The Pursuit of Perfection
Humility and Magnanimity in the Christian Life
It could be argued that everyone who is familiar with Christianity, and even with religion in general, knows humility is one of the most important virtues. Whether this is seen in a positive or negative light, humility is inextricable from an authentically religious worldview, and most of all for the Christian, since Jesus Christ is the clearest and most powerful image of humility in history. As God becoming a lowly human, being held and breastfed by his Mother, bathing, working, eating and sleeping like anyone else, and finally being betrayed, ridiculed, tortured and crucified, Christ is humility personified. Accordingly, Christian teachers throughout history have called on those who desire to be disciples of Jesus to humble themselves in recognition of their finitude, their sinfulness and their total dependence upon God. In the same light, if a Christian is evidently or deceptively not humble, he is quickly labeled a hypocrite, accused of plagiarizing real Christian discipleship and providing a scandal for Christians and non-Christians alike, since it is evident to all that to be Christian necessarily means to be humble and to present it otherwise is a blatant lie.
While there are countless witnesses and writers in Christian history who have highlighted this truth, one who is not as well known yet who gave one of the most beautiful and profound treatments of humility is St. Aphraates (or Aphrahat) the Sage, a Syriac monk from the late third and early fourth centuries. Like the works of his contemporary, St. Ephrem, his spiritual writings, principally the Expositions (also called Demonstrations or “the homilies”), are Christian classics deserving of more attention. In them, he explains humility as a central aspect of the Christian life, which consists primarily in the imitation of Christ, as it would for St. Francis of Assisi, Thomas à Kempis and many others after him. As Pope Benedict XVI explains:
For Aphraates, the Christian life is centered on the imitation of Christ, in taking up his yoke and following him on the way of the Gospel. One of the most useful virtues for Christ's disciple is humility. It is not a secondary aspect in the Christian's spiritual life: man's nature is humble and it is God who exalts it to his own glory. Aphraates observed that humility is not a negative value: 'If man's roots are planted in the earth, his fruits ascend before the Lord of majesty.' By remaining humble, including in the earthly reality in which one lives, the Christian can enter into relationship with the Lord.
Humility is thus ultimately a recognition of truth; it is not a denigration or an abuse, a denial of one’s virtuous qualities or positive deeds in a dishonest exaggeration of the negative, but rather it involves an admission of one’s utter dependence on God, a gratitude for the fact that all the good one accomplishes is a participation in the power and the goodness of God even if done through our meager cooperation. The Christian understanding of man as made in the image of God, endowed with a spiritual intellect and will capable of knowing the truth, loving the good and being united with God through the sacrifice of Christ, is half of the anthropology of Christianity, the other part being a clear vision of man’s inferiority to God, his fallen nature and his propensity for sin and error and thus his need for salvation.
The teaching of Aphraates on humility, while essential and enlightening for any Christian, is nevertheless unsurprising. No one could deny that humility is at the core of what it means to follow Christ and to imitate him. What is more surprising is the parallel Christian teaching on the virtue of magnanimity. Prominently taught by Aristotle, magnanimity was adopted and adapted by medieval thinkers, most significantly St. Thomas Aquinas. According to St. Thomas, magnanimity is the crown or ornament of the other virtues, in a sense the goal to which they seek as their fulfillment and honor. Magnanimity can be loosely defined as the desire to do great things, to accomplish the lofty and to achieve perfection. The question immediately arises: how can this be reconciled with the virtue of humility?
For St. Thomas, magnanimity is a virtue situated within his overall metaphysical anthropology. As an action the end of which is “the best use of the greatest thing”, magnanimity consists in the pursuit of great honor, which is gained through the achievement of greatness, setting aside all else and offering these honors “to God and to the best”. In this sense, magnanimity belongs to what St. Thomas calls the irascible appetite, the movement of the passions towards difficult goods, with great honor being an object of hope. While ordinary honors are guided by moderation, in the use of lesser goods for great deeds, the greatest honors are sought by the virtue of magnanimity, since unlike the other virtues, magnanimity in itself is not founded on the balance between extremes but on the achievement of the highest and the greatest.
The question remains: how can these two virtues, humility and magnanimity, be reconciled? St. Thomas does so in two ways: by recognizing that magnanimity must be grounded in humility, and that humility ultimately seeks after magnanimity. While this may seem to be contradictory, it is in fact at the heart of true Christian virtue. Through reason, man can recognize his own frailty, limitations and proclivity to sin; this recognition affords him humility as a kind of bare honesty and acceptance of truth. However, humble reason also sees the truth that we are made in the image of God, designed for divinization and union with him through charity and incorporation into the Body of Christ. This vision does not violate humility, since it is the simple truth; as St. Aphraates taught, “The humble man is humble, but his heart rises to lofty heights. The eyes of his face observe the earth and the eyes of his mind the lofty heights.” Accordingly, through reason, magnanimity is moderated, and so while magnanimity is aimed toward the extreme of greatness, it is also limited and liberated by a humble honesty:
As the Philosopher again says (Ethic. iv, 3), ‘the magnanimous in point of quantity goes to extremes,’ in so far as he tends to what is greatest, ‘but in the matter of becomingness, he follows the mean,’ because he tends to the greatest things according to reason, for ‘he deems himself worthy in accordance with his worth’ (Ethic. iv, 3), since his aims do not surpass his deserts.
In the end, magnanimity is the virtue by which Christians desire and live the imitation of Christ. It is not only a matter of achieving greatness in the eyes of the world, as this involves the gaining of ordinary honors through the use of good things which are in themselves small. Rather, magnanimity achieves greatness through humility itself, sacrificing worldly honor and comfort for the sake of the greatest good itself. For many Christians, magnanimity could seem to be a mark of pride or selfishness, the desire for recognition or a mentality which ignores man’s dependence on God. However, this involves a false view of magnanimity, since the magnanimous also wish to achieve the greatest possible humility and gratitude in truth, while “goods of fortune” such as wealth can be conducive to the accomplishment of great deeds but are not essential to greatness.
An apt example of true Christian magnanimity, as contrasted with worldly magnificence, is in the narrative of Mary and Martha. While Martha busied herself with housework, with what she and others would consider to be of more practical and immediate importance, Martha chose true greatness at the feet of her Lord. As Christ told Mary, “Martha, Martha, thou art careful, and art troubled about many things: But one thing is necessary. Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Lk 10:41-42 DRA) This “best part,” the “one thing necessary” is the goal of true, Christian magnanimity, rooted in humility but aspiring to the full perfection of the image of God in man through the imitation of Christ, fulfilling Christ’s command: “Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5:48)
The magnanimous life appears to the world to be slow, deliberate, impractical, inefficient and even haughty, as acting like a “do-gooder” or “holier-than-thou.” Nevertheless, for the Christian, magnanimity precludes any semblance of arrogance or hypocrisy, yet by its singular focus on authentic greatness even to the detriment of worldly gain, it will always seem to be out of place, unrealistic and a kind of mirror by which the world recognizes its own mundanity and stunted vision, and this mirror-image can lead either to bitterness and resentment, or to the insemination of humility and the conviction of sin for those with eyes to see it. Just as the stories of ancient heroes inspired and continue to inspire humanity to accomplish great deeds of lasting honor and eternal significance, so do the lives of the saints, canonized or not, in centuries past or today, inspire Christians to seek after magnanimity in humility and to lead others to do so by their example, reflecting as it does the light of Christ.
 Pope Benedict XVI, The Fathers of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 120.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I-II, q. 66, a. 4, ad. 3, at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.
 ST II-II, q. 129, a. 1.
 Benedict XVI, Fathers, 120.
 ST II-II, q. 129, a. 3, ad. 1.
 ST II-II, q. 129, a. 8.
 ST II-II, q. 129, a. 3, ad. 4.