Maximus

“Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only they truly live.”

“Not satisfied to merely keep good watch over their own days, they annex every age to their own. All the harvest of the past is added to their store.”

“Only an ingrate would fail to see that these great architects of venerable thoughts were born for us and have designed a way of life for us.” —SENECA

Having dabbled and somewhat discarded it once before, I’m greatly warming to Stoicism…

The Daily StoicbyRyan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman: offers a year’s worth (in 366 date-stamped, bite-sized nuggets) of: “wisdom, perseverance, and the ‘Art of Living’: from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.”

I find a nightly dose is a great way to take the good advice on board… As the foreword sets out:

Stoicism was once one of the most popular civic disciplines in the West, practiced by the rich and the impoverished, the powerful and the struggling alike in the pursuit of the Good Life.

But over the centuries, knowledge of this way of thinking, once essential to so many, slowly faded from view.

Except to the most avid seekers of wisdom, Stoicism is either unknown or misunderstood. Indeed, it would be hard to find a word dealt a greater injustice at the hands of the English language than “Stoic.”

To the average person, this vibrant, action-oriented, and paradigm-shifting way of living has become shorthand for “emotionlessness.”

I have to say that’s where I’d largely left Stoicism; an argument for detachment and disengagement. But as ‘The Daily Stoic underlines:

What a sad fate for a philosophy that even one of its occasional critics, Arthur Schopenhauer, would describe as “the highest point to which man can attain by the mere use of his faculty of reason.”

Channelling my ‘inner Buddhist’ and combining it with Aristotle’s worldly Ethics, I now see things very differently. Stoicism is basically the best of both, applied to the secular world…

Holiday and Hanselman agree:

It has been the doers of the world who found that it provides much needed strength and stamina for their challenging lives… as a practical philosophy they found Stoicism perfectly suited to their purposes.

Born in the tumultuous ancient world, Stoicism took aim at the unpredictable nature of everyday life and offered a set of practical tools meant for daily use.

Our modern world may seem radically different than the painted porch (Stoa Poikilê) of the Athenian Agora and the Forum and court of Rome.

But the Stoics took great pains to remind themselves that they weren’t facing things any different than their own forebears did, and that the future wouldn’t radically alter the nature and end of human existence.

One day is as all days, as the Stoics liked to say.

They continue:

Making its way from Greece to Rome, Stoicism became much more practical to fit the active, pragmatic lives of the industrious Romans.

As Marcus Aurelius (above) observed:

“I was blessed when I set my heart on philosophy that I didn’t fall into the sophist’s trap, nor remove myself to the writer’s desk, or chop logic, or busy myself with studying the heavens.”

Instead, he (and Epictetus and Seneca) focused on questions we continue to ask ourselves today:

“What is the best way to live?”

“What do I do about my anger?”

“What are my obligations to my fellow human beings?”

“I’m afraid to die; why is that?”

“How can I deal with the difficult situations I face?”

“How should I handle the success or power I hold?”

Stoics frame their work around three critical disciplines:

The Discipline of Perception (how we see and perceive the world around us)

The Discipline of Action (the decisions and actions we take—and to what end)

The Discipline of Will (how we deal with the things we cannot change, attain clear and convincing judgment, and come to a true understanding of our place in the world)

Master these and you master yourself and your world:

By controlling our perceptions, the Stoics tell us, we can find mental clarity.

In directing our actions properly and justly, we’ll be effective.

In utilizing and aligning our will, we will find the wisdom and perspective to deal with anything the world puts before us.

Far from sombre and sober, Stoics believed:

That by strengthening themselves and their fellow citizens in these disciplines, they could cultivate resilience, purpose, and even joy.

The Daily Stoic Stoic offers some down to earth Roman ‘Maxims’ to add to La Rochefoucauld’s French fancies.

In what has been a very trying week at work, this one certainly helped:

“You shouldn’t give circumstances the power to rouse anger, for they don’t care at all.” —MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 7.38

But the best and most useful maxim this week, came to me by text message from my old boss:

Worthy of Maximus that one.

History

The horrors of the 1930s and 40s seem far more than a lifetime away. But they aren’t. Accompanied by the flicker of black and white, the terrifying demagogues of the 20th century now seem like exaggerated fiction. But they weren’t.

In his Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the era:

“Rarely perhaps has any generation shown so little interest in any kind of theoretical or systematic ethics. The academic question of a system of ethics seems to be of all questions the most superfluous. 

The reason for this is not to be sought in any supposed ethical indifference on the part of our period. On the contrary it arises from the fact that our period, more than any earlier period in the history of the west, is oppressed by a superabounding reality of concrete ethical problems. 

It was otherwise when the established orders of life were still so stable as to leave room for no more than minor sins of human weakness, sins which generally remained hidden, and when the criminal was removed as abnormal from the horrified or pitying gaze of society. In these conditions ethics could be an interesting theoretical problem.

Today there are once more villains and saints, and they are not hidden from the public view. Instead of the uniform greyness of the rainy day we now have the black storm-cloud and the brilliant lightning flash. The outlines stand out with exaggerated sharpness. Reality lays itself bare. Shakespeare’s characters walk in our midst.”

But lest we be complacent about a world which seems long gone, a few pages later Bonhoeffer describes the nature of the tyrant:

“For the tyrannical despiser of men, popularity is the token of the highest love of mankind. His secret profound mistrust for all human beings he conceals behind words stolen from a true community. 

In the presence of a crowd he professes to be one of their number, and at the same time he sings his own praises with the most revolting vanity and scorns the rights of every individual. 

He thinks people stupid and they become stupid. He thinks them weak, and they become weak. He thinks them criminal and they become criminal. His most sacred earnestness is a frivolous game. His hearty and worthy solicitude is the most impudent cynicism. 

In his profound contempt for his fellow-men he seeks the favour of those he despises, and the more he does so the more certainly he promotes the deification of his own person by the mob.”

Chilling. As it was, so it threatens to be again; history has a bad habit of repeating itself if we don’t learn from it.

Lance

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Last night I stayed up late, to watch a remarkable documentary on a fallen hero of our times – Lance Armstrong. On the day the Tour de France hit London, it couldn’t have been better timed.

The ordinary background, the “f#ck ’em all” early years, the descent into cancer and vicious chemo, the fight back and astonishing, triumphant 1999 Tour de France victory. Then the doping rumours, allegations, flat denials, Feds, hubris, betrayals (of him and by him) and the final fall.

His is an epic story of Greek proportions. But I come away confused… Charming, brutal, controlling, intimidating. But now vanquished: a quieter, reflective and for me, a better man.

A modern Achilles, it’s not for nothing that all Greek tragedy had a narrative arc. There are no gods in real life, only mortals. And in acknowledging he has done wrong – albeit too late and with a trail of lies and damaged lives in his wake – he has begun the steep climb to redemption.

I wish him well on that road.

Bayesian Ethics

As I’ve written before, one of my past wrestles is with Utilitarianism: that the moral act is the one with the best consequences regardless of what rules it breaks. I’m now firmly Aristotelian – aka a ‘virtue ethicist’ – we are what we repeatedly do.

But Anthony Appiah the Princeton Philosopher has some challenging things to say about virtue ethics in a Philosophy Bites podcast – including some experiments. And I’m inclined to listen. I like a bit of scientific method.

I like Appiah’s ‘Cosmopolitanism’ too which has helped me articulate my ‘live and let live’ theory of internationalism at work. Humans value culture. Different cultures value different things. And Cosmopolitanism says, short of harm, we should let them. Which I think is about right.

Appiah challenges virtue with ‘experimental ethics’ – seeing what people actually do, rather than what we theorise, and looking inside people’s heads in brain scanners. He finds, for example, nearly everyone gets more generous to strangers if they find a suitably planted $10 note on the floor.

His conclusion is that the idea of a ‘moral’ person in the Aristotelian sense is not borne out by the experimental reality. For him, we make moral choices based on context, stimulus and ‘in the moment’ not based on ‘character’. I don’t entirely agree, but it’s interesting stuff.

Learning to use the head to override the instinctive ‘yuk’ response or being over-influenced by the situation is one of the things he advocates. But only sparingly. Here’s where rules, norms and culture – plus a moral education – might help. But he’s not for becoming too calculating.

He disagrees with Utilitarianism for example. First, because it doesn’t capture the experimental reality of how we respond to moral situations. Second, because were to implement calculating ‘consequentialism’ wide-scale it would dramatically impoverish human existence. Largely because promoting purely rational calculation would tend to demote difference and different views.

Cultural Cosmopolitanism makes life interesting and liveable. And if you’re going to accept difference in culture you have to accept it in worldview and ethics too. That people care about different things is what makes people interesting – and maddening.

I personally think virtue and ‘outlying’ single instances of behaviour are not incompatible. I don’t doubt that you can get very good and very bad moral choices and behaviours out of me if you significantly change my conditions and stimuli.

I also think that the prospects of me making better or worse choices are determined, yes, by the context and circumstances – but crucially, combined with who I am. And who I am is the product of a life lived, previous choices made, data, concepts and theories within and Bayesian probability mashing all that together in a nano-second every time I act.

I think there is ‘virtue’ and I have a ‘character’. It’s just that the complexity of the probabilistic calculations – all done subconsciously by that marvel of existence, a human brain – mean Utilitarianism is too crude and individual ethical experiments are too simple to anything like capture them. I return to my own dictum – if the human brain were simple enough to understand, we’d be too simple to understand it.

So I like Appiah’s ethical experiments – they deserve a well signposted place in my Bayesian brain’s data set – and I’ve shared then with others too to influence them. But virtue, character and Aristotle’s ‘I am what I repeatedly do’ still work best for me. Thanks to Appiah though, I’m also a Cosmopolitan. So I’m delighted to weigh a well-wrought difference of opinion in the Bayesian ethical balance. It all goes in the mix.

Bonhoeffer

I quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer to a friend the other day. Bonhoeffer stood up to the Nazis and perished for it in a concentration camp. He is celebrated (pictured on the right) as a 20th Century martyr in Westmister Abbey.

A Christian theologian and a man of obvious moral courage, Bonhoeffer argued – like Kierkegaard before him – for a more direct spiritual connection with God. One mediated by fewer trappings of religion.

He believed we have a deep moral sense, beyond the reach of rational thought which is both our guide and goad. He said our conscience comes from a “depth which lies beyond a man’s own will and his own reason and it makes itself heard as the call of human existence to unity with itself.”

For Bonhoeffer, guilt is a warning about our ‘doings’ conflicting with our ‘being’. A guilty conscience arises when we lose the unity – what some people call ‘congruence’. Our conscience is, thus, like an alarm bell, warning us of the risk of damage to ourselves.

I’m not sure I agree with Bonhoeffer that conscience lies beyond the ‘event horizon’ of thought and will. I’m more with Aristotle that we simply ‘are what we repeatedly do’. For me, reason, will, our actions and character all come together in an intertwined person. But the Bonhoeffer quote I read out today is still a powerful one:

The man with a conscience fights a lonely battle against the overwhelming forces of inescapable situations which demand moral decisions despite the likelihood of adverse consequences.

Bonhoeffer found himself up against truly overwhelming forces and a tragically inescapable situation – it cost him his life. He took moral decisions despite the likelihood, entirely realised, of very adverse consequences. Whether he found it in faith or forged it through reason, that is moral courage.

For Aristotle, courage is the ‘mean’ between confidence and fear. To respond to ‘overwhelming forces of inescapable situations’ with the courage of Bonhoeffer requires a strength built within – the confidence in the importance of ‘unity with oneself’ overcoming the fear of ‘adverse consequences’ and considering them a price worth paying.

But what’s the practical day to day application here? Like the other 20th century martyrs in Westminster Abbey, Bonhoeffer faced extraordinary challenges. History has judged him simply and kindly. Most of us live with less extreme, more attritional moral challenges and choices – do I say something or keep quiet, do I stand up for something or let it go, do I join in talking someone down or keep my mouth shut. And implicit in Bonhoeffer’s words are the fact that others won’t always understand and won’t always judge you kindly.

The thought that conscience is a warning that expedient ‘doings’ might undermine my ‘being’ is a valuable one. It’s less about carrying guilt and more about making choices. It achieves some of what Bonhoeffer would no doubt have wished for us; a simple internaliseable test of our actions.

For me, I think it may be this simple: if I can look others in the eye and myself in the mirror – even amidst the adverse consequences of inescapable situations – I know my ‘self’ is in ok shape. If not my ‘doings’ are damaging my ‘being’.

The Good Life

I used to be a strict Act Utilitarian – the moral act is the one that produces the most overall happiness or least harm. The undergraduate philosophy case studies all seemed clear cut to me.

Knowing what we know now, would I have assassinated Hitler in 1934? Sure would. If a sadistic Generalissimo passed me a gun to kill an innocent in exchange for the lives of several others, would I pull the trigger? Under duress and with no alternatives, reluctantly, yes.

To my untrained late-teen moral mind, rational calculations seemed to provide a better framework than the rules of religions and imperfect man-made moral codes. Undergraduate philosophy taught me how to ‘reductio ad absurdam’ any nuance or shade of grey. Life was black and white. Add it up, make the call, don’t expect to be understood, live with the consequences.

But the pointer on my my moral compass started twitching in my mid-thirties. Act Utilitarianism can feel calculating, look immoral and set bad precedents. A good outcome is a bad justification for a rotten process. Some things shouldn’t go under the wheels as we drive hard to a destination. We have to stand for some things, or we stand for nothing. Sometimes what the head can justify sickens the heart.

Enter Aristotle in my Forties. Eudaimonia, arete and telos – flourishing, excellence and fulfilling our innate potential – they feel like the ingredients of a good life to me. There are some rules and a handful of prohibitions in Aristotle’s Ethics. But ‘moderation in all things’ is the basic gist. Thinking and talking about Aristotle this week, I have a clearer idea why I prefer the life’s work of ‘eudaimonia’, to the instant gratification of ‘happiness’, as a moral end.

Happiness is a mental ‘state’. In eras where life was nasty, brutish and short it must have been pretty rare. Perhaps no surprise then that ‘happiness’ bubbled to the surface with Bentham and Mill as the ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ were robbing people of eudaimonia and the ‘telos’ of crafts and village life. William Blake, whose poems I’m reading at the moment, gives a flavour of this in ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’.

But in the affluent, materialist, 21st century Western world, I fear happiness is a false god. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll put transitory hedonistic pleasure on an altar. Thinking about this, I was reminded of another undergraduate philosophy ‘thought experiment’ – the brain in a vat. What if all my sensations are fed me by a mad scientist thorough electrodes plugged into my brain?

Here in the ‘real’ world we are closer and closer to being able to live purely for audio-visual, digital and chemical pleasures without needing a mad scientist. People need to participate in their lives not plug in, switch off and get high. This is substantially Csikszentmihalyi’s case for embroidering our lives with varied challenges, new skills and personal growth.

Aristotle gives life an achievable and worthwhile end – to be the best of who we are. It is an optimistic, forgiving, perfectible, self-improving and thoroughly ‘open system’ – in his nutshell: ‘we are what we repeatedly do’.

Virtues and excellence grow with our actions, a little reflection and lots of practice. There’s plenty of room in Aristotle for happiness – especially through friends. There’s an explicit acknowledgement of ‘flow’ – the work of the harp player is to play the harp, and of the good harp player to play the harp well. But above all the good life is the one we lead every day by growing, improving, refining, learning, reflecting and acting.

I think Aristotle trains core moral strength better than the rational calculation of Utilitarianism. Better to act, learn, feel and constantly improve than use intellectual brute force to calculate the answers. Life is more Bayesian than arithmetic, more non-linear than deterministic. It’s a life’s work to work on the answers for myself – and to enjoy the journey.

Truisms ii) Sad but true

Three of Jenny Holzer’s truisms get under my skin. I was talking to another father on Friday, who’s just become a grandfather, and they positively annoyed him.

They are:

Fathers often use too much force

A man can’t know what it is to be a mother

Children are the most cruel of all

Sadly, I find all three of these to be true. Perhaps they are related. As a father you have strength, the loudest voice and sometimes a short temper. I never hit my kids, but I do shout at them and I know when I am imposing my will upon them. Holzer’s truism hurts because as fathers we all know we sometimes don’t explain – we just impose. And in imposing we show our impotence and lack of imagination. Force is failure.

No man can know what it is to be a mother. I was at the birth of both of my children and could but marvel at the primal forces I witnessed. The stamina, then strength was stunning as the storm of labour broke in waves over my suffering, then triumphing partner. Carrying a child, giving birth and the bond mothers have is something men can try to imagine, but can never know. That is our tragedy.

Children are the most cruel of all. We have all been one and to have them is to be constantly reminded of what we all did to each other as kids. It is their way of testing, learning and searching but it hurts all the same. Children are the proof of Aristotle’s thesis that no-one is born with a moral compass. We learn – or not – from our upbringing. That’s why fathers and mothers feel such great responsibility and are hurt and lash out when they fall short.

I find these three Truisms sad but true. Two I can’t do anything about, one I can. Holzer releasing it to burrow into my subconscious will help make sure I do.

Cosmopolitanism

last week, in the middle of an all-day management board full of metrics, deficits, claw backs and targets I popped out to talk to 59 fiercely bright teenagers from 59 different countries on a Global Citizenship programme.

As the bright faces from many places surged into the room, I was coming to terms with the fact that the projector was bust and my well crafted presentation on geopolitics and culture was in tatters. Ho hum. So I went for Plan B which was speak from the heart. I opened with the founding articles of UNESCO’s constitution from 1945:

“Since wars begin in the minds of men it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed. Ignorance of each others ways and lives has been a common cause throughout the history of mankind of suspicion and mistrust [which] have all to often broken into war… And that the wide diffusion of culture and the education of humanity… are indispensable to the dignity of man and constitute a sacred duty which all nations must fulfil in a spirit of mutual assistance and concern.”

As said to them, I am a firm believer in ‘founding moments’. It takes great people, but also special circumstances to commit to a different and better way.

I fielded questions about my organisation’s work in education and culture in India, Burma, Aghanistan, Kyrgistan, China and Iran. I talked about what other countries want from the UK and are prepared to work with us on, which varies widely according to the regime, religious beliefs and customs of different countries.

The last question though was a tricky one. “What values do you espouse when you work in other countries and how do you guard against cultural imperialism?” A year ago I’d have struggled with that.

I used to be torn between recognising that if you carry too much ideological baggage or confront cultural differences you get ignored or thrown out, but by the same token you have to stand for something otherwise you feel compromised and weak. I felt that Human Rights were probably where you draw the line, but beyond that I wasn’t sure.

Then I heard Antony Appiah on a Philosophy Bites podcast talking about Cosmopolitanism and it gave me the missing piece in my jigsaw. To paraphrase Wikipedia:

Appiah says Cosmopolitanism is “universality plus difference”, accepting that all of us are fundamentally the same, but we are also all different. He says universality takes precedence over difference and therefore that different cultures are respected “not because cultures matter in themselves, but because people matter, and culture matters to people.” Therefore cultural differences are to be respected in so far as they are not harmful to people and do not conflict with our universal concern for every human’s life and well-being.

When I heard that podcast, some key things slotted into place for me.

So as I said to the 59 young future Global Citizens, I now believe our people should travel light when it comes to values and be interested and curious about difference – even difference we don’t find attractive or acceptable. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be stitched into the lining of our jackets, not printed on our tee shirts.

If one of our people finds themselves in a situation where they feel their human rights, or those of another, are being compromised they should feel able to leave. They should be confident the organisation would support them in that. But we are here to engage with difference not shy away from it, we should feel able to say what we each believe and how things are where we come from, but we are not there to singlehandedly confront and change the beliefs of others to be more like ours.

My daughter and I regularly read “We are all born free”, Amnesty International’s super children’s version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She chooses it these days not me.

The 30 Articles, simply put, unarguable, complete and evocatively illustrated. A six year old can largely understand them. And a 42 year old can feel pride in humanity’s occasional capacity to transcend its divisions and write and commit itself to something of lasting value.

I think Cosmopolitanism, with the protection of Human Rights as a floor, is the right answer to a world of cultural difference.

Anger

Last weekend I had a ‘falling out’ at work on my mind. Someone had confronted me and asked to come to an important board meeting and I’d said No. The following morning the person stormed in and accused me of being irascible and aggressive before storming out and slamming the door. I was surprised, hurt and sad.

It so happened last weekend I had some time to kill on a train. So while brooding I read a bit of Aristotle’s ethics on the topic of anger. In general my temper is slow to rise. I can soak up a lot and am quite stoical but then when it (unusually) snaps I can say hurtful things, sometimes clinically hurtful, which I regret, often for a long time.

One of the things I’ve tried to do – and having kids has helped with this – is to connect a bit more with my emotions. Part of this involves getting cross more readily but less severely and responding better ‘in the moment’ rather than bottling things up, brooding or dishing up verbal vengeance. Aristotle would approve. For him to be too slow to anger was as much a defect as to be too quick. The ‘golden mean’ of ‘appropriate’ and ‘fitting’ behaviour is what he is all about.

When I lived in France in the 1990s, shouting, being rude and saying what you thought was a normal part of French office life. I remember the first time after extreme provocation that I lost it with someone thinking “That’s it, game over, one of us will have to resign”. The next day the guy I’d had a shouting match with greeted me like a long lost brother and shook me warmly by the hand. It was as if at last he felt he could work with and trust me now we’d had a stand up row. In my experience the ‘golden mean’ for anger in France is very different to that in the UK – just look at their street protests…

So why did I feel so bad about my spat the other week? Partly because the person I’d said ‘no’ to sharply had felt hurt by it. I was also, in truth, worried in case it turned into a grievance or an HR problem. But most of all I was worried that maybe I was out of line, and I had been aggressive, although it hadn’t felt like it at the time. Cue Aristotle for a soothing intellectual balm from 2500 years ago:

“At any given time it is possible to praise someone who seems deficient in anger, and at another praise someone who is excessively angry. There is no simple formula to determine how a man should act in a given situation or how far he can err before he is considered at fault. This difficulty of definition is inherent in all cases of perception. Questions of degree are bound up in the circumstances of particular cases. The solution in every case rests on one’s own moral sensibility. But this much is clear: in all areas of human conduct the mean is the most desirable and its attainment is the source of all moral virtue.”

I felt better for reading that. On Monday I went to talk to my accuser. I explained how the incident and subsequent exchanges had made me feel, I shared some context on the situation, my response and the history of previous board meetings. The result was a rapprochement and reconciliation. I achieved conciliation without contrition.

I’m still left with a question though: what is the golden mean for anger in the modern workplace. I remember coming back the the UK after 5 years of working in France and quite missing their candour and frankness. Sometimes people were really rude, but problems got sorted and people said what they thought.

Perhaps a bit more honest emotion in UK workplaces might be a good thing. I’m trying to show more – and feel more – these days, and it seems to work more often than not, but it’s important to be governed by the ‘golden mean’.

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.