Aristotle on Greatness

In the third section of the fourth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses the virtue of great-souledness (or what Ross translates as “pride”).

Great-souledness is the virtue of someone who is fully virtuous with respect to the other virtues, and knows it, and is aware of the honor that is due him or her for this. He “thinks himself worthy of great things, being worthy of them.”

Various translations of the virtue and vices concerning pride
Vice of deficiency Virtue (golden mean) Vice of excess
want of spirit
little moral dignity
elevation of soul
chirking vanity

This virtue gave some trouble to the translators I consulted, and some put in extra effort to try to explain it (Moore’s note is a good example). Most of the trouble comes because “pride” underwent a shift in Western philosophy. Aristotle could speak of it matter-of-factly as a virtue, but under Christianity, pride became a sin, and today it remains something that is mostly held in contempt. Even people who achieve great things or receive great honors are expected to express themselves modestly and self-effacingly on the occasion.

Aristotle’s portrait of the great-souled man is not particularly flattering, either. He skips opportunities to describe the great-souled man’s most attractive qualities, and lingers over his haughty unconcern and disdain and his presumption and self-regard and the way he works to dominate others and put them in his debt.

Nietzsche might argue that the whole reason this portrait appears repulsive to us is that we have been brainwashed to despise true excellence and virtue by the ideology that ushered in this shift in which pride went from being a virtue to being a sin.

It seems to me that there’s more to it than this. As I read this section, it seems to me that Aristotle’s portrayal of the great-souled man is slightly comical, even somewhat mocking, which is strange. It also seems to me that he is deliberately glossing over the more attractive parts of the great-souled man and lingering on the less attractive ones as a way of rubbing our noses in the fact that virtue in general, unlike the specific virtues he’s just been covering (liberality, magnificence), is meant for the benefit of the virtuous person, not for the rest of us. We should not expect a great-souled person to be the sort of person we’d want as a best buddy, but as someone who is far above us and, probably, as a result fairly contemptuous of our affairs.

The word Aristotle used for this virtue, megalopsyche, translates literally to the sanskrit word mahatma, or mahā ātman — both meaning “great soul.” But it’s hard for me to read this section of Aristotle and see Mahatma Gandhi described in it.

Among the traits of a great-souled man:

  • He deserves and claims great things, but above all, honor.
  • He is good in the highest degree, great in every virtue. You never see him behaving in a cowardly manner or wronging another person, because, loving honor above all, he has no motive to do such things.
  • He will be moderately pleased at receiving great honors from good people, but just thinking these his due, in fact less than his due, but as the best honors perhaps that are available under the circumstances, he will make allowance. Casual honors from middling people, he will despise.
  • He is indifferent to what fate brings him — “neither over-joyed by good fortune nor over-pained by evil” and cares not for power and wealth, except as a means to honor. Even honor, which he loves above all, he doesn’t make a big deal over.
  • It doesn’t hurt if he’s rich, powerful, and well-born, though none of these things are sufficient.
  • He doesn’t court danger, particularly since there’s not much he finds worth courting danger for. But when he encounters danger, he faces it “unsparing of his life, knowing that there are conditions on which life is not worth having.”
  • He asks for nothing, but gives readily. He gives benefits and gifts, but hates to receive them, and hates to be in another’s debt, but will overpay a debt so as to turn the tables.
  • Similarly, he remembers (and prefers to be reminded of) the services he has done for others, but not those he has received (for those things are reminders of having been in an inferior position, and the proud man prefers to be superior).
  • He does not stoop but projects his dignity before people of high position and riches, but he behaves in an unassuming way towards ordinary folk, as it’s a vulgar thing to lord it over people below one’s station.
  • He doesn’t exert himself for the sorts of honors most people strive for, but only for the best of the best. He’s a man of few deeds, but those few are fantastic.
  • He’s a straight-talker. He respects truth more than people’s opinions of him, so he doesn’t hesitate to share his contempt and doesn’t waste time trying to be diplomatic. (This, amusingly, “except when he speaks in irony to the vulgar.”)
  • He will not put himself in service to any so-called superior, but may choose to serve a friend.
  • He doesn’t much go in for admiration, since to a great person like him, nothing else is particularly outstanding.
  • He doesn’t tend to bear grudges or remember wrongs against him.
  • He doesn’t gossip or praise or bad-talk others, mostly because he doesn’t much care about the things that typically motivate people to do these things.
  • He prefers to possess beautiful things of no particular use more than useful, profitable things.
  • He moves slowly and deliberately, not in a rush, and speaks in a deep, level voice.
  • He is, most assuredly, not he-or-she, though Aristotle doesn’t think he needs to point this out. The great-souled man is a great-souled man.

It’s almost like an action movie hero. More James Bond than Mahatma Gandhi. And it reads more like a laundry list of what the great-souled man would be like than a description of what he is like. A fictional character, an avatar, The Übermensch.

Or perhaps this is the man Thoreau was speaking of when he wrote:

He who gives himself entirely to his fellow-men appears to them useless and selfish; but he who gives himself partially to them is pronounced a benefactor and philanthropist.

It makes for a peculiar section of the book, odd also for its placement — why is this virtue, which “seems to be a sort of crown of the virtues; for it makes them greater, and it is not found without them,” found here, tucked away in a chapter in the middle of all of the other virtues?

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics