The Magnanimous Dr. Strange

Campy, stylized, and loaded with MacGuffins, Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is the most fantastical Marvel movie to date. The film’s central conceit is that versions of certain people exist across universes, despite a variety of natural and conventional differences.

In each universe, Strange either meets his alternate selves head-on or hears tell of their exploits. The differences between these universes range from the believable (red lights mean “go”) to the fantastical (everyone is made of paint). But in every universe, Dr. Strange is the same.

Noble, self-assured, and aloof, Dr. Strange is a perfect example of what Aristotle called in his Nicomachean Ethics the megalopsychos, or the “great-souled man.” But while each Dr. Strange we encounter seems to have greatness-of-soul, only the film’s protagonist successfully channels that greatness into a prudent, heroic temperament.

By drawing out these differences, Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness recovers an Aristotelian understanding of “greatness” as a qualified good. And by showing why only certain great men become heroes, the film reminds us of the need to temper greatness with moderation and friendship.

According to Aristotle, greatness-of-soul is “like a kind of ornament of the virtues, for it makes them greater and does not arise without them.” The great-souled man, then, has command of such virtues as courage and magnificence—the ability to “contemplate what is fitting and to spend great amounts in a suitable way”—two traits that most of the Avengers, Dr. Strange included, can be said to possess.

But greatness-of-soul is more than just command of the virtues. Often translated as “magnanimity,” megalopsychia is a much deeper, more complicated concept. Like Dr. Strange himself, megalopsychia is a bit of a mixed bag, paradoxically combining some of the best human traits in a most unlikable way. Indeed, readers of the Ethics will find that much of what Aristotle says about the great-souled man could double as a description of Dr. Strange.

Dr. Strange shows that despite his command of the virtues, the great-souled man is by no means the most pleasant man.

The similarities begin at the most basic level. “Slowness of movement seems to be the mark of the great-souled man,” Aristotle says “as well as a deep voice and steady speech.” As portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, Strange moves slowly and methodically and speaks in a wry, steely baritone. Judging solely based on physical attributes, one would be forgiven for thinking director Sam Raimi based his casting call on Ethics Book 4, Chapter 3.

But the similarities are not just skin-deep. For instance, Aristotle says the great-souled man “deems himself worthy of great things and is worthy of them.” Dr. Strange, who begrudges losing the title “Sorcerer Supreme” to a fellow Master of the Mystic Arts named Wong, and who we learn is “even more arrogant” than his counterparts in other universes, certainly deems himself worthy of greatness. And since he’s saved the world no fewer than three times, Strange certainly seems worthy of great things.

Strange’s heroic deeds also count him among the great-souled men. The megalopsychos “will hazard great dangers” and even “throw away his life” for the defense of his community. Strange constantly puts himself in harm’s way to defend humanity, notably squaring off against Thanos, the extraterrestrial villain responsible for disappearing half of the Earth’s population in the Avengers films. And, since Strange is one of those whom Thanos “disappears,” he does throw his life away for the greater good—at least momentarily.

But the great-souled man’s heroism gives him little pleasure. He “is not given to admiration, since nothing is great to him,” and does not even take pleasure in remembering his own great deeds. Strange perfectly embodies this latter tendency towards the end of the film. When meditating on the fact that happiness seems to elude him, he quips “you’d think that saving the world would get you there, but…”

“But,” indeed. Dr. Strange shows that despite his command of the virtues, the great-souled man is by no means the most pleasant man. Having reached the peak of human excellence, the great-souled man “justly looks down on others” and “honors few things.” Ultimately, the great-souled man “is necessarily incapable of living with a view to another.”

This particular self-sufficiency calls to mind Aristotle’s contention in the Politics that only gods and beasts are capable of living outside the city. Most modern superhero films explore this tension, either by showing that heroes have more in common with villains than average citizens, or by asking outright whether the truly super can safely live among the merely human. Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness takes this analysis a step further, by showing how Dr. Strange’s greatness manifests itself in different contexts.

In most universes, Strange seems only to embody the worst manifestations of the great-souled man. Dismissive to the point of neglect, he sacrifices friends and loved ones in reckless bids to save the world. Sometimes Strange’s actions lead to his own death and the destruction of entire universes. In the cases where he lives, his dabbling in dark magic transforms him into some kind of three-eyed monster. Lonely, angry, and quite literally beastly, these versions of Dr. Strange show what too often becomes of greatness.

The “main” Dr. Strange certainly has his shortcomings, and makes his fair share of questionable decisions. But in the end, he not only manages to save the world, but seems to find happiness within it. This is because he, unlike his counterparts, realizes that happiness requires more than just greatness-of-soul.

Aristotle also understood this, and he left us clues to this effect in the structure of the Ethics. Though he dubs greatness-of-soul the “crown” of the virtues, he places it fifth in his list of the eleven moral virtues. After megalopsychia comes gentleness, friendliness, and ultimately justice.

Moreover, Aristotle follows the moral virtues with the intellectual virtues, a list that includes prudence, the ability to “deliberate nobly…about the sorts of things conducive to living well in general.” The intellectual virtues are in turn followed by Aristotle’s discussions of self-restraint and friendship, both of which are key to a truly happy life. 

The Ethics’ structure thus conceals a hidden truth: greatness-of-soul is not really the peak of human excellence. For a man to be truly virtuous and happy, he must temper greatness-of-soul with gentleness and friendliness, and ground his greatness in a sense of justice. He must balance moral excellence with prudence and self-restraint. And he must open himself up to true friendship.

Our hero is certainly gentler than the more beastly Doctors Strange we encounter. He certainly exhibits more self-restraint and prudence than those who harm themselves and destroy whole universes in their quests to save the world. Perhaps most importantly, this Dr. Strange is both friendly, and capable of true friendship. We see this in his friendly banter with Wong, and his collaboration with America Chavez, a universe-hopping teenager whom a different Dr. Strange leaves to die in pursuit of power.

We see, then, that the capacity for true friendship is not only the key to Dr. Strange’s happiness. It is also the thing that keeps him from becoming a threat to his fellow citizens and the political community they inhabit. Ultimately, Dr. Strange proves that “the truly great man,” in Daniel J. Mahoney’s formulation, is “a ‘born protector’ and not a tyrant and a destroyer of bodies and souls.”

We may not have to contend with aliens, sorcerers, and inter-dimensional travel. But greatness-of-soul poses the same problems to our political community as it did in Aristotle’s Greece and in Dr. Strange’s Multiverse of Madness. In our world as in theirs, prudence and friendship are needed to ensure that greatness leads to happiness.