The Latin word magnanimitās comes from the Greek word μεγαλοψυχία (megalopsychia) which means “greatness of soul.” In the context of Nicomachean Ethics IV.3, Aristotle associates megalopsychia more with a sense of pride and self-worth rather than the modern sense of magnanimity. Aristotle writes (1123b1-2), “Now a person is thought to be great-souled if he claims much and deserves much” (δοκεῖ δὴ μεγαλόψυχος εἶναι ὁ μεγάλων αὑτὸν ἀξιῶν ἄξιος ὤν). W.D. Ross translates Aristotle’s statement ἔοικε μὲν οὖν ἡ μεγαλοψυχία οἷον κόσμος τις εἶναι τῶν ἀρετῶν· μείζους γὰρ αὐτὰς ποιεῖ, καὶ οὐ γίνεται ἄνευ ἐκείνων (1124a1-2) as the following: “Pride [megalopsychia], then, seems to be a sort of crown of the virtues; for it makes them greater, and it is not found without them.” The great-souled, Aristotle adds, are “thought to have a good memory for any benefit they have conferred, but a bad memory for those which they have received […] It is also characteristic of the great-souled man never to ask help from others, or only with reluctance, but to render aid willingly; and to be dignified towards men of position and fortune, unassuming towards those of moderate station…” (1124b25-26, H. Rackham’s translation for Loeb Classical Library).
Noah Webster of the American Language defines Magnanimity as such:
MAGNANIMITY, n. [L. magnanimitas; magnus, great, and animus, mind.] Greatness of mind; that elevation or dignity of soul, which encounters danger and trouble with tranquility and firmness, which raises the possessor above revenge, and makes him delight in acts of benevolence, which makes him disdain injustice and meanness, and prompts him to sacrifice personal ease, interest and safety for the accomplishment of useful and noble objects.
Edmund Spenser, in The Faerie Queene, had each knight allegorically represent a virtue; Prince Arthur represented “magnificence”, which is generally taken to mean Aristotelian magnificence. The uncompleted work does not include Prince Arthur’s book, and the significance is not clear.
Democritus states that “magnanimity consists in enduring tactlessness with mildness”.
As an adjective, the concept is expressed as “magnanimous”, e.g. “He is a magnanimous man.” An example of referring to one as magnanimous can be seen in Hrólfs saga kraka where King Hrólfr Kraki changes the name of a court servant from Hott to Hjalti for his new-found strength and courage, after which Hjalti refuses to taunt or kill those who previously mocked him. Because of his noble actions, the king then bestows the title Magnanimous upon Hjalti.
One form of magnanimity is the generosity of the victor to the defeated. For example, magnanimity has been codified between societies by the Geneva Conventions.
Magnanimous relief efforts can serve to offset the collateral damage of war.
C. S. Lewis, in his book The Abolition of Man, refers to the chest of man as the seat of magnanimity, or sentiment, with this magnanimity working as the liaison between visceral and cerebral man. Lewis asserts that, in his time, the denial of the emotions that are found in the eternal and sublime — that which is humbling as an objective reality — had led to “men without chests”.
- See for example the footnote in the Rackham edition. In the Sachs translation it is remarked that two possible translations “pride” and “high mindedness” both only get half of the meaning, while magnanimity only “shifts the problem into Latin”.
- Webster, N., Dictionary of the American Language, 1828.
- Nichomachaen Ethics IV 2
- Spenser, E., The Faerie Queene
- Lewis, C. S., The Abolition of Man.