The Magnanimous Man

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What does a secular substitute for a saint look like? If you’ve ever known a good person who has no religious proclivities, you probably know what he looks like: a person infused with virtues even though he doesn’t believe in infusion.

Jacques Barzun describes the secular saint well in his description of William James:

[T]olerant, generous, tender to others’ difficulties, and yet strongly affirmative, combative even. His spirit seemed all-embracing, though too secular to be called saintly. There is a word for such a character: it is the Magnanimous Man.

Even those of us who think it’s more important to aspire to saintliness than secular magnanimity admire such men, especially when we’re honest with ourselves and acknowledge that, far from being saints, we’re not even magnanimous.

Nassim Taleb, incidentally, thinks highly of magnanimity and notes, rightly, that the concept has largely been lost in modern society. He had to go into antiquity to find it:

[T]he notion of megalopsychon (a term expressed in Aristotle’s ethics), a sense of grandeur that was superseded by the Christian value of ‘humility.’ There is no word for it Romance languages; in Arabic it is called Shhm–best translated as nonsmall.