Brett Beasley | July 25, 2019
Ask people, “Who or what comes to mind when you hear the phrase ‘greatness of soul’?” and you will encounter blank looks and a confusing ragbag of replies. I know. I’ve tried it.
I’ve posed this question to friends and family, to colleagues and classrooms full of students. I even started asking strangers through online surveys. Some guess that greatness of soul is a mythical quality, like clairvoyance or animal magnetism. Some mention a saint or an esoteric religious teaching. Others with a different definition of “soul” in mind answer “Aretha Franklin” or “James Brown.” Many people suspect the question is a trick. “Is that even a thing?” they ask.
I tell them it is a thing. Or at least it was. In fact, greatness of soul was nothing less than “the crown of the virtues.” That’s how Aristotle described it in his Nicomachean Ethics over 2,000 years ago. For Aristotle, the great-souled person, or megalopsychos, is a person keenly aware of his or her potential. Focused on great and honorable things, the megalopsychos ignores petty slights and insults and is too high-minded to bother lashing out or holding grudges.
Once I offer this definition, most people realize that what seemed like a trivia question isn’t trivial after all. Blank faces take on expressions of surprise. Some people appear suddenly to sense the loss of this virtue like the aching of a phantom limb.
Next I ask my interviewees whom they think could use greatness of soul today. Many mention our leaders in government, business or the media, and complain that these leaders have become nothing more than trolls who draw us into a downward spiral, appealing to what is base or small in us rather than what is great. Many mention internet trolls, those twitchy, trigger-happy lurkers who denounce enemies as swiftly as their keyboards can carry them. A few even admit to trollish behaviors of their own. These people say they’re uncomfortable with how often they turn away from their best selves, settling for responses based in fear, blame, anxiety and worry.
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