Moscow Magnanimity

Catching more Flies with Honey than Vinegar

Michael Clary recently explained how plain-spoken courage can move the Overton window, a term that refers to the range of acceptable discourse in a society. Clary refers specifically to clarity provided by various cultural critics, including pastor Doug Wilson, whose interview with Tucker Carlson aired on April 15. Clary mentions “Wilson’s affable demeanor” and “joyful courage,” connected to those who “joyfully endure the derision of the left long enough for their collective voices to be heard.”

I want to emphasize the affability that Clary mentions and highlight its ability to shift the Overton window as well. I’ll use a broader term, used by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, to argue that one of the underappreciated aspects of the Moscow Mood is magnanimity. Aristotle’s Ethics is famous for its treatment of virtue in terms of a mean between extremes. For example, in Book 3, which covers several individual virtues of character, Aristotle describes courage as a virtue between the excess of rashness and the deficiency of cowardice. (Not every virtue, cardinal or theological, fits neatly into this golden mean structure, but several do. For example, Josef Pieper, following Thomas Aquinas, describes hope as a virtue between the excess of presumption and the deficiency of despair.)

Continuing the discussion of these virtues of character, Aristotle mentions magnanimity (greatness of soul) in Book 4 as a mean between the excess of vanity and the deficiency of pusillanimity (smallness of soul). I do not claim that the Moscow crowd is magnanimous in exactly every way that Aristotle outlines. But there is a greatness of soul to the figureheads of the Moscow Mood, especially in their habitual joviality, their generous hospitality, their quickness to forgive, and their willingness to keep lines of communication open as much as possible.

According to Aristotle, one of the primary characteristics of magnanimity is durability and resilience in adversity: “[I]t is proper to a magnanimous person not to nurse memories, especially not of evils, but to overlook them” (1125a). In Terrance Irwin’s Hackett edition of Ethics (2nd ed.), he describes the magnanimous person as someone who is not “prone to nurse petty grievances” (220). 

There are plenty of grievances for folks in Moscow to nurse, and no one would claim that they bear all insults with flawless humility. Yet example after example exists of jolly culture warring (despite accusations of being immoral), continued willingness to promote what is good (despite an absence of reciprocation), forgiveness for unjust treatment (despite previous serious charges of abuse), etc.

A few specifics connected to Wilson: One example of his jolly culture warring appears in his 2009 debates with Christopher Hitchens, captured in the book Is Christianity Good for the World? and the documentary Collision. Hitchens pulls few punches in their interactions, yet Wilson’s warmth and wit seem to charm and disarm Hitchens. Jonah Goldberg’s foreword to the book underscores the joy evident in Wilson’s exchanges: “Wilson joyfully tackles” Hitchens’s points; “This is a joyful book”; and this joy is “refreshing . . . , given how joyless so much of the discourse on both sides of this debate tends to be” (9–10).

In 2020, when Crossway published Carl Trueman’s blockbuster book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Wilson was happy to promote it, even though Trueman has been critical of Wilson in the past. And Wilson’s promotion is generous: “This book is a real marvel. . . . This book is just wonderful. If the last two years has seemed to you to be a manuscript produced by a team of drunken chimpanzees trying to write a Walker Percy novel, and I don’t blame you, what you need is a book that has the explanatory power that this book has.”

And in 2022, Wilson extended forgiveness immediately when a woman confessed and repented of her harsh judgment and condemnation of him. A cynical response (and one lacking magnanimity) might be that these actions were all stunts in service of public relations. But it is difficult to maintain a façade of insincere magnanimity across decades, and the above examples are just a few of many.

Wilson’s “affability” that Clary observes in the Tucker interview is also apparent in Wilson’s recent interview (also here) with Sean DeMars, a pastor, author, and podcaster whose Room for Nuance video with Ligon Duncan (here) broke the evangelical internet in March. Joe Rigney joins Wilson and DeMars, and throughout most of the two-hour session, there’s a sense of a bromance among the three of them, filled with jokes, ribbing, compliments, and references to their Christian brotherhood. DeMars understands duplicitous code-switching—watch his testimony at Cross Con 2024 (see especially from 2:24 to 2:45)—but nothing in his interview with Wilson and Rigney suggests that he is affecting an affable demeanor simply to snag a controversial and anticipated interview for a growing podcast.

In fact, DeMars’s very presence in Moscow, Idaho, indicates a magnanimity often lacking among other evangelical leaders. Even in the face of numerous canceled invitations, plus rejections of his invitations to meet or speak, Wilson claims that he would still happily share a meal or stage with these evangelical leaders. Wilson disagrees with internet trolls who have called for Duncan to resign in shame. While Wilson doesn’t shy away from pointing out areas for correction, he nevertheless repeats a church member’s reminder to honor our spiritual fathers. At one point, DeMars magnanimously asks, “Should I repent [of slander]?” and both Wilson and Rigney respond that DeMars’s willingness to have a conversation is evidence of magnanimity and an acknowledgment of the biblical value of hearing from both sides (Proverbs 18:17).

Undoubtedly, some Moscow critics, feeling injured from personal interactions with Moscow people, will question the legitimacy of my description of Muscovites as magnanimous. Other critics, without any personal history with Moscow folks, will continue to identify the Moscow Mood with an anti-Christian lack of humility. Terrence Irwin (see above) points to John Mill’s work On Liberty, in which he pits “pagan self-assertion” against “Christian self-denial.” Indeed, there is some evangelical skittishness about leaning into the language of greatness. Many church leaders seem to mistake pusillanimity with humility, often by fixating narrowly on New Testament references to Christian suffering, or even by going so far as to claim that “we lose down here.”

But it would be misguided to label this focus on Moscow magnanimity as idolatry or wrong-headed hero worship. Aristotelean magnanimity is not inherently at odds with Christian humility, as Thomas Aquinas observes (ST II-II q129 a3 ad 4; see Irwin 220). G. K. Chesterton, Wilson’s favorite papist, notes in Orthodoxy that some people have a false humility that wrongly avoids ambition:

[W]hat we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. . . . The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.

I am not alone in my appreciation of DeMars’s willingness to speak with Wilson and Rigney, although it would be nice to see elder statesmen of evangelicalism join the conversation. After all, in Christian brotherhood, don’t we prefer dialogue over monologue? DeMars displayed his own magnanimity and showcased that of Wilson, Rigney, and other Moscow folks by extension. Moscow Magnanimity is likely to continue moving the Overton window among evangelicals. True, because of the sunk cost fallacy, it is possible that Big Eva will never fully end their own Moscow embargo. But magnanimity is attractive for those who have ears to hear, and Junior Eva is listening.

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Jeremy Larson

Jeremy Larson is an assistant professor in the Humanities Department at Regent University specializing in seventeenth-century literature. He also teaches in the university's Honors College. He has published book reviews for Front Porch Republic, The Gospel Coalition, Christianity & Literature, Modern Reformation, and Mythlore, and he has contributed chapters to books on Paradise Lost and young adult fantasy. He can be found on Twitter/X @themundanemuse

5 thoughts on “Moscow Magnanimity

  1. Why does this website struggle with logic so much?

    If Wilson is a false teacher, as many claim, none of this is relevant. Paul is pretty clear on how we should regard false teachers.

    But instead, you erect a strawman, as if Wilson’s magnanimity is the true issue. It isn’t.

    If you’re going to defend Wilson, address his accusers. Discuss the issues of crudeness, theological questions around federal vision, and alleged cover-up of sexual abuse. Don’t erect a strawman.

    1. If Wilson is a false teacher as you elude to, then point out directly which teaching is false. Don’t erect dead beaten horses which have already been discredited.

      1. I didn’t elude to that. It goes without saying — clearly you agree — that many think the way Wilson behaves is unbiblical. That doesn’t make it true. But to write an article about other behaviors and defend them, without addressing the claims, is dishonest.

        It’s like writing an article about how good Hitler was at art without addressing anything else. It may be true…but it’s utterly irrelevant.

        This article sums it up nicely.

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