Photo by Ross Sokolovski on Unsplash
A Talk Given to Students at New College Franklin for Orientation (August 12th, Fall 2022)
Let us pray:
Lord, “teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom”
“Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you will return.”
You are dust and to dust you will return. This is something you know from logic:
First Premise: All men are mortal.
Second Premise: I am a man.
Conclusion: I am mortal
True! But does it touch us?
Kenneth Gallagher writes that for Kierkegaard there are truths we cannot affirm from a purely neutral standpoint because we are implicated in them. I cannot affirm that that all men are mortal, without affirming: one day I shall die. Now what Gallagher says is “assent to the ‘immortality of the soul’ is not separable from the affirmation ‘Yea, I will live forever’.”
Oddly enough, these are both true: we are mortal, and we are everlasting. We are deeply implicated. That we can know ourselves as corporeal and spiritual, as mortal and everlasting hints at the complex character of Christian virtue.
The refrain “remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you will return,” is from an Ash Wednesday liturgy which goes back prior to the 8th century. Congregants hear this as the sign of the cross is marked in ashes on their foreheads. It is a paraphrase of Genesis 3:19. It’s echoed in Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, Isaiah, and Job. Remembrance of death is associated in Scripture with wisdom, such as our prayer that we might learn to number our days (Psalm90:12).
It is a strange place to begin our year at New College Franklin. But I believe it will help us seek three interconnected virtues:
One who does not regularly confront the fact of his or her mortality cannot know how dependent they are on God. They will not possess humility or poverty of spirit. And so, will be incapable of real hope. Such a person must live, however secretly, a life of insecurity and desperation. They will not know magnanimity, or greatness of soul, but instead, a profoundly contracted and sterile existence.
I am convinced these are things I need to hear.
If we are to pursue that which is worthy of pursuit, if we are to embrace the greatness of our calling, we need to know the actual condition of our souls and what it is that we are made for. Both these measures must be taken if we are to press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus has taken hold of us (Phil. 3:12).
The greatness of our calling is revealed in the greatness of God and especially the greatness of God in Christ. But this presupposes a measure of self-knowledge (gnothi seauton) because a tremendous part of God’s greatness is revealed in how he is mindful of us. What is man that God is mindful of us? “Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow” (Psalm 144:4). At the same time, we are made to exalt God in our souls and to bear in our whole being a likeness to the beloved Son.
The bloom of magnanimity then is not the bloom of luxury or of worldly triumph. It is not merely self-confidence. Even less is it an escape from life’s little inconveniences. The divine pattern of greatness is laid out for us by our Master, who humbled himself and became obedient even unto death (Phil. 2:8).
Christian magnanimity is the hopeful confidence that our Lord will glorify himself in us, whether in life or in death.
The greatness of magnanimity then is not even the greatness of one’s own soul! Or it is the greatness of a soul concerned with something other than itself, just as a mirror shines with a borrowed light.
This all presupposes that we learn something of our mortality and something of the power of Christ and the Resurrection (Phil. 3:10; 1 Cor. 2:2). Christian magnanimity is an auxiliary of love that makes us eager to display what we have learned to the glory God and to the service of our neighbor.
As a Christian college, we are interested in this kind of learning.
It is easy to imagine that we are teachers of the law and yet not understand what it is we teach (1 Tim 1:7). This happens whenever we verbally assert orthodoxy but proclaim in our actions and attitudes that there is no resurrection, that life is a desperate affair, that what matters are the props and plasters that minister to our anxieties and fragile egos.
We confuse food and raiment for our very life. I set my heart on your approval or on a little plot of land. I forget what it means to play the man because I have confused the clothing of the world for my very soul and its true adornment. Epictetus compares this to actors who begin to believe that they are their masks. We forget who we are and who we are called to be. All this is suggested in Pilate’s ironic, Ecce homo. Behold the man. The only true man was not merely a man. Nor are we are called to be merely men or women. “If God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven” (Matt. 6:30) how shall he clothe his children?
Does he not set his love upon us and clothe us in Christ? But to what end? That we might glorify him with our bodies (1 Cor. 6:20).
When Thomas More confronts his accuser, Richard Rich, in A Man for All Seasons, Rich is newly wearing a chain of office for which he perjures himself. He has been bribed with the office of attorney general of Wales to bear false testimony. Thomas More says to him:
T: For Wales? Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world…But for Wales?
Years earlier, Thomas had suggested to him:
T: Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher. Perhaps even a great one.
R: And if I was, who would know it?
T: You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public, that.
Instead, Rich pursues a worldly greatness and proves the littleness of his soul.
Most of us will not be offered Attorney-General of Wales. But the Devil does not always write his deals so large. He often simply contrives with his old accomplices, the world and the flesh, to make his course seem like common prudence, rather than what it is, the sale of our souls, the keeping of what we cannot keep. He succeeds because that path often coincides with what appear the patterns of necessity and decent behavior, in part because they minister to our appetites and fears.
This is the road we shall find we are walking whenever we fail to remember our mortality and our calling. We need grace to remember and grace to press on.
We are called to exalt Christ and his death in our bodies, to prove the good will of God, and to show that we are worthy of the Resurrection (Phil. 1:20; 1 Cor. 6:20; 2 Cor. 4:10; Romans 12:1-2; Eph. 4:1; Col. 1:10; 1 Thess. 2:12; 2 Thess. 1:5, 11; Luke 20:35). This is our confidence in God.
We are made in his image. And yet our humanity, from humus (which is ‘earth’, dust), is like fading grass. Nevertheless, he has made this dust to be his temple. Humility, our proper abasement, is simply a knowledge of our poverty: that we are not God. We are creatures and even sinners. Therefore, we are nothing without our Creator and our Redeemer.
Strangely enough, this humility constitutes the ballast, the stability of Christian greatness because poverty of spirit is simply dependence upon God: dependence on the one who sends forth his Spirit and renews the face of the Earth (Psalm 104:30). Awareness of our frailty and fault becomes a hinge upon which greatness turns: the soul’s exaltation in God.
“Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the LORD; my horn is exalted in the LORD. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation”” (1 Samuel 2:1). She who laid herself low in weeping and prayer as if drunk derides her enemies. “Talk no more so very proudly” she warns us. For she knows from whence her deliverance comes. With what can man or angel threaten those who have discovered poverty of spirit, who know God and know that it is he who raises up and casts down, who gives life and takes it, who holds every good gift in his hand. He has promised them to us and has already bestowed them upon us in the form of deposit in our very souls: “the mystery of Christ in us” (Col. 1:27).
Mary echoes Hannah, “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46). She exults in God because the seed of her own flesh, he who shall be borne by her mortal body, is to crush the Serpent’s head! The Lord “has looked on the humble estate of his servant” (Luke 1:48). What is man that he is mindful of us?
These handmaidens of the Lord are great because God is exalted in them.
When Bishop Kung in 1955 was released from confinement in China, they brought him to a stadium filled with Christians that he might recant. Before armed soldiers, he proclaimed, “long live Christ the King.” He was taken back to his cell. Yet what cell is large enough to hold the soul in whom Christ reigns as King? He casts down rulers from their thrones, for he will give power to his King, and he will exalt his Anointed (Luke 1:52; 1 Samuel 2:10).
Hannah and Mary’s prayer, not only are keys to seeing the old in the new and the new in the old, but exemplify central thematic oppositions found in Scripture. In City of God, St.Augustine describes the creation as “an exquisite poem set off with antitheses:” opposites or contraries. Man, the centerpiece of creation, formed of earth and spirit, embodies these. We are irreducibly characterized by contraries and by the need to bring them into harmony. This is exemplified in the Beatitudes and reaches its summit and perfection in Jesus Christ.
The prayers of Hannah and Mary summarize Scripture and Christ. In them, we hear of the low and high, the poor and rich, death and life, sorrow and joy, barrenness and fruitfulness. Yet the true smallness and greatness of our existence is expressed even more in Hannah and Mary themselves, in their soul’s exaltation of God. The humble soul is great with God.
Does your mouth yet deride your enemies? Have you learned to hope in your Deliverer? If you are nervous about this year, it might be time to ask Whom am I relying on? Whose glory am I seeking? The Lord will walk beside you; he will fight for you, and strengthen you, but to what end? His glory he shares with no other (Isaiah 42:8).
This is not a stricter moralism. The idea bores me; it’s like sawdust. It’s like those ridiculous bumper stickers that say Be Nice or Say no to Racism! The Pelagian heresy lives, and it aims far too low. Our confidence is in God who has called us not to be nice, but to become true sons and daughters.
What I am arguing is that there is a contest we cannot avoid. The victory is not in moral slogans or unceasing effort. What is that “victory that has overcome the world”? It is our faith. “Who is it that overcomes the world?…the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God” (1 John 5:3-5).
For the Christian, to accept that we are engaged in contest is not to court chronic exhaustion and anxiety, but to receive the peace of Christ on its own terms. What are they? First, that we do not make a compact with world. Second, that we embrace Jesus as our victorious Head. For he has overcome the world. “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Thus, faith gives birth to hope.
Authentic Christian hope is healing to our bones. It is might and strength and peace, an enlargement of our being. But as with every virtue, hope is not just a gift. It’s a task.
Through hope we become less like anxious moral actuaries and more and more “like a bridegroom emerging from his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course” (Psalm 19:5). Hope passes through the veil and is anchored in the heart of Christ.
Let’s try to form a more concrete picture of magnanimity. Movies, books, history can be helpful: Will Kane in High Noon; Monseigneur Bienvenu, the Bishop in Les Misérables and Jean Valjean whom he helps; Father Zossima in Brothers Karamazov; Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, Oskar Schindler.
Magnanimity is greatness of soul (from magna and animus), its Greek counterpart is the mellifluous megalopsukia. Aristotle gives us the earliest extended treatment of it. Though it will need Christian clarification. I’ll summarize and paraphrase a few elements of Aristotle’s vision of magnanimity. The magnanimous man does not run headlong into trivial danger nor does he like danger, but will be unsparing of his life, for life is not worth having at certain costs. He maintains his dignity with great men, but with those of lower position he is respectful or moderate, for to do so is to like using one’s strength against the weak. He does not hide what he loves and hates because he cares more for truth than people’s opinions. And he does not keep an account of wrongs. He is not a gossip because he is not overly concerned with what people think of him. He will possess beautiful and useless things rather than useful ones. He is also likely walk slowly and speak with a deep voice.
I believe Aristotle is being figurative. These are just examples to help us form an intuitive grasp of the virtue. Greatness of soul excludes:
- Anxiety about small things [losing a point on an assignment]
- Easily taking offense [that someone is or is not a Complementarian]
- Fault finding, Complaining, and gossiping
- Obsessing about the opinions of others
- Sorrow or anger at minor obstacles [getting stuck in traffic]
- Acting as if you are above the ordinary tasks of life [washing your dishes, returning emails]
At its core, these vices suggest a smallness of soul (pusillanimity), that one is unwilling to meet the barest challenges of daily life. I am convicted.
How ready I am to collapse or throw in the towel at the sign of the most minor inconveniences: traffic, misunderstandings, a shortage of carbonated water, needing to remind my children of something …am I not their parent?
All this is closely tied to both to pride and to sloth (acedia), by which we refuse to accept who we are. We would rather be crushed by small things than to meet them in the might of our calling. Acedia is described variously by Kierkegaard, Josef Pieper, Gregory the Great and Thomas Aquinas as:
- Despair before the greatness of our calling (Josef Pieper/Kierkegaard)
- The refusal to be ourselves (Josef Pieper)
- Sorrow before spiritual goods (Thomas/Gregory)
- Sorrow that the good is difficult (Gregory the Great/Thomas/JPII)
Let’s keep that category in mind this year, the difficult good. The Greeks had the expression, χαλεπὰ τὰ καλά (Republic 435): the beautiful things are difficult.
What constitutes the worth of a thing is not its difficulty, nor is life essentially opposed to happiness. Yet there are goods we are called to which are won only by patience, suffering, by giving ourselves over to their realization. To deny this is to lose sight of hope: that we gain life most completely when we lose it. As Kierkegaard argues and John Paul II following him, God has given us our souls and our freedom that we might commit ourselves in love. Freedom exists that we might freely and wholly commit ourselves to the true Good.
Suffering and joy are therefore two of the great antitheses that magnanimity and all the virtues harmonize in the human person.
We are funny creatures! Take parents! Parents receive the blessing of children. This is funny? It is a little funny that God gives this gift to full grown adults. Those most capable of freedom are gifted with a task by which their freedom is to be spent on babies and teenagers. God help us. Those capable of living their own lives are called to live for others. This is something like a divine comedy.
What a funny gift knowledge is for professors! Your teachers will repeat themselves, such as: the assignment is due Wednesday…Wednesday. It is due Wednesday. Yes, Wednesday.
Nevertheless, without patience, without service, we are just actors who mistake our masks and outer garments for our very selves.
The student also must continually submit themselves to things which may seem beneath them.
We are all in this together. Every one of us remains a student in the divine school of love. In this regard, the distinction between a Doctor of Philosophy and a homeschool student is infinitely less significant than our common humanity.
As Chesterton says,
The things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary. Man is something more awful than men; something more strange… Having a nose is more comic even than having a Norman nose.
Lewis follows him when Aslan declares to Caspian,
You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve… that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content.”
Humility and magnanimity are again simply embracing the truth about ourselves: sons, daughters of Adam and Eve, now sons and daughters in Christ.
This means that when we submit ourselves to difficulties, to service, we are simply following the pattern of our Master. He was himself born a child and submitted himself to his parents. He was a teacher whose students were not always good listeners: the cross…yes, the cross. Have I mentioned the cross? I can almost hear one of the disciples saying: why didn’t he tell us about this?
Let’s be intentional disciples, conscious learners of Christ.
Epictetus, the Stoic Philosopher argues, that when we are called to meet difficulties, the time has come to show what we have learned. Do you not wish to learn of Christ and to show that you have learned of him?
It is magnanimity joined to love that drives us to show that we are truly his disciples.
Too often, we are as Epictetus relates, like pugilists who have been trained for a fight, but when the time comes are unwilling to enter the ring. We praise the virtues of patience, kindness, and self-control, but are surprised and insulted if we should have occasion to practice them. This is to be “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 3:7)?
In his Discourses, Epictetus states how we are to take advantage of difficulties.
Difficulties are things that show what men are. For the future, in case of any difficulty, remember that God, like a gymnastic trainer, has pitted you against a rough antagonist. For what end? That you may be an Olympic conqueror; and this cannot be without toil (Book I.24).
God has paired us in his wisdom with all that we will encounter today. What shall we do with these difficulties?
They are not chiefly personal insults in this light, but a personal summons from God to display what we have learned of him. The wrestler is not afraid to sweat a bit and even be thrown to the ground.
We are prone to forget that philosophy is not chiefly a subject; it is a way of life. We think ourselves virtuous when we have only mimed the word ‘virtue.’ Epictetus describes someone who thinks they are a philosopher in his Discourses (I.4). He says, “show me your improvement,” And they respond something like, look at my books! “Slave,” says Epictetus.
We are to be “zealous for the better gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31).
Paul tells us that we are indeed engaged in battle and that it is time to arise and meet our adversary. “The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12).
I considered closing with the whole of Philippians 3. I recommend it to you. But instead, let’s close by with the words of Mary that indeed “his mercy is upon those who fear him” (Luke 1:50) and with this blessing which Isaiah declares to Judah:
Your dead will live; their bodies will rise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in the dust! For your dew is like the dew of the morning, and the earth will bring forth her dead (Isaiah 26:19).
 The Philosophy of Knowledge, 234, see p.-241. See also p.231-241.
 Perhaps the soul is its chambers and the inner man and conscience the Holy of Holies
 City of God XI.18
 Sprit and matter are not opposed as such but are distinct modes of being which can nevertheless be intimately related. Scripture uses flesh to describe our tendence to live according to principles directed to the creature rather than the Creator.
 I am actually blending two closely related virtues: that of magnanimity which concerns how we relate ourselves to that which is worthy of honor (to great things) and that of longanimity which concerns how we bear evils. Though, distinct, they are yet so closely related that for the rest of this talk I will treat them as one. But I have now discharged my duty to you Thomists and scrupulously precise thinkers.
 Nicomachean Ethics,Book IV.3 adapted from W.D. Ross’s translation
 Orthodoxy,Chapter IV
 Prince Caspian
 Épictète and William Abbott Oldfather, The Discourses as Reported by Arrian the Manual and Fragments, Loeb classical library 131, 218 (Cambridge, Mass. London: Harvard university press W. Heinemann, 1979), bk. I.29.
One thought on “Memento Mori: Magnanimity and Christian Learning”
Greatly appreciated, very well-articulated and the detail is superb. Thank you for your effort.