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

4063197797_11aa85e0a4_z
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. http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3129.htm. Accessed 28 December 2015.

Cicero. Treatise on Rhetorical Invention, Book II. http://www.egs.edu/library/cicero/articles/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

WE-AB002_GIVING_J_20151208170243
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. http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3129.htm. Accessed 28 December 2015.

Cicero. Treatise on Rhetorical Invention, Book II. http://www.egs.edu/library/cicero/articles/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.

A New Center for Practical Wisdom at the University of Chicago

 

Wisdom class
Howard Nusbauum (center) is also a scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.Photo by The JJ Effect.

The Center for Practical Wisdom at the University of Chicago aims to deepen scientific understanding of wisdom and its role in choices of everyday life. Research at the center is geared towards individual development of wisdom and the circumstances in which people are most likely to make wiser decisions. Core research projects at the center include a range of topics including epistemic humility, stress resilience, individual differences in wisdom, and impact of language.

 

The center connects scientists, scholars, educators, and students internationally who are interested in studying wisdom. Through the wisdom research network and annual wisdom research forums, the center provides guidance for dissemination of current wisdom studies as well as initiates new research in wisdom. The Center for Practical Wisdom website provides a space for networking, a database of the latest wisdom-related articles, publications, and news items, wisdom based research tools and measures, and forums for online discussions.

 

The John Templeton Foundation provided seed funding for the Center while collaborative efforts are supported by a variety of sources including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and federal agencies. Affiliated organizations to the Center for Practical Wisdom include The Institute for Human Flourishing led by Nancy Snow at the University of Oklahoma and the Wisdom and Culture Lab led by Igor Grossmann at the University of Waterloo, among others.

 

Center logo square copy

The Center’s accomplishments and resources are shared through social media, the Wisdom Research YouTube Channel, and the Center for Practical Wisdom e-newsletter.


Jean L. Ngoc Matelski-Boulware is Assistant Director of Communications & Research at the Center for Practical Wisdom.

 

 

Days 1-2 Working Group Meeting in Chicago – photos

Our 2nd working group meeting of scholars met June 6-10, 2016 at the University of Chicago in the beautiful Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society. Although the sessions were closed, you can read our scholars’ abstracts for their June Meeting Topics here and see more photos up in our Flickr album for the week.

 

 

Group photo: Working Group Meeting June 2016

Scholars Team June 2016
Click photo to make it larger. Photo by Marc Monaghan

We’re so happy our scholars are here in Chicago! Find out more about our scholars and their work this week in June here, and working group meetings in general, here.

Our scholars and team are:

From left to right, back row: Santiago Mejia, Michael Gorman, Matthias Haase, Jennifer A. Frey, Father Kevin Flannery, Candace Vogler, Katherine Kinzler, Howard Nusbaum, Talbot Brewer, Reinhardt Huetter, Marc G. Berman (not pictured: Tahera Qudbuddin).

Middle row: Christian Kronsted, Jean Porter, Father Thomas Joseph White, Mari Stuart, Nancy Snow, Heather C. Lench, Angela Knobel,  Erik Angner, Dan McAdams, Valerie Wallace, Jaime Hovey.

Front row: Paul Wong, David Shatz, David Carr, Anselm Mueller.

Questions our scholars are asking – round two

20130301_View_From_Biology_WEB_1

This coming week (June 6-10, 2016, at the Neubauer Collegium at the University of Chicago) is the second of four meetings for our  scholars (the first was December 2015 at the University of South Carolina). These meetings are immersive experiences for these scholars, who are philosophers, theologians, and psychologists; the meetings are aimed at generating systematic and integrated knowledge, including ultimately a new construct for empirical research on self-transcendence, new instruments of assessment, and new data.

 

Here are summaries of the questions and research our scholars will be discussing with each other in the coming week.

 

Matthias Haase: Can virtue be cultivated like a habit?

 

Tahera Qutbudden: Can one enjoy a happy and pleasurable life in this world while also preparing for the next?

 

Jennifer A. Frey: Is selfishness a particular kind of vice, or the nature of vice?

 

David Schatz: Is ignorance always a vice, or can it also be a virtue?

 

Heather C. Lench: Can boredom lead us to virtue?

 

David Carr: Does spirituality have a material dimension, and if so, can it be developed and educated?

 

Mari Stuart: Can the indigenous knowledge reflected in a moral ecology worldview teach things that climate science cannot?

 

Jean Porter: Can malice, like virtue, also give meaning to life?

 

Erik Angner: Is social well-being the same thing as happiness?

 

Paul Wong: Is it possible to measure Self-Transcendence?

 

Katharine Kinzler: Can infant food preferences teach us about the social world?

 

Mark Berman: Do ugly surroundings encourage criminal behavior?

 

Angela Knobel: Can the notion of virtue as a gift from God have broad appeal?

 

Father Thomas Joseph White: Can Aquinas help us understand Nietzsche’s ideas about truth and moral freedom?

 

Michael Gorman: Is a meaningful life also necessarily a good life?

 

Nancy Snow: Is magnificence—expenditure for the public good—virtuous, or vicious? Can it be both?

 

Tal Brewer: Are human beings irreplaceable, and due special forms of regard and good treatment?

 

Dan McAdams: What is the difference between habit and character? Do we narrate these things about ourselves in different ways?

 

Reinhard Hütter: How do we overcome the lure of self-sovereignty that surrounds us and attain true self-transcendence?

 

Father Kevin Flannery: What is the relationship between intention, choice, and virtue?