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William Adolphe Bouguereau - The Palm Leaf

“It is the characteristic of the magnanimous man to ask no favour, but to be ready to do kindness to others.”

  • Aristotle

What is Magnanimity?

Magnanimity (magna-anima) is to be ‘great-souled’. It is the opposite of pusillanimity, or ‘small-souledness’, which is to cower and shrink from great goods. It is part of the virtue of courage, which both moderates our fears and propels us forward toward goods that we seek. St. Thomas Aquinas defines magnanimity as a “stretching forth of the mind to great things, and seeking to do great acts deserving of honour.”

As a virtue, magnanimity consists in the stable disposition to do great things, for the right reasons. Chiefly, this consists in seeking glory – the resplendent brilliance we recognize in great and virtuous actions, which are themselves full of goodness, truth, and beauty. The magnanimous person ultimately pursues glory and the honour that is attendant to it not for themselves, but because these things are intrinsically good.

Humility prepares the way for love because it breaks us away from self-infatuation by acknowledging our debt and gratitude for all that we have, rendering our hearts tender and receptive and able to enter into blissful self-surrender to the pursuit of the objectively good. Humility instils in us the virtue of meekness, which is neither spinelessness nor servility, but a great love for and deference to the good above all else, marked by a charitable demeanour.

The opposite of magnanimity is small-souledness – it arises when we ignore our own qualifications and gifts, refusing to cultivate them and utilize them for ends that are truly good and helpful to others, or when fear of failure paralyzes us and leads us to shy away from pursuing noble and great ends.

Magnanimity is false when it is confused with vainglory – seeking renown because of something not really worthy; seeking the esteem of those whose judgment is false, unrefined or frivolous; or when glory is desired apart from its connection to righteousness.

To combat the deficiencies of small-souledness, we need a strong desire to attack difficulties on the path of a goal, and a yearning, burning aspiration for noble and great things. To avoid vainglory, we need magnanimity’s close collaborator, humility. It is essential to genuine magnanimity that we are deeply humble. Humility means dissolving all pride – the root of all sin – and ridding oneself of self-sufficiency, self-glorification and a disordered desire for sensual pleasures: all things which enclose us in a private world of lower passions and an obsession with control.

To conclude, magnanimity is what propels us toward great things, properly conceived. It crowns the other virtues, because it is what seeks their perfection. It is the supreme form of human hope because it is imbued with trust in the capacity of humankind to rise above its challenges and deficiencies to become capable of the greatest things and the fullest manifestation of human virtue and capacity, chief of which is love.

Written by: Peter Copeland

Interview on Magnanimity with Nadia Al-Banna


How do you define magnanimity?


Magnanimity is often defined as being extra generous, which can make it sound daunting. But, I don’t think it’s just about generosity. It’s a mix of generosity, courage and giving your authentic self to others. Magnanimity doesn’t have strict boundaries, so you should attempt to be generous not only toward others - people you know and don’t know - and also towards yourself. 


How does the virtue of magnanimity relate to work?


Magnanimity is often required when working under tough deadlines or with difficult people when your generosity and patience are called upon. It is often about teamwork and keeping an open mind towards a difficult situation and the people involved. Instead of just ignoring the situation or feeling angry about it, your first instinct should be to recognize the problem and offer to help out.


Why is it important in a work context?


It’s super important at work because it’s super rare. People tend to think about their own interests in a given project and how they will be perceived. But it is important to think outside of yourself and consider someone else’s perspective, even if it is contrary to your agenda or needs.


How have you personally built on this virtue?


I don’t think I have specifically worked on it. It came more as a result of my own internal reflection and personal work on forgiveness and openness of spirit. I try to be self-critical and to consider the other person’s perspective, help out where I can and forgive them along the way. In other words: “Let me get out of my own ego and understand things from your end.” 


Did somebody mentor you on this? Have you mentored others about magnanimity?


Over the years, I‘ve noticed people show their love and support in different ways. Maybe it’s by giving their time, lending a sympathetic ear or a welcoming invitation to their home. Slowly I realized that generosity is not one size fits all.


As a mentor, it’s always in my conversations. I’ve started using that virtue when advising young professionals about various work situations. Or it can be friends and family who ask for my thoughts. I often say, “take a step back and see it from your boss’s perspective” or “Think of how you can share more of your time or support others in a different way.” Sometimes I suggest they volunteer their time with an activity that gives them joy or brings joy to others. 


How have you lived this virtue at work?


As I said above, it comes with how I interact with people when there’s a pressing deadline, or a specific problem or a difficult team dynamic. With generosity comes self-restraint because in order to be generous, you have to be emotionally regulated. You can’t say the first thing that pops into your head, but rather the thing that is most supportive to the person in question, given their situation, skill set, or background. This virtue is so important, particularly in industries that are based on innovation and entrepreneurship. By giving my time, thoughts and energy, I can help someone feel better and become a better person. Doing so gives me a lot of joy.


Do you have any examples of failing to live this virtue at work, and if so, how did you overcome that?


I often feel I’m always tested on this virtue. I sometimes work and collaborate with many teams from different backgrounds or in different cities, so I can feel like I’m spreading myself too thin. I am constantly being called on to give to others and sometimes I feel guilty because I wish I could do more.


This virtue comes with a lot of challenges. Sometimes there is a lack of acknowledgement or support coming my way. It can become draining and if I don’t take a break or work on self-care, it can lead to burnout.


Do you have any examples of friends or colleagues living this virtue at work?


I think many people are trying to do this in different ways. For example, my boss was very understanding, giving attention and encouragement throughout Covid or with family situations that might come up. It positively affected how the team behaved and the support they gave each other during challenging times.

Dr Nadia Al-Banna is a Senior Director of Product and Business Development at Allarta Life Sciences. An enthusiastic supporter of entrepreneurship, Nadia has pivoted her career from a scientist and professor to an innovation architect, a strategic advisor, and a leader. Bridging science and business, she has more than 15 years’ experience mobilizing innovations, funding and establishing partnerships across the innovation ecosystem.


Nadia holds a Ph.D. from Dalhousie University, an MBA from the University of Toronto, and has completed courses in organizational leadership.


As a mentor and a trilingual speaker, she supports women in STEM, entrepreneurship and professional development.

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