Teenage Magnanimity and the Beautiful

Doug McManaman
August, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

Anyone who has worked with teenagers knows that the happiest and most emotionally healthy of them are those who aspire after great and honorable ends. And certainly not all of them do. It is not uncommon to see hordes of teenagers loitering every night at the local Tim Horton's, Country Style, or mall, doing very little with their lives if anything at all. This rather pusillanimous existence is by no means limited to teenagers. Many adults have settled for a very small existence, which usually includes but does not seem to go far beyond a house with a well manicured lawn, a colorful garden, a cottage perhaps, and sometimes a life that deliberately excludes children, but not pets. These things are not evil in themselves. Rather, it is the lack of aspiration towards what is worthy of great honor that is small and deficient.

The virtue of magnanimity, which perfects the emotion of hope, involves a stretching forth of the mind to great honors. An emotionally whole life involves such a stretching forth to the great.

Most teenagers are under the impression that striving after great honors is about the pursuit of financial success or great wealth. The reason is that financial success is what our culture tends to honor most. In a hedonistic culture in which pleasure is regarded as the principal good, a life in pursuit of pleasure is the only life that makes any sense; for wealth buys pleasures.

We honor great athletes, but athletic achievement is not great, -- at least not absolutely. A great athlete is not necessarily a great man. Neither is an intelligent and well educated man necessarily great and worthy of honor. Moral excellence is greater and more worthy of honor than is athletic and even academic excellence. But magnanimity is about the pursuit of great honors, and persons are honored principally on account of their virtue. Magnanimity is thus not so much the pursuit of olympic gold, or musical stardom, or financial success, much less fame and international repute, as it is the pursuit of great moral achievement.

Recently, Teen People Magazine (April, 2004) profiled a number of teenagers, some of whom are engaged in the pursuit of great and honorable projects. Whether or not everyone of the teens featured was truly magnanimous is highly questionable, but the virtue of some is not. For example, eighteen year old Laura Greer wrote and published The Foster Care Guide for Kids that answers questions that kids going into foster care might have. She discovered the need for such a book while volunteering at a local shelter for abused children. After searching for a suitable children's book or pamphlet explaining foster care and finding nothing, she decided to write her own. Long hours of research, interviews, and training courses, led to the creation of a 40-page book in both English and Spanish, which was published thanks to $35,000 in donations which she raised. The Child Welfare League of America is currently overseeing national distribution of the Guide. Fourteen year old Gregory Smith founded International Youth Advocates, an organization that promotes nonviolence education for children around the world. One of his projects raised close to one million dollars, and part of that went to build a school in Kenya that will unite the children of three warring tribes. He was also nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Ashlee Simpson, a nineteen year old singer and actress, works with Operation Smile. She helps raise money for reconstructive surgeries for underprivileged children in developing countries born with cleft palates and lips.

Now every virtue brings a certain beauty to human character, but magnanimity adds a certain luster over and above the others, giving them an added greatness, thus raising the stature of human character. That is why we can discern in the eyes of these young people who are examples of magnanimity a depth of beauty and a joy that is directly related to their noble aspirations.

The magnanimous do not despise wealth or great repute, but regard them as useful for accomplishing deeds of virtue. That is why they do not love them so much that they are willing to forgo virtue for their sake. Hence, an emotionally healthy and truly magnanimous person is neither very joyful at obtaining such goods, nor terribly grieved at their loss.

Magnanimity and its Excesses (presumption, vainglory, ambition)

In order to refine our understanding of this virtue and better appreciate what it is and isn't, let's glance briefly at its excesses. Firstly, magnanimity is not incompatible with humility. Magnanimity involves the recognition in oneself of something great which comes from God, namely divine grace and one's natural gifts; but the magnanimous recognize their own defects and the weakness of human nature, that is, their inclination to sin and complete dependence upon divine grace. The magnanimous are inclined to deem themselves worthy of great things in consideration of the gifts they hold from God. But humility allows them to keep their own deficiency at the forefront of their minds. As St. Thomas Aquinas writes: "Humility makes us honor others and esteem them better than ourselves", for we see some of God's gifts in them, gifts that we don't have.

Confidence in oneself and others is a part of magnanimity, but confidence in oneself can be inordinate by way of excess. This is presumption, and it is rooted in an inaccurate assessment of oneself. The presumptuous tend to what is above their power. Their hope in themselves is disordered, because their love for themselves is disordered. That is why presumption tends to go hand in hand with personal pride, the inordinate love of one's own excellence.

The quest for honor can be inordinate in a number of ways, for example, when a person desires the recognition of an excellence that he does not have, thus wanting more than his fair share of honors, and when a person desires honor for himself without referring it to God. The latter amounts to a lack of gratitude, which is a part of justice. Finally, the quest for honor is inordinate when it is pursued for the sake of being honored, as if to rest in the honor itself. This is ambition. But the truly magnanimous do not love themselves more than others; rather, they love the other as another self, and for God's sake. They desire the recognition of their own excellence only to the degree that it would profit others. But the heart of the ambitious rests in honor itself, without reference to the profit of others.

Vainglory is the inordinate desire for glory (to be known by others). Such desire for glory is inordinate when it is desired for its own sake, rather than as being useful for something greater, for example, that God may be more known and loved by others, or that human beings may be made better on account of such knowledge. Mother Teresa, for example, was very well known, but she did not desire such reputation, and yet her renown made innumerable people better.

Vainglory is particularly dangerous in that it renders us presumptuous and too self-confident, and presumption blinds us to the need to seek counsel from others. That is why vainglory begets disobedience, boastfulness, hypocrisy, contention, obstinacy, discord, and interestingly enough, the love of novelties. The vain strive to make known their excellence by showing that they are not inferior to others. And they do this in a number of ways. Since intellect is the most superior power in man, the vain will strive to show intellectual superiority. Thus, they do not readily give up their opinion when confronted with evidence of its weakness and inferiority. This is obstinacy, an excessive or stubborn attachment to one's opinion. And since the will is also a superior power, the person who strives to make known his excellence will exhibit a stubborn attachment to his own will. Such a person rarely agrees with others. This is discord, which begets quarreling or contentiousness. And a contentious person can hardly be expected to obey the commands of his superiors. Thus, he is inclined to disobedience. Finally, vainglory begets a love of novelties. For the vain wish to stand out from the rest, so they are given over to novelties which tend to grab our attention and call for greater admiration.

Concluding Thoughts

It is very easy to get trapped in this culture, like getting trapped in the strong current of a river. Those so caught are carried along without thinking, allowing others to do their thinking for them, living merely to be comfortable, no longer wrestling with the big questions, and eventually falling into a kind of despairing cynicism about human beings and the world. But after seventeen years of teaching, I have come to realize that there is one thing that I am able to see better than any of my students, and that is their gifts. It is a wonderful experience having eyes for their gifts, because it is a source of never ending wonder to me. And young people can do great things with their lives with just a little imagination, a recognition and appreciation of their own gifts, and a determination to cultivate a magnanimous character. If young people desire to be truly happy -- and not just contented, -- they need to reach out and grab onto a branch, climb out of the water, and begin climbing to greater heights. For happiness is directly related to upward movement, that is, to the pursuit of what is truly larger and greater than oneself.