What does it mean to be “magnanimous?” It’s a trait we prize but ask someone to try define it, and they probably can’t get past “Um…does big nice things.”
We love it when we see it though, don’t we? Rockefeller, Carnegie and Gates giving away their fortunes. The leader who serves tirelessly, at the expense of their health and the lack of thanks. The politician who declines to publicize a scandal even though it might ensure a victory. The boxer who loses but celebrates their opponent, the football player who offers a hand to the player they just tackled. The partner who lets someone else get all the credit.
Greatness–we love it and need more of it.
It would be nice if we could channel a little of that in our own lives. Well, we can, because Aristotle laid out a clear and concise formula for magnanimity roughly 2,000 years ago.
Below are Aristotle’s reminders and rules for magnanimity*. They are short and sweet and make you think.
Honor. “The magnanimous person has the right concern with honors and dishonors.”
Truth. “He is concerned for the truth more than for people’s opinions.”
Selfless. “It is proper for the magnanimous person to ask for nothing, or hardly anything, but to help eagerly.”
Respect. “He is no gossip.”
Self-respect. “He cannot let anyone else, except a friend, determine his life. For that would be slavish.”
Selectiveness. “His actions are few but great and renowned. He stays away from what is commonly honored.”
Humility. “He will not talk about himself or another since he is not concerned to have himself praised or others blamed.”
Stoic. “He especially avoids laments or entreaties about necessities or small matters, since these attitudes are proper to someone who takes these thing seriously.”
Deliberate. “Seems to have slow movements, a deep voice, and calm speech. For since he takes few things seriously, he is in no hurry.”
Moderate. “He will have a moderate attitude to riches and power and every sort of good and bad fortune, however it turns out.”
Controlled. “He is not strident.”
Forgiving. “He is not prone to marvel or to remember evils, since it is proper to a magnanimous person not to nurse memories, especially not of evils, but to overlook then.”
To be deficient in these traits, Aristotle says, is to be pusillanimous–or cowardly and small. To be excess in them, to obsess over them, is vanity. The key is balance, doing it the right amount, at the right time in the right way.
It’s tricky. But it’s worth it.
And there is one more thing Aristotle says about magnanimity that we could all use to remember–and it has to do with scale and about actions. All of the traits above are important, but to be truly amazing things, we must be ambitious with our efforts. It’s nice to let it go when someone cuts you off and traffic, but we can do better than that. We can certainly dedicate our efforts to something more, that benefits everyone and not just ourselves. And of course, it’s not just about thinking these things but truly doing them.
That is why we close with this piece of advice:
“The magnanimous person…seems to be the one who thinks himself worthy of great things and is really worthy of them.”
So get to it!
*All quotes from Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle