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.         

Art

A super article in the New Scientist explains – as artists have intuited down the centuries – that the brain works to a different set of rules than the real world.

We have misread shadows and mirrors from Velazquez Rokeby Venus to Bond’s Scaramanga but most of the time we get it right. I’m going to look up Patrick Cavanagh of Paris Descartes University’s work, but in essence the visual tricks of Dali and Escher and the deeper emotional connection made by a Monet are no accidents.

As the New Scientist summarises ‘You can’t do a proper analysis of all the laws of physics in in the 10th of a second it takes your visual system to form an image so we evolved a simple set of rules that can be computed rapidly without requiring a large proportion of the brain.’ This also means it can be tricked.

I think our visual system may be like our ‘ethical system’. We have evolved a simple, but very powerful set of rules constantly improved by experience through our Bayesian brains. However like an untrained artistic eye if we don’t examine and assess our moral judgements we may not learn and improve and thus fall short of a virtuous and fulfilled life. We can all draw an object but very few can render it perfectly or change the way others see it. Our ‘Ethical eye’ although primarily instinctive is worth training I believe.

I also think the odd checklist helps. I read something a few months back about the astonishing improvements in surgical outcomes achieved by simply running through a checklist – not least checking “have I left any surgical instruments in the person”. Pilots have known it for years, rudders – check, instruments – check, honesty – check, courage – check.

An Aristotelian list is not a bad checklist:

Courage
Temperance
Liberality
Magnificence
Pride
Honour
Good Temper
Friendliness
Truthfulness
Wit
Friendship

11 is a lot to remember, but the good thing of course is I don’t have to. Simply follow my gut (it’s all simplified, instinctive and instantly available in there) and periodically assess and train the Bayesian brain.

Much easier than painting a Monet.