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The Virtues of Christian Leadership

Authored by Rev. Marek Duran in Issue #6.3 of Catechetical Review

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A Chinese proverb says: “man without virtue is the ‘non-man.’” This is a very radical statement, one which is politically incorrect. It is a statement that shocks our contemporary egalitarian obsession. Yet, even though the statement is rather offensive to our ears, it seems to resonate in the depth of our soul. Why? Joseph Pieper in his book entitled Faith, Hope, Love suggests the answer by stating that virtue is the “enhancement of the human person,” “the most a man can be.” “It is the realization of man’s potentiality for being. It is a perfection of his activity,” and “the steadfastness of man’s orientation toward the realization of his nature, that is, toward the good.”[1] In other words, according to both a Chinese sage and a contemporary philosopher, virtue makes its possessor a realized human being, a human being who is fully alive. On the other hand, one who is not growing in virtue is a person whose moral and spiritual being is stunted.

All of us want to be fully alive. If that is the case, we need to learn more about the virtues and practice them with zeal. Among all of them, magnanimity and humility are of the utmost importance. Both of these virtues are rarely talked about. Yet, Aristotle called magnanimity (literally, “one of the great soul”), “the crown of all virtues” and, for Christians, humility is the root of all virtues. Without magnanimity, virtues do not reach their full potential, and, without humility, the virtues devolve into vices of self-reliance. Magnanimity and humility are two sides of the same coin, and the coin is called Christian leadership. Following the lead of a French scholar, Alexandre Havard, I would like to present magnanimity and humility as two virtues that constitute the essence of leadership. Natural virtues of prudence, justice, courage, and temperance are the foundation of leadership; and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity give structure to our capacity to lead. Magnanimity and humility, in the words of Havard, are “the virtues of visionary greatness and of devotion to service.”[2]

I recently met just such a leader. I am a seminary professor and a member of the formation team. About a month ago, I went with fourteen seminarians on a mission trip to Peru. We spent a week in a parish called Santissimo Sacramento. Our host was a pastor from that parish. His name is Fr. Joseph and is originally from Wisconsin, but he was ordained in Peru and has served his community for over twenty-five years. Getting to know Fr. Joseph was a real pleasure. Here was a man filled with zeal, vision, and humility. Fr. Joseph’s philosophy of life can be summed up in this way: “Do not make small plans because they have no power to enflame human hearts.” He would frequently repeat that statement and live by it. He is a volcano of new ideas and programs. Yet, what he desires the most is for “his” people to realize their God-given vocation so as to attain “the mature manhood, the measure of the fullness of Christ.”[3] Fr. Joseph is a great man and he makes all of those who associate with him better. He exhibits the qualities of Christian leadership: magnanimity and humility.

The Journey Begins

Both magnanimity and humility have a long history; that is, a road filled with sharp curves and turns. The first to talk about the virtue of magnanimity was Aristotle. In the fourth chapter of his Nichomachaean Ethics, Aristotle presents a portrait of a magnanimous man. Commentators speculate whether in this chapter Aristotle desired to pay tribute to Socrates. Aristotle presents magnanimity (megalopsychia) as a virtue of a person that is above all concerned with honor. According to the founder of the peripatetic school, honor was the highest external good and a mark of virtue. The magnanimous man knows himself truly and honestly. He is talented, capable, active, and energetic. There is the air of freshness and youthfulness about him. He incurs the greatest risks because much depends on it. He is quick to offer favors and kindness. He does not complain too much and is not interested in trivial things. He does not depend on the opinions of others but lives surrounded by his friends. He is admired by others yet is also detached from that admiration. Magnanimity is the crown of the virtues because it looks for what is best, hardest, and noblest in all the virtues.[4]

There are two significant drawbacks to the Aristotelian presentation of magnanimity. First of all, magnanimity was considered to be the virtue of the elite. Only a man of a higher class who enjoyed access to wealth and certain physical and mental qualities could dream of achieving it. It seemed as if magnanimity was the virtue of a Nietzschean Übermensch. Second, the magnanimous man had the air of superiority about himself. He was self-sufficient and detached. No wonder then that Basil Willey, one of the commentators upon the works of Aristotle, states that the description of the great-souled man is the description of a Pharisee with the morals of a pig.[5] Many in our world would be of the same opinion upon reading the description of the magnanimous man in the fourth chapter of the Nichomachaean Ethics. Yet, one needs to be careful so as not to “throw out the baby with the bath water.”

The most important characteristic of a magnanimous person is his self-knowledge. He is self-reflective. Socrates says that the unexamined life is not worth living. Thus, the magnanimous person examines his/her life in order to know his/her talents and weaknesses. Secondly, the magnanimous person does not act for the sake of acting. He/she chooses his/her actions very carefully so as to go only for what is most difficult. Thirdly, magnanimity is a virtue that holds the world in contempt in order to affirm what is best in a human being. Magnanimity emphasizes self-mastery. The main task is to conquer one’s self and to master one’s freedom. The magnanimous person holds in contempt a world obsessed with everything that is ephemeral. He/she does so in order to avoid being manipulated by others. Furthermore, a magnanimous person exhibits gratitude, great courage, extreme self-possession, disinterestedness, and that which is honestly good.


With the above presented qualifications, the Aristotelian account of magnanimity and of a magnanimous man is still not completely satisfactory. That is why Thomas Aquinas in the 129th question of the second part of his magnum opus, Summa Theologica presents the purified version of the Aristotelian account of magnanimity. He does so by making several clarifications and changes of emphasis. The Angelic Doctor presents magnanimity as a virtue not of self-knowledge but of action. He defines it as the movement or stretching of the spirit to great things, “extensio animi ad magna.” Havard explains this innovation: “Whereas Aristotle states that magnanimous man considers himself worthy of great honors, Aquinas says, that he considers himself worthy of doing great things.”[6] The magnanimous man is aware of his potential, but his primary characteristic is that he possesses a great drive to achieve that which is most worthy of honor. Magnanimity, as Gregory Pine, O.P. observes in his article entitled “Magnanimity and Humility according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is “a veritable dynamo of virtue.”[7] Magnanimity becomes a virtue of action, aspiration, achievement, and enthusiasm. It is like jet fuel. It propels one toward virtuous action. Magnanimity seeks to perform great acts in the matter of every virtue. Consequently, magnanimity is a virtue that seeks not mediocrity but greatness.

The second way in which Aquinas enhances the Aristotelian account of magnanimity is by linking it to humility. For Aquinas, magnanimity and humility are two sides of the same coin for two reasons. First, both virtues are engaged in the same process but from opposing directions. The Angelic Doctor writes: “Humility restrains the appetite from aiming at great things against right reason: while magnanimity urges the mind to great things in accord with right reason.”[8] Secondly, humility and magnanimity are invoked by Aquinas to explain the human capacity for good and for evil. Aquinas writes: “There is in man something great which he possesses through the gift of God; and something defective which accrues to him through the weakness of nature.”[9] Magnanimous man pursues great things in accord with the gift of God’s grace. So, on the one hand, magnanimous man is conscious of the great things that he has freely received from God, e.g. virtues, skills, external fortune, etc. On the other hand, he is well aware of his shortcomings and weaknesses. God is the source of all goodness, and human nature is the source of all things that hinder one’s growth.

Finally, Aquinas purifies and clarifies the Aristotelian notion of magnanimity by presenting it together with humility within the category of courage and of temperance respectively. Yet, the object of both of these virtues is the same. They are to moderate the irascible passions of hope and despair. How do they do so? Magnanimity denotes steadfastness in confronting some difficulty. It inflames one’s spirit that is weighted down by despair. Humility, as Pieper poetically presents, “with its gazed fixed on the infinite distance between man and God reveals the limitation of these possibilities and preserves them from sham realization and for true realization.”[10] Humility thus, for Aquinas, is not an external attitude but rather an interior decision of the will regarding the relationship of man and God. The humble person restrains himself from pursuing actions that he is incapable of completing given his deficiencies and the ontological gap between creatures and Creator.

Virtue, as it is well known, is considered to be the mean between two extremes. The respective vices of magnanimity and humility are vanity (pride) and pusillanimity. St. Thomas, following the Philosopher, defines vanity as the inordinate desire for honor and glory. He writes: “Pride, superbia, is so named because thereby a man’s will aims above, supra, what he really is.”[11] To desire to actualize one’s potential is a legitimate reason for action. Yet, to desire honor and glory as the highest good and apart from God is the source of evil. The right way to desire honor and glory is either doing so in such a way that God might be glorified by others or that others might strive to persevere in goodness. The trait of having too little of magnanimity and humility Aquinas calls pusillanimity, that is, small-souledness, faint-heartedness, excessive timidity, or petty-mindedness. According to Aristotle, pusillanimity is the worst vice and arises more often. It is a vice of the unwise steward who buried his talent in the ground rather than investing it.[12]  Pusillanimity is both an intellectual and a moral vice. It is a lack of both self-perception and the desire to exemplify magnanimity and humility to the highest degree. In other words, faint-heartedness is a vice of mediocrity.

There are two problems with the Angelic Doctor’s presentation of magnanimity and humility. First, he links the natural virtues of magnanimity and humility too strongly with the theological virtue of hope and because of this connection they do not play a role in the natural realm. In this sense, Aquinas praises humility and magnanimity, yet at the same time, contributes to their demise, since he limits them to the supernatural sphere. Secondly, Aquinas fails to connect magnanimity and humility to the Christian notion of vocation. The development of human nature can come only through the acceptance and growth in one’s God-given vocation. Hans Urs von Balthasar observes that the full flourishing of human beings is impossible without the acceptance of a God-given mission. Thus, it seems to me that Alexandre Havard is correct in returning magnanimity and humility back to their proper place by presenting them as natural virtues and by making them the essential characteristics of Christian leadership, which challenges the disciple to discover and live out his/her vocation.

Two Sides of Leadership

Havard, following the French Thomistic scholar R. A. Gauthier, questions the artificial connection of magnanimity, courage, humility, and self-control in Aquinas. For Havard, magnanimity and humility are integral to leadership. He writes: “Magnanimity is a thirst to lead full and intense life; humility is the thirst to love and sacrifice for others.”[13] Both of these virtues are necessary for leadership which he understands as the process of empowerment of others, that is of bringing out the greatness in others and helping them to realize their capacity and their individual potential, which was particularly striking to me in Fr. Joseph, my friend from Peru.

In presenting magnanimity, Havard relies heavily on the account of Aristotle and Aquinas, yet his own presentation of humility is rather innovative and illuminating. In doing so, he makes several key distinctions between (1) metaphysical, (2) spiritual, (3) ontological, (4) psychological, and (5) fraternal humility. What do those different types of humility consist of? Metaphysical humility is the foundation of humility and is the acknowledgment of one’s status as a creature of God. Without God’s continual sustenance, creatures would cease to exist. Thus, to speak of man’s independence of God is pure nonsense, because such independence would mean nothingness. Spiritual humility is the acknowledgment of one’s weakness due to the fall and original sin. Spiritual humility is best expressed by St. Paul who in the letter to the Romans states: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”[14] The third type of humility Havard calls ontological. It is the recognition of one’s personal greatness, which is expressed in being God’s son or  daughter. Psychological humility is the acknowledgment of the truth of one’s giftedness or one’s talents. Finally, fraternal humility, which is the culmination of the previous four aspects of humility, is putting oneself at the service of others—because  in order to serve, one must be aware of one’s supernatural indebtedness, one’s natural talents, and one’s defects. Only the humble person can serve since he/she knows the truth about the human person.


Why should one learn about magnanimity and humility and strive to cultivate these virtues within one’s own life? The answer is simple: the world is suffering from bad leadership. Many lament the absence of good leaders in virtually every form of human endeavor. According to the website called ExactHire, “the biggest challenges that one may face is to operate within an organization that has weak or poor leadership.”[15] Finding an organization led by a great leader is truly a herculean endeavor. The lack of extraordinary leaders can be traced to the disappearance  the essential virtues of leadership: magnanimity and humility. If we want to see a better world and have a better future, we must pray for great leaders and work to form them in our parishes and schools. It might sound like a cliché, but it is worth repeating nonetheless: one is not born a leader, one becomes a leader. Those who read this article are called to develop these virtues in their own leadership approaches.

On January 6, 2001 Pope John Paul II, issued Novo Millennio Ineunte. In this letter he summed up the celebration of the Great Jubilee Year 2000 and proposed a way to move forward. In paragraph 31 of this letter, one finds the following words: “The time has come to re-propose wholeheartedly to everyone this high standard of ordinary Christian living: the whole life of the Christian community and of Christian families must lead in this direction.” There is no better way to heed the pope’s call than by practicing the virtues of magnanimity and humility.

Rev. Marek Duran, S.Th.D, is Associate Professor in the Department of Moral Theology at University of St. Mary of the Lake. In 2014, he defended his doctoral dissertation entitled: “My Neighbor and His Wounds: Compassion and the Objective Knowledge of Good: Conversation with Martha Nussbaum and Edith Stein” at Pontificio Istituto Giovanni Paulo II per studi su Matrimonio e Famiglia in Rome. He is a certified spiritual director through the Institute for Priestly Formation and a member of Society of Christian Ethics as well as Academy of Catholic Theology.



[1] Josef Pieper, Faith Hope, Love (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), 99.

[2] Alexandre Havard, Created for Greatness: The Power of Magnanimity (New Rochelle, NY: Scepter, 2014) Kindle edition, 446.

[3] Eph 4:13.

[4] Cf. Michael Keating, “The Strange Case of the Self-Dwarfing Man: Modernity, Magnanimity and Thomas Aquinas,” Logos 10, no. 4 (2007): 63.

[5] Basil Willey, The English Moralist (London: Chatto & Windus, 1964), 30-31.

[6] Alexandre Havard, Created for Greatness, 236 (emphasis mine).

[7] Gregory Pine, O.P., “Magnanimity and Humility According to St. Thomas Aquinas,” The Thomist 82, no. 2 (2018): 265.

[8] S.Th. II-II, q. 161, a. 1, ad. 3.

[9] S.Th. II-II, q. 129, a. 3, ad. 4.

[10] Josef Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love, 102.

[11] S.Th. II-II, q. 162, q. 1.

[12] Cf. Mt 25:14-30.

[13] Alexandre Havard, Created for Greatness, 160.

[14] Rom 7:15.

[15]Tom Branson, “Lack of Leadership,” Exact Hire, accessed on March 12, 2020,

This article originally appeared on pages 12-15 of the printed edition. Public domain photo by Mabel Amber at

This article is from The Catechetical Review (Online Edition ISSN 2379-6324) and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of The Catechetical Review by contacting [email protected]

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