Review of Alexandre Havard’s “Created for Greatness: The Power of Magnanimity”

A valuable contemporary philosophical book to help understand why abandoning virtuous achievement is a serious anthropological mistake.

By the end of January, most of us have given up on our New Year’s resolutions. These are goals we enthusiastically set during the silent nights of self-reflection that Christmas affords us. We contemplate our Savior’s magnificent and humble life in contrast with our own feeble and self-seeking, sinful existence. We intensely desire personal renewal to become holier and nobler persons; yet, alas, we lack the will to actualize our true human potential.

Many blame the failure to commit on laziness or some other insuperable vice; others point to the natural distraction a busy life has on our focus once we are caught up in the flurry of school and work again.

While true for the most part, such excuses are symptomatic of a deeper mea culpa based on a lack of anthropological clarity of what human beings are meant to be.

Created for Greatness: The Power of Magnanimity (Scepter, 2014) by the French-Russian author Alexandre Havard provides a remedy to this intellectual and spiritual gap. It is one of the most valuable contemporary philosophical books to help us understand just why abandoning virtuous achievement is a serious anthropological mistake, leading to general discontent and even despair.

Havard’s short book—just 96 pages—is essentially the sequel to his acclaimed, multi-language publication Virtuous Leadership: An Agenda for Personal Excellence (Scepter, 2007). In it the Moscow-based executive leadership coach dedicates five chapters, replete with practical and spiritual wisdom, to the virtue of magnanimity — what he calls the “jet fuel…, the propulsive virtue par excellence” of human achievement.

Upon reading Havard’s book I could not help but reflect on Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 masterpiece After Virtue. I was reminded of his criticism of a post-modern civil society that is bedeviled by its lack of belief in a true, objective model of mankind and moral behavior — one rooted in dignity, rationality, and virtuous agency. The self-less, heroic and virtuous living that once propelled so many great generations before ours to the heights of human exploration, invention and even sainthood, now plays second fiddle to rules and useful principles.

What guides human action nowadays, as a result, is whatever proves personally useful or pleasurable to any one particular person at any given time.

Yet, as Havard argues in his book, once we embrace hedonism and utilitarianism, we not only become small-minded, we also become feeble and ultimately fearful while mistakenly believing we are incapable of great things. Our pusillanimity when combined with fear, he writes, “engenders despair, and despair paralyzes the soul…Despair is a vice,…because it condemns man to mediocrity and decline.”

As another example of what deadens the magnanimous soul, Havard also faults the egalitarianism praised by communist and socialist societies. “[It] destroys in man his very sense of greatness…In their dignity, human beings are radically equal, but in their talents, they are radically unequal.”

During his business leadership seminars, he notes, Havard has seen a more than a few examples of strong-willed, self-centered persons –übermenschen which would make Nietzsche proud. He, therefore, wisely unpacks the natural virtue of magnanimity in perfect harmony with the religious virtue of humility, writing that they are “sine qua non of personal fulfillment” and “inextricably linked”.

“Magnanimity and humility go hand in hand. In specifically human endeavors, man has the right and duty to trust in himself (this is magnanimity), without losing sight of the fact that the human capacities on which he relies come from God (this is humility). The magnanimous impulse to embark on great endeavors should always be joined to the detachment that stems from humility, which allows one to perceive God in all things. Man’s exaltation must always be accompanied by abasement before God.”

“Magnanimity without humility is [therefore] no magnanimity at all. It is self-betrayal and can easily lead to personal calamities of one kind or another,” the author warns us.

Throughout the book Havard remains a sensible realist. His writing – an advisory style – is terse, practical-orientated, and void of hyperbole. He adequately explains that, while difficult, it is certainly possible to become magnanimous if we are ready to incorporate the many other sustaining virtues involved. In his introduction and later chapters, he provides a helpful review of and exercises on the four cardinal virtues – prudence, temperance, courage and justice. He successfully ties in aretology (the study of virtues and their interrelation) into the larger picture of a magnanimous life and its various specific challenges.In addition, he convincingly explains how the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity are necessary to perfect all the good habits we learn and acquire by nature.

Finally, it must be pointed out that Havard’s book does not lack in real-life anecdotes of heroic virtue and leadership. In Created for Greatness: The Power of Magnanimity, every page is peppered with inspiring examples of how renowned leaders have lived up to their full human potential and whose lives were simultaneous testimonies to both greatness and humility.

Highlights include wide-ranging stories about actors, singers, CEOs like Francois Michelin and Darwin Smith, St. Joan of Arc, World War II legend General Charles de Gaulle, Abraham Lincoln, Olympian Eric Liddell, and the founders of the European Union. Intertwined in the numerous historical references are thought-provoking quotes from Russian novelists, poets, and European intellectuals.

Ultimately for this devout Catholic author, it is Christ to whom he gives the fullest attention as the ideal of a perfectly magnanimous life. “If I had not spoken of Christ and Christianity,” Havard writes in the postscript, “I would have been guilty of intellectual dishonesty, ingratitude, and impiety.”

Created for Greatness: The Power of Magnanimity 
by Alexandre Havard
Scepter Publishers, 2014
Paperback, 96 pages

About Michael Severance 0 Articles
Michael Severance is a former Vatican correspondent and currently manages operations for the Acton Institute’s academic outreach in Rome.