Tuesday, May 25, 2021

The Virtue of Magnificence

 Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics (Book IV) distinguishes two virtues concerned with money: liberality and magnificence (megaloprepeia). Liberality covers every aspect of wealth, magnificence covers only expenditure, which makes the latter like just an offshoot of the former, but, Aristotle says, magnificence greatly exceeds liberality in scale. He notes, however, that scale is necessarily relative when we are talking about money, so concludes that 'greatness of scale' is really determined by appropriateness to context: magnificence is spending greatly in doing great things. As he puts it, the magnificent man is like an artisan, seeing what is appropriate and spending on it what is in good taste, focusing on what would be beautiful rather than what it costs. It is between stinginess and vulgarity; the stingy will harm the beauty of the result to save money and the vulgar will harm it by focusing on showing off their wealth rather than the beauty of the result.

He gives a number of  examples of the kind of things he means:

sacred embassy
votive offerings, buildings, and sacrifices
religious services
equipping a chorus
equipping a trireme (which comes up more than once)
receiving a foreign dignitary
diplomatic gifts and counter-gifts
furnishing of house
beautiful ball or bottle (for a child)

It is famously difficult to make complete sense of Aristotle's comments on the virtue. The distinction between liberality and magnificence is hard to make out, since liberality covers all matters of money already, and Aristotle's few comments about the difference -- essentially that magnificence is concerned with greatness and beauty in a way that liberality is not -- are not particularly helpful. It seems like it's a virtue only rich people could have, and Aristotle in fact flatly says that the poor cannot be magnificent because they do not have the funds for spending a lot appropriately. But he repeatedly says that the greatness involved is relative to circumstances, and the example of the child's ball or bottle raises the question of why the poor could not in fact spend appropriately on 'small greatnesses' like that. 

Aquinas has some difficulty with this; he always wants to give Aristotle the benefit of the doubt, if he can, but being Christian he obviously cannot sign on to the notion that there is a special virtue for rich people. Aquinas handles things by splitting up liberality and magnificence -- instead of being related, as Aristotle, seems to treat them, liberality is associated with justice while magnificence is associated with fortitude. Magnificence involves a certain amount of sacrifice and risk. Since the greatness involved is relative, it is clear that the poor can risk or sacrifice in reasonable and appropriate ways to achieve relatively great things.

This is an ingenious solution (and it has a nice symmetry, since Aquinas does something similar with magnanimity, another troublesome greatness virtue). But, while it's dangerous to try to correct Aquinas on the subject of virtues, I think we have room here for a better solution. There are two things that I think provide the materials for a solution:

(1) With the possible exception of the child's ball and bottle (which doesn't seem to be a typical result of magnificence), every example Aristotle gives clearly relates to the good of the city, and Aristotle at several points emphasizes the public nature of these things, that the magnificent do what is publicly honorable, etc. For instance, he explains that the reason the magnificent man spends lavishly on furnishing his house is that houses are public ornaments.

(2) Aristotle clearly characterizes magnificence as a virtue that is concerned with getting a beautiful or fitting result.

A virtue being concerned with beauty and fitting results is generally a sign of a virtue in the temperance family of virtues. So Aquinas's idea of splitting up liberality and magnificence seems sound; but magnificence would on this proposal be a virtue adjacent to temperance, not fortitude. The key point is not risk or sacrifice but beautifying, doing a beautiful job. But more than this, magnificence is concerned specifically with common good in a way that liberality is not.

In ancient Athens, there were taxes, of course, but for particular important expenditures -- like equipping a trireme, or important civic ceremonies, which in the ancient Greek world were all religious -- what would generally happen is that the Assembly would ask the wealthy to pay for them out of their own pockets. And the wealthy would do it, in part because the Assembly is not something you lightly say no to, but also because it earned them respectability, honors, attention, and, of course, good publicity for business. The magnificent man would be someone who, in providing some good for the city, would spend lavishly so that it was well done, but would not make it about himself or his own wealth. It's in this sense, I think, that Aristotle really means that the poor cannot be magnificent (although it is still a weakness in his account): it's not about the bare quantity, it's that, while the rich will regularly have the duty to pay for celebrations and triremes and the like, the city will never expect the poor to pay for these things, and it would be rather absurd for them to try.

But we can be more generous in these matters than Aristotle. Even the poorest of the poor will often spend well, to the extent they can, on a wedding or on hospitality to important figures or on religious services. And these are contributing to common good in their case as much as it would in the case of the wealthy. The poor widow throwing her two mites into the Temple treasury was giving a magnificent gift, relative to her means, to exactly the sort of thing that the magnificent man would. In addition, human beings are social animals, and by pooling our resources can sometimes do impressive things together that none of us could have done individually. Here in Central Texas, there is a set of famous buildings, southeast of Austin near Schulenberg, mostly, called The Painted Churches. In the nineteenth century, there were a lot of Eastern European immigrants pouring into Texas through Galveston. They were tight-knit poor laborer-communities, from Moravia, Poland, eastern Germany, etc. They wanted churches like they had known back home, but were limited by the limits of workmen's wages. So they pooled their funds together and built churches, Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant as they happened to be. They were just ordinary wood and brick churches with steeples, like you find everywhere. But for the inside they hired wandering painters who were from Europe (and thus would know themselves what the inside of European churches were like) to paint and stencil them so that they looked like the great basilicas of Europe. The painters painted the inside of the churches on the inspiration of the European church interiors they remembered enjoying. The people couldn't afford the gold and silver, so they had wood painted in metallic paints; they couldn't afford fine marbles, so they had the woods painted in delicate pastels; wood and stone carving in any large quantity was prohibitively expensive, so they had the beams and panels painted to look like they were carved in intricate designs. Much of it is done so well that the eye cannot easily tell what is two-dimensional and what is three-dimensional. And they are magnificent.

Sanctuary of the Nativity of Mary, Blessed Virgin Catholic Church, also known as the St. Mary Catholic Church, in High Hill, a little community near Schulenburg in Fayette County, Texas LCCN2014631550

(Nativity of Mary Blessed Virgin Catholic Church, High Hill, Texas)

Aristotle notes in a number of places that wealth lies more in the using than the possessing, and it is here that the significance of all of this lies. The existence of the virtue of liberality establishes that part of the rationally necessary use of money is in giving to those in need (which, as it happens, could be our families, friends, and neighbors as well as anyone else). And the existence of the virtue of magnificence also implies something about the rational use of money: part of it concerns what we all have in common. Money well used will meet your own needs, yes, and the needs of others, as these things come up; but money well used will also lavish what is required on making the whole community more beautiful. And this is not a 'rich person thing'; it's part of the rational use of all money. This is what money is for: necessities, gifts, and community.