I’ve often seen it said that the classical virtues– first enumerated and analyzed by pagan thinkers like Plato and Aristotle– and the Catholic virtues found in the teachings of Our Lord don’t fit together the way moral theology makes it seem: either the two sets of virtues hold together in tension at best or else they directly oppose each other, leading to two different moral ideals. Pagan virtues, they will tell you, did have to do with channeling our emotions and desires toward human flourishing, but this kind of flourishing had nothing to do with the Beatitudes. A man of complete virtue, in the Aristotelian sense, might willingly make sacrifices for the sake of his friends, at the limit of things– but then, the friend of a completely virtuous person could only be someone else completely virtuous, alike in excellence and achievement. Nothing could be further from such virtue, and the ideal way of life it points to, than terrible dishonor and ignominious, slavish death; much less would our Aristotelian gentleman stoop to suffer for those beneath him: the man of foreign race, the slave, the vicious and weak-minded. What could such virtue have to do with imitating the One who died for all sinners while they were still His enemies, in Whom there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female?
The whole problem seems clearest in the supposed contrast between Aristotle’s Magnanimity and Our Lord’s Humility. Magnanimity is a disposition to undertake the kinds of deeds that bring the greatest honor: the person of complete virtue, Aristotle says, will recognize her excellence, seek to express it as fully as she can, and demand that her excellence be afforded the recognition it deserves. Our Lord’s Humility, on the other hand, speaks not a word for itself, not even in defense: it receives false accusation and unjust punishment with patience and longsuffering. Alone among all men, surely, Our Lord deserved the honors and acclamations of Aristotle’s magnanimous man. Yet He did not stretch out His hand to grasp them but willingly divested Himself of every semblance of honor and dignity for the sake of those who had made themselves His enemies. How could these two virtues ever coincide?
The answer may be seen in Christ Himself, above all in His Passion. Our Lord shows us, as Aristotle wrote, that true magnanimity is concerned not so much with honors but with the heroic deeds which merit honor. Indeed, the magnanimous person may even be said to despise honors for the sake of doing what would rightly be honored– just as Our Lord willingly performed the most heroic act possible, the act which is the very exemplification of all virtue, even though it meant embracing the scorn of the world. In fact, magnanimity is not a kind of arrogance but a great willingness on the part of the virtuous person to do her very best in acts of virtue; and the true opposite of magnanimity is not humility but pusillanimity, a small-souled aversion to acts that demand our all.
Thus the great 20th century Dominican theologian, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, writes in his Three Ages of the Interior Life: “The magnanimous man… seeks great things worthy of honor, but he considers that honors themselves are practically nothing. He does not let himself be exalted by prosperity or cast down by difficulties. Is there anything greater on earth than genuine Christian perfection? The magnanimous man dreads neither obstacles nor critics nor scorn, if they must be borne for a great cause. He does not allow himself to be at all intimidated by freethinkers, and pays no attention to their utterances. He pays far more attention to truth than to the opinions of men which are often false. If this generosity is not always understood by those who wish an easier life, it has, nevertheless, a true value in itself. And if it is united to humility, it pleases God and cannot fail of a reward.”
Our Lord shows us how this magnanimity can be united to humility, and in recognizing this union and exemplification of all virtue in the life and Passion of Our Lord, we also come to see how Christ’s outstretched arms embrace and sanctify all that is best in the natural man, elevating it and perfecting it in grace to participate in the very life of the Divine Nature. May we also share in that unending life of sanctification.