Greatness of Soul, or Magnanimity

An important aspect of the journey toward virtue is the understanding of what is called greatness of soul, or from the Latin, magnanimity, or in the Greek, megalopsuchia.

For a significant portion of my young adulthood, I lived in or around the city of Moose Jaw, in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. The name does not suggest a beautiful city, but it is one.

When I lived in Moose Jaw I didn’t have a car, and I walked anywhere I needed to go when I didn’t have access to a ride, even though the walk could be an hour or more in a single direction.

For the most part I didn’t mind the walking. It was, as I’ve said, a beautiful city, full of good people. One person in particular sticks out in my mind.

I never met him. I only ever saw him from a distance. He was a young person, around my age, in his twenties or at most his thirties, and he was a giant of a man. I’m not short, but my best guess is that he was at least a head taller than I am.

Whenever I saw him, it almost seemed to bend reality. He was like an optical illusion, making the buildings around him smaller than they ought to be.

This is because he was proportionate. He wasn’t the sort of tall man you’ll meet who’s all gangly limbs, or with a head that is too large or too small, or a torso that is oddly slender or carrying all its weight in the belly. No, his proportions were the same that you would see in a five-foot tall boxer, or a five-and-a-half foot tall rower, except that he was probably closer to seven feet tall.

He dressed in a way that suggested a possible military background, somehow, and he seemed quiet, watchful.

To see a person who is built on a grand scale like that is awe-inspiring, somehow. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone else who was so large and yet of such normal proportions in head and arm and chest.

To see someone like that is inevitably, irresistibly, to feel as if you have encountered a demigod come to earth.

I could not see him without wishing I could have what he had, and be what he was, and I’m sure that I wasn’t the only one.

Of course, I can’t change my height. I can’t change the proportion of my long torso to my limbs. That’s just how I was born.

But a similar effect may exist on the level of the soul, and in that arena we have much more freedom to shape ourselves.

We’ve all met people whose characters are “larger than life” in some aspect or another, people who are overflowing with intellect, or compassion, or fervour, or self-control, or wit, or a sense of fairness and justice.

Someone who is unexpectedly exaggerated in some aspect or another might come across as entertaining, or impressive, or off-putting.

Someone, however, who has a whole host of virtues, each possessed in greater quantity than is normally seen, has the most perfect treasure. According to Aristotle, such souls are the product of a person being rightly oriented toward honour. He speaks of magnanimity as seeming to be characteristic of “greatness in every virtue,” and even as a “sort of crown of the virtues.”

I have met only a couple of these people in my life, whose souls are built on an uncommonly grand scale, each part proportionate to all the others. I admired them a hundred times more than the nameless man that I occasionally saw in the streets of Moose Jaw.

Greatness of soul is a prize that can be attained by any who are truly able to commit themselves to the pursuit of it. What could be a better goal?

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