The Perils of Magnificence

Illustration: John Kuczala, Wall Street Journal.

This is part one of a two-part series on magnificence, generosity, and virtue.


One of the big issues shaping this election year is public concern with the relationship between charitable giving and political gain. Without taking sides in the debate over whether public officials should also run charitable organizations or foundations, I would like to consider the complicated nature of public giving as an action that can operate both as a virtue and as a vice, sometimes simultaneously. In philosophy, the virtue of public giving is called “magnificence.” While magnificence may seem like generosity, I want to argue that it is in fact a separate virtue, and that there are good reasons for considering it in this way.


In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle claims that magnificence is the virtue of making large expenditures for the public good. As such, it stands between the vices of niggardliness and vulgarity. It is also related to generosity, because the magnificent person, Aristotle says, is generous, though it is not necessarily true that the generous person is magnificent, presumably because not all generous people have the means to spend on a grand scale (Aristotle 1122a18-1122b17). In Practical Intelligence and the Virtues, Daniel C. Russell discusses Aristotle’s view, arguing that magnificence is a specialized virtue that is subordinate to the more basic or primary virtue of generosity. Russell mentions but dismisses Aquinas’ view (following Cicero) that magnificence is subordinate to courage or fortitude (Russell 2009, 219, n. 17). Here I would like to argue that magnificence can be a virtue, and can include, in addition to motives of generosity, motives of courage, as well as of confidence, patience, and perseverance. In expanding the range of motives in this way, I, like Aquinas, follow Cicero. I would also like to demonstrate that magnificence can be a vice, and can include any number of morally unworthy motives, such as the desire to ingratiate oneself, self-aggrandizement, or envy. Finally, I want to suggest that magnificence can be what I call an ‘impure’ virtue. A virtue is impure if the motives it includes are not all morally worthy, but are mixed. A set of mixed motives consists of morally worthy and morally neutral motives. The presence of morally vicious motives in a set renders the set not mixed, but vicious, and can render the trait that includes the set a vice.


Magnificent actions must be on a grand scale, fitting to the occasion, and manifested in tasteful displays of wealth. The appropriate sphere of magnificence is mainly large public expenditures, though secondarily, the magnificent person may make large private outlays as befits his wealth and station in life. As to public displays of magnificence, Aristotle gives the examples of putting on a tasteful public play or outfitting a warship for the city’s fleet. As to private displays, Aristotle claims that magnificence is found in one-off private galas, such as a wedding, or in events that concern the entire city, such as receiving important foreign delegations. Magnificence is a mean state between vulgarity, which is excess, and niggardliness, which is deficiency. The magnificent person will aim at what is fine, and spend gladly and readily. He will be like a “scientific expert” – able to observe what the fitting amount of expenditure is, and to spend in the appropriate way. He will spend what is appropriate to the achievement being celebrated, or, Aristotle says, even in excess. (The excess Aristotle here has in mind is, presumably, tasteful and not vulgar.)


It seems correct to say that magnificence is related to generosity at least in the sense that reasons of generosity are necessary for genuinely magnificent action. It seems correct to say this because both magnificence and generosity are concerned with giving, though magnificence is restricted to a specific sphere of giving whereas generosity ranges more widely. Are there reasons for thinking that magnificent actions can be motivated by reasons other than, and in addition to, generosity? I believe there are. A consideration of these reasons furnishes support for the view that generosity and magnificence are separate virtues.


Russell mentions but dismisses the view, from Aquinas and Cicero, that reasons of courage can motivate magnificent action (2009, 219-220, n. 17). The point is important for Russell. If reasons other than generosity can motivate magnificent action, the case that magnificence is a specification of generosity is at least weakened, and traction can be gained for the notion that magnificence is a separate virtue in its own right. In addition, the point is significant because it invites us to think more broadly about the kinds of reasons that might motivate magnificent action.


Aquinas’s view is, as Russell states, that magnificence is a part of fortitude or courage and is so because magnificence, which Aquinas thinks is concerned specifically with expense, requires that one face losing one’s property (ST 2-2, Q. 134, a. 4). Aquinas follows Cicero, who, as Russell notes, has a wider view of the scope of magnificence than expenditure. Cicero contends: “Fortitude is a deliberate encountering of danger and enduring of labour. Its parts are magnificence, confidence, patience, and perseverance. Magnificence is the consideration and management of important and sublime matters with a certain wide-seeing and splendid determination of mind” (Cicero, On Rhetorical Invention, Book II, Chapter LIV). Aquinas’s idea that magnificence requires courage at the prospect of losing much of one’s wealth, Russell thinks, is weak. I think we should revisit this point, as well as consider the possibility, raised by Cicero’s linkage of magnificence with fortitude, that acts of magnificence can require motives not only of courage, but also, owing to its connection with courage, of confidence, patience, and perseverance.


Following Russell’s argument, if we agree that magnificence requires a certain suite of deliberative skills, we might contend that these would include not only those needed for a lavish yet tasteful display, but also skills of risk assessment. What kinds of risk might exercises of magnificence require one to take and be able to assess? One might have to take the risk, for example, that the tasteful play one subsidizes falls flat, or is rained out, that is, that the occasion is somehow spoiled due to factors beyond one’s control. Then, it seems, one has expended funds for nothing. A magnificent person who nonetheless takes these risks is willing to face the possibility of losing the returns on his investment, which are, presumably, the status and accolades accompanying his being known as the sponsor of a successful public event. A spoiled event could well result in humiliation for its sponsor. If one fails at magnificence, one fails on a grand scale. A magnificent person would not only have to be courageous enough to face that risk, but also have the confidence needed to proceed despite uncertainties and/or the wherewithal to continue magnificent efforts despite a failed attempt. Other kinds of risk seem to be of greater moment. Suppose the magnificent act in question is outfitting a warship to defend the city against enemy forces. Such an undertaking is assuredly not without financial risk. Here one seems to be putting one’s money in harm’s way for the sake of the public good. Why wouldn’t this require the courage to face almost certain financial loss? I am assuming in both kinds of case that the outlay of funds is uninsured – that no “safety net” exists that would enable the magnificent person to recoup financial losses. Granted, in the case of the warship, the risk to the sponsor in financial terms is small in comparison with that taken by those who put their lives at stake – but it is a risk nonetheless – one which is, presumably, taken into account when the sponsor applies his deliberative skills to his assessment of whether to undertake the venture.


There could be significant differences in the bundles of reasons that motivate generosity in general, as opposed to those bundles that motivate magnificence. If so, the two virtues stand on a par in terms of the complexities of the reasons that can respectively contribute to magnificent and generous actions. The two virtues seem differentiated by their ends and purposes. These ends and purposes, in turn, require different kinds of motivations in order to be achieved, and these different kinds of motivations shape the deliberative reasoning employed in the attainment of the ends.


In part two of this post, I will look at the historical example of Italian condottiere during the Renaissance in order to consider how magnificence can be a vice, or at the very least, operate as an impure or mixed virtue.


Works Cited

Aristotle. 1985. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Terence Irwin. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company.

Aquinas, St. Thomas. Summa Theologica 2-2, Q. 134, a. 4. Accessed 28 December 2015.

Cicero. Treatise on Rhetorical Invention, Book II. Accessed 28 October 2015.

Cole, Alison. 1995. Virtue and Magnificence: Art of the Italian Renaissance Courts. Englewoods Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., and New York: Harry N. Abrams Publishing, Inc.

Goldthwaite, Richard. 1993. Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy 1300-1600. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Russell, Daniel. 2009. Practical Intelligence and the Virtues. New York: Oxford University Press.

 Nancy Snow is Director of the Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing at University of Oklahoma and a scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.