Virtue and the Pursuit of Ignorance

Frank Gehry BP Pedestrian Bridge. Photo by Chris Smith.


A venerable tradition in philosophy, associated primarily with Aristotle and Plato, maintains that having knowledge is virtuous, while ignorance is a vice. Accordingly, no trait can be a virtue if having that trait requires being ignorant of certain facts. Julia Driver argues, however, most fully in her 2001 book Uneasy Virtue, that certain virtues require ignorance: modesty, blind charity (seeing only the good in people), trust in certain people even in the face of contrary evidence, impulsive courage, and forgiving-and- forgetting. [1] Although I would contest her inclusion of modesty and I see issues about some of the others, I believe that not only is drawing a connection between certain virtues and ignorance fundamentally sound, but the connection extends far beyond Driver’s examples. She has advocated for something very important.


Let’s distinguish two questions about the connection between ignorance and virtue. One is whether being in a state of ignorance is required by certain virtues, and the other is whether it is virtuous in some circumstances to cultivate ignorance, to deliberately be ignorant. In Driver’s examples, one may be ignorant of the value of one’s achievements, or of another’s faults, or of evidence that would cast aspersions on the truthfulness of a longtime friend, or of dangers, but not in every case should that be through choice of a policy not to know certain things. In fact, in some cases (like modesty, in Driver’s view of modesty) it would be odd to cultivate ignorance.[2] She draws a nice distinction between commending and recommending.[3] One might commend someone for trusting another person despite contrary evidence, or for being clueless about another’s faults because one accords everyone the benefit of a doubt, yet not recommend this course to anyone. And in many cases, we have the opposite–being ignorant is not crucial, it’s the pursuit of ignorance, the decision not to find out, that reflects a virtue. It is sometimes tricky to identify and name that virtue, albeit it is fairly easy to say that refraining from learning information in certain cases is “virtuous.” And, further, as my colleagues at the Virtue, Happiness, & Meaning of Life project suggested, in some cases “ignorance” is not the best term; “nescience” is better. But for now I will stick to the term “ignorance” in light of the growing use of the term “virtuous ignorance” even outside philosophical and academic circles. [4]


There are at least three sorts of grounding for virtuous ignorance: pragmatic, conceptual, and normative. In the pragmatic category, knowledge can produce harmful effects. A different case for affirming virtues of ignorance is conceptual: it is part of the definition of the virtue of ignorance that the person possessing the virtues that Driver names is ignorant (or, if you prefer, nescient) of certain facts. Finally, in some instances we might regard some ignorance as virtuous because certain norms require such ignorance.


Here is a partial inventory of cases where the pursuit of ignorance or the ignorance itself is virtuous. I will leave it to readers to sort out which case is which, as well as to figure out whether the grounds for discouraging investigation into truth are pragmatic, conceptual or normative. Additional distinctions may be drawn.


  1. It is virtuous not to pry into other people’s lives—medical records, salaries, sex life– except in cases like police work, congressional probes, and appropriate investigative journalism. In addition jurors may be obligated not to listen to news, peer reviewers should not try to find out who authored the paper they evaluated, and students should not inquire into each others’ grades.
  2. According to a Rawlsian approach, people voting on a policy should try to put themselves behind a veil of ignorance (albeit in most circumstances the veil is perforce imaginary or hypothetical).
  3. Sometimes, refusing to seek further information about a question is beneficial and wise. Thus, inquiring into one’s genetic makeup may result in distress, despair, and immobilization. There is of course a cost to cultivating ignorance as well.
  4. Knowing the future could preclude or diminish choice and responsibility.
  5. In the Kantian tradition, seeking to know metaphysical truth is doubly vicious: it shows foolishness (trying to do the impossible, especially if there are no metaphysical truths!) and arrogance (thinking that one can know certain truths when one actually cannot).
  6. Science tries to combat ignorance and establish knowledge. Surely a widespread and long-standing critique of science is that with knowledge comes power and with power come abuses of power. Are there perhaps areas where science shouldn’t go?
  7. Religion provides several examples of the pursuit of ignorance. In some religious traditions, for example, people are told not to read certain mystical texts until a certain age, or, not at all, save for the elite. Shunning these texts shows the virtue of fidelity to and respect for tradition (the tradition that disallows the reading), as well as humility, since one might recognize that one’s cognitive ability or ability to handle certain material is limited.


To take another example from a religious context (I have Judaism in mind), some argue that it is wrong to inquire into God’s reasons for commandments. The argument goes that (a) we can’t fathom God’s reasons and (b) Although the reasons for particular commandments are knowable, if we come to know them, we might violate them by dint of thinking the reason silly, or inapplicable to the times, or inapplicable to oneself. But the most significant religious example of the virtuous pursuit of ignorance involves theodicy — more precisely, an approach called antitheodicy.[5] As I use the term here, antitheodicy is the position that it is irrational and/or unethical and/or pointless and/or otherwise inappropriate or wrong for theists even to seek theodicies. This position has generally been advanced (when it has been advanced) by authors steeped in Continental philosophy, where metaphysics is eschewed.


The foregoing cases make up a motley crew, but that is precisely the point— if we adopt certain views about particular sorts of cases, the virtuousness of pursuing ignorance proves to be widespread. As I mentioned, certain distinctions have to be drawn among these different cases, for example, between being ignorant and pursuing ignorance and between different groundings for the judgments of vicious and virtuous that figure in these cases. But we can at least say this: Ignorance is not always bliss, but it is remarkable how desirable a commodity it and/or its pursuit may be in the nurturing of virtue. At times it or its pursuit may be morally imperative; but the examples need much further analysis and investigation.


[1] See Julia Driver, Uneasy Virtue (New York: Oxford UP, 2001); “Response to My Critics,” Uitilitas 16 (2004): 33-41. Driver argues for this view about ignorance as part of a larger attack on the notion that virtue per se or virtue across the board requires certain internal, psychological states.

[2] See also Michael Slote, “Driver’s Virtues,” Utilitas 16 (2004): 22-32, at p. 24. Slote adds some interesting cases to the discussion. For example, he argues (25-26) that sometimes it is “a mark of virtue or moral goodness” for an agent to feel guilty about having done something that, unbeknownst to the agent, is in fact not wrong. It speaks well of the agent to be incorrect. Here it is being ignorant that would be virtuous, not cultivating ignorance.

[3] Driver, Uneasy Virtue, 38-39.

[4] Indeed, “virtuous ignorance” has hit a big market.: Googling the term on September 12, 2016 turned up over a million hits for “virtuous ignorance” and “virtues of ignorance” many of them from the social science. (There’s overlap, but the total number is nevertheless striking.) Notably, in the Oscar-winning movie The Birdman, a critic reviews a play by using the phrase “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” In fact, it’s part of the movie’s official title. She meant that Michael Keaton’s movie character’s performance in a play violated convention but was of high quality nonetheless. Sometimes the term is used to commend avoiding learning what experts say (which often is another way of saying that the experts aren’t really experts).

[5]John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (Houndmills; Palgrave, 1985), 6-11.

David Shatz is the Ronald P. Stanton University Professor of Philosophy, Ethics, and Religious Thought, Yeshiva University and a scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Owen Flanagan Joins Virtue Scholars


Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life (VHML) has a new scholar: Philosopher Owen Flanagan of Duke University will join the scholars at their next two working group meetings. Flanagan and our project are already familiar with each other; he was a faculty member during the June 2016 Summer Seminar “Virtue & Happiness”.


When asked to comment about his participation in the project, Flanagan spoke about the project’s aims to pinpoint the place of the virtues in finding deep meaning in life. “My recent work is in cross-cultural philosophy.  Every tradition makes virtue a necessary condition of flourishing.  But the most prized virtues differ across traditions — Justice among liberals, compassion among Buddhists, filial piety among Confucians.  Working with wise souls who think about the place of virtue in a good life is an amazing and welcomed opportunity.”


Candace Vogler, one of the Principal Investigators (along with Jennifer A. Frey at the University of South Carolina) of  VHML, expressed her enthusiasm for Flanagan’s presence on the team of scholars. “Owen Flanagan is an extraordinarily astute and erudite philosopher trained in analytic philosophy but bringing deep and serious engagements with Buddhist, Hindu, and Confucian understandings of virtue.  He has vibrant interest in questions about how one should live and significant cross-disciplinary experience at the intersections of the humanities and the social and natural sciences.  He is an exemplary interlocutor—generous, patient, serious and cheerful, and always receptive to others’ views. He will strengthen our collaborative work in more ways than I can imagine.”


Owen Flanagan is James B. Duke University Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of the Center for Comparative Philosophy.  He also holds appointments in Psychology and Neuroscience, and is a Faculty Fellow in Cognitive Neuroscience and a steering committee member of the “Philosophy, Arts, and Literature” (PAL) program, and an Affiliate of the Graduate Program in Literature. In 2016-2017, Flanagan will be a Berggruen Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University.

TODAY 3pm “Happiness without Religion? A Philosophical Debate”|Catholic Center at NYU

9.10.16 - Happiness Without Religion Master_0

  • Candace Vogler, David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy, University of Chicago and Co-Principal Investigator, Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life
  • R.R. Reno, First Things
  • Jennifer A. Frey, Assistant Professor, University of South Carolina and Co-Principal Investigator, Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life
  • Thomas Joseph White, OP, Executive Director, Thomistic InstituteDominican House of Studies, and Scholar, Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life

Free and open to the public.


“To Change the World Through Thought” – Virtue Talk Podcast: Philosopher Matthias Haase

virtuetalklogorsClick the link below to hear our scholar and philosopher Matthias Haase discuss his research in philosophy of action, and the unexpected benefits of doing research with theologians and psychologists.

Matthias Haase | Virtue Talk

Matthias Haase is Lecturer at the University of Leipzig, and in January 2016, will be Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. Read more here.

WGM June 2016_20160608_2826
Matthias Haase at our June 2016 Working Group Meeting. Photo by Valerie Wallace.



Preview on iTunes

Read about our podcast “Virtue Talk”

Happiness without religion? Vogler and Frey weigh in before debate

Candace Vogler and Jennifer A. Frey at the 2016 Summer Seminar “Virtue & Happiness”. Photo by Valerie Wallace.

Our principal investigators and one of our scholars will debate the idea of happiness without religion this coming Saturday. If you’re in New York, we hope you can join us!


Candace Vogler explains, “Our topic is whether a (presumably mature) human being (presumably with her wits about her) needs religion in order to be happy—at least, happy in her embodied mortal life.”


Vogler expressed that, “largely from ignorance, in discussing religion I will have in mind socially organized spiritual practice that tends to be monotheistic, whether or not it operates with a shared body of doctrine and whether or not its practitioners produce theology or philosophy in connection with their religious practices.


“The second place that I have a hitch is around questions about happiness. [For example,] although thinkers far greater than I have held that people in general pursue happiness, it is not clear what sorts of things might be involved in pursuing happiness understood in any of the usual psychological senses (one worries that the quickest line of pursuit will be pharmacological). Neither is it clear that flourishing accounts are picking out a single sort of target to home in on.


Vogler concludes, “Basically, if you do not think that there is a core need to be right with divinity built into human life, and you notice that religious practice can be very hard and can make you unpopular, it is hard to see the link between religion and happiness, at least in terms of the varieties of religious practice I have encountered.”


Jennifer A. Frey commented that she “understands religion as a virtue, and since the virtues are necessary for human happiness, I see this as a question of which virtues are part of the happy human life. That’s right in our wheelhouse. And since religion concerns what we owe to God, I think it relates to self-transcendence, since God is that which utterly transcends us, and insofar as we engage in the acts that give God what is owed–due honor and reverence, for instance–it is a question of the role of self-transcendence in the happy life as well.”


Frey continues, “Ultimately I say you can be non-trivially happy without religion. Whether you can be perfectly happy without it is a separate question, and I don’t commit myself either way.”

The debate is Saturday, September 10, 2016 at 3pm, at the Catholic Center, New York University, 236 Thompson Street, New York, NY.

The full lineup is:

  • Jennifer A. Frey, Assistant Professor, University of South Carolina and Co-Principal Investigator, Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life
  • R.R. Reno, First Things
  • Candace Vogler, David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy, University of Chicago and Co-Principal Investigator, Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life
  • Thomas Joseph White, OP, Executive Director, Thomistic Institute, Dominican House of Studies, and Scholar, Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life


This event is free and open to the public. Register at

9.10.16 - Happiness Without Religion Master_0

Magnificence in Renaissance Italy: Vice or ‘Impure’ Virtue?

Statue du condottiere Bartolomeo Colleoni in Venice. Photo by Antoine.

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


We should not decide on the status of virtues – whether they are separate or subordinate to one another – on the basis of theoretical considerations alone. Instead, we should identify and differentiate virtues by examining how they emerge in the contexts of various forms of life. ‘Form of life’ is a well-known Wittgensteinian notion. Its applicability to understanding virtue is owing to the fact that virtues get their purchase in situ – in our daily lives. Virtues are shaped by cultural contexts and the forces of daily living. Anthropologists have studied virtues in situ, and we have much to learn from their investigations. In the spirit of this approach, I will sketch a case that magnificence in northern Italian Renaissance military men who aspired to political power – condottieri — was likely either a vice or an impure virtue. If the latter, it could well have been a distinctive virtue, not a specialization of generosity.


In an interesting study of the rise of art as a consumer product in Italian Renaissance society, Richard Goldthwaite makes the following observation:

In short, Italian society was subject to a dynamic of change unlike that of any other in Europe. Elsewhere wealth was predominantly in land and less subject to instability, it was largely in the hands of a closed caste that experienced less mobility, and it moved from one generation to another over well-charted and confined genealogical routes. . . . In Italy the political, economic, and ecclesiastical elites were much more subject to turnover in their ranks, so that wealth flowed from one’s hands to another’s and kept getting spent over and over again (Goldthwaite 1993, 52).

Goldthwaite goes on to note that Italian princes, especially in northern Italy, being upstarts, were anxious to “. . . establish their credentials by propaganda” (1993, 173). They viewed their courts as public relations agencies, undertook architectural projects, and included humanists, scholars, and artists in their courtly households. Goldthwaite (1993, 173) writes: “With their interest in learning, letters, and the arts, all rooted in the culture of antiquity, the humanists introduced new legitimating values into courtly culture. Scholar, poet, and artist produced the propaganda that glorified and commemorated the prince in terms now of classical history and mythology.” Writing of the northern Italian princes — the condottieri or mercenary soldiers whose armies fought for hire — Goldthwaite remarks: “Their courts had all the trappings of feudal rites and ritual. Inside their palaces despots like the Gonzaga, d’Este, Della Scala, and Visconti surrounded themselves with tapestries and frescoes depicting scenes from courtly romances, chivalric heroes, and the aristocratic pleasures in general” (Goldthwaite 1993, 171). The pettiest of condottieri, Goldthwaite claims, seized on learning and the arts with real passion (Goldthwaite 1993, 173).


Alison Cole (1995) also explores the theme of the union of military might and the uses of art and architecture by the northern Italian princes to project certain images of themselves in efforts to consolidate and maintain power. She notes that Aristotle’s views on magnificence had been revived in the early fourteenth century as part of the political ideology of Azzone Visconti, Lord of Milan (ruled 1302-1339). Galvano Fiamma describes Azzone’s magnificence in his contemporary chronicles. Public buildings attested to Azzone’s concern for the common good; churches and chapels, to his piety; good taste was reflected in the costliness of materials used in the art, the quality of the workmanship, and the exoticism of the objects; and the work of masters in frescoes displayed lofty moral tones (see Cole 1995, 19). Cole observes: “In propagandist terms, magnificence belonged to times of peace, when the lord was free from his enemies and could dedicate himself to making his house ‘glorious’ and secure. Fiamma makes clear the effect that Azzone’s fortified palace was intended to have on subjects: ‘thunderstruck in admiration,’ they were to judge him a prince ‘of such power that it [was] impossible to attack him” (Cole 1995, 19).


The primary exemplar, then and now, of the combination of military skills and humanistic learning among the condottieri was Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino (see Goldthwaite 1993, 173). Through his military skill and love of art Federico transformed Urbino, a small country town, into a fair-sized city and an important center for the arts (Cole 1995, 67). Cole (1995, 69) comments on the complexity of his motives for doing so:

First and foremost, he had an urgent need to assert the legitimacy of his succession and to promote himself as a prince of incorruptible Christian virtue. At the same time, art was used to advertise his military prowess and propagate his image as a just and benevolent ruler. Another key theme was the celebration of the Montefeltro dynasty – Federico’s paternity was the subject of much speculation and it was many years before his wife bore him an heir. The ‘magnificent’ scale of his patronage was also designed to win him esteem both at home and among the kings and princes whom he regarded as his equals as well as his employers.

She continues, “The recurrent qualities of much of the art commissioned by Federico are clarity, order, and dignity” (Cole 1995, 69).


More could be said about how different Italian princes used magnificence to project piety, glory, power, and even diplomatic skills (see Cole 1995). However, I believe that enough has been said to establish that condottieri used magnificence in different ways to consolidate and maintain political power, and this historical trend can be traced, at least in part, to a political ideology that drew on Aristotle’s views on magnificence. So Aristotle had at least some influence, albeit distorted, on actual manifestations of magnificence by the condottieri. Was their magnificence a virtue? At first glance, I think the answer is ‘no,’ — at least, it seems not to have been a virtue in Aristotle’s sense. This is because Aristotle’s virtue of magnificence was apparently distorted by these men, who used it not purely or solely for the public good, but to promote their own power, images, and glory. But this fact opens a range of interesting questions about the possible motivations for magnificence, and when, if ever in the case of the condottieri, it might have been considered a virtue, if not in Aristotle’s sense, perhaps in another, despite initial appearances to the contrary.


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.

Aristotle’s own conception of magnificence would not have been immune to being distorted or to being an ‘impure virtue’ in its manifestations in ordinary life. We are reminded of this by Russell’s comment that votive offerings were sometimes used to display the wealth of the giver (see Russell 2009, 212).

 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.

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.