Greatness of Soul


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This paper was written by one of my students, Josh Munson, for an interdisciplinary Independent Study he completed with me (Dr. Andrew J. Corsa) in 2014.

By Josh Munson

The concept of a great souled individual is a fuzzy one. There seems to lack a unifying definition of magnanimity (greatness of soul) which bridges the grey area between different individuals we call great. To do this I will first describe Aristotle's view of the person who has greatness of soul, specifically in regards to virtue and honor. Aristotle believes that greatness of soul is a virtue and that to be great one must be worthy of honor. This description via Aristotle alone is missing something. I contend that a great-souled individual must also have power, the kind of power defined by Hobbes. For Hobbes, power is, "The present means to obtain some future apparent good" (pg 79). I believe that this idea of power is directly related to the notion of honor - the kind of honor that Aristotle has given us reason to think is relevant to greatness. Hobbes believes having power is having some sort of worth. This worth can be seen as similar to Aristotle's requirement that the great-souled person be worthy of honor. In addition, these notions of honor and power are both intertwined with virtue - the kind of virtue Aristotle relates to greatness. Aristotle makes virtue a requirement for worthiness of honor, and power in conjunction with virtue is more likely to put one closer to greatness than either taken alone. Finally, to recognize that great-souled individuals share these three qualities (worthiness of honor, power, and virtue), we will consider several people we might recognize as great. Socrates, Achilles, George Washington, Jesus, Thomas Edison, and Stephen Hawking are all characters we will compare later. Each meets the three requirements for greatness of soul I have set forth. Some of these individuals lack some virtues, but each has enough of the three qualities I emphasized that we should recognize these qualities as key to the notion of greatness.

To begin we need a working definition of greatness of soul, or magnanimity. According to Aristotle, greatness of soul is a virtue. Like all virtues under his theory it is properly exercised when in between two extremes. On one extreme, "He who thinks himself worthy of great things, being unworthy of them, is vain" (pg 18). The other extreme, "The man who thinks himself worthy of less than he is really worthy of is unduly humble" (pg 18). In contrast, Aristotle describes the truly magnanimous individual in this way, "Now the man is thought to be proud who thinks himself worthy of great things, being worthy of them" (pg 18). The criteria for being magnanimous is believing yourself to be worthy of greatness, and actually being worthy.

What must one be worthy of exactly? Honor is that which the magnanimous person is concerned. Aristotle comes to this conclusion by saying the greatest external good, "is honour . . . it is with honour that proud men appear to be concerned" (pg 18). All great people are concerned with being worthy of honor, as opposed to something like material items.

Finally to complete this view of greatness of soul which will act as the backbone for the remainder of the paper, we must ask who is worthy of honour? Aristotle says that being virtuous makes one worthy of honor. Aristotle writes, "Now the proud man, since he deserves most, must be good in the highest degree; for the better man always deserves more, and the best man most . . . And the greatness in every virtue would seem to be characteristic of a proud man" (pg 18). From what we've outlined thus far, one who is virtuous is worthy of honor, and being worthy of honor makes one magnanimous.

This view of Aristotle's, while I am in agreement, does seem to be missing something. Being virtuous alone, while a rare and admirable feat, does not capture all that comes with the title of greatness of soul. If it did we would have no need for this concept. We would simply call one virtuous and leave it at that. But this concept requires more to fully understand what puts the magnanimous person above the rest. One thing that could help to paint a fuller picture is Hobbes' idea of power.

Power can take many forms. For Hobbes many things can be considered power. He claims power is, "The present means to obtain some future apparent good" (pg 79). Hobbes lists many things he considers power, such as, "Good success...nobility...form... reputation of power" (pg 80). Hobbes is in agreement with Aristotle that virtue is a cornerstone to greatness and outlines its relation to power this way, "For since honor is conferred on the virtuous, not only by the wise, but also by the multitude who hold these goods of fortune in the highest esteem, the result is that they show greater honor to those who possess goods of fortune. Likewise goods of fortune are useful organs or instruments of virtuous deeds: since we can easily accomplish things by means of riches, power and friends. Hence it is evident that goods of fortune conduce to magnanimity." (pg 40). The link between power, honor, and virtue is made clear here. Those who have some power and "possess goods of fortune" receive greater honor, and these in turn help to facilitate virtue. Hobbes clarifies the importance of power, "The passions that most of all cause the differences of wit are principally the more or less desire of power, of riches, of knowledge, and of honour. All which may be reduced to the first, that is, desire of power. For riches, knowledge and honour are but several sorts of power" (pg 78). Power can not be separated from the notion of greatness or anything that it involves.

Under Aristotle's view virtue was the only path to worthiness of honor. Hobbes makes a distinction with power that widens this path. I believe Hobbes' account simply makes the picture of honor clearer. Thus he makes magnanimity that much clearer by relating it to power. This is key to figuring out why radically different types of individuals, such as Socrates, Achilles, and George Washington, can be seen as great souled. If you just take Aristotle's view, the defining characteristic of a great-souled person is virtue alone. There are magnanimous people, however, who are not exactly alike in virtue, so there is something more than simply virtue that is characteristic of the great-souled person . With this new outline for being worthy of honor, through power, the avenues to greatness are opened up.

The implications of tying power to greatness of soul is that the magnanimous person is characterized as having worth. According to Hobbes, " The value or worth of a man is, as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power" (pg 81). Regardless of the form that his power takes, be it money or wisdom born from age, he would have worth as a role model to whom youth look up. Again, this fits Aristotle's description of how we develop virtue, which is key to greatness of soul. Aristotle believes that to become virtuous, "We ought to have been brought up in a particular way from our very youth, as Plato says, so as both to be delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought; for this is the right education" (2.3). Furthermore, "in educating the young we [must] steer them by the rudders of pleasure and pain" (10.1). Therefore men who are powerful and thus worthy may act as an individual for youth to look up to, helping to promote virtue and good in the world. It makes perfect sense that we would look towards powerful individuals for inspiration. When those powers are backed by virtues you have an individual worthy of honor. So long as they properly understand their worthiness, they are then magnanimous.

Hobbes uses language that resembles Aristotles. He talks of worthiness, glory, and power as elements that come together and create something special in a person. Hobbes states that, "Glory . . . is that passion which proceedeth from the imagination or conception of our own power, above the power of him that contendeth with us . . . This imagination of our power and worth, may be an assured and certain experience of our own actions, and then is that glorying just and well grounded, and begetteth an opinion of increasing the same by other actions to follow; in which consisteth the appetite which we call aspiring, or proceeding from degree of power to another" ( Elements of Law, pg 34). Hobbes relates these characteristics in a way that shows how the great souled person progresses. An individual's ascent to glory and greatness is "well grounded" if he/she is right in believing he/she is powerful and he/she takes pleasure in that. And this is clearly key to being great-souled. Hobbes writes, "Magnanimity is no more than glory, of which I have spoken in the first section; but glory well grounded upon certain experience of power sufficient to attain his end in open manner" (Elements of Law, pg 41). To understand your power and worth is clearly something found inside a great soul.

Power and virtue are closely linked when it comes to greatness of soul. These two things provide different avenues to becoming magnanimous. You create a filter if you will, and if you have Aristotle's virtues but do not utilize them as Hobbes' power, as a way to obtain future good, then they are wasted. One might be reluctant to call you magnanimous because not acting on virtues which you possess is not worthy of honor. On the flip side, if you seem to possess power but it is not grounded in virtue (you have the means to obtain something, but you use it to pursue evil ends), you can not be magnanimous because this too would not be worthy of honor. Aristotle says, "Without virtue it is not easy to bear gracefully the goods of fortune", meaning that without virtue any power you have comes with some difficulty (pg 19). Aristotle continuously highlights the importance of virtue, "Those who without virtue have such goods are neither justified in making great claims nor entitled to the name of proud" (pg 19). So, it would appear that power with virtue is better than power without virtue.

Aristotle writes that, "it would be most unbecoming for a proud man to fly from danger, swinging his arms by his sides, or to wrong another, for to what end should he do disgraceful acts, he to whom nothing is great?" (pg 18). Doing wrong to others and fleeing from danger are things that the magnanimous individual would not do. A person could not be powerful or courageous if fear gets in his or her way of action. Because, "it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate man" (Aristotle, 2.4), action is a necessity for greatness. Without action you can not become virtuous and obtain more power. At some point in one's life a required action might be dangerous; it is for this reason that all magnanimous people also require courage as it pertains to their pursuits.

Aristotle also makes an interesting claim about the great souled individual and debts. In reference to the magnanimous person, "He is the sort of man to confer benefits, but he is ashamed of receiving them, for the one is the mark of a superior, the other of an inferior" (pg 19). Without considering power descriptions of greatness of soul, this characteristic seems a little odd. Being indebted in and of itself does not seem to weigh in on whether one is virtuous or not. When it comes to power it's easy to see that if you owe someone something, your means to obtain future good is less. All of your resources will not be directed towards your ability to obtain future good because at least some of it will be directed towards settling past agreements. Furthermore, when in debt to someone, that person is less likely to assist you in any fashion in the future. Hobbes says, "to have friends is power" (pg 80). In so far as being in debt could risk your friendship you also risk your power. Therefore it would be uncharacteristic for the magnanimous person to receive benefits from others.

We will now turn our attention to those who possess greatness of soul. First, an important note. All of those listed below are well known people throughout history. Note that the fact that historians have acknowledged their popularity is not necessary part of these individuals being great souled. Their power and virtue exist independent of their status; their status merely arises from these things due to timing. Hobbes mentions the importance of time, "An able conductor of soldiers is of great price in time of war present or imminent, but in peace not so" (pg 81). Mass recognition is contingent on time in relationship to all other things in the world. Mass recognition is not needed for greatness however. You could imagine a great souled person with power and virtue but without the notoriety and would still wish to call him magnanimous. His power ultimately lies within himself to obtain future good. Accordingly, Hobbes writes, "To be pleased or displeased with fame true or false, is a sign of the same, because he that relieth upon fame hath not his success in his own power" (Hobbes pg 41). The people to be mentioned are merely famous examples for the sake of appealing to characters all readers might be able to understand and relate.

To add support to this argument we should turn our attention to examples of greatness of soul. Ultimately the question is what do magnanimous people have in common, so we shall relate a few historical figures to outline our definition of greatness. Socrates certainly seems to fit the bill for being great souled. Plato's defense of Socrates showcases his courage. Socrates says, "In court, as in warfare, neither I nor anyone else should contrive to escape death at any cost" (pg 39c). Plato's defense also highlights his good temper. Once convicted, Socrates says, "your convicting me . . . has come as no surprise to me" (pg 36b). Plato's defense also relates Socrates' truthfulness, "from me you shall hear the whole truth" (pg 17b). While he wasn't loved by all he certainly had some power in his day. You have to look no further than Plato's Symposium to see how Alcibiades feverishly admires Socrates due to his power. Socrates states "the passion of this man has grown quite a serious matter to me. Since I became his admirer I have never been allowed to speak to any other fair one, or so much as to look at them" (Plato). His ability to obtain future good via his wit and his virtuous character lead him to be worthy of honor and thus magnanimous.

Next we shall look at Achilles. While not witty like Socrates, Achilles was both powerful and virtuous. The Iliad begins, "Sing, Goddess, sing of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus - that murderous anger which condemned Achaeans to countless agonies and threw many warrior souls deep into Hades" (pg 1). The rest of the epic poem paints a picture of Achilles being extremely strong and powerful. He alone can change the course of a war and due to this, has much power. As far as virtue is concerned, he lacks some virtues, but is filled with courage. These are the things which make Achilles to be worthy of honor. Any insult to his honor is met with great ferociousness.

The first president of the united states, George Washington, has been considered by many to be not just the best president but also one who possessed greatness of soul. Faulkner makes note of his eagerness to accumulate power, "The young washington sought distinction and rank in soldiering, rose among Virginians like a rocket, and then resigned in indignation when he felt dishonored, that is, when a new regulation subordinated his colonial rank to British officers of a lower rank" (Faulkner, 29). It's important to note the similarity in which both Achilles and Washington seemed to have been obsessed with rank and honor. Both military men would rather not do what they are good at (fighting) than not receive the honor of which they thought themselves worthy. Like Achilles, it was not power alone but power and virtue which brewed honor. Washington's virtue is clear. For if he was not exercising the correct virtues in the correct way at the correct time, our country would be arguably much different. In the first inaugural address he states, "There exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity" ( The First Inaugural Address). He understands the importance of these concepts when it comes to creating a great nation because he himself holds these great characteristics. Again, keep in mind that his notoriety is not instrumental in his becoming great. In fact, Washington himself remarks that, "if the 'good of my country' requires 'my reputation' to be put at risk, so be it" (Faulkner pg 191). Washington was never going after the fame; it simply happened that he was at the right place at the right time to become president. The war and his subsequent presidency were merely the tools and background he used to craft himself into a magnanimous person.

Jesus and Thomas Edison are other examples. Both of these individual's reputations alone prove their power. In both cases not only did they have the present power to obtain future good for themselves; but they also brought good to others as well via their power. While it could be argued that both were not perfectly virtuous, it seems self-evident that each possessed at the very least patience and some form of courage.

Finally to bring our conversation into modernity, let us consider Stephen Hawking. As for power, Stephen Hawking isn't one you would initially call powerful. He in fact has the opposite type of power possessed by Achilles, being almost completely paralyzed. His advancements in physics research has brought about an immense amount of good for himself. He has an ability to influence the world, and in return the world assists him. From his family's assistance with his condition, to others developing the computer technology for him to communicate, other people have recognized his power and have stepped up to honor him. His autobiography notes his lack of pusillanimity (he doesn't dwell on insignificant things such as his health status), his courage when confronting death, and his modesty. In an article reviewing Hawking's biography, Robert Crease notes, "A combination of several factors, including The book provides no revelations, deep insight, messy details or score-settling, and does not explore his celebrity status. Hints of emotion are rare. At one point he recalls thinking himself a tragic hero" (Crease, pg 1). His character in the face of death and relentless pursuit of truth all point to the virtuousness of his character.

From all this, questions do still remain. That is to be expected. What virtue looks like for one person is not necessarily what it will look like for another. Aristotle is okay with the idea that what it means to act virtuously will differ between people. Aristotle says, "Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us" (pg 13). Due to Hobbes' idea of power being a very general term, and Aristotle's virtue theory changing the way it appears from person to person ,what the magnanimous person looks like fluctuates a great deal. We know that virtue and power are required but "how much" power and virtue is enough? The answer to these questions is simply however much will make one worthy of honor in whatever he/she pursues. In the case of Achilles it could very well be argued that he wasn't a "good" person. His decisions lead to the deaths of countless people. However, he possessed an exuberant amount of courage. In regards to his power (ability to obtain future apparent good), he certainly had the ability to do so. Whether he acted on it is another question. Perhaps despite having the ability to achieve apparent good he decided not to act. At any rate, the amount of power and virtue he possessed was the amount needed for him to be honored. For Stephen Hawking, his field of pursuit requires a very different set of criteria to be worthy of honor. Both are great souled, but great souled as the result of the pursuit of different things. Along the way they developed the same characteristics, power and virtue, which aligned with their respective pursuits. So to compare great souled individuals as we have done is possible, but this difference must be noted.

I believe the fields of pursuit I've been mentioning are intuitive. Each great souled individual seems to have his or her journey to greatness manifested in a different way. Their lives have focusing points that allow them to develop their power, virtue, honor, and ultimately great soul. Thomas Edison's field of pursuit was inventing, Socrates's was philosophy. Both utilized these subjects as catalyst for self-development. Greatness of soul is a side effect of investing oneself in a specific manner in an effort to explore deeper into our lives. Directing our work towards war or science or any other subject allows for a deeper understanding of the universe. I believe each one of these great souled individuals understood something profound about the good in our world. Each lens that was used was different and so their experience of this good was slightly different, they were nonetheless looking at the same thing.

Greatness of soul might be different for each person. The path to becoming magnanimous however is always structured the same. From the pursuit of some field one gains power and virtue. Those who excel in these fields are worthy of honor. Those who are worthy and understand this possess the greatness of soul we sometimes get a glimpse of.


Works Cited

Crease, Robert P. "Physics: A Cosmological Life." Nature 501.7466 (2013): 162. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.

Homer, Thomas Hobbes, Aristotle, and Plato. "IndStudy.pdf." IndStudy.pdf. Ed. Andrew Corsa., n.d. Web. .

Plato. "The Internet Classics Archive | Symposium by Plato." The Internet Classics Archive | Symposium by Plato. The InternetCLassics, n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2014. .



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