Trump Should Learn a Thing or Two From Aristotle

06/05/2017 03:19 pm ET

President Donald Trump disdainfully shoving aside Montenegro’s Prime Minister, Duško Marković, to get to the front of a photo-op of NATO leaders is already ancient history, buried under the weekly torrent of bizarre and outrageous behavior from our chief executive. However, in both a micro-action like this one and a major decision like exiting the Paris Climate Agreement, Trump shows how he fundamentally lacks an important virtue that is requisite for the leader of the world’s most powerful nation.

In his Nicomachean Ethics (350 B.C.E.), Aristotle catalogued a list of virtues, the complete exercise of which constitutes human excellence or flourishing. Aristotelian virtues include courage, self-control, justice, generosity, friendliness, gentleness, and truthfulness, among others. I have a pretty dim view of Trump’s performance with regard to each, but here I focus on his spectacular failure regarding one Aristotelian virtue in particular: magnanimity, or proper pride (megalopsychia). I rely on W.D. Ross’s classic translation.

As with the other Aristotelian virtues, magnanimity is aristocratic. Today, one would supplement Aristotle’s list with more democratic virtues. However, Aristotle’s catalogue calls on ordinary democratic citizens to aspire to greatness of character, and it certainly can provide guidance for the leader of the world’s most powerful nation, a position that by its very nature has aristocratic aspects, and indeed for that nation itself.

So what is magnanimity? The magnanimous individual – though Aristotle reserved full development of the virtues for men, I see these qualities as non-gendered – exhibits greatness and “thinks himself worthy of great things, being worthy of them.” This may sound like Trumpian arrogance, but bear with me.

Magnanimous individuals are not fundamentally concerned with wealth or power, even though they generally have at least a reasonable amount of one or both and are usually prominent citizens. Rather, according to Aristotle, “it is honor that they chiefly claim, but in accordance with their deserts.” A truly magnanimous individual can justly claim honor because he or she exhibits the full catalogue of the virtues and has “nobility and goodness of character.” Indeed, such a person does not actually seek or prize honor “as if it were a very great thing,” but rather seeks greatness of virtue; honor is but an added recognition. He or she despises trifling honors, and is only moderately pleased by great honors. A magnanimous person “bear[s] himself with moderation towards wealth and power and all good or evil fortune.” In fact, “those who without virtue have such goods are neither justified in making great claims nor entitled to the name of ‘proud’,” for “the good man alone is to be honored.”

Magnanimity involves generosity. Aristotle says, “It is a mark of the proud man also to ask for nothing or scarcely anything, but to give help readily.” And, a magnanimous person is “dignified towards people who enjoy high position and good fortune, but unassuming towards those of the middle class,” for “a lofty bearing over the former is no mark of ill-breeding, but among humble people it is as vulgar as a display of strength against the weak.” He or she does not flatter the powerful and is not “given to admiration; for nothing to him is great.”

We can see why Trump’s behavior is so unbecoming of his office and of the powerful country he leads as to be downright vulgar, cringe-worthy, and plain embarrassing. In his role as both head of government and head of state, Trump not only represents himself but also personifies the U.S. as its public face. One could argue that a powerful nation, just like a prominent citizen, must itself be magnanimous. Yet Trump’s announced withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement amid his complaints that the accord took advantage of our nation, his chastising NATO allies for not paying up for the common defense, and his decision to cut off aid to developing countries trying deal with global warming all exhibit self-centered pettiness rather than magnanimity and global leadership. Unlike Aristotle’s magnanimous individual, Trump is also a bully who has insulted a Gold Star family, urged supporters to beat up protesters, threatened the media, attacked Muslims, disparaged Mexican immigrants and people of color, ridiculed London Mayor Sadiq Khan right after Khan’s city suffered a terrorist attack, and, of course, rudely pushed aside the leader of a small country. And rather than comporting himself with dignity toward despots, he admires and flatters them. As Aristotle notes, “all flatterers are servile” and “lacking in self-respect.”

Trump boasts beyond all proportion to what he has actually achieved. For his part, Aristotle is unsparing on those who claim undeserved honor or recognition: “he who thinks himself worthy of great things, being unworthy of them, is vain” and “a fool.” Vain people are also easily affronted by wrongs. Trump harps not only on how badly America has been supposedly treated, but also on how badly he’s been treated: “No politician in history — and I say this with great surety — has been treated worse or more unfairly.” A magnanimous person, says Aristotle, is not “mindful of wrongs; for it is not the part of a proud man to have a long memory, especially for wrongs, but rather to overlook them.”

Of course, neither the United States nor the office or person of the President ever is, or can be, supremely good in Aristotle’s, or any other, sense of the word. And one might take issue with the exercise of American power in the world. But Aristotle’s concept of magnanimity suggests that with the power, prestige, and privilege that attaches to the world’s only superpower and its chief executive comes a duty to act with dignity, nobility, responsibility, and generosity, with a sense of honor. Trump’s utter lack of these qualities is profoundly unbecoming of this nation and its people. It besmirches not only his own persona and reputation, such as it is, but also America as a whole. Though I’m not hopeful, Trump should learn a thing or two from Aristotle. For starters, he might realize that for those who are truly great, being in the front row of a photo-op is not that big a deal.

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