Christian magnanimity: greatness and nobility of soul

There is nothing so foreboding about the present-day state of things than the popular acceptance of vice and pusillanimity. To some extent, perhaps in the faraway past, men and women strove to set themselves apart as gallant, lovely, noble, and good. It’s not as if these attempts never failed—for they inevitably did—but there were at least attempts. Our modern culture has completely neglected goodness, pureness, gallantry, and nobility, choosing instead to highly value one’s freedom to do whatever one chooses—no matter the impact an action may have on one’s soul or conscience—and one’s ability to spoil another’s reputation, among other things. In other words, we’ve disregarded the pursuit of magnanimity.

The word “magnanimity” comes from the Latin “magnanimitas,” or “magna,” which means “big, great,” plus “animus,” which means “soul, spirit.” In turn, “magnanimitas” is derived from the Greek “megalopsychia,” or “megalo,” which means “greatness,” plus “psychia,” which means “soul.”

Magnanimity, then, means “greatness of soul” or, as Merriam-Webster puts it, “showing or suggesting nobility of feeling and generosity of mind” or “a lofty and courageous spirit.”[1]

Another wonderful definition comes from the Dictionary of the American Language: “Greatness of mind; that elevation or dignity of soul which encounters danger and trouble with tranquility and firmness, which raises the possessor above revenge, and makes him delight in acts of benevolence, which makes him disdain injustice and meanness, and prompts him to sacrifice personal ease, interest and safety for the accomplishment of useful and noble objects.”[2]

Similarly, Paul calls Christians to “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12). Further, the book of Micah says: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8).

In the Gospels, we are told to turn the other cheek rather than seek revenge (Matthew 5:38-39, Luke 6:27-28), and to love the least of these sacrificially (Luke 6:35, Matthew 24:45, Mark 12:30-31, etc.). Nobility is sacrifice, and it is humility, generosity, patience, and honoring others more than one honors oneself. 

Christ is the ultimate example of magnanimity and of nobility. He is the King of Heaven; He is “gentle and lowly” (Matthew 11:29), loving so sacrificially that He died on the cross for us. When one rejoices in the commands given by the Lord, and loves Christ, one begins to become more like Christ, whose soul is by far the greatest.

What beauty and goodness there is in a soul that seeks to become nobler, higher—closer to God! We ought then to strive, stumbling and hesitant though we may be, to pursue such fruit with all of our minds, bodies, and spirits. Christians are meant to be a set-apart, holy people, a radiant city on a hill, and we ought therefore endeavor to act in a manner worthy of the inheritance we have in Christ. Through our efforts, God is glorified and we are sanctified.

If we should venture to live with incredible courage, incredible kindness, and incredible pureness of heart, the Lord is faithful to mold us—a meager, middling people—into His sanctified saints, heirs with Christ. Be honorable beyond your capabilities for fortitude, be kinder than your temper allows: fail magnificently—for surely you will—but do anything but balk at the vocation to which God has called you.

How can this be done? How can we actually embolden our souls, and one another’s souls?

Just as we are what we eat, we are what we think, what we cherish, and what we mentally consume. If we desire to grow in magnanimity, we must first tend the garden of our own mind, and pull out weeds which have been planted by spiteful conversation, less-than-gracious role models, and whatever crude or unchristlike media we may consume.

In Philippians, Paul says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (4:8; emphasis added). One can become more pure, lovely, and commendable when one heeds Paul’s injunction.

Meditate, then, on God’s mysteries. Act in accordance with them, because “rituals”—things that we do habitually, such as attending a service each Sunday—have significant power to shape our life and our psyche, as physical reality often reflects spiritual reality and vice versa. That is, to dedicate oneself to God fully and habitually, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, is to begin to move toward the “greatness of soul” which the Lord directs us to pursue. To do so is to encourage others to do so as well.

This beauty and nobility is stirring and effulgent—but it can only be grown through the strength and example of Christ Himself. Accordingly, Aquinas claims that humility must be paired with magnanimity. They are “twin virtues”[3]. So, let us pursue greatness of soul together, walking in humility, kindness, and submission to our King, that we may walk in a manner worthy of our inheritance and change this modern culture of pusillanimity.

“If we love what is noble, we become what is noble” — Fulton J. Sheen

Notes

[1] Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/magnanimous

[2] Webster, N., Dictionary of the American Language, 1828.

[3] Biola University Center for Christian Thought, “The Lofty Vocation of the Humble,” https://cct.biola.edu/the-lofty-vocation-of-the-humble/

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