The Life of Virtue – Magnanimity

The Life of Virtue – Magnanimity

In order to be virtuous, it is necessary to have emotional responses that are appropriate for the situations in which we find ourselves. Because certain types of situation occur more frequently than others, certain virtues may more readily be displayed than others. Perhaps one of the less frequently observed virtues is magnanimity, the virtue pertaining to great honour. Whilst most of us are capable of deeds worthy of some level of praise, few of us manage to accomplish truly great deeds, the sorts of achievements that are remembered for generations to come.

There is a virtue associated with small honours – it would be wrong to despise honour and it would be wrong to love honour too much – but Aquinas is very clear that the virtue of magnanimity is not to do with small honours, but only with great honours. The magnanimous person sets their mind on achieving great things. When faced with the prospect of attaining a difficult good, they possess a certain resolve and hope which means they are not afraid of success, of being brilliant, and they undertake their great deeds with a noble dignity. They know they are worthy of great honour, but they don’t feel the need to remind others of this fact.

This doesn’t mean that the magnanimous person lacks the virtue of humility. Magnanimity makes a person deem his or herself worthy of great honour only in consideration of the gifts received from God. Humility on the other hand, is revealed in a different sort of situation, the kind in which a person’s weaknesses are exposed. So the person who acts magnanimously in a situation in which they excel, may also act with humility in another situation if that is appropriate.

Aquinas says that all the moral virtues are connected and if someone possesses one, they possess them all. However this has to be qualified, by adding that the moral virtues are connected only as regards their principle of origin rather than the act of virtue itself. Thus, all virtues are connected because they stem from prudence and grace – if we have these, then whatever task we undertake, whether great or small, we will have the disposition to exercise the appropriate virtue.

Robert Verrill OP

fr Robert Verrill  lives in the Dominican Priory in Cambridge, where he works at the University chaplaincy while completing a Doctorate at Baylor University, Texas.