The following is an excerpt from the commencement speech given by Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron at Thomas Aquinas College on May 11:
How could I not take as my point of orientation today some thoughts from the patron of this school? I would like to draw your attention to a fairly obscure section of St. Thomas’s Summa Theologiae, namely, question 129 of the secunda secundae, wherein the master considers the virtue of magnanimitas (magnanimity), which is to say, the quality of having a great soul.
So how does Thomas elaborate upon the notion? Here is the beginning of his respondeo to article one of question 129: “Magnanimity by its very name denotes stretching forth of the soul to great things (extensio animi ad magna).” And this has to do, primarily, with great moral acts, or acts for which one would expect to be honored. Thomas is quick to clarify that the magnanimous person is not interested in honors for their own sake, for such an obsession would amount to vana gloria or vainglory; rather, he or she is interested in doing those things that rightly deserve honor. Following Aristotle, Thomas further specifies that true magnanimity is ordered to high honor, which another way of saying to the performance of those moral acts that are particularly hard to perform.
Here is part of the respondeo to article five of question 129: “Accordingly it is clear that magnanimity agrees with fortitude in confirming the mind about some difficult matter.” And this is from article six of the same question: “magnanimity is chiefly about the hope of something arduous” (magnanimitas proprie est circa spem alicuius ardui). But what is the ground for such hope? It is, says Thomas, in the moral and intellectual character of the one who knows himself capable of attaining to high, difficult, and great things. Were one not in possession of the capacity for greatness, it would be presumptuous and proud to strive toward excellence.
Some further light can be shed on our theme by considering the opposite of magnanimity, namely, pusillanimity (literally, small-souledness), and this Thomas does in question 133 of the secunda secundae. If presumption makes one strive beyond one’s capabilities, pusillanimity “makes a man fall short of what is proportionate to his power, by refusing to tend to that which is commensurate thereto.” In light of this clarification, we see why some translators choose to render pusillanimitas as “faintheartedness,” for it amounts to a fear of attempting the moral excellence of which a person is capable. In article two of question 133, Aquinas makes the contrast unmistakably clear: “For just as the magnanimous man tends to great things out of greatness of soul, so the pusillanimous man shrinks from great things out of littleness of soul” (ex animi parvitate). And what causes this shrinking of the soul? Thomas says, “on the part of the intellect, ignorance of one’s qualifications and on the part of the appetite the fear of failure in what one falsely deems to exceed one’s ability.”
I trust by now it has become plain why I chose to take us on this brief tour of a usually overlooked corner of Aquinas’s masterpiece. It seems to me that the entire purpose of the programs here at Thomas Aquinas College is to produce magnanimous people, young women and men of great souls, capable of high moral achievement, willing and able to undertake arduous tasks for which they will rightly merit great honor. Thomas Aquinas College has no interest in giving rise to pusillanimous graduates, men and women with small souls, who would shrink from the difficult moral challenge of the present time. Given what you have learned here through strenuous effort in the classroom, given how your souls have been shaped by steady exposure to people of exemplary virtue, given the formation that has inevitably come from the Mass and the sacraments, none of you graduates should feel unqualified, either intellectually or morally, to seek the most honorable course.
God knows that the world is filled with moral mediocrities, not to mention the craven and the wicked, but you have been made of sterner stuff. Aquinas tells us that one of the principal marks of the magnanimous person is confidence; we send you forth today as confident men and women, ready for the high adventure of the spiritual life.
Full speech at thomasaquinas.edu.