas, the great Dominican theologian who wrote the Summa Theologica, borrowed from the philosophy of Aristotle. Aristotle defines a magnanimous person as having a great soul (great spirit, great heart) who deserves a lot and claims a lot. 

In Aristotle’s view all virtues, including magnanimity, are located in the mean or middle between two extremes. Magnanimity lies between a person who is deficient and claims little but deserves more — I would call this state of mind “false humility” — and a person who is excessive, claims a lot but deserves little. When I look at the latter, it is very hard for me to not think of our previous national leader. 

Merriam-Webster’s definition of magnanimity is “loftiness of spirit enabling one to bear trouble calmly, to disdain meanness and pettiness, and to display a noble generosity.”

In re-examining Aristotle’s concept of magnanimity, I noticed how much valuing one’s self is essential to its practice. A person who lacks magnanimity is much more than simply small-minded. He also doesn’t think much of himself.

 Modern Aristotelian thinkers, like Alexandre Havard (Created for Greatness: The Power of Magnanimity) emphasize that the practice of magnanimity, a crowning virtue, is grounded in four other basic virtues. If you don’t practice all of these, you can’t be magnanimous.

Prudence: the capacity to make right decisions.

Justice: the capacity to give to each person what they deserve.

Self-control: the capacity to direct passions and emotions.

Courage: the capacity to stay the course or show audacity.

Pretty good stuff to be grounded in.

Thomas Aquinas amplifies the virtue of magnanimity by introducing another virtue: humility (Mary Keyes, professor of political science at Notre Dame University, from “Greatness of Soul: Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas on The Virtue of Magnanimity” a speech she gave at Emory University, YouTube). Although the two seem headed in different directions, both are necessary for practicing magnanimity. These twin virtues keep one in a rational balance with regard to great, difficult honors, and also with regard to treating others in terms of their worth. Magnanimity disposes one to think well enough of oneself to live up to one’s potential. Humility helps us recognize our deficiencies on the one hand, and on the other, honors others and esteems them. Humility opens one’s eyes to see and appreciate the gifts of others, just as magnanimity does for one’s own self.

In Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin gives an example of these two virtues in a political context. She describes Lincoln’s “greatness of soul” and his humility, which enabled him to bring out the positive value of his rivals. Instead of seeing them as his political enemies he appointed them to his cabinet.

How can the practice of these twin virtues be applied to our lives today, on personal, community and nation levels?

On a personal level, how do we practice magnanimity with our spouse, our children, grandchildren and friends? We want what is best for them and to bring it out in them. We try to feel good about the successes of our friends. These people in our lives are not “rivals.” They are our companions in the pursuit of the good life. 

On a wider level, magnanimity compels us to bring out the best for those in our community. We seek to bring it out in them and wish it for them, even those with whom we have differing opinions. We need to be a “team of rivals,” as opposed to political enemies — to be open to the possibility that their ideas and actions have the same good intentions as ours. Would not a communal sense of magnanimity bring us closer together at this time? 

As James Fallows puts it in his 2017 article “Our Town” in the Atlantic, “But the underappreciated and potentially useful news of this moment is the extent of locally based renewal and experimentation, directed at many of the same challenges that now seem practically hopeless from a national perspective.”

I wonder how we in Oak Park stack up to Fallow’s words — if he were to visit us, much like he did other communities?

Of course, in Congress, magnanimity is sorely missing. Who is trying to understand and work with those holding opposing views? Where is the spirit of Lincoln today, not just in the highest office but also in Congress? Do they scorn or reach out to the “opposition”? The best quote on this subject is Vaclav Havel’s, the poet, playwright, and political leader who brought the Czech Republic out of communist totalitarianism in 1989:

“What the modern world needs is a great-souled citizenship, courageous magnanimity, willingness to do the right thing even at the cost of all sorts of harm, but with the humility of the wise” (quoted by Mary Keyes from her aforementioned talk).

Doesn’t Havel capture the essence of practicing magnanimity, as well as humility, in our contemporary world? 

When I used the term magnanimity with my stepchildren, I wasn’t the person with a “great soul,” I viewed them inaccurately, using inappropriate concepts with an 11- and 13-year-old. I wasn’t confident in my role as a stepfather in that early stage of our new family’s formation.

Luckily, they don’t remember what I said to them in our kitchen 40 years ago.

Joe McDonald is a longtime Oak Park resident.

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