[Content warning: abuse]
Alas, when I lent I Am a Strange Loop to Voltaire Panda, I had not first recorded Hofstadter’s chapter on magnanimity, the particular virtue besides paradox-friendliness that he celebrates in the book. This means that I must proceed by memory, which is never reliable. Nonetheless, as I struggle with boredom over the “Clouds, Daffodils, and Jam that Will Not Come Together Again” series that I was planning to continue, I thought I might write about fun portions rather than just the next portions to keep everyone’s interest up, and I think magnanimity is what I’d most enjoy discussing.
Writing about Hofstadter’s sense of magnanimity most appeals to me after reading Rachel Held Evans’s Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church, in which (among other things) she discusses the qualities of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that she’d like to see churches pick up: namely, the way AA members begin with a leveling introduction of their struggles and weakness. Being open and honest in this way creates a strength of relationship which most churches seem to lack. I probably won’t mention Evans again in this post, but you should know that it’s in the back of my mind.
So what does Hofstadter mean by magnanimity? He points out the coincidence (perhaps) of the word’s etymology: magna = great; anima = soul.1 A magnanimous person is one who is especially proficient at creating replicas of other people’s souls in their own minds. A magnanimous person not only cares about other people—though it is important that they do—but can recreate them in themselves, in their own behaviour. They are a repository for other people’s patterns. Moreover, they do this for a great variety of people like and unlike themselves. Such a person does not only act kindly to other people; their souls become bigger and more complex, collecting bits of other souls. A magnanimous soul is a hospitable one and a hospitable soul is great in size and nuance. (Hofstadter’s insistence that caring about animal welfare is an indicator of this trait makes me wonder a bit what his well-advertised animosity towards mosquitoes says about his own magnanimity.)
Not having Strange Loop to hand, I can’t check to see whether Hofstadter gives the same attention to spreading oneself that he gives to absorbing others. It seems to me that a great soul does not merely contain many other souls, but also offers itself for other souls to absorb. In order for this relationship to not be patronizing, it must be reciprocal. A great-souled person opens themselves to other people in two ways, both receiving them and giving to them. If I want to be really magnanimous, I must also allow others to grow by feeding on me. The good news is that this is the kind of giving which does not diminish in the giving; whoever replicates my pattern replicates it.
A magnanimous person, then, grows their soul by absorbing other souls and by spreading their own soul around.
What I do recall is that Hofstadter spends almost no time considering the dark side of mimesis: if I take in parts of my mother’s pattern and my father’s pattern, what happens if my mother and my father are abusive? (Mine aren’t and weren’t; I mean this hypothetically.) Whether they are abusive to themselves, to each other, to me, or to some other party, I would receive from them not just the suffering from the abuse but also some part of the patterns that drove them to commit it. I would be haunted by them—and by any other abuser, enemy, attacker, or, for that matter, victim of mine. To speak of absorbing other people is not just to speak of close friendships and carrying the beloved deceased with you, but also to speak of haunting and demon-possession.
Thus it is my responsibility, as much as I can, to be the sort of person others can safely absorb. There are two ways of dealing with that, both of which are necessary.
The first way of being the sort of person that others can safely absorb is to root out and eliminate destructive twists and warps in the pattern that is me. I think elimination is best imagined as a sort of smoothing, a gentle untangling… but since the threads I’m sorting out are those which make me up, it will likely be difficult and painful no matter how gently I work. Furthermore, such healing is only possible if I am honest with myself about my flaws. Even identifying them could be difficult and painful.
The second way of being the sort of person others can safely absorb is to be up-front with others about those destructive twists and warps. Putting up a façade of happiness and competence is like baiting a hook or hiding Greeks in a wooden horse: it tempts others to bring you into themselves unwitting. I do not know that avoiding others entirely to stop them from repeating your mistakes is the wisest course in most circumstances: being honest is likely more reliable.
If I were to write a list of maxims defining magnanimity, then, it would be as follows:
- Absorb others’ souls, often and in great variety.
- Offer others your own soul.
- Work at fixing your soul so it does not hurt those who absorb it.
- Be honest when offering your soul to others, so they know how best to absorb it.
- Be responsible when absorbing other souls, identifying destructive parts as such so you do not repeat them in the deep parts of yourself.
Of course, as with all moral concerns, there is risk involved. Being so open with others allows people to exploit you. No one benefits, really, when you are exploited; to knowingly allow others to exploit you is not goodness. Be careful. Do not let being careful prevent you from being magnanimous.
1. Mahatma, incidentally, means the same thing: maha = great; atma = soul.