Magnanimity and Pop-Culture

Aristotle writes about magnanimity, or “high-minded” in Book IV.3 of the Nicomachean Ethics.  The Greek word is megalopsuchia–literally, “Great, or large soul.”  It is an elusive and difficult virtue to understand.  It is largely a quality of mind, or an attitude.  I take it to mean a mind that values high things and acts in a high manner.  Aristotle himself says that magnanimous persons can appear arrogant.  And a person who prizes great things can seem to be elitist, or a snob.  Yet I think that magnanimity is indeed a virtue to cultivate.  I have.

I have followed a course in my life that has been and continues to be dedicated to great things.  I spent large sums of money (student loans) educating myself–money I am still paying back even 25 years after graduation.  I have been exposed to great works of literature, philosophy, art, religion, and music.  I continue to pursue my quest to acquaint myself with great things.

I have been called a snob.  And it is beginning to appear as if the causes to which I have dedicated my life are fading in our culture.  Musically, I appreciate classical music, jazz, classic rock, and now I am trying to learn about East Indian music of the Sikhs and traditional sitar music.  I continue my reading in poetry and novels.  I am adding to my formal graduate education in religions by inquiring into the spirituality of First Nations.  I am progressing in my competence on piano, continuing to write poetry, and continue my reading in philosophy and great works of fiction.  As I acquire new competencies I continue to meditate and make my new learning my own.  It is a thankless task.  But the magnanimous soul is not concerned with monetary rewards or praise from the masses.  Virtue is its own reward.

I’m not sure that Aristotle’s great soul is compatible with Christian ethics.  Jesus’ way is one of humility, and indifference to the things of this world.  Still, the virtues of love, forgiveness, and solidarity with others are also included in Aristotle’s magnanimity.  And I believe that Aristotle’s great soul would revere the gods.

I think that the tension between Jesus and Aristotle is in the definition of great things.  Kierkegaard was suspicious of the aesthetic life.  I believe that it would truly take a great soul to aspire to great things, and also keep her or his feet grounded in humility.  Yet what I get from Bach or Beethoven is among the best things I treasure.  This does not conflict with what I get from the texts of Christianity.

Our most prestigious institutions of learning are now teaching pop-culture.  Pop-culture is fine for those who like it.  But I do not think that it deserves a place in university curricula.  We are in an age that seeks to destroy elitism and the works that have in the past been considered elite, like Bach or Beethoven.  I refuse to equate Bon Jovi in any way with Beethoven.  Beethoven wrote pop music for country bands to play.  But it was all in good fun; he never considered them on a par with his symphonies.

I can imagine how distressed my parents had been when the melodious sounds of Frank Sinatra clashed with the wailing guitar of Jimi Hendrix.  It must have looked as if the world was decaying.  Yet I appreciate Hendrix and Sinatra.  If the world is sinking in the bland currents of pop-culture, it looks like the world is decaying to me, too.  I wonder if contemporary culture will consider those well-versed in pop-culture great souls.  Or is the whole notion of great souls too elitist to persist in our world anymore?

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