Human Smallness and the Magnanimous


The word “small” is a relative word: that is, something is small only in comparison to something larger.  If everywhere were precisely the same size, nothing would be small, just as nothing would be large.  Without variation in size, nothing would even be average.  Consequently, when we think of things being small, we tend to think of them relative to our usual frames of reference: a 5.4″ x 3.8″ book of only 80 pages is small; a penny is small; my handwriting is very small; a grain of rice is small; an ant is small.  That runty kid sitting alone on the playground — small, for his age.  That 800 sq ft house is pretty small, especially if there are 2 or more people living in it.

There are, however, smallnesses that we think about with less frequency.  Someone who lives in NYC and has never been to another city is probably aware that NYC is large, relative to most other U.S. cities, but probably does not think often about it, or about the smallness of, say, Raleigh or Oklahoma City.  Likewise, if we are comparing it to China, the United States is small, both in landmass and population.  Then we can compare the U.S. to the ocean; or the whole earth.  And we can compare the earth to Jupiter, or the Sun, or the vast empty space between them; and between this solar system and the next; and between this galaxy and the next — and then think about just how very that little runty kid is, but how his smallness next to the beefy bruiser who picked on him is insignifcant compared to the smallness of any human against the whole cosmic expanse.

Thus we can think of not only size–the occupation of space–but also time in both the cosmic scale and the human scale.  There is no basic unit, no average unit, for the former; it is grasped frequently through juxtaposed visualizations of size disparities (as those pictures that show the Earth next to Jupiter, and Jupiter next to the Sun, and the Sun next to Betelguese, and so on), and even beyond those, requires a certain abstraction for the distances between these bodies–distance so great it is measured in how long it takes light to travel across it.

But the human scale we measure by ourselves, and, being more or less roughly the same in our natural lifespans and with rare exception, height, weight, and so on, the scale for each of us is approximate to the scales for others.  Where we are most likely to find disparity is not between those of different sizes, but between those of different environments.  The farmer’s temporal scale is not like that of the professional urbanite, measured in weeks and seasons as opposed to hours and fiscal quarters.  Any apartment in NYC over 1000 sq ft is quite large, and if it has outdoor space large enough to fit three people, probably feels huge; while any house of fewer than 1200 sq ft outside Springfield, MO likely seems quaint, especially if it is on less than half an acre.

Beyond this ordinary sense in which we speak of size and scale, however, there is a moral sense of the term.  We speak of great men and women, and of small men and women; the latter referring not to diminutive stature, but usually to diminutive mind: to low aspirations, selfish ambitions, and most frequently of all to pettiness.  We can find plentiful examples in history and literature–especially of those who ought to have been great but instead abused their power and position–such as King Herod, Shakespeare’s Iago, countless dictators and tyrants, the majority of U.S. politicians, an even greater majority of academics, and at least half the characters in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series.  Pettiness ordinarily follows envy: of another’s fame, popularity, lover, power, eloquence, reputation, etc.

But outside of pettiness, human smallness also comes in myopia: which is not simply a preoccupation with the here and now, ignoring the future, but the inability to see beyond the scope of one’s own concerns–leading even to those concerns’ detriment.  U.S. politics has been rife with this shortsightedness since 2015.  It has often been futurally-shortsighted; but here and now it is provincially-shortsighted as well.  This myopic autophagia can be illustrated in the Kavanaugh hearings, where a powerful social current–the “#MeToo” movement–was wasted on a desperate political gambit to avoid a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.  The cries of “believe survivors” and “believe women” now ring hollow, given their prominent backing of weak and uncorroborated allegations.  While the mainstream portrayal of the events will remain left-leaning, and while large numbers of activists will remain vocal, increasing numbers of individuals are seeing the disparity between accusation and proof, and will therefore be less likely swept along in the pathos of the moment.

Sustaining both pettiness and myopia, selfishness is the root of human smallness.  Ordinarily, we think of selfishness as a material possessiveness to the exclusion of others.  More fundamentally, selfishness is the implicit demand that the world conform to one’s opinions concerning it.  Thus selfishness may tacitly embrace more than one’s “self”, insofar as the “self” is extended to comprise others, and especially social movements or affiliations.  To be selfish is to suffocate all dissent–whether this be the demand to place one’s material needs and wants above all others, or the demand that others’ voices not be heard, or that others’ opinions not be given a platform, or that others’ beliefs be uncritically rejected.  We see this no less in sports fans cauterwaling that their team was unfairly penalized than in radical social and political positions.

In contrast to the small person is the magnanimous.  Despite the habitual smallness to which many have become attuned, the human person is by nature capable of a great expansiveness: possessing an intellect, we are capax universum: in our minds we can form a microcosm of the entire universe, such that for each of us there is access to the whole of reality, a whole the meaning of which each of us inevitably interprets.  The small person interprets him or herself as the center of it, as that around which the whole revolves.

The magnanimous person, however, does not.  Etymologically, “magnanimous” breaks down into “magna” and “anima”; to be magnanimous is to be “great-souled”.  Being great-souled, however, is not greatness through one’s relativity to the immediate surroundings, by being “better-than” other persons.  Rather, magnanimity is a quality of properly interpreting oneself properly in relation to that intellectually-accessed microcosm–and thus seeing oneself as quite minor in relation to the whole–and acting nevertheless for the best of that whole.

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