Aristotle on Magnificence

In the second section of the fourth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses the second of the moral virtues that concern money: Magnificence.

One thing I neglected to say in my discussion of the previous section, on liberality, was that to Aristotle, liberality concerned both the giving/spending and the taking of money. The liberal person both dispersed and obtained money properly. Magnificence is different: it’s something like a magnified version of the giving/spending part of liberality, but with a twist. All magnificent people are liberal; but not all liberal people manage to be magnificent.

“The magnificent man is like an artist,” says Aristotle, “for he can see what is fitting and spend large sums tastefully.” To be magnificent requires a very public-spirited generosity, good sense and fine aesthetic taste, and lots and lots of money.

Here are how some of the translators of the Nicomachean Ethics have translated this virtue and its accompanying vices:

Various translations of the second virtue and vices concerning money
Vice of deficiency Virtue (golden mean) Vice of excess
vulgar profusion
want of taste
bad taste
vulgar ostentation
ignorance of what is elegant

Aristotle summarizes magnificence like this:

[T]he result should be worthy of the expense, and the expense should be worthy of the result, or should even exceed it. And the magnificent man will spend such sums for honour’s sake; for this is common to the virtues. And further he will do so gladly and lavishly; for nice calculation is a niggardly thing. And he will consider how the result can be made most beautiful and most becoming rather than for how much it can be produced and how it can be produced most cheaply.

Whereas in liberality, the emphasis seemed to be on spending/giving the right amount and for the right purpose and with the right attitude, in magnificence there is much more emphasis on spending for a grand, splendid, fabulous, and yet absolutely tasteful, public result (although those other elements are also important here). The scale is larger, and also the stakes are higher.

If the liberal person spends badly, well, that’s just one of those things (“[I]f he happens to spend in a manner contrary to what is right and noble, he will be pained, but moderately and as he ought”) — learn from it and move on. On the other hand, if the magnificent person falls short of the mark or, from lack of taste, embarrasses him or herself with some expensive and vulgar grotesque — it’s a magnificent failure.

There is an emphasis on the public nature of the giving — receiving foreign dignitaries, making religious offerings, erecting public buildings, funding festivals and entertainments, throwing weddings, lavishly decorating your home (“for even a house is a sort of public ornament”).

There is something wonderful about magnificence as Aristotle describes it. is the last day of this year’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. This is a free, weekend-long set of concerts in Golden Gate Park, and this is the ninth year it’s been put on. It is free (to attendees) because it is paid for by a billionaire named Warren Hellman who uses his money magnificently. And that’s damned beautiful.

But it can grate on the nerves to think that there’s a virtue out there that’s really only available to the wealthy. What if you want to collect the complete set, but you aren’t rich? It’s hard to get rich if you’re practicing the virtue of liberality, and magnificent people are also liberal people, so it seems like the only way to become magnificent is to start out avaricious and unvirtuous and get rich first or to be born into money.

There are occasions on which ordinary schmoes like you and me can try out our magnificence. In my culture, weddings are the typical opportunities for magnificence: people often go to great expense to put these on, and run the risks of misplaced penny-pinching or of gaudy vulgarity when they do so. The Burning Man festival is another example that comes to mind, an opportunity for people of means to build grand installations and public displays from motives of generosity and a striving for the fabulously beautiful.

On the other hand, some of us can barely afford to consider a Burning Man ticket, much less an installation that would be grand enough to attract any notice. What’s left for us? Aristotle does throw us a bone:

[G]reatness in the work differs from greatness in the expense (for the most beautiful ball or bottle is magnificent as a gift to a child, but the price of it is small and mean)

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics