Chapter 10: Magnanimity

Twelve Tests of Character
by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Chapter 10: Magnanimity

A minister, serving a church in Brooklyn in the days of Henry Ward Beecher, tells me that he knew a man who hated Beecher bitterly, even saying that he would not go across the street to hear him preach. Later, however, he came to be the famous orator’s devoted friend, and his explanation of the change was brief and simple: whenever a man did Beecher an ill turn, Beecher was not happy until he had done the offender a good turn. It came to be a whimsical proverb in Brooklyn, "If you want a favor from Beecher, kick him!"

We are presented here with a test of character not easy to meet. For while our moral stamina undoubtedly is expressed in the aggressive and militant virtues with which we positively tackle life, most of us feel a severer strain on our spiritual quality when life tackles us. He is a great man indeed who is great, not only when he indents the world, but when he bears with grace and magnanimity the hostile, irritating impact of the world on him. If a man fails here, what a multitude of resentments he can collect in a few years! If he lets the slights and criticisms dig in, cherishes the insults, ingratitudes and wrongs, he can soon cover his soul with a mass of nettles. Sometimes in the confessional, when a life is opened to me, a sad sight is displayed -- remembered discourtesies, hostilities and ingratitudes are everywhere; innumerable ranking grudges infest the mind; open a door anywhere and, behold, a resentment! The very amplitude of our vocabulary in this realm bears witness to the commonness of the experience. How many people are habitually peeved, piqued, nettled, miffed, provoked, irritated and incensed!

Characters in other respects spacious and admirable often fail before this test of magnanimity. Michelangelo was no small man, but when Messer Biagio da Cesena, the Pope’s Master of Ceremonies, said that one of his pictures, with its nude figures, was more fit for a place of debauchery than for the Pope’s chapel, he was thoroughly peeved. He drew Messer Biagio’s portrait to the life and placed him in hell with horns on his head and a serpent twisted round his loins. And he enjoyed a vindictive triumph when Messer Biagio, angry at the laughter of his friends, appealed to the Pope and the Pope replied: "Had the painter sent you to purgatory, I would have used my best efforts to get you released; but I exercise no influence in hell."

Dante, too, was a great character, but his Divine Comedy rankles with abuse of his foes. He dipped his pen in ink, as Browning said, to print the stigma on his enemy’s brow and let "the wretch go festering through Florence."

That it is natural thus to collect grudges is obvious, but even those who so defend it must admit that whenever we meet a character that does not indulge in resentment we recognize moral greatness. Stanton called Lincoln "a low, cunning clown," nicknamed him "the original gorilla," said that Du Chaillu was a fool to wander all the way to Africa in search of what he could so easily have found at Springfield, Illinois. Then Lincoln, who knew well what Stanton had said, made Stanton Secretary of War because he was the best man for the place. Years afterward that same Stanton stood at the bedside of the martyred President in the little room across the street from Ford’s theater and, looking at the silent face said, "There lies the greatest ruler of men the world has ever seen." A large part of Lincoln’s hold on our affections is due to his magnanimity. "You have more of that feeling of personal resentment than I have," he said on one occasion. "Perhaps I have too little of it, but I never thought it paid." There is a new beatitude to which, when they see it incarnate, men always pay tribute: Blessed is the life that does not collect resentments.

The plain fact is that grudge-bearing sensitiveness is one of the meanest and most subtle forms of egotism. We may be selfish in doing positively unkind deeds, cherishing anti-social ambitions, indulging in financial niggardliness and greed, but we are just as likely to be selfish in displaying easily wounded vanity and pride. The supersensitiveness that continually is being hurt and, once hurt, irascibly cherishes a grudge; the bare nerve of self that waits only to be touched to writhe and, writhing, tingles with rancor toward the annoyer; the evil eye that watches with morbid fascination for slight and insult and, once insulted, finds happiness only in thoughts of getting even -- all this is sheer egotism in its barest and most repulsive form.

Moreover, to be thus vindictive is to make ourselves the slaves of our enemies. Just as school girls easily teased are soon discovered and made the butt of plaguing boys, so all conceivable irritations soon find out the touchy and resentful spirit. When annoyance comes, our greater danger lies, not in the wrong done us, but in the wrong we shall do ourselves if we let ourselves be inwardly exasperated, until our goodwill, serenity and poise are gone. So we miss the highroad which Luther indicated when he said, "My soul is too glad and too great to be at heart the enemy of any man," or which Booker Washington pointed out when he said, " I . . . resolved that I would permit no man . . . to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him."

"Love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you" -- how impossibly ideal that seems at first! As a matter of fact, it is the most practical and rational rule for daily living that could be laid down. As Mr. Pollock, author of "The Fool," exclaimed, describing the effect of his first real reading of the New Testament just before he wrote his play, "The further I went in the New Testament, the more I said to myself, ‘That’s the darnedest common sense I ever read!"’

In the course of the Armenian atrocities a young woman and her brother were pursued down the street by a Turkish soldier, cornered in an angle of the wall, and the brother was slain before his sister’s eyes. She dodged down an alley, leaped a wall, and escaped. Later, being a nurse, she was forced by the Turkish authorities to work in the military hospital. Into her ward was brought, one day, the same Turkish soldier who had slain her brother. He was very ill. A slight inattention would insure his death. The young woman, now safe in America, confesses to the bitter struggle that took place in her mind. The old Adam cried, "Vengeance"; the new Christ cried, "Love." And, equally to the man’s good and to her own, the better side of her conquered, and she nursed him as carefully as any other patient in the ward. The recognition had been mutual and one day, unable longer to restrain his curiosity, the Turk asked his nurse why she had not let him die, and when she replied, "I am a follower of him who said ‘Love your enemies and do them good,"’ he was silent for a long time. At last he spoke: "I never knew that there was such a religion. If that is your religion tell me more about it, for I want it."

One is haunted by the idea that if, on any large scale, Christians should exhibit such magnanimity as the Sermon on the Mount enjoins, there would be stirred up in the heart of this very bitter and vindictive world a wistful response like the Turk’s.


Men commonly fail in magnanimity, not only in relation to their enemies, but to their rivals. Jealousy is the twin brother of vindictiveness. All of us deal with three types of people: folk less properous than we are, less able, less influential; equals, whom we easily meet upon a common level; superiors, who overtop and surpass us. These last constitute a critical moral problem. They are more learned than we are, more fortunate, more highly endowed, more charming, more influential; they get what we aspire to but miss; they are promoted more swiftly in the business office, are rated higher in the school, are praised more in the market-place. How many folk there are who can live kindly with inferiors and amiably with equals, but who grow hard and envious as soon as they deal with folk who surpass them!

To be sure, not all superiority in others is thus a temptation to jealousy. We are not jealous of Shakespeare. We are not envious of the courage of Livingstone or the character of Phillips Brooks. Persons like them awaken in us aspiration, not envy, and the reason is plain. We are not in active competition with Livingstone or Brooks. But when he who has been running just behind us in the race of life, on the same road with us, strikes up a swifter beat and, after running with us neck and neck awhile, forges ahead and leaves us behind, then we may learn the meaning of the Hebrew proverb:

Wrath is cruel, and anger is overwhelming;

But who is able to stand before jealousy?

Disraeli and Gladstone had long been rivals and when Gladstone successfully attacked his opponent’s policies in Turkey Disraeli turned on him and called him "a sophistical rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity." We compete with a rival for promotion and are beaten, and something as old as Cain wakes up in us and gives us a tussle before we are done with it. It is hard to be a good loser. The quality of sports- manship which can see another man walk off with the prize and still can praise the very excellence by which we are surpassed is none too frequent.

To be sure, Michelangelo, failing at times in generosity to his enemies, was famous for the praise he habitually bestowed on other artists’ work, calling Ghiberti’s bronze doors of the Baptistery in Florence "the Gates of Paradise." But Michelangelo was so great himself that he could afford such magnanimity. To be sure, Maeterlinck, when he was suggested for membership in the French Academy, the first Belgian in history to be so honored, wrote a letter to Le Journal asking that they choose instead "my old friend Emile Verhaeren, first, because he is my elder; second, because he is a very great poet, while I am only an industrious and conscientious prose writer. Any one with patience could write what I have written; nobody could do what he has done. Only a poet is qualified to represent worthily a nation’s greatness and heroism." But, beautiful as such magnanimity is, "in honor preferring one another," Maeterlinck was sufficiently great not to find such generosity too costly. Not to be Michelangelo or Maeterlinck, however, but an unknown man who has done his best and has seen other men walk off with what he wanted, who has planned and missed, aspired and failed, and still to be magnanimous, still to walk through life with sunlit and unenvious heart, being his own best self and happy in being that -- there is a man who has won a victory.

The lack of this magnanimous spirit is the cause of many rancorous ills. Envy ruins families; the story of Cinderella and her jealous sisters has never needed a commentary to explain it since the day when it was written. The crazy extravagance which is the curse of our social life is a child of envy. We set a sensible standard for our households, but some one else outpaces our less fevered steps and we whip up our speed to beat him if we can. We do not want to be outdone but must live in houses quite as large, wear clothes as fine, travel in automobiles as luxurious, and spend as freely as others do. Jealousy embitters all the class divisions that cut our American society asunder. It would be hard enough to solve the problem of poverty and wealth, of employee and employer, if it were purely economic. But it is everywhere complicated and embarrassed by jealousy. Thomas B. Reed once said: "Whenever I walk through the streets of that democratic importing city of New York and look at the brown-stone fronts, my gorge alway rises. . . . When I feel that way I know what the feeling is. It is good, honest, high-minded envy. When some other gentlemen have the same feeling they think it’s political economy."

What jealously between nations does, each envying the power and wealth of others, is written in lines of blood and fire across the world. And even when one comes into sacred places where folk in organized philanthropy, social service or the church are supposedly working unselfishly for the good of men, jealousy is as present as it was on that last night when the Master with his disciples ate the memorials of his sacrifice and "there arose also a contention among them, which of them was accounted to be greatest."

Yet what fools we are to let this vice steal from us, as it always does, our independence, our happiness, and our usefulness! We make ourselves the slaves of all whom we envy. Their superiority does not harm us, but our jealousy does. It is a great day in a man’s life when he signs his own Declaration of Independence that instead of eyeing others with jealous regard, trying to copy them, to climb where they sit perched, or to outstrip them utterly, he will be himself, live his own proper life in his own place, with his own gifts and aptitudes, and will not spoil the service he can render by worrying over the superiority of other folk.

The full solution of the problem of jealousy, however, carries us much deeper than mere independence of spirit. Goethe was right: "Against the great superiority of another there is no remedy but love." Positively to love the excellence by which we are surpassed, as though superiority of genius and character were indeed a "public banquet to which we are all invited," -- that alone takes from the mind the last vestige of rancor. To care about the welfare of mankind supremely, to rejoice in better work than ours which helps the cause along, to be interested in the thing that needs to be done and to be careless who gets the credit for doing it, to be glad of any chance to help, and glad, too, of any greater chance than another may possess, such magnanimity is both good sense and good Christianity. For jealousy goes wherever Jesus’ idea of life comes in: "If any man would be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all."


The Central Presbyterian Church in Seoul, Korea, used to be commonly known as the "Butchers’ Church," and the nickname still occasionally is heard. Now, butchers were one of the most despised castes in Korea. No butcher could wear his hair knotted under his hat, and that is the mark of social respectability. One could kick a butcher and he would not dare resent it. Then a Christian missionary came and across the lines of caste and race extended his good-will, so that, when the first church was founded in Seoul, butchers were on the Board of Elders. Thus the people came to nickname it the "Butchers’ Church." It was a mark of contumely then; it is a mark of glory now. For one more exhibit has been given there of that kind of magnanimity which disregards all lines of nation, race, caste, color, and privilege, and treats all men as individuals upon the basis of their human worth.

The great sins against magnanimity are three and they are a bad family: vindictiveness, jealousy, and prejudice. You do not have to look far in most minds to find any one of them, but perhaps the most universal is prejudice. This man hates the Jews; that man has a deep dislike of Catholics; and this other cannot stand a Protestant. One man is sure that all Japanese are liars; another thinks that every German or every Frenchman, as the case may be, has a devil; and, as for social lines, "our kind" are the elect people and all the rest are more or less barbarian

We lump masses of human beings in one indiscriminate confusion, make a sweeping classification, tag the group with name or nickname, and think that we have said something. As a matter of fact, we have displayed intelligence almost as elevated as a moron’s, and as for spirit we have revealed ourselves the true successors of all the prejudiced provincials whose trail through history is marked with bigotry and blood.

In a prominent New York church where the crowds were pressing down the aisles, the usher showed a Chinese couple into a pew just as two Americans had reached the spot. "Pshaw !" exclaimed the woman, "why did you let those heathen go in first?" One shrinks from the proper description of that attitude. It is of course discourtesy provincialism; but it is more. It is one of the most contemptible and ruinous sins which today are destroying human life and making dangerously difficult the solution of our social and international problems -- a bigoted and ignorant prejudice that lumps and damns whole classes and races at a swoop. It does literally what the slang phrase suggests: it thinks in bunches.

I talked recently with an employer. He was as hard as nails. Whenever he thought of the men who work with their hands he thought of a labor union, and he hated that. The toiling millions of America were lumped into one group and tagged with a despised name. He had not thought of them as individuals -- young men and women who fall in love and want homes, folks who have babies and cherish for them the same ambitions which he feels for his, human beings who find this earth a perplexed and tangled place in which to live, and who want more leisure, more comfort, and more liberty. So, because he had not thought of them as individuals, he never had put himself in their places or understood how surely in their places he would act like them. And the shoe fits just as well upon the other foot. There are laboring men who, thinking of employers, lump them in one mass, marked "Capitalists," and represented in their imagination by such figures as Mr. Hearst uses in his cartoons. We may suggest what overhead industrial and international solutions we can devise, but we will not get far until we humanize our thought of folks. They are not primarily Chinese, Japanese, Americans, Capitalists, Trades Unionists, Jews, Gentiles, black, brown, white, or yellow. They are primarily individual human beings a good deal like ourselves and in many cases a good deal better.

In this day of so-called "social" thinking, let us insist that this attitude toward individuals is alike a test of character and a necessary basis of social progress. No joining of organizations, contributing to budgets, being on committees, constructing institutions that propose to turn out progress by quantity-production, standardized like Ford cars, no long-range endeavors to reform social situations in general, can take the place of this inner test of a man’s real social attitude -- his magnanimity toward all sorts of individuals.

Sometime ago I heard a group of children sitting on the street curb and singing a missionary hymn:

The little black baby that rolls in the sand,

In a country far over the sea,

Is my African brother, and Jesus loves him

Just as he loves you and me.

At first I was amused to hear them singing there. Then I fell to meditating on how easy was the problem presented to them so long as the little black baby was rolling in the sand in a country far over the sea. They did not have to deal with him individually. If they helped him at all they did it in general and at long range through a great organization. But what a difference when our "African brother" no longer rolls in the sand in a country far over the sea, but moves into our neighborhood, does business on our street, becomes a servant in our home, and sends his children to our school. Then we have to deal with him individually. Then we have to be just to him if we can, put ourselves in his place, see how matters would appear to us if we had been born with a black skin, and act accordingly. That is the acid test. Not the organizations we belong to, not the creeds we recite, not the budgets we raise, so much reveal us as the way we treat individuals. And that conclusion sounds strangely like something which Jesus said: "Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me."


This, then, is the gist of the whole matter: friendliness is the fundamental need of the world. Most people recognize this fact in so far as it concerns those inner relationships where we are bound by warm affection to congenial folk. No man is the whole of himself; his friends are the rest of him.

But too many fail to see that these inner friendships are meant to be like hothouses, where the warm affections, kindly attitudes and confident faiths in human worth may get their start, which afterward are to be transplanted to the wider, ruder, colder, more forbidding world.

What is needed is an expansive friendliness that takes in all sorts and conditions of people. The bigger our cities grow, the more complicated and mechanical our civilization becomes, the more we need it.

I thought the house across the way

Was empty; but since yesterday

Crape on the door makes me aware

That some one has been living there.

So friendless and cold is much of our modern life in great cities.

Our very churches become like hotels rather than homes. A man sits in the lobby of a metropolitan hostelry as lonely as Crusoe on his island. He is not asking for a bigger building, or more garish decorations, or better food, or more convenient service but he does wish that he were back in his home town with his friends. So on Sunday morning, in a great city church, folk are to be found who, amid the glorious architecture, stirring music and highly paid preaching of a metropolitan cathedral, are lonely -- lonely, it may be, for a wooden meeting house on a country hillside, lighted by oil lamps, with an organ that squeaks every time the boy pumps it, and a man in the pulpit who cannot preach for sour apples, but where they have friends.

The fundamental need of the world is friendship.

But friendship is never adequately understood if it is made merely a matter of congenial intimacies. Friendship is an expansive spirit that overthrows vindictiveness and takes in enemies, overpasses jealousy and embraces rivals. Too great and too glad to be stopped by prejudice, it seeks the good of all sorts and conditions of folk across all the barriers that caste, class, and race can erect. Such magnanimous friendship is an elemental test of character. Such undiscourageable good-will is the indispensable foundation for the brotherhood of man.