Our current and unremitting fixation with the coronavirus pandemic is perhaps most evident in the torrent of continual reports, posts, and discussions that floods the virtual world. Our usual haven for divertissement now bursts with reminders at every click. And it is as true of Christian sites as any other. Then again—I think to myself—that is precisely what this is; it is—or rather, we have turned it into—just another divertissement. And we have done so because we in the West, at least, have shriveled souls.
In a previous post I noted a balance in St. Chrysostom’s remarks concerning an impending disaster in his own day: “For as, if we had said nothing in reference to the present calamity, one might have condemned us for cruelty, and a want of humanity; so, were we always discoursing of this, we might justly be condemned for pusillanimity.” This coronavirus pandemic is real and serious. It must be addressed, I said. Yet, we mustn’t allow it to take over all our thoughts and speech. Allowing it to do so indicates (note: not causes but indicates) pusillanimity.
What is the connection, we should ask, between domineering chatter about an impending calamity and pusillanimity? And why does that matter for our situation?
Magnanimity means “greatness of soul.” In the Christian tradition, following Aristotle (though cleaning him up a bit), magnanimity means extending oneself toward great things in proportion to one’s own capabilities. In the Christian tradition, this is a virtue not only because it involves sober self-awareness, but also because it requires a knowledge of the great things of reality, and the calculated pursuit of them.
Pusillanimity, literally “smallness of soul,” is a deficiency of Magnanimity (conceit, of course, being its excess). The pusillanimous one, Aquinas says, shrinks back from great things. In this way, it is not simply the same as a lack of courage. Excessive fear may be a cause of smallness of soul, but there can other causes as well: pride, ignorance, laziness, distraction. Though the causes may differ from person to person, from situation to situation, the result remains the same: the pusillanimous person fails to extend herself to great things. She shies away from the excellent hiding in the mediocre, distracting oneself with the trivial.
This is logic of Chrysostom’s connection, then. We must remember that disaster, calamity, pandemic, even though devastating and at times horrific, are temporal, finite. They relate to the earth, which is being shaken and falling away. Whenever some one, temporal thing comes to dominate our thinking, it means the great things of reality are not. It is not only often a sign of idolatry, but also of smallness of soul. We have shrunk back from great things; our eyes are only for this calamity. We may pose as driven solely by care and concern, as the attempt to gain wisdom and act with prudence. We may even believe that of ourselves. But it is in fact revelatory of smallness. Our constant reporting, endless analysis, persistent fretting is exposing our woefully dwarfed spirits.
Yet, Christian, we believe better things of you. God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and of a sound mind. Let us not lose our gaze entirely in this fleeting and temporary shadow; let us seek first the kingdom of God, which is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Yes, there is evil, disorder, and death in the world. But being, goodness, truth, and beauty are the deeper reality, the greater reality, the real reality.
Let us stretch ourselves toward these great realities—truth, goodness, beauty, the kingdom of God—in contemplation and prayer. Let us stretch ourselves toward these great things in alms giving, care for the sick and the needy. Let us stop diverting ourselves with ‘four things to tell your kids about coronavirus’ or ‘five ways to make virtual church more communal’ or ‘six steps to mitigate solitude.’ We don’t need further “coronavirus and…” articles. We need bigness of soul. But this is difficult. It is not bought on amazon. It is not achieved in five steps. It is certainly not habituated by reading tactical blogs about pandemics.
Magnanimity is acquired by the Spirit wrought and difficult practice of extending ourselves to great things. For that reason MR is committed to continue to direct our attention to other things. We have addressed coronavirus and will continue to do so. We are not of those who inhumanely and insolently ignore or deny the real crisis that coronavirus is. But we are also not of those who cower and obsess. At MR, we wish to be magnanimous, to turn our minds toward great things, not merely urgent things.
As we approach Easter week. There are many great things to read about, to contemplate, to pray, and to sing. We will be doing just that at MR, and we humbly invite you to join us.
Joshua Schendel is the executive editor of Modern Reformation magazine