Magnanimity – Hard to Say, Hard to Practice
I’m starting a big project on magnanimity, and it’s likely to come up a lot in what I write over the next year or so. It’s not a word that we use a lot in everyday conversation, but it’s really fun to say once you get your tongue around it. Whenever I talk about this virtue, I feel like Mr. Rogers: Can you say mag-nan-im-ity?
Naturally, I’ve come to the virtue of magnanimity via C. S. Lewis. In The Abolition of Man, Lewis argues that contemporary education produces people who lack the integrating virtue of magnanimity to unite intellect and appetite. Quoting the 12th-century monk Alain de Lille, Lewis says, “The head rules the belly through the chest.” Our intellect or reason (the head) governs our appetites (the belly) by means of disciplined, stable, ordered emotion or desire, i.e., magnanimity (the chest). In the absence of such disciplined, stable, ordered emotion or desire, the intellect doesn’t have a prayer of controlling our appetites. Knowing what’s true isn’t enough. We have to find the truth compelling. We have to be drawn to the truth.
Now any virtue that’s about the discipline and ordering of emotion and desire must be primarily an aesthetic act. Since theological aesthetics are my thing, this is what especially interests me about magnanimity. Lewis doesn’t say this, but I don’t think he needs to. The classic definition of beauty is “the object of desire” or “that which attract and draws us.” So a virtue that’s about desire is necessarily about beauty. Magnanimity is essentially training yourself to experience truth and goodness as beautiful and desirable.
So how do we train ourselves to do this? By means of imagination – also an aesthetic act. In his essay “Bluspels and Flanlansferes” Lewis says that the reason deals with truth, but the imagination is “the organ of meaning.” It’s not enough to know what’s true. We have to be able to see the significance of that truth, to imagine what living it out might be like. We can’t move from one way of being to another without imagining the new thing first. Imagination is the only way we have to know what’s not yet actual, just potential. (I have a chapter on this in Loves Me, Loves Me Not – the chapter on imagination.) So the truth that we understand and know needs to be imaginatively appropriated in order to have control over our appetites and actions.
And in order for that control to be lasting, the imaginative vision has to be habitual, stable, and ordered – not some impulsive dream that entrances for a few moments. Magnanimity is the virtue of using our imaginations to embrace a vision of virtuous life as desirable and beautiful. When that vision is really compelling, then the reason can control our appetites, but when the vision is missing, our appetites just take over.
The frightening corollary: those of us in the Church who are committed to passing on the great Christian tradition to the next generation need to do more than teach what’s true. We also need to present that truth in a way that is so beautiful, so desirable, so enticing that it captures people’s imaginations, and not just for a few minutes during a sermon but for the rest of their lives.
Which is why I quote C. S. Lewis so often. He did this for me. He continues to do this for me. But I find the challenge of doing it for other people pretty daunting.