Luận về Chữ Lễ

Lễ Độ

           Dư luận xã hội đang bàn tán về đề xuất bỏ khẩu hiệu “Tiên học lễ, hậu học văn” của giáo sư Trần Ngọc Thêm. Qua các kênh thông tin đại chúng, tôi có được biết sơ qua về lập luận của Giáo sư Thêm cũng như những ý kiến xung quanh đề xuất này. Tôi cảm thấy thực sự băn khoăn khi thấy những cách hiểu khác nhau về chữ LỄ. Cụ thể, trong phản biện của mình, Giáo sư Thêm cho rằng chữ LỄ đề cao sự phục tùng vì thế kìm hãm tư duy phản biện và sự phát triển xã hội (Lệ Thu). Giả sử cách hiểu về chữ LỄ như trên là đúng, tôi tin rằng là một vị giáo sư thì các lập luận sau đó chắc chắn sẽ hợp logic để dẫn đến đề xuất ở trên. Ngược lại nếu ngay từ ban đầu cách hiểu về chữ LỄ chưa đúng thì các lập luận sau đó không đảm bảo được tính chính xác. Tôi không nghĩ Gs. Trần Ngọc Thêm muốn bỏ qua một giá trị đạo đức nền tảng; thay vào đó, có lẽ cách hiểu của Giáo sư về chữ LỄ không bao quát đầy đủ ý nghĩa của nó. Trong bài luận này, tôi xin cung cấp cách hiểu khác về chữ LỄ trong sách Những Tấm Gương Xưa của tác giả Quách Tấn, qua đó tôi đưa ra nhận định cá nhân về hệ lụy của việc bỏ chữ LỄ.

           Trong phần bàn về Lễ Độ, Quách Tấn chỉ ra rằng, “Thất lễ là không biết trọng nhân vị của kẻ khác.” Nói ngược lại, LỄ là biết tôn trọng phẩm giá và danh dự của người khác. Bởi vậy, học LỄ là học cách nhìn nhận phẩm giá của người khác và học cách cư xử để thể hiện sự tôn trong phẩm giá đó. Có ai mà không muốn được người khác tôn trọng phẩm giá của của mình. Mà nếu muốn người khác làm cho mình thế nào thì mình cũng hãy làm cho người khác như vậy. Quy chuẩn đạo đức về chữ LỄ là một quy chuẩn mang tính lý trí chứ không phải vô căn cứ. Vì thế, nếu không có một phản biện mang tính lý trí thì không thể dễ dàng kết luận rằng LỄ là quan niệm cổ hủ, lỗi thời.

           Cách hiểu của Giáo sư Thêm về chữ LỄ dường như chỉ phiến diện một chiều. Tức là, chỉ có người học sinh mới phải giữ lễ đối với người thầy. Tôi đưa ra nhận định này vì Giáo sư Thêm đưa ra lập luận rằng LỄ đề cao sự phục tùng. Tuy nhiên, Quách Tấn chỉ ra rằng không chỉ kẻ dưới mới phải lễ độ với kẻ trên nhưng kẻ trên cũng phải lễ độ với kẻ dưới. Nói cách khác, LỄ là quy chuẩn đạo đức cho cách hành xử giữa người với người không phân biệt địa vị, bởi vì LỄ dựa trên nhân vị của con người chứ không phải địa vị. Chính vì thế, chữ LỄ trong quan hệ thầy trò không bao hàm sự phục tùng hay sự kìm hãm, nhưng chữ LỄ là sự tôn trọng lẫn nhau trong quan hệ thầy trò.

            Với cách hiểu của Quách Tấn, LỄ không hề loại trừ mô hình III của văn hóa học đường hướng đến xã hội phát triển, nhưng ngược lại LỄ là nền tảng thiết yếu cho cả ba mô hình.[1] Theo tôi hiểu về ba mô hình văn hóa học đường do Giáo sư Thêm đề xuất, LỄ quyết định chủ thể của mô hình. Tuy nhiên, nếu hiểu chữ LỄ như Quách Tấn thì LỄ không những không ảnh hưởng đến chủ thể của mô hình mà còn là tiêu chí quan trọng để cả ba mô hình đạt được sứ mệnh của mình. Cho dù ai là chủ thể của mô hình thì việc tôn trọng những đối tượng khác là điều bắt buộc. Nếu thiếu đi sự tôn trọng, không đối tượng nào trong mô hình có thể thực hiện đúng vai trò của mình. Ví dụ như trong mô hình III, học trò là chủ thể chính thứ nhất nhưng khinh thường thầy giáo thì thầy giáo chẳng thể làm tròn vai trò người hỗ trợ. Ngược lại, thầy là người hỗ trợ nhưng không tôn trọng học trò thì mô hình III tự động biến thành mô hình I theo hướng tiêu cực.

            Nhìn vấn đề một cách xa hơn, việc giữ hay bỏ khẩu hiệu không phải là vấn đề lớn, nhưng việc bỏ qua chữ LỄ trong giáo dục con người thật sự là một điều đáng quan ngại. Tôi không thể tưởng tượng được con người sẽ hành xử với nhau như nào khi chẳng ai nghĩ đến việc tôn trọng người khác. Trong sự hiểu biết hạn hẹp của tôi, VĂN trong câu khẩu hiệu có ý nói đến các thành tựu của tri thức. Các thành tựu của tri thức rất đáng trân trọng và tự hào. Tuy nhiên, khi không quan tâm đến nhân vị của nhau thì không tránh khỏi việc con người sử dụng những thành tựu đó để làm hại nhau. Tôi nghĩ rằng trong một xã hội phát triển thật sự cả về con người và tri thức, LỄ và VĂN phải luôn đồng hành cùng nhau. Một cái trước một cái sau nhưng không thể tách rời.

            Lời kết, với sự tôn trọng chân thành, qua bài viết này, tôi muốn thể hiện quan điểm không đồng ý với đề xuất bỏ khẩu hiệu “Tiên học lễ, hậu học văn.” Khởi đi từ việc xem xét hai cách hiểu khác nhau về chữ LỄ giữa Giáo sư Thêm và tác giả Quách Tấn, tôi cố gắng đưa ra những lập luận của mình để cho thấy sự quan trọng của việc học LỄ. Xa hơn nữa, sự thiếu LỄ hoặc VĂN trong giáo dục đều tiềm ẩn nguy cơ dẫn đến sự thất bại trong giáo dục con người toàn diện.

Latrobe, November 27, 2021

Joseph Tan

Bibliography

Lệ Thu. “GS Trần Ngọc Thêm Kiến Nghị Chấm Dứt Khẩu Hiệu ‘Tiên Học Lễ, Hậu Học Văn.’” Báo điện tử Dân Trí. Accessed November 28, 2021. https://dantri.com.vn/giao-duc-huong-nghiep/gs-tran-ngoc-them-kien-nghi-cham-dut-khau-hieu-tien-hoc-le-hau-hoc-van-20211124070045871.htm.

Quách Tâń. Những Tấm Gương Xưa. Bến Tre: Nxb Thanh Niên, 2001.


[1] Xem Lệ Thu, Bảng tóm tắt ba mô hình văn hóa học đường của Giáo sư Trần Ngọc Thêm.

Aristotle on Friendship

Three types of friends

As I said in my previous essay Aristotle on Happiness and Moral Virtues, happiness requires both complete virtue and complete life. Friendship is one of the necessary conditions to complete human life because a life isolated from the community cannot be considered sufficient. Aristotle asserts that a human being is a political animal by nature.[1] That is, man cannot fulfill his nature by himself alone. Moreover, friends are “the greatest external good” of a happy person[2] since he can benefit his friends in his good fortune and be benefited by the friends in ill fortune. Then too, a good person will be pleased by the activities of his excellent friends. And, he can strengthen his virtues by living with good friends.[3] Hence, friendship is necessary for happiness.

Furthermore, depending on the objects of love, Aristotle analyzes three kinds of friendship: namely friendship of utility, friendship of pleasure, and friendship of virtue. Firstly, friendship of utility loves for usefulness. This kind is like the friendship between buyers and sellers. Buyers receive items while sellers receive money in return. Secondly, friendship of pleasure takes pleasure as the object of love. For instance, an erotic lover feels pleasure seeing his beloved while pleasure of the beloved comes from being seen by the lover. These two kinds of friendship are based on senses which involve the principles of change. That is, whenever there is no longer usefulness or pleasure, friendship will be dissolved because those in these friendships do not find what they aim at. Lastly, “the complete friendship is the friendship of good people similar in virtue.”[4] And, because this kind is based on virtue, it is in accord with reason. In this friendship, one wishes good for his friend not because of usefulness or pleasure but because of the good of his friend himself. Friendship of this kind has three specific features of friendship: A loves B for B’s own sake; A loves B for what B really is; and A loves B because B has a virtuous character. Aristotle affirms that “this sort of friendship is enduring, since it embraces in itself all the features that friends must have.”[5] However, this kind is rare because few people can be found with these features.  These features are more easily found in families in which parents regard their children as things belonging to themselves and children regard themselves as coming from their parents. Finally, all three kinds of friendship require time and intimacy because to become a friend, one must appear loveable to the other in any species of love. Time and intimacy are the necessary conditions so that people can realize things loveable in each other.

In conclusion, you can apply this philosophical position to your own life. In particular, you may examine your friendships with others and figure out to which kind your friendships belong. Also, you may have some ideas to win the complete friendship. As a result, a happy life will be your.


[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1097b.

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1169b.

[3] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1170a.

[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1156b.

[5] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1156b.

Aristotle on Happiness and Moral Virtues

Happiness is the first thing examined in Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle points out that happiness is the ultimate end of human beings; and, it is complete and self-sufficient. He defines “the good as what everything seeks.”[1] Also, there are different degrees of the good, such as low, high, and highest. To evaluate the degree of the good, Aristotle distinguishes the means and the end. Precisely, the means is that which is done for the sake of the end. And, the end is always better than the means because it is unreasonable to do anything for a thing worse than the means. “Wherever there are ends apart from the actions, the products are by nature better than the activities.”[2] Therefore, the highest good must be done not for any other end but for itself only. Aristotle argues that although the goods such as “honor, pleasure, understanding, and every virtue” may be chosen for themselves, they are also the means to happiness.[3] It is true that insofar as a man attains happiness, he will never desire anything further and he lacks nothing in his life. Therefore, happiness ends in itself and is the highest good.

Having determined happiness as the highest good, Aristotle discusses how happiness can be achieved. Firstly, he criticizes hedonism which takes pleasure as the end. Man is pleased by “the condition of the soul.”[4] However, pleasure does not involve any activity of the soul. Therefore, pleasure is unable to properly please man. In contrast, the life in accord with virtue is the life of the soul. Thus, man of this life is naturally pleased in his action and needs not any extra pleasure. For instance, a man doing a just action is happy because of the action. And, he cannot be called just if he is not pleased by a just action. Secondly, Aristotle disagrees with Socrates’ notion that virtue is sufficient for happiness. He points out the paradox between Socrates’ view and the common beliefs. Particularly, despite the fact that a man lives a life of virtue, a life with the worst evils and misfortunes cannot be called a happy life.[5] Accordingly, a happy life must have external goods of some sorts. In a word, a happy life is a complete life. Lastly, he asserts that “happiness is a certain sort of activity of the soul in accord with virtue.”[6] In brief, virtue makes man happy. And, this happiness does not involve any fortune. Hence, both complete life and complete virtue are necessary to be happy. Nevertheless, if man has to choose between a virtuous act and a fortune incompatible to virtue, it is more reasonable to choose virtue. That is why “someone bears many severe misfortunes with good temper, not because he feels no distress, but because he is noble and magnanimous.”[7]

According to Aristotle, the end of things is the state in which they are fully actualized. To be actualized, things must necessarily follow their natures. Aristotle reuses Plato’s definition of function and attempts to find the true human function which human beings only can do or which they do better than everything else. And, by means of the human function, man is able to achieve the perfection of human nature, happiness. Thus, the human function is characteristic activity in accord with nature to pursue the end. The function cannot belong to the sort of life of nutrition or sense perception because this sort of life is shared with plants and animals. Accordingly, “the human function is activity of the soul in accord with reason and requiring reason.”[8] Furthermore, a function is well completed in accord with a proper virtue since human virtue, the same as Plato’s definition, is that which makes man do his activity well. It is important to emphasize that virtue does not merely make man able to act, but it makes man act in perfect ways. Because there are two parts that have reason, one as obeying reason, the other as itself having reason and thinking, human virtue makes man reason well and listen well to reason.

In addition, one called virtuous always conducts himself in right activities. The right activities are in accord with right reason. However, Aristotle asserts that actions alone are insufficient to manifest virtue, but “we must take someone’s pleasure or pain following on his actions to be a sign of his state.”[9] Obviously, a virtuous person will do right actions, but right actions can be done not only by a virtuous person but also by an vicious person. Thus, right actions must be done by an agent in his right state.[10] In a word, virtue concerns both actions and passions. Furthermore, Aristotle reasons that moral virtue is the mean between two extremes: excess and deficiency. The mean is “correct and wins praise” while the extremes are vices.[11] The mean is determined by reason; that is, by prudent people. For instance, courage is the mean between cowardliness and recklessness. Regarding fear, cowardliness is the excess while recklessness is the deficiency. Regarding daring, they switch positions; that is, cowardliness is the deficiency while recklessness is the excess. In addition, Aristotle emphasizes that the mean must be accounted to a particular individual and a particular circumstance. That is, the mean is not one and the same applied to every case. For instance, the intermediate amount of food one ought to take every day must be different for different people. An athlete needs to consume more than a singer because the athlete consumes energy more than the singer.


[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1094a.

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1094a.

[3] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1097b.

[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1099a.

[5] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1096a.

[6] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1099b.

[7] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1100b.

[8] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1098a.

[9] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1104b.

[10] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1105a.

[11] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1106b.

Plato on Justice

Basically, everyone wants to live in a society of justice. However, there are many opinions of the nature of justice. If anyone should pursue a just society, he or she must take a philosophical stand about justice. This essay is a brief summary of Plato’s argument on justice.

Note: Plato is an ancient Greek philosopher. I emphasize that this essay is about Plato’s notion.

Plato is the first in the Western tradition to define virtue as that by which things work well. This definition is also used later by Aristotle. The argument is written at the end of Book I of Republic. In brief, Plato in the words of Socrates posits that “the function of each thing is what it alone can do or what it can do better than anything else.”[1] For instance, the function of the eyes is to see, and the eyes alone can see. Or, the function of a hammer is to strike things like nails or metals, and although a stone or a brick can also strike these things, the hammer can accomplish the work in the best way. In addition, everything has its own virtues, such as the virtues of the eyes which are sensibility to light and the ability to distinguish color.  Without these virtues, the eyes are unable to see anything. Therefore, virtues are necessary for a thing to perform its function with excellence.

Consequently, if man wants to live well, he must attain the virtue of justice because it is a virtue of the soul. Thus, it is relevant to figure out the nature of justice. In Book II of Republic, Plato narrates a conversation between Socrates and Glaucon concerning the nature of justice in the human soul. In the conversation, Glaucon argues that injustice is more profitable than justice, that people involuntarily do justice, and that they do justice only for the sake of its consequences. Glaucon then challenged Socrates to show how justice is good in itself. Responding to the challenge, Socrates describes a city with three classes of people: guardians, auxiliaries, and laborers. Each of these classes has its own functions and virtues. Particularly, guardians, the smallest group in the city, are those who rule the city and direct it to the true Good. This class possesses the virtue of wisdom. Auxiliaries are those who protect the city from war of any sorts. Courage is the virtue necessary for them. And, laborers are those who work to provide the needs of the city, such as builders, carpenters, and farmers. They need to be moderate and practice self-mastery. Those three virtues reside in different parts of the city. Furthermore, when the city is considered as a whole, justice is the proper virtue. Justice here is the harmony among the three classes, by which each part of the city performs its own function and does not meddle in that of the others. For example, proper guardians, as governors, should be obeyed by auxiliaries and laborers and never abuse their authority on the auxiliaries and laborers.

The allegory of the city is analogous to the human soul. That is, the human soul has three parts: reason, a spirited part, and an appetitive part.[2] Reason corresponds to the guardians, the spirited part to the auxiliaries, and the appetitive part to the laborers. Therefore, reason is that which governs the soul and leads the soul to the true good. And, wisdom is the virtue that perfects its function. The spirited part is that which defends oneself from evil, overcomes obstacles, and strives for challenging goods. And, this part needs to be courageous so that it can rightly act. The appetitive part is that which desires the necessities of life, such as food, drink, and clothes. Moderation is the virtue perfecting this part so that it does not desire excessively but as it ought to. Moreover, when regarding the soul as a whole, the three parts of the soul must be in proper order so that it functions well. In Plato’s view, the soul is the principle of life; that is, the function of the soul is to live. And, justice is the virtue that perfects the function of the soul, and by which human beings live well. With justice, each part performs its own function and harmonizes with the others. In contrast, without justice, interior conflict and strife may arise. The spirited part and the appetitive part, in harmony, must be subject to reason because reason knows the truth. And, insofar as the soul follows the truth, one is definitely living well. Otherwise, if the appetitive part ignores reason and pursues bodily desires, one’s life cannot be good.


[1] Plato, Republic 353a.

[2] Plato, Republic 434d-441c.

Đức khiêm tốn của người vĩ đại

Hai đức tính khiêm tốn và hiệp nghĩa dường như đối lập nhau. Quả vậy, người khiêm tốn thì không bao giờ đặt mình lên vị trí cao, không bao giờ thích những lời chúc tụng tung hô. Ngược lại, người hiệp nghĩa thì ao ước những sự lớn lao, nỗ lực để dành được những sự vinh quang, vinh dự. Như vậy, có phải rằng người khiêm tốn thì không thể trở nên hiệp nghĩa; hay ngược lại, người hiệp nghĩa không thể là người khiêm tốn. Tuy nhiên, nếu hiểu hai nhân đức một cách chính xác thì chúng ta có thể nhận ra rằng hai nhân đức này không những không loại trừ nhau mà còn có thể kết hợp với nhau để làm cho con người nên hoàn hảo hơn.

Tôi đã nghiên cứu và viết một tiểu luận về đề tài này bằng tiếng Anh, vì thế trong bài viết này, tôi chỉ tóm tắt ý tưởng chính. Các bạn có thể tham khảo bài tiểu luận của tôi với tiêu đề “One can be both magnanimous and humble.”

Trong luân lý Ki tô giáo, có hai loại đam mê. Loại thứ nhất là những đam mê hướng đến những điều tốt đẹp bình thường, ví dụ như, khi nhận được một lời khen thì chúng ta vui hay khi bị phê phán thì chúng ta buồn. Loại thứ hai cũng hướng đến những điều tốt đẹp nhưng có nhiều thách thức hơn để đạt được nó. Ví dụ, khi phải đối mặt với kẻ thù, có người thì sợ hãi, có người thì dám đương đầu. Khiêm tốn và hiệp nghĩa cùng tác động lên một chủ thể đó là sự đam mê hướng đến những điều thiện hảo loại thứ hai.

Sự khác nhau giữa hai nhân đức là: Người khiêm tốn thấy mình ít xứng đáng và nhận mình ít xứng đáng; ngược lại, người hào hiệp thấy mình nhiều xứng đáng và nhận mình xứng đáng nhiều. Tuy vậy, cả hai đều tuyên bố đúng với những gì họ có. Nghĩa là người khiêm tốn không hề nhu nhược và người vĩ đại thì không hề kiêu ngạo.

Thánh Tô ma Aquino lập luận một người có thể có cả hai nhân đức trên khi xét trên hai khía cạnh khác nhau. Ở khía cạnh bản tính con người, chúng ta phải khiêm tốn thừa nhận sự yếu đuối trong bản tính của chúng ta. Vì Chúa tạo dựng con người từ cát bụi và con người sẽ trở về cát bụi. Tuy nhiên, con người lại được Thiên Chúa tặng ban cho phẩm giá cao quý và ban cho trở nên con cái Người trong Đức Ki tô. Vì thế, xét về khía cạnh ân sủng, con người được gọi để trở nên vĩ đại. Và sự vĩ đại thực sự là được kết hợp với Ba Ngôi Thiên Chúa. Như vậy, một người dù tài giỏi đến mấy thì cũng phải nhận ra những sự yếu đuối trong bản tính của mình. Đồng thời, họ cũng phải nhìn nhận những tài năng của mình được tặng ban từ Thiên Chúa, và sử dụng tài năng đó để trở nên vĩ đại. Như cha An tôn, phụ trách đan viện Xi tô tại California, đã quả quyết rằng: “Không phải vì tôi giỏi nên Chúa chọn tôi, nhưng vì Chúa chọn tôi nên tôi giỏi.”

Trong một góc nhìn khác, hai nhân đức cộng tác với nhau để là con người nên hoàn hảo. Cụ thể, đức khiêm nhường sẽ gìn giữ người hiệp nghĩa khỏi sự kiêu ngạo. Và cũng vậy, đức hào hiệp giữ cho người khiêm nhường không bị nhu nhược. Người có cả hai nhân đức này sẽ luôn luôn là chính mình. Họ không bao giờ nhìn nhận bản thân nhiều hơn hay ít hơn cái mà họ là.

One can be both magnanimous and humble

Thomas Aquinas

Essentially, human beings in their very nature unceasingly desire the good. Thus, the good seems to become the goal, the purpose, and the end of human beings. Accordingly, it is very important to conceive rightly the true good and the proper means to the true good. In the era of the ancient world, Aristotle, the Hellenic philosopher with great timeless notions, reasonably pointed out that happiness is the highest good. Also, he states “happiness is a certain sort of activity of the soul in accord with virtue.”[1] Thus, virtues are necessary conditions for the soul to function well so that men can obtain the ultimate good. There are two types of virtues, the virtues of character and the virtues of mind. Among the virtues of character, magnanimity is the greatest. This virtue makes men worthy of great things. Nevertheless, in the Catholic tradition, many teachings, such as the Rule of Saint Benedict, encourage the practice of humility, which literally means “becoming little.” Consequently, someone may rapidly judge that men cannot attain both virtues and that one or the other of them must be removed from the list of the virtues. However, it should be proved that this is not the case. That is, magnanimity and humility are necessarily examined in reason and faith to provide the evidence by which we can persuasively claim that magnanimity and humility in their proper senses indeed not only have no contraries but also that they cooperate with one another to set a safe limitation for the irascible appetites.

First of all, it is necessary to specify each virtue in its very concept so that the later arguments can make more sense. Now let us begin by discussing magnanimity in referring to Aristotle and Saint Thomas Aquinas. Simply, there are four states corresponding to magnanimity, such as pusillanimity, vainglory, and modesty. These states can be distinguished in the way people claim their worthiness. In more detail, pusillanimous people claim less while they deserve more. In contrast, vainglorious people claim more while they deserve less. Modest people deserve less and claim less. In a greater state, magnanimous people deserve much and claim much. Therefore, Aristotle states that magnanimity is concerned with great things.[2] Also, he points out that honor is the greatest external good to award the magnanimous person.[3] Hence, magnanimous people are those seeking the honor in the right reason.

Saint Thomas puts this virtue into the subcategory of fortitude due to its mode. Fortitude perfects the irascible appetite which is concerned with the arduous good. More particularly, when one faces a tough challenge, fortitude will lessen the fear and strengthen the daring. Thus, because magnanimity considers honor as its proper object, the honor must contain “the aspect of something great or difficult.”[4] This feature distinguishes magnanimity from vainglory because vainglorious people may not need to struggle with any worthy challenges to achieve the honor. In contrast, to be worthy of the honor, magnanimous people have to attempt with all their capacities; they are even willing to “[face] dangers in a great cause.”[5] Gregory Pine emphasizes this point by quoting from Saint Thomas: “The magnanimous man is not one who seeks out great honors, but one who seeks out the great goods of the soul, great virtues, or, even better, one who accomplishes great virtuous acts.”[6] Hence, magnanimous people do not only merely desire to acquire great things but also eagerly desire to do great acts.

Now, we need to clarify whether magnanimity is a virtue because as noted in the discussion above, magnanimity seems at the extreme degree which according to Aristotle is not a virtue. In Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas clearly specifies why magnanimity is the mean. Precisely, “in point of quantity” it is an extreme because men of this virtue always seek the greatest. However, it is the mean “in the matter of becomingness” because even though men of this virtue always seek the greatest, they never claim more than what they are worth.[7] Hence, magnanimous people indeed tend to the greatest things with right reason, so it must be a virtue.

Subsequently, let us begin the discussion about some attributes of humility by talking about pride, its opposite. Pride refers to excessive self-esteem or self-love. It is one of the seven capital sins. Proud people often exalt themselves and enjoy the praising of others although they are not worthy. In contrast, humility is simply understood as “the notion of a praiseworthy self-abasement to the lowest place.”[8] Thus, a humble man tends to ignore compliments or honors from others. He may do great things without expecting the acknowledgement of others. In his twelve steps in the practice of humility, Saint Benedict points out typical attributes of humility. In detail, a humble man will give up his own will to obey the order of the authority. He is sincere to face his weakness. He often keeps silent, speaks gently if he must say something, and never is ready to laugh. A truly humble man makes himself smallest not just in his appearance but in his heart. Instinctively, pride seems to have the character of either magnanimity or vainglory while humility seems to have the character of either modesty or pusillanimity. Because pride is a vice, it must be equivalent to vainglory. And, somehow humility must belong to the category of modesty so that it is not a vice.

With some ideas of humility, we may conceive that humility restrains the concupiscible appetite. It seems more obvious when Saint Thomas puts humility under the subcategory of temperance, namely “modesty.” He states that the virtue of humility is “to temper and restrain the mind, lest it tend to high things immoderately.”[9] However, it is not the case because the subject of this virtue is not the concupiscible appetite. Precisely, humility sets abound the movements of hope which direct human beings to attempt to obtain the difficult good. Since hope and despair are an opposite pair of the irascible appetites, humility is the virtue rightly moderating the irascible faculties. Hence, humility belongs to the category of temperance because of its mode which suppresses human passions from going over the thresholds. However, its function takes the irascible appetite as the proper subject.

Additionally, I would like to provide the arguments to clarify why humility is a virtue. It sounds as if the notion of lowering oneself is a form of deficiency which is not considered a virtue according to Aristotle. Despite the fact that Aristotle has no discussion on humility, from my point of view, I see humility could be the mean between excess and deficiency. As I have discussed above, the excess of humility is pride which shares some attributes with vainglory. And, the deficiency, as St. Thomas cites from Psalms, is that one “[does not understand] his honor, compares himself to senseless beasts, and becomes like to them.”[10] The point here is that both in the excess and the deficiency one reasons wrongly about what he is and what he deserves. However, a truly humble man will not deny what he is and sincerely face it. Thus, humility may be equivalent to modesty that corresponds to magnanimity as mentioned above. Precisely, a humble one with right reason knows that he deserves little, so he claims little. Hence, humility is a virtue according to Aristotle. Moreover, in St. Thomas’s reason, the human passions can move in two directions. In detail, the passion of hope moves toward the difficult good while the passion of despair moves away from the good. Both directions need something to rightly moderate themselves so that they do not become excessive. As a result, humility is necessary to perfect the passion of hope while magnanimity is necessary to perfect the passion of despair. Hence, no doubt humility is a proper virtue.

Up to this point, I just have given the reason why both magnanimity and humility are virtues. And if both are established on right reason, they cannot be contrary one to the other.[11] However, someone may wonder that if these two virtues seem contrary to one another, it would seem impossible for a person to have both virtues. In other words, if one is humble, then he cannot be magnanimous. In particular, St. Benedict teaches that “every exaltation is a kind of pride”[12] while Aristotle states “magnanimity seems to be concerned with great things.”[13] Therefore, magnanimity may be considered as a kind of pride, which is the opposite of humility. Truly, as we discussed earlier, it is obvious that the operation of these two virtues are contrary in their primary movements.[14] Precisely, humility restrains the appetite while magnanimity encourages the appetite. Consequently, if their functions contradict one another, either of them may not be a virtue.

Nevertheless, it can be proved that magnanimity and humility do not contradict each other; moreover, human passions need both to be in cooperation in order to be perfected. In the light of faith, Saint Thomas points out that there is no real contradiction between these two virtues because “they proceed according to different considerations.”[15] Precisely, on the one hand, if a man is considered with the gifts of God, he can regard himself worthy of doing great things.[16] Indeed, the book of Genesis affirms that human beings are created in the image of God. They are endowed with intellect and will, so they have freedom to decide to act or not to act. And human beings are called to be united with God in his glory. Hence, the virtue of magnanimity will help human beings complete the vocation from God to obtain the ultimate honor that is to be in communion with God. On the other hand, in the consideration of the weakness in human nature, all human beings must humble themselves.[17] Men must know that God made them out of dust to which men will return after death. Also, the Church teaches that although the sacrament of baptism purifies us from all sins, the weakness of human nature still continues to direct men to evil. Thus, it is right for men to regard themselves humble considering the weakness of human nature. Hence, because a man can be both humble and magnanimous at the same time in different considerations, their opposition, mentioned above, is not real.

Furthermore, both virtues are necessary for human passions. As we discussed above, although magnanimity and humility belong to different categories due to their modes, they act on the same subject, which is the irascible appetite. The directions of each are opposite to one another. This may make someone believe at first glance that each of the virtues intends to prevent the other from doing its functions. However, it is not the case because with the right reason they set a safe boundary for one another. St. Thomas asserts that “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.”[18] More particularly, magnanimity keeps a humble person from being pusillanimous. In turn, humility keeps a magnanimous person from being vainglorious. Here we can imagine that humility sets the lower threshold while magnanimity sets the upper threshold. As a result, the human appetites never go toward the excess or the deficiency. Hence, magnanimity does not remove the function of humility, but magnanimity cooperates with humility to establish a “safe zone” (a modern phrase, one might say, with Aristotelian sense) in which the irascible appetites rightly move.

Finally, as an illustration, I will describe how one can be both humble and magnanimous when he practices the virtue of humility according to the Rule of St. Benedict. In the twelve steps of humility, obedience is the first. Obedience here is not a form of a punishment because it comes from the heart, an intrinsic principle but not from outside of himself, an extrinsic principle. To be obedient from inside, one acknowledges his deficiency before the greatness of God, and his lower degree before the superior. Above all, this obedience is not in vain because one “will quickly arrive at the perfect love of God.”[19] Besides, to stay in the love of God and to be united with Him are truly the ultimate honor. Hence, obeying the right authority is a proper way to be worthy of that honor, as St. Benedict affirms when he says, “they are so confident in their expectation of reward from God.”[20]

In conclusion, we acknowledge that magnanimity and humility by nature move human appetites in opposite directions. And, although St. Thomas categorizes them into different groups due to their modes, their functions properly impact the same subject, the irascible faculties. In truth, there is not any real contradiction between them because one is considered with the gifts of God, and the other is considered with the deficiency in human nature. Moreover, these virtues simultaneously act on the irascible appetite to perfect it by setting a safe boundary. Hence, one can desire the great honor so that he does not waste the gifts of God; also, he must humble himself so that he does not forget his weak nature.


[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2007), 12.

[2] Aristotle, 56.

[3] Aristotle, 57.

[4] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, art. 1, accessed April 5, 2019, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3129.htm.

[5] Aristotle, 58.

[6] Gregory Pine, Magnanimity and Humility According to St. Thomas Aquinas, The Thomist 82, no. 2 (April 2018), 269.

[7] St. Thomas Aquinas, art. 3, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3129.htm.

[8] St. Thomas Aquinas, art. 1, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3161.htm.

[9] St. Thomas, art. 1, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3161.htm.

[10] St. Thomas, art. 1, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3161.htm.

[11] Pine, 285.

[12] St. Benedict, RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English, trans. Timothy Fry (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1982), 32.

[13] Aristotle, 56.

[14] Pine 279

[15] St. Thomas, art. 3, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3129.htm

[16] St. Thomas, art. 3, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3129.htm

[17] St. Thomas, art. 3, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3129.htm

[18] St. Thomas, art. 1, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3161.htm

[19] St. Benedict, 38.

[20] St. Benedict, 35.