Let’s continue to look at how Charlotte Mason viewed the subject of Citizenship! In Part I, we examined the overall concept and focused on some of the literature used in this topic. In Part II, we will go deeper with the concept of magnanimity. Magnanimity is a word that is seldom used today. It often accompanies references to citizens and citizenship in Mason’s writing. This is appropriate as magnanimity is a beautiful word that encompasses the fullness of character and a word that Charlotte Mason felt was foundational to Citizenship in a Charlotte Mason Curriculum.
Charlotte Mason called magnanimity“the perfect fruit of character, the outcome of a wide knowledge of man and affairs, past and present, upon which insight and imagination have been brought to bear. It is the finest result of education” (Cholmondeley, 1960/2000, p. 111).
As we saw in Part I, Ourselves is a key piece of the Citizenship readings. We had four people in our family reading through Ourselves at one point—me and my 16-, 14-, and 12-year-old children. We were reading about love and pity and talked at length about these things. “Every movement of pity which does not lead to an effort to help goes to form a heart of stone. There are none so difficult to move to help as those who allow themselves the luxury of idle pity” (Mason, 1905/1989, p. 89).
With that in mind, I would like to share a little story with you. The other day I pulled up in front of the post office with my 13-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. She waited in the car which was parked in front of the large window where she could see the customer service desk plainly. We had more errands to run and I felt my impatience rise as I waited in a long line of customers, one of whom wanted to chat with the clerk about which style of stamps might be best to purchase for a variety of her family members. Hot rods for the grandson? Madonnas for her daughter? Jazz greats for the nephew?
I was finally able to mail my package and rushed out the door. As I got into the car, Elizabeth said, “Mom, that elderly man in there has been fumbling around the packaging materials, dropping things, and looking really confused.” I looked at her then looked at the man she was talking about; our conversation that week about idle pity came to mind. I took a deep breath, smiled, and said, “I better go back in and see if he needs help, right?”
So I did. It turns out he wanted to send his new great grandson a pair of footie pajamas and wondered if I thought one of those padded envelopes that he had dropped but could not bend down to pick up would be big enough.
I believe that Elizabeth’s comment to me reveals that she had recalled the quote from Ourselves about developing a heart of stone when we ignore others or are too busy to help. When I got back into the car she said, “I think that was the right thing to do.” A sort of lesson for me in magnanimity – even at the post office!
Magnanimity Poem by Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson would agree. Her poem “To do a magnanimous thing” reflects this thinking:
To do a magnanimous thing
And take oneself by surprise
If oneself is not in the habit of him
Is precisely the finest of Joys—
Not to do a magnanimous thing
Notwithstanding it never be known
Notwithstanding it cost us existence once
Is Rapture herself spurn—
Magnanimity as the Outcome of Education
Mason went so far as to say that magnanimity is the chief outcome of her educational paradigm. In A Philosophy of Education she states, “The fine sense, like an atmosphere, of things worth knowing and worth living for, this it is which produces magnanimous citizens, and we feel that Milton was right in claiming magnanimity as the proper outcome of education” (1925/1989, p. 268). The definition of magnanimity that she is using here is so much more than being generous. She means “greatness of soul.” It is a magnanimity imbued with what Dick Keyes in his excellent book, True Heroism (1995), calls the gateway virtue—humility. In this we go beyond Aristotle’s self-glorifying definition and embrace more of what Thomas Aquinas speaks of in his Summa Theologica.
Aquinas accepts Aristotle’s claim that magnanimity “makes a man deem himself worthy of great things,” but he adds to this a crucial qualification—“in consideration of the gifts he holds from God.” The greatness of Aquinas’ magnanimous man is held as a gift from God, not as the individual’s own achievement and possession (Herdt, 2012, p. 77). This reinforces the idea that magnanimity based in humility will reflect a true and full character or citizenship.
Magnanimity Painting by Luca Giordano
An exercise in observation and beautiful thoughts in regard to magnanimity might be to study Luca Giordano’s 17th—century painting Allegory of Magnanimity.
What do you see here? Can you describe what ideas the artist was trying to convey? Notice the elements of royalty—crowns, scepter, and brocade cloak. Lions often symbolized fearlessness. There is an action here that shows Giordano’s female personification of magnanimity’s generosity—can you see it?
Since Charlotte Mason claimed “magnanimity as the proper outcome of education”, we would do well to understand it and to practice it. You need only to look to Christ as the ultimate example.
In Part III, we will look at character formation and moral development and how Citizenship contributes to this in such a holistic way that you will appreciate Mason’s genius in the matter!
Cholmondeley, E. (2000). The story of Charlotte Mason. Chippenham Wiltshire, Great Britain: Anthony Rowe Ltd. (Original work published 1960)
Herdt, J. (2012). Putting on virtue: the legacy of the splendid vices. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Keyes, D. (1995). True heroism in a world of celebrity counterfeits. Colorado Springs: NavPress.
Mason, C. M. (1989). Ourselves. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (Original work published in 1905)
Mason, C.M. (1923). In memoriam. Retrieved from: http://www.amblesideonline.org/CM/InMemoriamI.html
This edited article was first published in June 2015 by the Charlotte Mason Institute in Essays on the Life and Work of Charlotte Mason, Volume 2 under the title “Citizenship in the Curriculum: Mason, Magnanimity, and the Moral Life” published by Riverbend Press.