God Wants to Expand Your Shrunken Soul Into a ‘Great Soul’ — Do You Accept?
“Spiritual progress tends toward ever more intimate union with Christ. This union is called ‘mystical’ because it participates in the mystery of Christ through the sacraments — ‘the holy mysteries’ — and, in him, in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. God calls us all to this intimate union with him.” (CCC 2014)
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle lists the virtue of magnanimity among the moral virtues. The magnanimous man is, literally, “great-souled,” because he aspires to great and honorable things, on account of his virtue (one cannot be magnanimous without having the other virtues first).
As such, he rightly looks down upon those who are less worthy than himself, and he regards it a greater virtue to be a benefactor than a receiver of gifts — for it is the mark of the greater man to give, and the inferior man to receive. Hence, the magnanimous man is a benefactor to others not simply from goodwill towards them, but above all from a sense of his own superiority. For to be a great-souled man is to desire to be superior.
From a Catholic point of view, Aristotle’s concept of magnanimity is fraught with certain difficulties. The most obvious problem is that it seems to require the virtuous man to assess himself in a way that is difficult to reconcile with the Christian virtue of humility. Indeed, at one point Aristotle remarks that the person who, in fact, is worthy of great things, but deems himself unworthy, is small-souled or pusillanimous.
This seems to conflict with the example of the Christian saints, who were ever ready to decline the enjoyment of certain goods which, from a human perspective, they above all would seem to have deserved. Moreover, Christian virtue demands not the narcissistic self-assessment which seems to belong to the magnanimous man, but the total abnegation of oneself, the detachment from one’s own sense of worthiness, and the emptying of one’s ego so that it may be totally opened up to God and to others.
One of the weaknesses of Aristotle’s concept of magnanimity is observed by the Scottish philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre, who otherwise identifies himself as an Aristotelian. In his book, Dependent Rational Animals, MacIntyre argues that Aristotle’s notion of magnanimity depends on an illusory and individualistic concept of self-sufficiency that has all-too-often characterized the attitude of the rich and powerful throughout history. MacIntyre is surely right that such an illusion has all-too-often contributed to the breakdown of social bonds, and the dissolution of communities into groups defined by the opposition between exploiters and the exploited.
By contrast to Aristotle, MacIntyre argues that virtue lies as much in the ability to receive as in the ability to give, precisely because receiving as well as giving gifts is necessary to preserve the links that build up true and thriving communities. Healthy communities are constituted out of relations of mutual dependence. In more explicitly Christian terms, the virtue of humility is essential to the preservation of communities, for it is in humility and gratitude that we acknowledge our dependence on others – especially on God.
So is there nothing in Aristotle’s concept of great-souled-ness that can be salvaged, from a Christian point of view? Is it altogether incompatible with the Christian virtue of humility, which is the foundation of Christian charity? Indeed, are the high aspirations of the magnanimous man totally irreconcilable with the Christian call to radical self-emptying love and mystical union with God?
In a previous article here at the Register, I drew on the work of Cardinal Jean Daniélou to argue that the highest social and political priority is to create a society in which the mystical vocation of Christianity is facilitated for the masses. The major premise of this argument was that mysticism itself is the vocation of all men, and specifically of all Christians — not just the vocation of an elite few. It is in this universality of the Christian vocation that Catholicism consists. This is one way to understand the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the “universal call to holiness.”
The radicality of this vocation must not be underestimated. All Christians are called to be mystics, and not merely people who go through the easy routines of externalized prayer and acts of duty. Christians are called to be totally awakened in love to the presence of God in their lives. It is truly a great calling, a high aspiration, and there can be no doubt that something like the Aristotelian virtue of magnanimity is required of all Christians precisely in order to aspire to this calling.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was always a great admirer of Daniélou, has written eloquently on the greatness of the Christian calling, and has sternly rebuked the attitude of those who would refuse this great calling. In The Yes of Jesus Christ, Ratzinger labels such an attitude “bourgeois Pelagianism,” and he adopts the provocative language of Friedrich Nietzsche to call it out:
[Bourgeois Pelagianism] is a modern version of ‘acedia’ — a kind of anxious vertigo that overcomes people when they consider the heights to which their divine pedigree has called them. In Nietzschean terms it is the mentality of the herd, the attitude of someone who just cannot be bothered to be great.
In this, Ratzinger is echoing the assertion of Cardinal Daniélou in Prayer as a Political Problem that “we must react against any view that makes spiritual life the privilege of a small number of individuals; for such a view betrays the essential point of a message which is not only Christian but religious, that a life of prayer is an absolutely universal human vocation.”
In other words, those who pretend that the mystical life is not for them, but only for those few who are truly great, are failing to live up to their own Christian vocations — and they are failing in what we might call Christian magnanimity. They are small-souled or pusillanimous.
What is the cause of such pusillanimity? Why are people overcome with “a kind of anxious vertigo” when they consider the heights of their divine calling? The answer lies in a paradoxical reconciliation of Aristotelian magnanimity with Christian humility, itself at the very root of all mysticism. The mystical life depends upon a radical abnegation of the self, an emptying of its finite and ego-centered constructions so as to make way for the overwhelming and infinite reality of the divine presence. Such a radical self-emptying is by no means a comfortable prospect for those (most of us) who are attached to their own ego-centered illusions, and therefore reject it, because they fear the very great demands which it places upon them. Thus, humility itself would seem to be too great a calling for such people.
In other words, the pusillanimity of those who refuse their mystical vocation is itself no true humility, but the false humility of those who refuse something great because of their pretended smallness and insignificance. On this score, it is also possible to reconcile Ratzinger with MacIntyre: “bourgeois Pelagianism,” or the pusillanimity of Christians who fear their high calling, paradoxically suffers from the same vice that MacIntyre above attributed to magnanimity, in that it attaches too little virtue to the act of receiving.
After all, what is the mystical life itself but a gift offered to us by God, which we, in humility, ought simply to receive without resistance? At the same time, it is also a truly great calling, to which we ought to aspire with magnanimity.