In two of my favorite Oscar winning Peter O’Toole movies he played the same historical figure, Henry II of England. In the first, “Becket,” the young Henry eventually has his former close friend St. Thomas Becket, played by Richard Burton, murdered in the cathedral. Both O’Toole and Burton were nominated for Best Actor for the film. In the second, “Lion in Winter,” late in life, Henry bickers bitterly and poignantly with his exiled wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, wonderfully portrayed by Katherine Hepburn; they spar brilliantly over succession among the sons Richard the Lionhearted, Jeffrey and John. John, of course, eventually becomes king after the death of Richard and is the villain of the Robin Hood legends. Battles, conspiracies, crusades, and palace intrigue follow all of them all their lives.
King John, devious, adulterous and with a vindictive pettiness that alienated the nobles of the land was forced by the barons to sign the Magna Carta (the Great Charter), a foundational document of the Western world. The king for the first time acknowledges that a king too is subject to the law and that his subjects have rights, including a trial by jury and the beginnings of what evolved into a representative parliamentary form of governance.
“Be afraid only of thoughtlessness and pusillanimity.” St. Pope John Paul to thousands of young people in Krakow, Poland, June 1979
The word “magnanimous” is a combination of the same Latin root from the Magna Carta, “magnus” or great and “animus,” meaning soul or mind. “Animus” also gives us animated and animal (self-locomotive as opposed to a vegetable). Magnanimous is ‘great souled’ and has come to connote generous and forgiving. A thesaurus gives us noble, benevolent, and altruistic.
“Pusillanimous” is similarly derived from the Latin root “animus,” but the preceding root “pusill” comes from the Latin meaning “very small,” so the combination produces “small minded” or “tiny souled.” Today it has come to mean “lacking determination” or “lacking courage.” The same thesaurus suggests spineless or cowardly.
Since human beings are uniquely in possession of souls, it matters whether ours are great or tiny. Inextricable from our bodies, we are not ghosts imprisoned in machines. Souls are without material existence, and their fusion with material bodies causes no end of complication and sin, original and actual. Our bodies crave food, comfort, pleasure, protection and retain a controlling drive to propagate other bodies a lot like our own. Our long-suffering souls contend with our material cravings all our short mortal lives seeking wholeness and holiness. Our bodies consist of the same elements that comprise the rest of the universe, forged in the stars and spewed out in vast volume every millisecond of the thirteen billion years of known time. We are spirit and material: stardust and soul.
Pusillanimity and tiny souls seem to govern our public discourse and especially in media, social or otherwise. Whether the ‘cancel culture’ or COVID controversies or environmental crises or proper governance or religion or even what is good for us to eat, our predilection for unreflective rote, rancorous and repetitive talking points in lieu of thoughtful discourse in pursuit of an objective understanding of our perilous situation is disheartening and portends no good outcome.
We have a desperate want for some more great souls: some new beginning with the magnanimous, starting with our own tiny souls and then among our leaders on all sides.
Our ephemeral and ever-changing challenges flood in from every streaming stimuli and seem daunting enough, but that ain’t the half of it. Some recent articles suggest we have more pressing long-term challenges that make COVID, destroying and denying history, neo-Nazi white supremacy, neo-Marxist Black Lives Matter, and defunding police seem like easily resolved minor troubles and soon to be footnotes.
“As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began,
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire…” Rudyard Kipling
To quote the great philosopher Ian Malcolm in the movie “Jurassic Park”: Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think whether they should. Indeed, “should” or “ought” appear to have lost their cache altogether. Moral relativism and a narrow material view of our existence without metaphysics have the podium and the gavel and no inclination to give them up.
One article on Science.com laid waste to the soothing idea that CRISPR technology gene tinkering with human embryos was the work of a single rogue Chinese scientist a couple of years ago. And he conveniently disappeared as inconvenient people tend to do in the People’s Republic. Read “CRISPR Gene Editing Prompts Chaos in DNA of Human Embryos” about recent experiments on human embryos at the Francis Crick Institute, Columbia University and the Oregon Health and Science Institute. The researchers were concerned that although the experimenters were able to successfully ‘fix’ some troubling genes, there was significant disruption and damage to adjacent gene pairs that were unpredictable in their impact. Maybe future tinkering will make us better at it and avoid the troubling unintended collateral damage? They were careful to point out that there was care and concern that the embryos should not be allowed to develop further into larger specimens of human beings, so destroying them after the experiments was essential. Of course, the underlying assumption that experimenting on undeveloped human beings and destroying them was not particularly morally problematic. We have been destroying human embryos routinely for forty years and calling it woman’s healthcare.
In another article[i] and website[ii], the progressive future of humankind was proposed to offer a way forward to a new perfected kind of human being: immortal, always healthy, more brilliant, and stronger. Perfecting CRISPR was only part of the solution; a hybrid human being with some experiments already underway for embedding chips providing us with ready-made super memories crammed full of immediate access to all manner of useful information. Combined with corrected genes helping to make the vexing protoplasm portion of the mix more perfect, we will create a progressive vision of human perfectibility and utopian society. We have tried this many times with murderous results, but we will get it right this time[iii]. Our future children will have just cause to sue parents who do not optimize their genes when they had the chance in the Petrie dishes prior to implantation.
[iv]“Brave New World” is an anodyne fairy tale compared to this. Tilt back the recliner, make some popcorn, pour a cold beer and watch “Jurassic Park” or “Young Frankenstein” for some laughs. Maybe listen to Ian Malcolm again.
Or pray for a return of a magnanimous, courageous, and determined moral leadership.
“Look not in the face of the fire, O man! Never dream with your hand on the helm! Turn not your back to the compass…” Herman Melville, Moby Dick
[ii] The futurist idealists have a perfected super race in mind for us. I think we may have seen this before, perhaps in mid twentieth century Germany. Browse this site or buy the book if you want and see what they have in store for us: 25 Visions for the Future of Our Species.
[iii] The overly familiar line about not forgetting history because we will be doomed to repeat it is often misattributed to Winston Churchill. It originated with the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana in “The Life of Reason, Volume 1.” In context, Santayana cautions us that retention of learning is necessary, as is “plasticity” to use that learning to adapt to new situations. When we are young, the tendency is to radical intemperate change without considering the wisdom of the past. And when we are old, the tendency is to hold on too rigidly and not be open to self-criticism, reflection, and necessary beneficial change. The ideal is mature adulthood with a balance of both he states.
Churchill was less optimistic that we learned our lessons. In a 1936 speech to the House of Commons, he warns of the coming cataclysm: When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure.