Aristotle on what it means to be great

Steven B. Smith states in his lecture on political philosophy that “The citizen of the best regime…must be able to sustain war if duty requires, but only for the sake of peace and leisure…the end of the regime is peace and the purpose of peace is leisure”.

Leisure here doesn’t refer to relaxation or inactivity but instead connotes a sense of something that is necessary for education or philosophy.

Philosophy being understood not as the capacity for abstract or speculative thought, but rather a kind of liberal education in which the purpose is the preservation of the megalopsychos.

What is the Megalopsychos?

This term is introduced in book 4, chapter 3 of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics.

Mega, megalo, means great, and psychos is related to our word psyche. Psyche in philosophy usually is used to describe something related to the soul, not the mind such as in contemporary psychology. Megalopsychos, therefore, is the Greek term Aristotle uses to describe what is now called the great-souled man.

The main ideas of Megalopsychos

Megalopsychos can be thought of as the highest class of individual.  He is a noble and a gentleman. He is dignified and cares for honor, and he is the ideal reader of Aristotle’s political science.

Furthermore, it is said that he is detached and presents an indifference to the petty things of life, slow to act unless the situation is one of great importance, a person who is not under any obligations because he is sure to repay them and he speaks with candor.

Most of all it seems that the Megalopsychos is a man who is practical.

The practicality of greatness

Smith states that,”

“…what distinguishes the gentleman as a class from the philosophers is a certain kind of knowledge or practical intelligence. The gentleman may lack the speculative intelligence of a Socrates, but he will possess that quality of practical rationality, of practical judgment necessary for the administration of affairs.”

This practical wisdom is related to a few Greek terms which will be valuable for you to know. Both for your self-development and to show off to your friends that you know some Greek.

The first term is phronesis. It’s related to the words the phronimos and techne.

Jacob Howard in a paper entitled Aristotle’s Great-Souled Man cites a work by Nancy Sherman called The Fabric of Character: Aristotle’s Theory of Virtue which gives insight into phronesis.

Phronesis, which makes its possessors ‘able to contemplate the good for themselves and for human beings in general’ involves the capacity imaginatively to ‘re-enact the agent’s point of view and to consider what it is like for the agent to do that action in that context’.

Phronimos can be thought of as practical wisdom itself while techne can be understood as a kind of action that accompanies phronimos.

Techne is a form of being that translates to a skill that a statesman must possess. It’s concerned with know how or, in other words, having the understanding to act appropriately in all situations.

To clear things up:

Phronesis is the ability to put yourself in other’s shoes. This leads to phronimos, which is practical wisdom. Practical wisdom combined with techne, knowledge practically applied in action, gives someone the cunning to act appropriately in all situations.

Now, to provide further insight into this Smith quotes a work by English philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, called Political Judgement.

Berlin writes that,

The quality that I am attempting to describe is that special understanding of public life, which successful statesmen have, whether they are wicked or virtuous. That which Bismark had or Talleyrand or Franklin Roosevelt or, for that matter, men such as Cavour or Disraeli, Gladstone or Ataturk in common with the great psychological novelists, and something which is conspicuously lacking in men of more purely theoretical genius, such as Newton or Einstein or Bertrand Russell or even Freud…”Practical reason, perhaps is a sense of what will work and what will not. It is a capacity for synthesis rather than analysis, for knowledge in the sense in which trainers know their animals or parents their children or conductors their orchestras, as opposed to that in which chemists know the contents of their test tubes or mathematicians know the rules their symbols obey. Those who lack this quality of practical wisdom, whatever other qualities they may possess, no matter how clever, learned, imaginative, kind, noble, attractive, gifted in other ways they may be, are correctly regarded as politically inept.

Smith includes the names of Pericles, Lincoln, and Churchill in this list of men that possess this practical reason.

Conclusions and notes of importance

The Megalopsychos is a complex topic and it has by all means nowhere near been exhausted here. However, for the sake of time, I’d like to conclude on a few key points brought forth by Howard in his article.

Firstly, the great-souled man is typically concerned as valuing the saving characteristic a lot.

Howland writes:

…to save one’s city…is to do something that seems from the perspective of the community to be absolutely good. For if there can be no deed more important than the saving deed, it would seem that there could be no virtue higher than the saving virtue. It is therefore easy for the great-souled man to think of his virtue not only as godlike but also as absolutely good or perfect, and thus as deserving something more than praise-namely, honor, or the recognition that is accorded to the highest and best things.”

He also believes Socrates is esteemed by Aristotle as the only truly great man concluding that

“The Socratic great-souled man is truly greater, both with respect to his self-knowledge and with respect to his aspirations. The aspirations of the non-Socratic great-souled man are limited by the horizons of nomos, [opinions of others] which serve also to cloud his vision of his own limitations… If we may judge by the impression that Socrates seems to have made on the Athenians, it is a peculiarity of the relationship between philosophy and politics that the truest megalopsuchos must appear to his fellow citizens to be simultaneously vain and self-depreciating. It is Aristotle’s appreciation of this point, moreover, that accounts for the complexity and subtlety of his discussion of the great-souled man in the Nicomachean Ethics.”

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (1787)

In sum, Plato wrote in his book Theaetetus that “to be free from wonder is to lack the defining mark of the philosophical soul” and Aristotle agrees. In his Metaphysics when he states that “it is through wondering that human beings both now begin and first began to philosophize”.

Thus it is hoped that the idea of the great-souled man will inspire within you the wonder of an ideal that is a greater version of yourself.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s