JMC : Four-Square / by Joseph Rickaby, S.J.


St. Thomas makes magnanimity and humility two distinct virtues; the former he ranks under fortitude, the latter under temperance. These divisions of virtues are not wholly arbitrary: one division is more in accordance with the nature of things than another. Still there is some room left for difference here as elsewhere in a matter of classification. Much depends on the point of view from which the matter is studied. Now the aim of these addresses is practise rather than theory. In the conduct of those who are aiming at the practice of the virtue, magnanimity readily passes into pride, while the man who would be humble may become a sneak, a mean-spirited creature, from taking no account of magnanimity. We shall be more easily at once magnanimous and humble if we make of magnanimity and humility one two-sided virtue, a mean between two excesses, as fortitude itself is a two-sided virtue, checking two passions which go in two opposite ways, checking the passion of fear that it pass not into cowardice, checking again the passion of impetuosity lest it transgress into foolhardiness. The two-sided virtue of humble magnanimity and magnanimous humility may be called by the name of either of the constituents, as there is no one common name to include both. This arrangement will be found helpful in practise, and I flatter myself it is not so very deficient in point of theory.

Magnanimity, in common parlance, is taken to be a certain generosity in ignoring petty annoyances (which is rather longanimity), as also in forgetting and forgiving, not taking advantage of your enemy when you have him in your power. But the conception of magnanimity originally laid down by Aristotle, and afterwards adopted, or perhaps we should rather say adapted, by St. Thomas, embraces a much wider field. The matter of magnanimity is honor, which is also the matter of humility. The magnanimous man is defined to be "one who deems himself worthy of great honor, and is so worthy indeed," being a thoroughly good man, exalted in virtue, and therefore deserving also to be exalted in honor, which is the meed of virtue. Such a man accepts high honors as his due, makes little account of small compliments, and, conscious of his own real inner worth, is unmoved by affronts and ignominies put upon him by persons who do not understand him and are incapable of measuring his greatness. The mark of the magnanimous man is serenity. A certain portly habit of body, if nature has so endowed him, becomes him well. Aristotle says of him, apparently having some particular person in mind, that "his gait is slow, his voice deep, his utterance grave and leisurely." Those are separable accidents, to be sure, but where they are present they are expressions of character. The magnanimous man then is worth a great deal, and takes himself for all that he is worth. He has received God's spirit -- or something analogous in the natural order to the gift of the Holy Ghost -- that he may know the things that are given him of God (II Cor. ii, 12).

We must not conceive the magnanimous man to be a god to himself, wrapt up in the contemplation of his own excellences. Being high in all virtue he is far from being wanting in the virtue of religion. He glorifies God for whatever he has, and owns it all to be the gift of God. His high thoughts turn not about himself, but about God. He is lofty minded for what he discerns in God primarily, and secondarily in himself by the sheer gift and grace of God. And here we have the defence of the magnanimous man meeting a grave impeachment preferred against him. It has been said of him that he is certainly not conscious of any ideal that he can not reach -- not at all the man to confess that when we have done all things we are still useless servants (Luke xvii, 10). This is said with some apparent reference to a sermon of Newman "Discourses to Mixed Congregations," on "The Religion of the Pharisee. The Pharisee is there presented as having an ideal and having come up to it, and consequently living in serene self-complacency. By this argument the magnanimous man would be a self-righteous Pharisee, far removed from the standard of Him who was meek and humble of heart (Matt. xi, 29). The accusation may be leveled with some justice against the pagan magnanimous man depicted in the pages of Aristotle. Aristotle thought of man in relation to man, not in relation to God, and described and classified his virtues accordingly from a human, social standpoint. He saw no harm in a man who was much the superior of his fellows making the most of that superiority, and glorying in himself as of himself. St. Paul, better taught of God, thought otherwise (II Cor. iii, 5). Everything good in man comes from God; and when it is all reckoned up, human goodness does not come to much in the sight of God. Shall man be justified in comparison with God? Lo, the stars are not pure in his sight; how much more is man rottenness, and the son of man a worm! (Job xxv, 4-6). True magnanimity, that is to say, the magnanimity that parts not company with humility, but coalesces with it in the unity of one virtue, bears honours gracefully, and insult unflinchingly, from a consciousness of internal worth. This is our glory, says St. Paul, the testimony of our conscience (II Cor. i, 12). This internal worth, however, the magnanimous man refers to the source from whence it comes, and unto God he gives the glory. The secret of his marvelous virtue is his habit of practical discernment between the abyss of nothingness within himself and the high gifts, also within him, which come of the bounty of God. Magnanimity, and therefore also humility, imports grandeur and elevation of mind. The magnanimously humble man thinks a great deal of God, and not too much of man, whether of himself or of his neighbours. He is clear of the weakness of human respect. He is not afraid of men, least of all wicked men. In his sight the malignant is brought to nothing (Ps. xiv, 4). As Aristotle humorously puts it, "he is not the man to bolt and run away, swinging his arms." He harbors in his heart a certain noble scorn for the impertinence of aggressive wickedness and the pomp and pride of evil powers. He takes a trifle for a trifle, and a fool for a fool. He is not easily excited. He will meddle only with big things, and with little things as they bear on big things. Altogether, the magnanimous man is a formidable antagonist to the powers of evil. When the official of a persecuting government said to St. Basil, "I never met a man so unmanageable as you are," the saint replied, "Perhaps you have never yet met with a Bishop." He is known in the Church as S. Basilius Magnus, which may be rendered St. Basil the Magnanimous.

Of humility the pagan world had little or no conception. They had not so much as a name for it. Christianity had to coin a Greek name, and to elevate the meaning of the Latin word humilitas, which signified originally baseness, meanness. The nearest pagan equivalent for humility was a virtue which they named modesty, or good form: it consisted in not taking airs and making yourself offensive by swaggering in company. This overlooking of humility was due to the imperfection of pagan ideas about God. The gods of the ancient world gave poor examples of morality: they were not holy gods, but powerful beings who used their power to their own gratification. Walk before me and be perfect, as God said to Abraham (Gen. xvii, 1), would have sounded a strange precept given by a pagan deity to pagan ears. Consequently the pagan was little in the habit of contrasting his own moral weaknesses with the transcendent holiness of the Supreme Being. Many a pagan must have thought that in point of moral goodness Jupiter and Apollo were not his superiors: they were materially better off than their worshiper, not holier. In fact the pagans regarded their gods much as the poor nowadays regard the rich. Humility is not inspired by an attitude of mind like that. The ground of humility is the utter inferiority of human nature to the divine, and man's dependence upon God for all that he has, even his very existence. "Humility," says St. Thomas, "seems principally to imply subjection to God: humility principally regards the reverence whereby man is subject to God." Humility then is the proper posture for every created mind to assume in presence of its Creator. To say that man is created to pay to God reverence and obedience, is to say that man is created to be humble. The first of the beatitudes, blessed are the poor in spirit (Matt. v, 3), is a blessing on the humble. The poor in spirit, says St. John Chrysostom, are the humble and contrite of heart; and he quotes for this explanation Isaias xxvi, 2: Upon whom shall I look but upon him that is poor and contrite of spirit, and trembleth at my words? The fear of the Lord, so continually extolled in the Old Testament, is nothing else than humility. Of the sinner whose foot is the foot of pride, it is said: The fear of the Lord is not before his eyes (Ps. xxxv, 2, 12).

Both humility and pride consist in habits of mind rather than in habits of external conduct. When it comes to outward behaviour, humility shows itself as obedience, pride as disobedience. Children in confession accuse themselves of "pride," meaning disobedience: therein these little ones are good theologians. Inculcating humility St. Peter wrote: Be ye subject to every human creature for God's sake, whether to the king as excelling, or to governors as sent by him . . . fear God, honour the king (I Pet. 13-17). How far men generally are from honoring authorities in Church and State for God's sake; how the fear of God is ceasing to he before the eyes of men, is patent to every observer. Such is the fruit of a godless education, which is truly an education in pride. Humility, as we have seen, was not on the list of pagan virtues. We are lapsing into paganism. It is more and more the way of the world to put man in the place of God. Where this substitution becomes complete, humility vanishes, and pride takes its place, pride and disobedience and anarchy. Such is the way of Antichrist, the man of sin, the wicked one, or more literally, the man of lawlessness, the lawless one, who is lifted up above all that is called God, so that he sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself as if he were God (II Thess. ii, 3, 4, 8). When God is put out of His place as governor of human society, and man will hear but of man alone, when reverence is perished off the earth, and fear of superhuman powers, and awe of a world to come, the ground is prepared for socialism. Socialism will not be built four-square on the cardinal virtues; it will not rest on Christ the Rock, but on the sand of incoherent speeches, and violence, and blasphemy. When Socialism is set up we may look for the rain and the floods, and the winds, and the great fall (Matt. vii, 26, 27).

Whatever man be in comparison with his fellowman, he is little enough compared with God. This is motive for humility even for the highest and holiest of creatures. We sinners on earth have the further motive of our sins, and not only our sins, but what is almost more humiliating, our proneness to sin; and besides our sinfulness, our ignorance. We know so little, we can know so little, that school after school of philosophers have fallen into the plausible error of maintaining that the human mind has no hold whatever on truth as it really is, but wanders in an enchanted maze which it has constructed for itself. The Church has never countenanced that sceptical, idealist philosophy. Indeed the transition is easy from ignorance to omniscience. The position that man knows nothing of reality may be amplified into this, that there is no reality anywhere outside and away from human thought: then man's thought constitutes all that can be called reality, and man is as God, author of all, knowing all. The orthodox view, which is also the view taken by ordinary mankind, is that man does know a little truth, touching the world and its Creator; but for one thing that man knows there are a thousand things beyond his conjecture, known only to God, who knows all. Man, then, is very ignorant before God, in his present condition. The reward promised to his fidelity is the sight of God, which will be the dispelling of his ignorance, so far as ignorance can be dispelled from a finite mind. To aid man to this goal, God has been pleased to reveal to him sundry truths, some of which he could not have found out for himself at all while others he might have found, but could not have held with firm certainty. These are the truths of the Christian revelation, embodied in the Creed. So learning them, man is, as our Saviour says, quoting Isaias, taught of God (John vi, 45; Isai. xiv, 13). He is as a child in God's school, God's school being the Church. The first requisite in a pupil is docility. God expects man to lend a docile ear to His teaching as given in the Church. Unless ye become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever shall humble himself as this child, he is the greater in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. xviii, 3, 4). This virtue whereby we receive the teaching of God in the Church is called faith. The faith of an intellectual man is a great abasement of his understanding before God, a great act of humility, in these days especially, when science is widening and criticism is so keen. Yet after all it is not science, not criticism, that makes the difficulty of faith, but the neglect of prayer. Prayer is essentially an act of reverence to God, and therefore of humility: it is a profession of our total dependence on Him, a confession of our own insufficiency and consequent need of Him: it is usually a confession of our sins besides and an imploring of His pardon. Humility begets humility. The humility of prayer engenders and fosters the humility of faith. If a learned man loses his faith, it is not because of his learning as such, but because much study has left him prayerless. At the same time it must be confessed that study and mental acumen, as they remove many difficulties against faith -- the shallow cavillings of the half-educated -- so they raise other difficulties. As you mount the hill you see other hills, which from the valley you do not see. Therefore, as the high-strung, nervous organism needs much prayer to withstand sensual temptation, so the highly trained intellect needs prayer and Sacraments in abundance to surmount what God detests even beyond sensuality, namely, intellectual pride. Through such pride fell Lucifer. The intellect that comes nearest the angels must have a care that it, too, imitate not the sin of the angels. A keen inquirer must ever remember that, unlike science, faith is no intuition of genius, no product of elaborate reasoning, but is ultimately an obedience to the voice of God speaking in the heart, which voice must be heard in all humility. The ear of the proud is deaf to that still, small voice. To the Pharisees, because of their pride, Our Saviour said: Ye shall seek me and not find me, and where I go ye can not come (John vii, 34).

Finally, I must repeat, humility, obedience, faith are ever high-minded and noble hearted, because they bring one in touch with God. The author and finisher of our faith, who endured the Cross and despised the shame, and now sitteth at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb. xii, 2), He who was meek and humble of heart (Matt. xi, 29), is likewise the typical magnanimous man.

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