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Writing in the mid-first century BC in his handbook of the Greek philosophical tradition, Tusculan Disputations, Marcus Tullius Cicero lays out Plato’s famous account of the immortality of the soul from Phaedo. Summarizing the force of the dialogue’s dramatic setting – i.e. Socrates’ waiting to drink the hemlock – Cicero places Socrates’ account of the soul and self-possession in the face of death within the context of his earlier self-representation at trial. Confident in his immortality and without fear of death, Socrates required no advocate to plead his innocence. Instead of pleading pathetically and humiliating himself before the three hundred who held his life in their hands, Socrates displayed an independence and firmness of character (libera contumacia) that bespoke his indifference to the jury’s power to condemn him to death. The equanimity with which he comported himself before the authorities that brought him to trial, Cicero explains, arose not from arrogance or vanity (superbia) but from magnitudo animi, or greatness of soul (Tusc. 1.29.71). Socrates’ independent spirit before his judges is not an expression of hubris (superbia) that reaches for glories beyond one’s right, which Cicero associates with Alexander’s naked ambition (Off. 1.26.90). Such superbia, in Cicero’s mind, invariably leads to tyranny and war, whether it is the arrogance of Tarquin the Proud or Gaius Julius Caesar (Tusc. 3.12.27). Rather, Socrates does not seek anything beyond himself but presents the case for his own innocence and virtue without pretention or affectation in the sure self-knowledge of a magnus animus. This description of Socrates – the philosopher for the Academy, the Stoics, and the Peripatetics – as possessing magnitudo animi, which he extols as splendidissimum (Off. 1.18.61), introduced to Roman philosophy the Greek notion of greatness of soul (μεγαλοψυχία).1
The ideal of magnitudo animi was a feature of Hellenistic moral discourse that shaped the cultural sensibilities of the Roman elite. By the end of the third and beginning of the fourth centuries, some of these Romans, like the Emperor Diocletian, saw the expansion of Christianity as a threat to those cultural sensibilities and the cohesion of the empire. Although Diocletian’s systematic persecution of the church failed to purge the empire of Christianity, his judgment that Christianity was a cultural and political threat was prescient. With Constantine’s conferral of freedom of religious conscience in the Edict of Milan (313), Christianity stood upon an easier social foundation than it had the previous two-and-a-half centuries.1 Yet among the fourth-century bishops who had been educated in the Classical and Hellenistic paideia there remained a keen awareness of the ongoing cultural conflict between Christianity and paganism. More than official recognition, protection, and patronage granted by Constantius II and Theodosius I, the church needed to establish its own cultural credentials if it was going to convert the hearts and minds of the literati. Christianity could challenge the vital vestiges of pagan culture by fashioning an alternative culture with its own literary canon beyond Scripture. To do this Christianity needed to appeal to both the upper classes’ cultural tastes and their sense of excellence and nobility. Therefore, Christianity required authors who could create works of literature (e.g. Gregory of Nazianzus’ poetry) to match or even surpass the artistry of pagan masters.2 It also needed authors who could blend appreciation and critique of the ancient traditions of virtue in a way that found common ground with the teachings of non-Christian moralists and at the same time presented the Christian life as a higher form of virtue. Since the great-souled man described in Cicero, Seneca, and Plutarch was associated with the nobility admired by Roman elites or would-be elites, Christian moralists had to renarrate the ideal of magnanimity within the larger Christian narrative of Scripture.
Esse quam videri.1 This maxim, though coined by Cicero, captures the heart of all Socrates’ teaching, especially on the subject of justice. Yet Glaucon and Adeimantus challenge their teacher’s conviction by posing a daunting test: Prove that the truly just person can remain happy even when she is perceived to be unjust. This test case goes beyond the simple question of whether the good person can be happy in the midst of unjust suffering. It asks the deeper question, Is one’s happiness so firmly grounded in the knowledge and love of one’s virtue that one can be at peace within oneself even when one is wrongly accused of being or doing the very thing one hates? Can one bear being thought contemptible? Can the just person, who prides herself in her justice, rise above the humiliation of libelous accusations of injustice? Aristotle’s notion of μεγαλοψυχία complicates the question by focusing on honor. Whence comes the virtuous person’s sense of self-worth? Is it from self-knowledge or society’s approbation? Ultimately, it is not enough to be just; rather one must be indifferent to public shame and dishonor.
By recasting magnanimitas within the ideal of Christian perfection as mercy, especially to one’s enemies, Ambrose gave “greatness of soul” a meaning not expressly contained in Aristotle’s notion of the great-souled man. Thus it was the Middle Platonists, such as Plutarch, and Christians, such as Ambrose, who gave μεγαλοψυχία a meaning much closer to the modern connotation of “magnanimity.” Aristotle’s concern to inculcate in his protégés the right attitude toward honor that was the core of μεγαλοψυχία was not lost on later generations. Late antique Rome was every bit as much an honor–shame culture as was Athens in the fourth century before Christ, and public honors continued to be determinative of social status. They were society’s acknowledgement of virtuous individuals whose excellence established the norms of conduct to be imitated. Conversely, shaming was society’s condemnation of what was deemed base and ignoble. Conferring honor or shame set the norms by which an individual might gauge the value of her life within society. Indeed, the external character of honor and shame raised a profound problem: How was the truly virtuous person to think of his worth when society’s judgment of virtue and vice was itself misguided? In a culture where an individual’s identity was so closely bound to one’s politeia, what happened to a virtuous person’s sense of identity when one’s rulers or the polis itself scorned rather than honored his excellence? This is Achilles’ existential crisis.
This book is a project in historical theology that explores the evolution of the idea of moral greatness. From the eclectic period of Hellenistic thought at the end of Classical antiquity to the polemical period of cultural contest between Christianity and paganism called late antiquity, the language commonly employed to describe an individual possessed of supreme virtue was “the great-souled man.”1 Although not exactly false cognates, the modern English words “magnanimous” or “magnanimity” do not capture the full sense of their etymological origins. For, when contemporary English speakers describe someone as being “magnanimous” or possessing the quality of “magnanimity” they usually mean that the person is gracious, generous, and/or above pettiness. While great-souled men – and in the Classical and late antique mind they were almost exclusively men – might indeed be extremely gracious, even to an enemy, μεγαλοψυχία or magnanimitas denoted so much more: namely a preeminence of character that can only be expressed in terms of sheer “greatness.” The closest expression of the ideal in American vernacular is when someone pays tribute to a man who has gone above and beyond the call of duty in being generous by saying “He is real prince.” Here the egalitarian language of a democratic society is replaced for the moment at least with the archaic language of aristocracy and royalty, a prince – one who possesses a greatness, materially and morally, surpassing the common citizen. Such language is an unconscious reversion to the original sense of μεγαλοψυχία that Aristotle used to describe the quality of the warrior-princes who lead the Greek expedition against Troy narrated in Homer’s epics. Yet, while the Homeric heroes conferred benefits on their homelands and their compatriots in arms by their martial prowess, “generosity” and “mercy” are not adjectives immediately associated with Achilles and Ajax or even Odysseus.
When Hellenistic moralists, like Cicero and Plutarch, spoke about greatness of soul they employed an exemplarist pedagogy. The lives of great men were concrete instantiations of the ideal. Indeed, for Cicero the lives of great Romans preceded the ideal. Theory was dependent upon and therefore subordinate to biography. Ethics unpacked the logic of greatness embodied by the Scipiones and Cato the Younger. Ambrose’s depiction of Christian virtue in his catechetical homilies and ethical treatises was strongly influenced by the exemplarist conventions of these Classical and Hellenistic moralists.1 So, for example, Cicero’s ideal orator-statesman was the voice of Rome’s collective memory, the preserver of the mos maiorum, whose appeal to the lives of Rome’s patriarchs and matriarchs, both the virtuous and the vicious, preserved the ideal of Romanitas within the moral and political consciousness of society.2 Like Cicero, Ambrose’s thoroughly pragmatic Roman sensibilities disposed him to trust historical examples of virtue more than disembodied moral theory.3 But as a Christian, he views the Bible as the repository of the mos maiorum for Christian culture, and the patriarchs thereby become, as Marcia Colish felicitously puts it, “the new maiores.”4
Writing in retirement from public life during the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great (49–44 BC), Marcus Tullius Cicero was witness to the destructive consequences of ambition among Romans that Plato had feared in ambitious Greeks such as Alcibiades.1 Drawing on elements of the Greek philosophical tradition, Cicero proposed a diagnosis of the sickness that infected the Roman body politic and led to civil upheaval, and out of this assessment, he crafted a conception of greatness and of the great-souled man that tempered Rome’s love of martial glory while retaining an authentically Roman regard for political competition. Instead, therefore, of abandoning the idea of the great-souled man or making it a purely pejorative term as did Plato, Cicero in his De Officiis adapted a Stoic form of μεγαλοψυχία from Panaetius of Rhodes to harness aristocratic ambition for the service of the res publica.2 Later generations of critics have varied in their assessment of De Officiis. Some have read it as the swan song of a narcissist whose love of his song’s beauty blinded him to the economic and political realities that led Rome to the civil war.3 Others have seen it as Cicero’s manifesto in preparation for his return to public life as leader of the Optimates who, together with the support of Octavianus, would liberate Rome from Antony’s tyranny.4 Still others, more sympathetically, read the philosophical writings between April and December of 44 BC as having existential as well as political significance. His diagnosis of the excessive love of glory as the cause of the civil war was cathartic for Cicero – a reckoning with the flaws of the Republic he loved and idealized.5 Written to his son, Marcus, and young men of that generation, the De Officiis exhorts them to pursue that civic virtue and greatness to which the truly great-souled men should aspire. Using the structure of Panaetius’ argument and Roman exempla, De Officiis reimagines virtue and glory in terms of the statesman’s service in the civil context of the Senate house rather than martial greatness proven on the field of battle.6 The result is nothing less than a redefining of virtus, as the quality of the orator-statesman as well as the soldier. Cicero saw such greatness as one of the four sources of all honestas, together with knowledge (cognitio), a commitment to the common good (communitas), and moderation (moderatio) (Off.C. 1.43.152).
In Ambrose’s Jacob and the Happy Life, the Bishop of Milan addressed one of the seminal issues in the eudaemonist tradition: Is virtue sufficient for happiness or must external goods (e.g. health, material resources) be added to virtue? Aristotle’s answer had been that virtue was not sufficient for human flourishing but allowed one to use the necessary external goods to achieve eudaimonia. The Stoics, who argued for the sufficiency of virtue, countered with the example of Socrates. Surely the best and the wisest of men must have attained eudaimonia despite being betrayed and sentenced to death by his native city. Ambrose, in his catechetical homilies on Jacob, sides with the stoics. He appeals to the case of the mother in 2 Maccabees, whose sons were tortured and executed before her eyes because they refused to worship Antiochus Epiphanius, as an example of how the virtuous Christian might attain happiness even in the midst of hardship and profound suffering (Iac. 1.8.36). Happiness lies in the pure conscience of the faithful, even during persecution, because the wise find pleasure and tranquility in the nobility of their faithful deeds, which are a sharing in Christ’s passion (Iac. 1.6.23). Thus hardships do not negate happiness but are the occasion for the highest degree of human flourishing (Iac. 1.7.28). Such was the life of magnanimous Joseph and Paul.
In Plato’s Symposium Socrates recounts his initiation into the mysteries of Ἔρως at the hands of Diotima. At the climax of one’s ascent of the heavenly ladder to behold the Beautiful, she explains, the vision of this absolute and perfect Beauty radically changes one’s judgment of so-called beautiful things here below. “No longer,” Diotima tells Socrates, “will one’s vision of the beautiful take the form of a face, or of hands, or anything that is of the flesh … . And once you have seen it, you will never be seduced again by the charm of gold, of dress, or comely boys or lads just ripening to manhood” (Sym. 211a5–7 and d3–5). Plato confirms Diotima’s narration of the transformation wrought upon Socrates by this vision of immaterial Beauty through a speech by one of Socrates’ former lovers, the beautiful Alcibiades. At the end of the personally embarrassing account of the failure of his amorous advances toward Socrates, Alcibiades sums up Socrates’ attitude toward all worldly things and people, including the distinguished Athenians at Agathon’s symposium, “[Socrates] considers all these possessions [e.g., physical beauty, honor, wealth] beneath contempt, and that is exactly how he considers all of us as well” (216d8–e4). Such a transformation of one’s love, Gregory Vlastos contends, reveals Plato’s deeply problematic vision of human relationships grounded in his ontological hierarchy. When the transcendent Good is that “first love [πρῶτον φίλον] for whose sake … all other objects are loved” (Lysis 219d–220b), people are not loved for their own sake and therefore not truly loved.1