The Virtue of Magnanimity – The Humility of Glory

“It is one thing to rise up to God and another against him. Whoever prostrates himself before Him is lifted up; whoever rises up against Him is prostrated.”

The virtues, says St. Bernard,1 are the stars, and the virtuous man is the firmament. It would be pleasant to take a journey through the vastness of this universe. Above all, we would find the shining sun of charity.

Alongside it, no doubt, the serene radiance of hope, the beauty of faith and the dazzling myriad of perfections which, connected to each other, form constellations and galaxies with varying degrees of beauty.

However, if we were to continue our tour, we would come across an admirable virtue, full of lights, colours and attraction, the ornament of all the others, but unfortunately so forgotten in today’s world: magnanimity.

The crown of all the virtues

The daughter of fortitude, it “inclines one to undertake great, splendid and honourable works in every kind of virtue.”2 St. Thomas Aquinas3 dedicates a large question from the Summa Theologiæ to this subject. According to him, magnanimity is the virtue proper to the person who tends “to great things”4 – in fact, in its Latin root, the term translates as greatness of soul.

The Angelic Doctor seems so at ease developing the theme that he takes the opportunity to describe the magnanimous person down to the smallest detail: his movements are slow, his voice harmonious and measured; he does not concern himself with small matters of secondary importance; the main criterion by which he values things is honesty and not mere utility.5

According to St. Thomas, magnanimity inclines one to undertake great, splendid and honourable works in every kind of virtue
St. Thomas refutes the heretics, by Andrea di Bonaiuto – Santa Maria Novella Church, Florence (Italy)

While we are on the subject of values, magnanimity and material wealth are related in a very peculiar way. Unlike the other virtues, which in general have absolutely no relation to fortune, magnanimity finds in the latter a contribution to itself! Thus, according to St. Thomas,6 a person with greater resources would find it easier to practise it.

Splendid and heroic actions

Seen as a whole, these characteristics may come as quite a shock to today’s revolutionary spirit… Perhaps someone will say that we are making an apology for the plutocrats, or that we have just listed the ingredients for a pretentious person with an air of imported caviar, a materialistic person – in vulgar language, a snob – in short, an unlikable person.

This statement would seem logical; very logical and very wrong. Yes, because it is based on a false conception of virtue, especially humility. This view has completely taken over our society and the consequence, as we have already said, is that little is known about magnanimity. Even good authors on spirituality seem uncomfortable handling this “nitroglycerine” that can explode a spiritual life at any moment, and they devote little space to it in their treatises. However, the great St. Thomas Aquinas developed the subject with complete ease and naturalness. How is this explained?

In our view, it is a question of mentality. The Aquinate, first and foremost, was a child of his time – a happier time than ours. While for our contemporaries the saint or prophet is the rich and educated man who humbles himself, divests himself and goes down to the poor and uneducated to give them advice and every kind of philanthropic help, for the medieval man it was viewed quite differently: the virtuous person was one, often modest, who went to the mansion of the nobleman, the king or the pope in order to show them the way to Heaven.7 When it came to the good of one’s neighbour and the glory of God, one had no right, under the pretext of “humility”, to fail to do something great.

From this point of view, performing heroic and prestigious acts is not in itself a sin, and often, depending on the circumstances, it can even be extremely virtuous. Examples abound on all sides. Let us start with one that took place towards the end of the Middle Ages.

Shepherdess, warrior and heroine

St. Joan of Arc, despite being from a poor and unknown family, became the heroine of the war against the English and performed magnificent feats, causing terror in the opposing camp. In several battles, the fight was, by human reckoning, in favour of the enemy, but through the faith and intrepidity of the Maid of Orléans, her troops miraculously won the victory.

It is pointless trying to describe the torrents of glory that poured down upon her thanks to this heroism. However, in the midst of her apotheosis, she worked her greatest miracle: she remained the humble, modest and unpretentious virgin of her childhood. On the one hand, St. Joan of Arc did not allow herself to be tainted by pride, despite being the object of the honours of an entire nation; on the other hand, she did not cease to carry out epic deeds either.

True humility

Magnanimity does not contradict humility; on the contrary, it finds its foundation in it. It is therefore essential to cultivate the latter in order to acquire the former: “whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mt 20:26). But in what does this humility consist, of which so much is said and, apparently, so little is known?

Entire treatises have already been written on the subject, which is so multifaceted and vast. For the purposes of our exposition, however, a few considerations will suffice. Humility is that disposition of soul which makes us constantly aware that we are dust and to dust we will return; it makes us recognize our insufficiency, our nothingness and our contingency – our condition as a creature, in short! – and it leads us to trust God completely and therefore to submit to Him. The humble-magnanimous person performs great acts in a total lack of self-confidence, which results in a complete abandonment to the care of Providence.

Of course, having high aspirations relying on one’s own strength is arrogant. Not at all, however, when one cherishes them relying on divine help. For the more man submits to God, the more he rises before Him, as St. Augustine preaches: “It is one thing to rise up to God and another against Him. He who prostrates himself before Him is lifted up; he who rises up against Him is prostrated.”8

St. Paul knew this truth well. In his epistle to the Christians of Corinth, when recalling the glories that earned him the title the Apostle, he says: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me” (1 Cor 15:10). That is why he proclaims in another letter: “I can do all things,” immediately completing the phrase that has marked history, “in Him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13).

All praise belongs to God alone

It is said of St. Francis of Assisi – the poor, sweet and humble St. Francis – that when he was passing through a village, he was the object of great honour and esteem from the villagers. Everyone kissed his habit, his hands and his feet, and the Saint showed no repugnance whatsoever.

When his companion saw the Poverello’s attitude, he foolishly thought that the he rejoiced in such honours, and so he reprimanded him. What was his surprise when the Saint replied: “These people do nothing compared to the honour they should render.” Seeing that the other friar did not understand him, he then said to him: “This honour that you see they show me, I do not attribute it to myself, but I refer it all to God, to whom it belongs, and I remain in the depths of my lowliness; and they gain from this, because they recognize and honour God in His creature.”9

The humble “Poverello” was the object of great honour and esteem. Concerning those who kissed his habit, hands and feet, he said: “They gain from this, because they recognize and honour God in His creature”
St. Francis of Assisi cures a leper – Sanctuary of Greccio (Italy)

What a beautiful combination: to seek sanctity – the greatest honour a man can attain – to be regarded and glorified as such and, at the same time, to receive this praise without any change of heart, unwavering in humility. What supreme perfection; what profound humility.

Greatness, even in today’s world?

But is it still possible to be magnanimous in our century, when everything – and this includes man – seems disposable and worthless? Is this not a virtue that died out along with the times of St. Francis, St. Thomas and St. Joan of Arc?

There are no arguments against facts. Let us illustrate with a historical example very close to our time, and we will see that greatness is immortal.

On the occasion of the 1933 Brazilian elections, the Catholic Electoral League (LEC) was set up in São Paulo to present Catholic candidates for the position of federal deputy. Dr. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, as general secretary of the LEC, was nominated to stand as a candidate along with three other prominent personalities of the time.

Shortly after learning of the proposal, a serious problem of conscience assailed his mind. He had no small support in the religious circles of his time and was a much admired and influential leader. He feared that he had been chosen solely because his prestige as a Marian Congregationist would move Catholics to favour the League in the upcoming elections. He wanted to prove his total disinterest in serving the cause of the Church, so much so that he seriously considered renouncing his candidacy, were he to ascertain that this was the will of the Archbishop of São Paulo, who led the LEC.

Humility and greatness embrace

However, something told him that he should accept the candidacy in order to use the position of federal deputy in favour of the interests of the Holy Church. In fact, after consulting a reputable moralist, he decided to follow this path: “I left calm, in fact, because I had proof that I was on the right path. But this road had to go through spiritual divestment, with the attitude of someone who receives a gift from Providence and, right from the start, says: ‘This is yours. Take it from me whenever You want and, if You give me the strength, I will forge ahead.’”10

Dr. Plinio then began to work hard, with the aim of being elected and helping the Church as much as possible.

The day of the elections finally arrived and the voting began. In order to leave no margin for pride, he made the resolution not to look at the newspapers. Some days later he was told by his sister that he had been elected federal deputy with 24,780 votes, twice as many as the runner-up: “At only twenty-three years old, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira was the youngest and most voted deputy in all of Brazil.”11

When he learned of this, he did not let himself be swept away by the glory he was receiving. He firmly decided to use it to favour the Catholic Cause. He acknowledged that this grace had been granted to him by God precisely for this purpose and, with complete unpretentiousness, he was prepared to abandon everything if such was God’s will. Greatness and glory did not eclipse his humility.

Is it possible to be magnanimous in our age: A fact from Dr. Plinio’s life gives us the answer…
Dr. Plinio in St. Benedict Monastery, São Paulo, in August of 1933

Magnanimity, or rather sanctity

Despite all these praiseworthy examples, our little overview on magnanimity would be incomplete if it did not provide the reader with the main thing: practice.

We are all called to greatness of soul, but perhaps not all of us feel we can identify with the Thomist description of the magnanimous, reproduced in part at the beginning of this article. Certain temperaments are averse to slow movements, many voices are incapable by nature of harmonious and measured speech, and the very social status or profession of a huge range of people does not allow them to occupy themselves only with matters of great importance, nor to enjoy the financial means to carry out portentous works.

There is no need to worry on this account. First of all, we should know that, according to St. Thomas,12 a characteristic trait of the magnanimous is confidence. Furthermore, what do the greatest deeds consist of? Those that are worthy of the greatest honours. Now, if there is anything that deserves praise above all others, it is virtue. The most excellent work that any man can do – so splendid that, before it, any epic feat is like dust – is called sanctity.

For this reason, the magnanimous seek to be worthy of honour through the exemplary practice of virtue, and they prize this more than any glory received from men.13 In fact, greatness gives a new lustre to the supernatural organism, in the manner of an amplifier of virtues.14

Modelling one’s entire existence according to the dictates of eternal beatitude: this is what magnanimity consists of. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world if he loses his soul (cf. Mk 8:36)? The exterior will reflect the interior to a greater or lesser degree, according to God’s plans for each person, but the glory of Heaven is the true end of the virtue of magnanimity.15 ◊



1 Cf. ST. BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX. Sermones sobre el Cantar de los Cantares. Sermon 27, n.8. In: Obras Completas. Madrid: BAC, 1987, v.V, p.397.

2 ROYO MARÍN, OP, Antonio. Teología de la perfección cristiana. 6.ed. Madrid: BAC, 1988, p.590.

3 Cf. ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologiae. II-II, q.129.

4 Idem, a.1.

5 Cf. Idem, a.3, ad 3; ad 5.

6 Cf. Idem, a.8.

7 Cf. CHESTERTON, Gilbert Keith. Heretics. Peabody (MA): Hendrickson, 2007, p.153.

8 ST. AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO. Sermón 351, n.1. In: Obras Completas. Madrid: BAC, 1985, v.XXVI, p.175.

9 RODRÍGUEZ, SJ, Alonso. Exercício de perfeição e virtudes cristãs. 3.ed. Lisboa: União Gráfica, 1933, v.III, p.461.

10 CLÁ DIAS, EP, João Scognamiglio. The Gift of Wisdom in the Mind, Life and Work of Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira.  Città del Vaticano-São Paulo: LEV; Lumen Sapientiæ, 2016, v.II, p.318.

11 Idem, p.320-323.

12 Cf. ST. THOMAS AQUINAS, op. cit., a.6.

13 Cf. Idem, a.4, ad 1.

14 Cf. Idem, ad 3.

15 Cf. Idem, q.131, a.1, ad 2.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

More from author

Related articles

Social counter