The magnificent man is like an artist; for he can see what is fitting and spend large sums tastefully.
The magnificent man spends not on himself but on public objects.
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
To examine with Aristotle the various virtues is an eye-opening tour through the wonders of what it is to be human. For him the virtues are nothing but the ways of really living well, of living rationally with excellence.
The virtue of magnificence is surprising. It is a habit of spending large sums of money well for the good of others. Particularly interesting is that it is possible only for the wealthy. This does not mean that there is no virtue concerning wealth for the non-rich. On the contrary, all should cultivate liberality—the virtue that generously tends to the needs of others once one’s own needs are satisfied. Such liberality is possible even for the poor.
But the very wealthy have a unique obligation, and the virtue called magnificence is the fulfillment of it. Especially noteworthy is how the magnificent man sees his wealth as a calling. Having much wealth demands that first he look immediately to the good of others—since clearly he has more than he needs for his own life, and second that he see himself as a promoter of what is truly beautiful. Like an artist.
To “spend large sums tastefully”—what a demanding task this is! Aristotle sees the magnificent man as pursuing this goal on all fronts, in everything from making his own house a sort of ‘public’ ornament for the good of others, to undertaking civic projects and endowing fitting places of worship.
Not all can exercise this virtue. For those who can do it, such magnificence is a masterpiece. Indeed Aristotle says the virtue itself is a thing of beauty to be contemplated. Yet all can have a spirit of magnificence, in a day to day ‘liberality,’ wherein using what wealth we have we craft what is beautiful in our own home and community while also giving generously to others from our limited resources.
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher. The Nicomachean Ethics is his major ethical work.
Image: public square in Prague, Czech Republic. Beautiful public spaces, often consisting in civic, religious, commercial, and private buildings, can be one fruit of the magnificence of a few good and far-sighted people.
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