I had an unusually enjoyable afternoon recently, lying on the floor in front of my massive classical Greek dictionary and a copy of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, where he makes a distinction between happiness and bliss. I don’t know which I was feeling but certainly one of them. I don’t know many people who would feel bliss, poring over ancient Greek philosophy, but that’s what’s good about bliss — it’s different for everyone.
Aristotle was trying to sort out some problems having to do with happiness. Does it have to last? Can you have bad times in with the good ones? He concludes that bliss is not about perfection. You have to deal with bad fortune sometimes. The difference is whether you approach it with nobility and a great soul.
Now, I’ve come across this idea before in Aristotle, of a great soul. His word in Greek is megalopsyche. I like to translate it directly as “mega-soul.” Psyche means soul, and mega means big, as we all know. We’ve been to mega-stores. But what is a mega-soul?
I think I know one answer from my experience as a psychotherapist. I’ve encountered people who, in dealing with their problems, just don’t have enough space in them. Maybe they haven’t allowed life to affect them much. Life experiences stretch you, when you let them have their impact. Maybe they haven’t allowed emotions that frighten them, like anger, sadness, or desire. Let some of those in, and your soul will get bigger, fast. Maybe they haven’t reflected much on their experience. An unconscious soul is a small one.
One situation I come up against fairly often is “small-idea syndrome.” People get their life knowledge from sources that aren’t worth their bother. They use popular phrases and terminology for their most dire situations and wonder why they can’t stop feeling bad. “Be in the moment,” people say today, as though it were a given. Well, maybe it’s better sometimes to drift out of the moment and reconnect with the past and imagine the future.
“Be authentic.” Another common phrase that may put pressure on a person to try too hard to be honest and forthcoming. Often, there are things that don’t want to be said or seen, that shouldn’t be said or seen. The shadow side of being open and honest is a need to pretend, deny, or avoid. A big soul has a lot in it, some of it not too savory. It takes a big soul to be forgiving, but that big soul probably has a quantity of unforgiving in it, too. When the forgiveness and the resistance to forgive mix and struggle and sort out sufficiently, maybe forgiveness that is really felt will rise up. You require big, complex, shifting, and competing ideas to handle life’s complexity and its subtlety.
When I think of a mega-soul, the first thing that comes to mind is humor. A person has to have lived and made mistakes and see the humor in the human condition if he’s going to have enough inner space to hold it all. Humor often comes out of the clash of high principles and low failures. Those who are always looking up at the ideal of a virtuous life fail to see the banana peel they slip on. A mega-soul sees the comic side of life.
Finally, souls get big from opening out beyond the limitations of human knowledge and control. Everyone is called to be a mystic of some sort, and being open to mystery and myth, the intuitive and the non-rational, to art and ritual, to nature and animals, to absurd ideas and outrageous fantasies gives the soul room to fashion a lovable and thoughtful human being.
I can imagine a convention of mega-souls coming together in collegiality. There would be wide variety, a range of emotion, creative expression, time to do nothing, attention to food, and convivial joy in being together. The small-soul convention down the street would be a different story altogether.
I could come up rather quickly with a list of mega-souls in human history, according to my definition. I’d start with Oscar Wilde and Emily Dickinson, two very different personalities with souls of similar range. I’d include Louis Armstrong, and I’d want to discuss Odilon Redon, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Georgia O’Keefe — and Mahatma Gandhi, whose name means “great soul.”
However simple your life, however ordinary and retiring, you can have a mega-soul, a vast source of vitality, and the capacity for pain and failure as well. You can be noble in your simplicity and deep and wide in your ability to contain life. You can be all of humanity in one person and the cosmos in miniature. You can be a whole world.