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  • Magnanimity and Humility according to St. Thomas Aquinas
  • Gregory Pine O.P.

In recent years, scholars have expressed a renewed interest both in the passions and in the virtues which heal, inform, and perfect them. As we will see, magnanimity and humility are found in the irascible power, the seat of passions attendant upon some apprehended difficulty. In contemporary literature, there is some debate as to whether the passions of the irascible power are suitably enumerated. While some defend the Thomistic taxonomy and exposit it according to the criteria employed by St. Thomas,1 others question whether the Angelic Doctor—in his reception and elaboration of the antique tradition—may have unwittingly included some redundancy in his system.2

The charge of redundancy concerns especially the vexed contrariety of hope, daring, fear, and despair.3 The passions of the concupiscible power have one and only one contrary based on their objects according as they are good and evil (love/hate, desire/aversion, delight/sorrow).4 By contrast, the passions of the irascible power have a twofold contrariety. One is based on their respective objects according as they are good and evil; the [End Page 263] other is based on their respective movements according as one approaches or withdraws from the same term.5 Saint Thomas describes how the former mode accounts for the contrariety of hope and fear, while the latter mode accounts for the contrariety of daring and fear.6 The subtlety of this latter mode of contrariety (and the sense in which it appears to contravene more basic metaphysical principles) has attracted scrutiny in recent years, raising questions as to whether certain passions are not really, but only logically, distinct.7

The question of contrariety has been addressed in excellent fashion in recent studies dedicated to passions in se, but in order to bring these distinctions more sharply into focus it may prove fruitful to consider the passions as permanently and stably disposed to perfect operation, that is to say, as informed by virtues. Magnanimity and humility—the objects of this present study—concern hope and despair as contrary responses to an arduous good. Admittedly, the contrariety of hope and despair is not nearly the most vexing of those described in the treatise on the passions, and yet the contrariety and complementarity of the pertinent virtues—magnanimity and humility—is illustrative for our present purposes. I will endeavor principally to exposit the peculiar dynamism of magnanimity and humility, each in turn and then by comparison. Though I do not intend to revisit directly the question of the passions and their contrariety, I am attempting to engage the real distinction of the passions of the irascible power by attending to the context in which those passions come to most perfect expression and thus appear in their most manifest contours.

In the Christian life, there are perhaps no two virtues so paradoxically aligned as magnanimity and humility. The former marks the great man, setting him above his peers. By Aristotle's reckoning, the magnanimous man contemns praise from lower men and balks at receiving a favor for shame of being indebted. [End Page 264] Though undeniably praiseworthy, he showcases his excellence by a slow gait, a deep and steady voice, and a generally unperturbed sensibility. He is ironic and cares little for the affairs of others, seeming to his critics more than a shade haughty and inflated. And yet he is the object of both Aristotle's and St. Thomas's commendation, possessing as he does what Aristotle refers to as the crown of the virtues.8

Humility, in contrast, is practically absent from the writings of Aristotle. Though he mentions undue humility as a vice opposed to magnanimity, humility in the Christian sense barely features in his moral edifice. It was abhorrent to the great minds of antiquity that a habit akin to dejection should be esteemed as virtuous. But, with the Christian revelation and the resultant revolution in the hierarchy of virtues, humility attained newfound heights in the subsequent tradition.9 Nevertheless, humility does not run roughshod over the particular contribution of the virtue of magnanimity.

In the Christian tradition, both magnanimity and humility are upheld as...


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