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On Magnanimity and Ruthlessness

Fall 2011 Epigram

On Magnanimity and Ruthlessness

On Magnanimity and RuthlessnessAnd why the first refines, or needs, the second

Magnanimity heals the rift; ruthlessness seeks to erase the opponent. Both are tools of what we nowadays call conflict resolution. Yet history abounds with cautionary tales. In 1836, Santa Anna was ruthless at the Alamo and Goliad, raising the red flag signifying No Quarter, only to inspire the rag-tag Texians at San Jacinto. After the Second Punic War, Scipio Africanus was surprisingly magnanimous toward the defeated Carthaginians, which only led to the Third Punic War (after which the Romans ruthlessly sowed the ruins of Carthage with salt, and resolved that conflict for good).

Ruthlessness means without pity – without those second thoughts about the feelings of others that plague the well-brought-up human. Mexican drug lords popping victims into oil drums filled with acid are ruthless. Pol Pot was ruthless, as were Hitler and Vlad the Impaler. Andrew Jackson sending the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears was ruthless. Harry Truman bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki was ruthless. But Gandhi was ruthless, too, in his own way, and maybe even Martin Luther King Jr. (a case could be made). Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant were ruthless (George McClellan, in contrast, was beloved by the Union troops, chary of risking them in battle, and had to be sacked; oddly, we do not think of Robert E. Lee as ruthless, though he must have been). But Stalin and Lenin were ruthless. And the Old Testament Jehovah was ruthless: he sent that Flood to clean out the rat’s nest of humanity gone awry, and Abraham (also ruthless) to sacrifice Isaac. Stock market short-sellers seem ruthless (oddly again, investors who go long do not). Business is often ruthless: strike-breaking, monopolies, mass layoffs, price-fixing and insider-trading are ruthless activities. Ryan Bingham, the George Clooney character in Up in the Air, is ruthless (his heart is as empty as his apartment; but, as Kierkegaard suggested, it is a sentimental fantasy to think that ruthless people cannot also have happy home lives).

The striking thing about ruthlessness is that it can imply a spirit of renunciation to a higher purpose (as in the case of Abraham), just as it might equally imply the psychological mechanism of denial (it is easier to lynch a black man, enslave Africans or send Jews to the gas chamber if you do not actually consider them to be human beings). We can admire ruthlessness as conviction, but in the harsh light of history many ruthless people seem to have been grotesquely and horrifyingly mistaken; in the light of history, one man’s higher purpose is another man’s poppycock.

Magnanimity, as Aristotle had it, is greatness of soul. It incorporates pity, but also perspective, taking the long view of things, and the renunciation of local concerns – personal revenge, for example. Magnanimity is stern and visionary. It is not so much about charity – about giving a quarter to a man on the sidewalk – as it is about forgiving a wrong, and giving a hand to the loser. Magnanimity is a gesture, the archaic and sweeping gesture of raising up the vanquished – not to be confused with the saccharine bromides of contemporary party politics and sports, or the faux magnanimity of nation-building. Honour – another archaic word not much used anymore – is inscribed in the gesture.

In 1918, at the Treaty of Paris, the Western allies ruthlessly carved away chunks of Germany, diminished its military, and levied huge war reparations that humiliated and impoverished the German people. By contrast, in 1948, a prescient and generous America magnanimously invented the Marshall Plan (ERP, the European Recovery Program, as it is properly called; reminds one of TARP, no?), which allowed Germany to reinvent itself as a powerful democratic partner, and eventually led to the collapse of the (non-magnanimous) Soviet Union. Of course, the allies needed first – ruthlessly – to destroy Hitler and his myrmidons. And, yes, though Harry Truman was ruthless in defeating Japan, he was equally magnanimous in victory – and now Toyota and Honda build cars in Arkansas.

Perhaps only the ruthless can be truly magnanimous. Magnanimity, without force, risks descending into liberal piety or Pecksniffery, just as ruthlessness without magnanimity risks turning into psychopathic brutality. Though they are apparent antonyms, each term refines the meaning of the other. History is replete with stories of stumbling examples of both, and of the search for a balance between the two. The ancient category of wisdom often seems lacking in the event (wisdom being personal opinion that is ratified by the consensus of history; if you want to be wise, it helps to be lucky, or to have good PR). And the sad truth is that most humans are neither ruthless nor magnanimous, but merely short-sighted, middling, decent or vicious, as the case may be, and terribly muddled as to motive.


Douglas Glover is a Governor-General’s Award-winning novelist and short story writer. His last book was The Enamoured Knight, a study of Cervantes and Don Quixote.


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