Magnanimity, or having a great soul (magna anima), is what Aristotle says is the quality of a great man. It’s a difficult quality to define, more easily felt than described. Or at least I can feel when I am being pusillanimous, small-souled.
Pusillanimity is when you feel pinched, inward-turning not out of a desire for introspection or self-knowledge but in the sense of trying to protect yourself from outward threats. Personal finance writers sometimes write about the difference as that between a mentality of abundance versus one of scarcity: When one has more than enough, one shares; when there’s a dearth, one guards it jealously.
I find myself pusillanimous with my time. It’s not as if I have less time than anyone else — we all have exactly the same twenty-four hours in a day to do with as we will. Yet sometimes I feel as if I have no time, or not enough time, and so I become stingy with it.
This was particularly so last year, when I was finishing my dissertation in the interstices of my time, most of my real life squeezed to the margins. All I can say is how grateful I am that my job is enriching and full of interesting people. I might have shrivelled up as dry as my conversation otherwise.
I don’t plan to do things I consider highly important — writing, visiting with my friends, exploring the city — because somehow planning means I am using up time I shouldn’t be. But yet often I end up wasting it instead, and so instead of living in many dimensions I find myself spread thin, my soul’s ambit narrowed. This is not magnanimity.
It is the inner time, kairos, that matters.* Kairos is the time of the soul, shaped by our attention and our inner life. When we say one person is mature and another is not, though they are the same age in chronos, they are not the same age in kairos.
Kairos is the time of great art, the time of real being, the time of the City. When I write first thing every morning, as I have been this week (and will all year, God willing), my life is richer, because I begin the day with my work in the City.
The magnanimous are great-souled because they share forth their works, they work to build the City, they love freely and abundantly. Their life is rich. They live in the City. They are not the misers of their souls.
The discipline of writing every day has already started to make my life fuller. I get to practice magnanimity regularly here, by not keeping back ideas, by stretching myself to write something every day. There will be more and better ideas as I get better at expressing them, more disciplined in my thinking, more imaginative and more active at the same time. For the magnanimous do as well as dream.
* I am here borrowing Madeleine L’Engle’s distinction between kairos and chronos.