Paradiso, Canto V

We see in this sphere what we may call magnanimous souls. St. Thomas dedicates several articles in his Summa to magnanimity.


Magnanimity by its very name denotes stretching forth of the mind to great things…Now a man is said to be magnanimous in respect of things that are great absolutely and simply, just as a man is said to be brave in respect of things that are difficult simply. It follows therefore that magnanimity is about honors. (STh. II, II, 129, art. 1)


“I do indeed see that you make your nest in your own light, and beam it through yours eyes that dazzle when you smile, o spirit blessed. But I know not who you are, nor why you are assigned here, to this sphere that hides itself far more resplendent yet upon my sight.” (Canto V)


These souls were indeed great souled, but struggled to truly understand from whence the honor they sought has its source. They were not necessarily proud, certainly not in the way of our primary source of original sin. But they may be able to be said to have been proud in the way that magnanimity is sometimes translated as “pride” in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics.


In St. Thomas’ Commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics, he states that “[Aristotle] draws two conclusions from the premises. The first is that magnanimity seems to be an ornament of all the virtues because they are made more excellent by magnanimity, which seeks to perform a great work in all the virtues. In this way the virtues increase. Likewise, magnanimity accompanies the other virtues and so seems to be added to them as their ornament. The second conclusion is that it is difficult to be magnanimous because magnanimity cannot exist without the goodness of virtue, and even without great virtue to which honor is due. But it is difficult to attain this. Consequently, it is difficult for a man to be magnanimous.” (Book IV, Lecture 8)


It is difficult, but not impossible. Aristotle, knowing nothing of grace, still understands the difficulty yet attainability of magnanimity, but he certainly couldn’t have an identical understanding of the concept. Great-souled-ness is certainly different in a Christian context.


A little later, St. Thomas comments on the vices opposed to magnanimity: “If the smallsouled man knew himself, he would strive for the things he deserves because they are good and desirable, since one’s own good is desirable to everyone. Ignorance of this kind does not come from stupidity-for the stupid are not worthy of great things -but rather from a certain laziness by reason of which they are unwilling to engage in great things according to their dignity.” (Book IV, Lecture 11)


Basically, our gifts are our gifts, but they are from God. We therefore recognize where our gifts come from but, at the same time, call them what they are. A bright and healthy man should never, for the sake of being lazy, decide he isn’t as bright and capable as he actually is and set lower goals, especially lower goals in the preaching of and working towards the Kingdom of Heaven. To whom much is given, much is to be expected. Pretending you were given less than you were and calling it humility is a double lie. But when you go do “great things,” be careful never to forget that you are reflecting the light and not its source.


We may say that the most magnanimous of all was Mary, who said “my soul doth magnify the Lord.” Only she could say with perfect and true humility that “all generations will call me blessed” for she knew that it was only by him who “has done great things for me.”


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