Aristotle's "Magnanimous Man": What Does it Mean to be a "Great-Souled" Individual?
Updated: Oct 28, 2020
Aristotle’s so-called “magnanimous man” from book 4 of his Nicomachean Ethics is the archetype of human virtue. As one pierces the veil of Aristotle’s description of the magnanimous man, complex intricacies and nuances are revealed. While remaining an enduring enigma and illusive ideal to which we all may aspire, Aristotle’s great-souled individual is the embodiment of complete virtue, actualized via a life of activity in accordance with virtue.
Aristotle’s great-souled individual, as it has been asserted, is the embodiment of virtue as it relates to the active life. According to Aristotle, an overarching identifier of magnanimity is seeking to be worthy of adoration and the adornment with honors, “a person is considered magnanimous if he thinks that he is worthy of great things, provided that he is worthy of them.” Magnanimity, in contrast to the lesser virtues of temperance and neatness, implies “greatness, just as beauty implies a well-developed body.” From this, one may deduce that to be magnanimous is to be large and prominent as it relates to acting upon the world. Unlike the foolish man who overestimates his greatness of character—and the pusillanimous man who underestimates his self worth as it relates to deserving honors and acclaim—the magnanimous man “is a mean, because he estimates himself at his true worth.” The great-souled individual it may be said, occupies the mean between the excess of foolishness and the deficiency of pusillanimity, as it relates to one’s disposition/character in relation to external honors and adornments.
Proceeding further, Aristotle asserts that the magnanimous man is characterized by “greatness in every virtue.” Magnanimity for Aristotle is a sort-of “crown of the virtues,” which is only bestowed upon the most noble and worthy possessor of “all-round excellence” of character. Since it is “chiefly with honors and dishonors the magnanimous man is concerned,” it is clear the great-souled man is a man of moral virtue, i.e. prudence, rather than merely contemplation. A man of action, the magnanimous man is chiefly concerned with honors because “honor . . . is clearly the greatest external good,” according to Aristotle.
One of Aristotle's distinctions of the great-souled individual, as opposed to polemical and sophistic critics, is that they must not only appear worthy of external honors, but actually be worthy of honors through excellence in character, i.e. virtue: “it (is) hard to be truly magnanimous, because it is impossible without all-round excellence.” In this way, the magnanimous man becomes an archetype of moral virtue for Aristotle, who in every circumstance, is consistently able to ascertain the proper means of action through deliberation due to a well-regulated moral disposition. And hence, the great-souled individual becomes a sort-of Golden Mean to which all may aspire, as he is able to achieve virtue by finding the equilibrium between opposing vices.
What differentiates the one who is great-souled from those who overly value adornments and are too ambitious in pursuing them, is the magnanimous man does not “even regard honor as a very great thing,” and therefore does not seek honor for its own sake, but rather achieves it as a byproduct of living well. And so, possessing honors does not mean one is worthy of them, as only the man who has a “just claim to great honors” are rightly called magnanimous. And thus it seems the colloquial maxim that “character is what one does when no-one is watching” coalesces and synthesizes with Aristotle’s conception of magnanimity of spirit, or greatness of character manifested in action in accordance with virtue.
With the groundwork for the ideal of the magnanimous man laid, Aristotle then paints a “portrait of the magnanimous man,” which plainly conveys that the great-souled individual is superior to others in virtue—not in a manner that is condescending or exploitative, but rather in a way that lifts up others who interact with him. In Aristotle’s description, what seems to be paradoxes are, in all actuality, nuances of character: “the magnanimous man does not take petty risks, nor does he court danger . . . and when he faces danger he is unsparing of his life, because to him there are some circumstances in which life is not worth living.” From this it is apparent that in all matters, the magnanimous man values most highly what is truly good and just (means) rather than any effect or benefit he may derive (ends). The only end the magnanimous man values is man’s Final End of utilizing reason to live in accordance with virtue, which is the proper function of man in the sphere of action.
One does not get the sense that the great-souled man is the contemplative sort (which Aristotle later argues is the highest and most fully-actualized manifestation of human reason). And yet, deliberating over means does require the understanding of ends, which Aristotle argues hinges on an acquiescence of the First Principles of Nature via epistme (or scientific knowledge), from which man’s function and End may be ascertained. Prudent in action to the highest degree, the magnanimous man is “disposed to confer benefits, but is ashamed to accept them.” Likewise, the magnanimous man is self-sufficient and worthy of reverence, as he “is ashamed to live in dependence upon somebody else.” Other characteristics ascribed to the great-souled man include a refusal to “nurse resentments,” a revulsion to flatterers and general disdain of praise, a rejection of abuse towards friend and foe alike, and a preference to “possessions that are beautiful but unprofitable to those that are profitable and useful.” From this portrait, one may surmise the magnanimous man does require liberal wealth and station in order to confer upon others his magnanimity.
In short, the portrait painted of the magnanimous man is one of self-sufficiency and disinterestedness towards honors, glory, and popular acclaim. It may be said in summary, the magnanimous man is in general a benefactor and ardent supporter of the higher way of life that celebrates the civilized aspects of the human animal and community: a lover of beauty and goodness for its own sake and one who demonstrates his affinity for the aforementioned virtues by embodying, and living in accordance with, complete Virtue.
 (Thomsan, The Ethics of Aristotle: the Nicomachean Ethics, trans. 1953), book 4, chapter 3.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.