Magnificence

I’ve talked to a lot of people about the Aristotelian virtue of Magnificence in the last two weeks. Magnificence feels a bit strong as a virtue one might aspire to these days, and indeed the good news is that most of us needn’t bother according to the great Greek. 

Magnificence lies in ‘fitting expense on a large scale’. Although ‘fitting’ is relative in Aristotle’s view, it does require significant means. A poor man cannot be a Magnificent man, as he lacks the means to spend ‘largely and yet becomingly’. 

On a trip to France last week I encountered a good deal of magnificence. I visited the British Embassy in Paris and saw the throne room, Napoleonic bed, victorian silver and cutting edge modern art which is a reminder that although less so these days the UK was and still can be magnificent from time to time. A walk through Paris reminds one that France has been and can still be too. So there’s potentially a lot to like about magnificence. But it’s also potentially problematic. 

Minor Magnificence may not be impossible for many in the developed world today – a simple ball or cup is a magnificent gift for a small child as Aristotle points out – but it is surely impossible for the vast majority in most of the world. Magnificence is exclusive and most people are excluded.

So should I resent the few who or born to or acquire the means to be truly magnificent. Should I despise those with the wealth to equip a great house, give a public spectacle or patronise the arts? If you’d have asked me a few weeks ago I fancy I would have said on balance yes. Even though many of the Magnificent men and the fewer Magnificent women of our times give greatly to good causes I would have begrudged them their wealth on grounds of excess and privilege. 

But now I’m not so sure. First begrudging or despising the Magnificent hurts me not them. Second it’s not necessarily their fault they are rich. And third, even if it is, the virtue of Magnificence is a tough one to pull off ‘fittingly’.

According to Aristotle, with his pleasing circularity which invites us to use our own powers of introspection and intuition: it is characteristic of the Magnificent man to do magnificently whatever he is about. I know a Magnificent man who has great wealth and does do pretty magnificently whatever he is about. I was puzzled when I first encountered his wealth as to why I didn’t really resent it. It is because he keeps a great house, gives public spectacles, patronises the arts and gives to good causes – fittingly. He does Magnificently what he is about. 

If everyone with great wealth did as he does there would be less poverty and inequality and more aestheticism and eudaemonia in the world. It feels strange not to be a ‘class warrior’ on this or decide ‘if you can’t beat them joins them’ as I tried to for some years when I slavishly pursued pay rises myself. But I’m more relaxed on this now. 

Magnificence on an Aristotelian scale is a virtue I don’t have to worry about but I now have a constructive and positive frame to assess the virtue of people of great wealth. And this means I can be around Magnificent people without resentment,  anger or jealousy. I can enjoy them doing Magnificently all they are about and feel enriched and not diminished myself.         

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