Andrew Fiala

Many seem intent on saving the soul of America. It takes more than talk

A revival of soul-talk is underway. Republican presidential candidate Bill Weld responded to last week’s presidential tweets and campaign chants by saying, “We are in a fight for the soul of the GOP.” Rep. Ilhan Omar wrote that we are in a “fight for the soul of our nation.” Joe Biden says he is running for president to “restore the soul of this nation.” Marianne Williamson’s campaign slogan is “Let’s heal the soul of America.”

This may seem trite. This soulful language may simply be political posturing. But authentic soul-talk focuses our attention on moral goods. It is about meaning, value and purpose. Soulful language invokes something larger than the present moment and its petty squabbles.

It also opens the door to magnanimity, which is a forgotten virtue. Magnanimity literally means greatness of soul. Aristotle said that the great-souled person is honest, open and self-deprecating. He is sure of himself and able to overlook small slights. Thomas Aquinas connected magnanimity with joy, hope and confidence.

Magnanimity combines tranquil dignity with courageous generosity. Magnanimous people are strong enough to bear minor injustices. But they stand fast and fight for what is right. The magnanimous rise above the present moment. They forgive. They are patient and kind. They control their anger. They exhibit good humor. They are concerned with justice and the greater good.

All of this is contained in the idea of a person – and a people – with a soul that is enlarged and enlightened. Of course, the soul is mysterious, changeable and subject to interpretation. It is an invitation for further thought. A thoughtful, open-minded attitude is one of the keys to magnanimity.

There are deep questions about the soul and its nature. But the call for magnanimity need not assert a metaphysical worldview. This is ethical, poetic and inspirational. Authentic soul-talk lifts us up and makes us think of larger things.

Emerson is the best American source for poetic soul-talk. He says, “within man is the soul of the whole.” He explains that a great soul circumscribes all things, contradicts all experience, and abolishes time and space. In the soul is the capacity for thought and for love.

The great soul stretches beyond the present. It transforms words into deeds and ideas into action. It connects with the heart of other people. It allows us to imagine the essence of a nation. And it peers into the structure of the cosmos that is often called God. All of this is so weird that Emerson notes that those who speak of the soul will often seem insane.

But soul-deep madness is another name for enlightenment. This is the tendency to see and feel the larger connectedness of things. We sorely need this today. We are divided and bitter. We are closed-off and closed-in. Our souls have shrunk.

There are diverse ways of enlarging the soul. In the Christian tradition, love provides the path to soulful growth. Christians are called to love God with all your soul, heart, mind and strength – and to love your neighbor as yourself. Buddhism teaches compassion. But instead of finding God, the Buddhist self is enlarged by discovering that it was nothing substantial to begin with.

Wonder is another key to enlargement. Emerson encourages us to encounter the world as a miracle. Aristotle said that wonder lifts us beyond ourselves toward higher things. Prayer, meditation, poetry and philosophy magnify the soul. Wonder calms the reactive mind. It moves us beyond anger and hate, making it possible for us to achieve understanding.

Political struggles are often small-minded and ugly. So let’s welcome and encourage the return of soul-talk in politics. It focuses our attention on something larger than self-interest. We can all benefit from that strength of soul that resists the pettiness of partisan bickering and the soul-killing cynicism of the twittering mob.

But we can’t let soul-talk become another bit of jargon and sloganeering. This is an age of narcissism and small screens. Good ideas and great people are easily shrunk. It is difficult to keep your head up and see the larger whole. But leaders worth following will exemplify “greatness of soul,” while seeking to magnify the soul of the country.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala

  Comments