Aristotle's concept of magnanimity is at the heart of functioning governmentby AC Grayling / May 21, 2015 / Leave a comment
Magnanimity is the virtue most needed when we least feel like exercising it. After a bitter and divisive general election, during a divorce, after a bad quarrel with a lover or friend, to be great-hearted is the obvious ideal.
In the first and still one of the greatest treatises ever written on moral philosophy, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics—so called because the philosopher’s son Nicomachus edited what had been lecture notes into the text we now have—a portrait is given of the ideally ethical individual. He (predictably “he”) is a deeply thoughtful individual who works out, for each situation of dilemma he finds himself in, the middle path between opposing vices. He is courageous because he chooses the middle path between cowardice and rashness. He is generous because he chooses the middle path between meanness and profligacy. He is continent because he chooses the middle path between inhibition and excess.
But the chief and defining characteristic of Aristotle’s ethical individual is magnanimity. This word, in its very etymology, sums up his ideal. The word derives from the Latin magna anima, which means “great soul” or “great mind”—or, even better at capturing its intention, “great heart”—in the sense of tolerance, kindness, sincerity and generosity. It is the origin of the concept of the “gentleman” in the ethical rather than social-class meaning of this term: it is the concept, as we still sometimes say, of the “real gent.”
The original Greek word used by Aristotle, from which Cicero and other Latin writers adapted their term, was the rather frightening-sounding megalopsychos, which sounds more like a description of Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining than a real gent. But it, too, simply means great mind or heart, and Aristotle’s point was that such a person would more often than not work out the right thing to do in situations of dilemma, using the distinctive human gift of reason, rather than relying on a fixed code or set of rules handed down by an authority, whether human or divine, which commands what everyone must do.
It is often extremely hard to be magnanimous, but if much turns…