It's not a word you hear very often, but just stop and think about it for a moment: great-hearted is a beautiful word for a beautiful idea. I don’t know of any other word that captures the fullness of human excellence in quite the same way. It conjures images of powerful love, selfless acts of kindness, immense sacrifices, and remarkable achievements. A brave warrior who stands fearless in the face of certain death. A loving parent who gives everything to provide her child a better life. A nurse, a chaplain, or an aid worker who tends to the terminally ill and brings peaceful, loving closure to life.
Great-hearted cuts to the core of what it means to be human. All these things we do to care for each other—showing wisdom, courage, and determination—make us who we are. We are at our most human when we show great-heartedness, rising above challenges to share our gifts with others. Our natural instincts to love, to explore, and to understand the world all come together when we speak of great-heartedness.
But there’s a surprise waiting just below the surface of great-hearted. Greatness of heart isn’t built on emotion. Emotions—those knee-jerk affective responses to momentary circumstances—are not stable enough to support the splendor of great-heartedness. If we were to rely on fleeting feelings to guide our behavior, we wouldn’t be greathearted at all. Feelings come and go and are inherently unstable. They are not a reliable guide to consistent and honorable action.
Great-heartedness implies a stable disposition, one committed to values and goals beyond the present moment. To be greathearted, your heart must expand past those momentary ups and downs that come with daily life. Greathearted people don’t pick petty arguments with their spouses or get upset when someone cuts them off in traffic. And they don’t rely on their feelings to tell them whether to be nice to someone or not. They have perfected their ability to understand and manage their emotions, which enables them to do the right thing even if they don’t "feel" like doing it.
That’s because greatness is always about rising above. Anything called great is not your run-of-the-mill person, place, or thing. It’s pre-eminent. It’s elevated. It’s not mired in the back-and-forth of he-said-she-said-I-told-you-so. It’s soaring overhead, soaking in the view of this breathtakingly beautiful life, reveling in the beauty of the cosmos and the human spirit.
In Stoicism great-heartedness is an inner quality, one that can be cultivated and practiced. It’s not something a person is born with, but something a person develops over time. And the good news is, we are all capable of moving toward great-heartedness. We just need to know the way.
Around 100 A.D., Epictetus lived in Hieropolis, a small Greek city within the Roman empire. By this time Epictetus was a respected old man running a successful philosophical school attended by ambitious students from all over the empire. But life hadn’t always been so easy for him. He was born a slave and had a lifelong physical disability, which caused him to walk with a limp. (Legend has it that his master broke his leg in an act of cruelty, although no one knows for sure if this was true.) This didn’t slow him down much, though—he used to crack jokes about his lameness and his former master to his students.
Epictetus’ background, tragic though it was, was the ultimate training ground for his mature philosophy of radical freedom, courage, and acceptance. He taught his students that we become truly free when we rise above our knee-jerk reactions, petty insecurities, and trivial squabbles. One way do this by reflecting on where we fit into the universe as a whole:
The rational animal possesses resources that enable him to reflect on all these things, and know that he is a part of them, and what kind of part, and that it is well for the parts to yield to the whole. And furthermore, because he is by nature noble-minded, great-hearted, and free, he sees that, of the things that pertain to him, he possesses some of them free from hindrance and within his own power, while others are subject to hindrance and within the power of other people. (Discourses, 4.7, 7-8)
According to Epictetus, we become "noble-minded, great-hearted, and free" when we understand that we are one small part of a much larger world and when we are able to properly manage our impressions. When we learn to depend on ourselves for our own happiness, not on other people or external circumstances, we find contentment and expansive freedom.
While Epictetus’ philosophy was truly epic, he didn’t pull these ideas out of thin air. He was working squarely within the Stoic tradition. And like Epictetus, Stoicism was born in the midst of adversity.
The founder of the Stoic school, Zeno of Citium, was a merchant who traded wares across the Mediterranean Sea. This was a risky profession, however, and at some point Zeno lost all his ships and cargo—everything he had—and was stranded in Athens, far away from his home across the sea.
Bereft and wandering around Athens, Zeno came across a bookshop happened across a biography of Socrates, the famous Athenian philosopher who taught his followers to care for their souls rather than their possessions. Socrates’ philosophical teachings, as well as his insouciance toward poverty and his willingness to die for his ideals, no doubt made a huge impression on the newly impoverished Zeno. Zeno was so inspired he asked the bookseller where he could find such a man, and the bookseller pointed to a philosopher who happened to be passing by.
This founding story may be apocryphal, but what is certain is that Zeno studied with several philosophers who considered themselves inheritors of Socrates’ truth-seeking legacy. From the Cynics he learned the value of poverty and the deceptive nature of public approval. From the Megarians he learned a special type of reasoning that enabled him to think about the world very clearly. Eventually he became a teacher himself, combining ideas from these traditions to form a new philosophical school called Stoicism.
Zeno’s philosophy was innovative, inspiring, and public-spirited; in the Socratic tradition, he lectured on a public terrace so he could engage with passersby. Stoicism quickly became an important intellectual force in ancient Greece. Later, as the center of power and culture shifted to Rome, Stoicism was acknowledged as one of the leading philosophical currents within the Roman empire. Generations of teachers passed down Stoic teachings to their students, some of whom went on to become important figures in the politics and culture of the day.
No one exemplified the practical, influential Stoic tradition more than Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and the most powerful man on earth. Thanks to his youthful training in Stoic philosophy, Marcus resisted the corrupting influence of absolute power and reigned for many years with wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control. Just as Zeno rose above his shipwreck to establish a new philosophical tradition, and just as Epictetus rose above his traumatic beginnings to establish a renowned philosophical school, so Marcus Aurelius made a constant effort to rise above his worldly condition of emperor. We see Marcus constantly reminding himself not to “become a caesar” and let his power go to his head.
He also tried to rise above everyday annoyances, frustrations, and perhaps sadness at the afflictions of ancient life. Not only was Marcus’s reign beset by tragedy (plague, military unrest, barbarian invasions), but his life was marked by personal tragedy. Of the 16 children born to his wife Faustina, only five or six survived to adulthood. The others died in infancy or childhood, as was common at the time. Not even Marcus’s status as Roman emperor could change the hard facts of life.
The circumstances of his life make Marcus’s meditations on great-heartedness all the more compelling:
Nothing is as effective at creating great-heartedness as being able to examine methodically and truthfully everything that presents itself in life, and always viewing things in such a way so as to consider what kind of use each thing serves in what kind of universe... (Meditations, 3.11)
The clear reasoning and practical training offered by Stoic philosophy enabled Zeno, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius to rise above the difficulties of their lives. They found inner peace and contentment by focusing on the timeless and universal rather than the trivial and myopic. It didn’t matter that one was a merchant, one was a slave, and one was Roman emperor. The same principles apply to everyone.
These psychological insights are just as true today as they were two millennia ago. That’s why Stoicism, after fading from sight for a while, has resurfaced and is back in public view as a practical philosophy. Stoicism works. And it works because it helps us change the way we see the world. We don’t have to be trapped in an endless feedback loop of negativity, self-recrimination, resentment, fear, and other harmful emotions. There is a way out.
The way out is elevation of mind, nobility of soul, loftiness of spirit—great-heartedness. Wherever you find yourself in life, whatever you are doing and however you got there, you will do it better with great-heartedness. By escaping from our everyday mindset of anxiety and frustration, we can learn to manage stress, regulate our emotions, and find long-lasting happiness. We can learn to navigate life’s challenges with the vibrancy and vigor of an uplifted, grateful heart.