“Be not afraid!” -except of this…

Here’s a short paper I wrote for my class on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics:

Throughout his entire pontificate, John Paul II proclaimed, “Be not afraid!” But, speaking to university students in Krakow, he exhorted them to be afraid of two things: thoughtlessness and pusillanimity.[1] Thoughtlessness is fairly commonsensical. Hannah Arendt’s reflections on the relationship between thoughtlessness and evil come to mind. Pusillanimity is a vice that we learn about from Aristotle, with developing interpretation in Thomas Aquinas. So the first question arises: Why did the man whose signature phrase was “Be not afraid!” urge us to fear a vice about which we seldom speak?

Interestingly, these two things John Paul II advises us to fear seem to correspond to the statement in the Act of Contrition: thoughtlessness leads to our choosing to do wrong and pusillanimity leads to our failing to good. On the one hand, Christians understand pride, which is intimately connected to vanity, to be the root of all sin. But in Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that, “Pusillanimity is more opposed than vanity to magnanimity; for it arises more often, and is worse.”[2] Why does Aristotle say that pusillanimity, a deficiency relative to magnanimity, is more opposite than its corresponding vice in excess–vanity? And is pusillanimity really more common than vanity? First, I discuss magnanimity, vanity, and pusillanimity in Aristotle, with a brief presentation of Aquinas’s analysis of the same topic. Then, I mention Michael Matheson Miller’s view of Pope Benedict as an example of a magnanimous man. Finally, I address the extent to which Aristotle’s discussion of magnanimity can give us insight into why John Paul II specifically exhorted us to fear of pusillanimity.

In Book IV of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle begins by saying, “It does not matter whether we consider the state [of magnanimity] itself or the person who acts in accord with it.”[3] He immediately proceeds to discuss the magnanimous person and eventually stresses the importance of particular cases. Much will depend on the person in question, his own worth, assessment of his worth, concern with honour, actual goodness, and relationship to others. Since magnanimity means greatness of soul, “magnanimity is found in greatness.”[4] And so, Aristotle thinks, “The magnanimous person, then, seems to be the one who thinks himself worthy of great things and is really worthy of them.”[5] He says repeatedly that the magnanimous person is “concerned especially with honours.”[6] But, at the same time, he also stresses that the magnanimous man “does not even regard honour as the greatest good”, but rather “he counts honour for little.”[7] As an “adornment of the virtues”, magnanimity both requires goodness and helps goodness to flourish.[8] Magnanimity is the virtue of a good man who truly knows himself; such a person responds rightly to the reality of his worthiness concerning various goods.

Next, Aristotle discusses vanity: “Someone who thinks he is worthy of great things, but is not worthy of them, is vain…”[9] and he says “[vain people] are foolish and do not know themselves, and they make this obvious. For they undertake commonly honoured exploits, but are not worthy of them, and then they are found out.”[10] However, there are two subtle and important features that lessen the severity of Aristotle’s criticism of vanity. First, he admits, “not everyone who thinks he is worthy of greater than he is worthy is vain.”[11] Perhaps someone thinks he is worthy of greater than he is and has proper ambition, wanting to excel his current self out of admiration of magnanimous men and his own love of the good. Secondly, if it happens that a person really is vain, then he can be accused of making “claims that are excessive for himself, but not for the magnanimous person.”[12] To adapt an adage of G.K. Chesterton[13]: The vain person compliments magnanimity (by supposing himself to be worthy of great things), if not the magnanimous man. This is to say, the vain person affirms the good he does not possess: his error consists in attributing to himself what is not proper to him. For these reasons, vanity is more likely to approximate magnanimity than pusillanimity which, he argues, is the virtue’s real opposite.

And now, for pusillanimity: “Someone who thinks he is worthy of less than he is worthy of is pusillanimous, whether he is worthy of great or moderate things, or of little and thinks himself worthy of still less,”[14] explains Aristotle. “For each sort of person seeks what [he thinks] he is worth; and these people hold back from fine actions and practices, and equally from external goods, because they think they are unworthy of them.”[15] Aristotle’s critique of pusillanimity is accordingly harsher because the pusillanimous person underestimates both his own worth and the proper estimation of his worth that would be made by a magnanimous judge. The worst effect of a disordered view of one’s worth, Aristotle reasons, would be in the person who is truly worthy of great things but who thinks himself unworthy of them. This is the case in which there is the greatest discrepancy between thought and fact. Like the vain person, the pusillanimous person does not seem to know himself. But those who are vain have a view toward goods whereas those who are pusillanimous have altogether lost sight of these goods or refuse to aim at them.

Thomas Aquinas takes up the question of whether pusillanimity is opposed to magnanimity in the Summa Theologica:

Pusillanimity may be considered in three ways. First, in itself; and thus it is evident that by its very nature it is opposed to magnanimity, from which it differs as great and little differ in connection with the same subject. For just as the magnanimous man tends to great things out of greatness of soul, so the pusillanimous man shrinks from great things out of littleness of soul. Secondly, it may be considered in reference to its cause, which on the part of the intellect is ignorance of one’s own qualification, and on the part of the appetite is the fear of failure in what one falsely deems to exceed one’s ability. Thirdly, it may be considered in reference to its effect, which is to shrink from the great things of which one is worthy. But, as stated above, opposition between vice and virtue depends rather on their respective species than on their cause or effect. Hence pusillanimity is directly opposed to magnanimity.[16]

In a 2013 article titled, “Benedict XVI: Magnanimity in an Age of Self-Promotion”, Michael Matheson Miller discusses Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation which, as he sees it, is characterized by three virtues: magnanimity, humility, and prudence. Miller notes that Benedict’s life exemplified magnanimity: through his philosophical work, through his assumption of the papacy without having desired it, and, especially, in his decision to step down; he saw his abilities and limits rightly.

As Miller puts it, “Magnanimity is the virtue that deals with the handling of great honors and as Aristotle tells us maintaining self-understanding in the midst of adulation.”[17] While some were speculating that the pope resigned for fear of needing to further address the scandal of sexual abuse by clergy, Miller points out that, if this was the reason, the pope could have resigned much earlier but he did not. On the contrary, Pope Benedict said in a 2010 interview:

When the danger is great one must not run away. For that reason, now is certainly not the time to resign. Precisely at a time like this one must stand fast and endure the difficult situation. That is my view. One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on. But one must not run away from the danger and say that someone else should do it.[18]

This answer aligns splendidly with Aristotle’s remark: “Surely it would not at all fit a magnanimous person to run away [from danger when a coward would], swinging his arms [to get away faster], or to do injustice. For what goal will make him do shameful actions, given that none [of their goals] is great to him?”[19] As Aristotle stresses, while magnanimity concerns a person’s regard toward honour, a person cannot be magnanimous unless his concern that he is good precedes his concern for any other external goods.

Now, if we seem to live in an age of self-promotion, then it would seem the greater risk to vice, as it pertains to honour, would be in the direction of excess, i.e., to vanity. So why did John Paul II specifically warn against pusillanimity rather than vanity? I think this may have something to do with the experience of communism – the result of people being “subjected to exploitation and oppression.”[20] It’s easy to see how, in such a regime, people could underestimate their worthiness of great things; it’s practically an ideological necessity required for such a system. But maybe there is an equal risk of pusillanimity in the souls of those living in democratic regimes, too.

In C.S. Lewis’s imaginative satire, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”, an experienced devil is delivering an informative address to young devils, instructing them in the temptation and destruction of humans. He says:

As a result you can use the word democracy to sanction in his thought the most degrading (and also the least enjoyable) of human feelings. […] The feeling I mean is of course that which prompts a man to say I’m as good as you. No man who says I’m as good as you believes it. He would not say it if he did. […] The claim to equality, outside the strictly political field, is made only by those who feel themselves to be in some way inferior. […] But that is a mere by-product. What I want to fix your attention on is the vast, overall movement towards the discrediting, and finally the elimination, of every kind of human excellence – moral, cultural, social, or intellectual. And is it not pretty to notice how “democracy” (in the incantatory sense) is now doing for us the work that was once done by the most ancient Dictatorships, and by the same methods? For “democracy” or the “democratic spirit” (diabolical sense) leads to a nation without great men, a nation mainly of subliterates, full of the cocksureness which flattery breeds on ignorance, and quick to snarl or whimper at the first sign of criticism. And that is what Hell wishes every democratic people to be.[21]

Alexander Solzhenitsyn also warned about the pulverization of man in democracies when he observed, “Actually, an outstanding and particularly gifted person who has unusual and unexpected initiatives in mind hardly gets a chance to assert himself. From the very beginning, dozens of traps will be set out for him. Thus, mediocrity triumphs with the excuse of restrictions imposed by democracy.”[22] Whenever someone is ignorant about himself, particularly the specific greatness of which he is capable, this leads to him shrinking from those very great things. This is obviously to his detriment and Aristotle considers such persons to be not evildoers, but rather in error. The consequence of this error is that it can be exploited by those who have contempt for greatness of soul, such as tyrants and totalitarians.

It is now clear that it is worse to shrink from the good of which you are capable than to error in esteeming yourself capable of a good that exceeds your reach. Aristotle and Aquinas think that pusillanimity is most opposed to magnanimity because both concern greatness of soul, ignorance of worthiness or qualification, and depriving oneself of the goods that are proper to him. And, given the risk of great souls shrinking from greatness in communist and democratic regimes alike, we can see how common a problem is this resistance to excellence. By nature, though, every person tends to excellence to varying degrees and in a plurality of ways. Therefore, to be not afraid, except for fear of thoughtlessness and pusillanimity, is indeed magnanimous advice.


[1]“You must carry into the future the whole of the experience of history that is called ‘Poland’. It is a difficult experience, perhaps one of the most difficult in the world, in Europe, and in the Church. Do not be afraid of the toil; be afraid only of thoughtlessness and pusillanimity. From the difficult experience that we call ‘Poland’ a better future can be drawn, but only on condition that you are honourable, temperate, believing, free in spirit and strong in your convictions.” John Paul II, “Meeting with the University Students of Krakow: Address of His Holiness John Paul II” (Vatican: Delivered in Krakow on Friday, June 8, 1979).

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1125a, §37.

[3] Ibid, 1123b, §2.

[4] Ibid, §5.

[5] Ibid, §3.

[6] Ibid, 1124a, §18.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, §16.

[9] Ibid, 1123b, §6.

[10] Ibid, 1125a, §36.

[11] Ibid, 1123b, §6.

[12] Ibid, §13.

[13] “The thief compliments the things he steals, if not the owner of them.”
G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 72.

[14] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1123b, §7.

[15] Ibid, 1125a, §35.

[16] Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Secunda Secundæ Partis, Question 133, Article 2, (Fathers of the English Dominican Province: 2008).

[17] Michael Matheson Miller, “Benedict XVI: Magnanimity in an Age of Self-Promotion,” (Acton Institute: February 25, 2013).

[18] Ibid.

[19] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1123, §15.

[20] “Following the destruction caused by the war, we see in some countries and under certain aspects a positive effort to rebuild a democratic society inspired by social justice, so as to deprive Communism of the revolutionary potential represented by masses of people subjected to exploitation and oppression.”
John Paul II, Encyclical Letter “Centesimus Annus“, (Vatican: 1991).

[21] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters; also includes “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 197-201.

[22] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “Harvard Address, June 8, 1978“, (First Principles ISI Web Journal).

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