Book 4: The Several Moral Virtues and Vices—Continued.
Our next task would seem to be an examination of magnificence. For this also seems to be a virtue that is concerned with wealth.
But it does not, like liberality, extend over the whole field of money transactions, but only over those that involve large expenditure; and in these it goes beyond liberality in largeness. For, as its very name (μεγαλοπρέπεια) suggests, it is suitable expenditure on a large scale. But the largeness is relative: the expenditure that is suitable for a man who is fitting out a war-ship is not the same as that which is suitable for the chief of a sacred embassy.
What is suitable, then, is relative to the person, and the occasion, and the business on hand. Yet he who spends what is fitting on trifling or moderately important occasions is not called magnificent; e.g. the man who can say, in the words of the poet—
“To many a wandering beggar did I give;”
but he who spends what is fitting on great occasions. For the magnificent man is liberal, but a man may be liberal without being magnificent.
The deficiency of this quality is called meanness; the excess of it is called vulgarity, bad taste, etc.; the characteristic of which is not spending too much on proper objects, but spending ostentatiously on improper objects and in improper fashion. But we will speak of them presently.
But the magnificent man is like a skilled artist; he can see what a case requires, and can spend great sums tastefully. For, as we said at the outset, a habit or type of character takes its complexion from the acts in which it issues and the things it produces. The magnificent man’s expenses, therefore, must be great and suitable.
What he produces then will also be of the same nature; for only thus will the expense be at once great and suitable to the result.
The result, then, must be proportionate to the expenditure, and the expenditure proportionate to the result, or even greater.
Moreover, the magnificent man’s motive in thus spending his money will be desire for that which is noble; for this is the common characteristic of all the virtues.
Further, he will spend gladly and lavishly; for a minute calculation of cost is mean. He will inquire how the work can be made most beautiful and most elegant, rather than what its cost will be, and how it can be done most cheaply.
So the magnificent man must be liberal also; for the liberal man, too, will spend the right amount in the right manner; only, both the amount and the manner being right, magnificence is distinguished from liberality (which has the same sphere of action) by greatness—I mean by actual magnitude of amount spent: and secondly, where the amount spent is the same, the result of the magnificent man’s expenditure will be more magnificent.
For the excellence of a possession is not the same as the excellence of a product or work of art: as a possession, that is most precious or estimable which is worth most, e.g. gold; as a work of art, that is most estimable which is great and beautiful: for the sight of such a work excites admiration, and a magnificent thing is always admirable; indeed, excellence of work on a great scale is magnificence.
Now, there is a kind of expenditure which is called in a special sense estimable or honourable, such as expenditure on the worship of the gods (e.g. offerings, temples, and sacrifices), and likewise all expenditure on the worship of heroes, and again all public service which is prompted by a noble ambition; e.g. a man may think proper to furnish a chorus or a war-ship, or to give a public feast, in a handsome style.
But in all cases, as we have said, we must have regard to the person who spends, and ask who he is, and what his means are; for expenditure should be proportionate to circumstances, and suitable not only to the result but to its author.
And so a poor man cannot be magnificent: he has not the means to spend large sums suitably: if he tries, he is a fool; for he spends disproportionately and in a wrong way; but an act must be done in the right way to be virtuous. But such expenditure is becoming in those who have got the requisite means, either by their own efforts or through their ancestors or their connections, and who have birth and reputation, etc.; for all these things give a man a certain greatness and importance.
The magnificent man, then, is properly a man of this sort, and magnificence exhibits itself most properly in expenditure of this kind, as we have said; for this is the greatest and most honourable kind of expenditure: but it may also be displayed on private occasions, when they are such as occur but once in a man’s life, e.g. a wedding or anything of that kind; or when they are of special interest to the state or the governing classes, e.g. receiving strangers and sending them on their way, or making presents to them and returning their presents; for the magnificent man does not lavish money on himself, but on public objects; and gifts to strangers bear some resemblance to offerings to the gods.
But a magnificent man will build his house too in a style suitable to his wealth; for even a fine house is a kind of public ornament. And he will spend money more readily on things that last; for these are the noblest. And on each occasion he will spend what is suitable—which is not the same for gods as for men, for a temple as for a tomb.
And since every expenditure may be great after its kind, great expenditure on a great occasion being most magnificent, and then in a less degree that which is great for the occasion, whatever it be (for the greatness of the result is not the same as the greatness of the expense; e.g. the most beautiful ball or the most beautiful bottle that can be got is a magnificent present for a child, though its price is something small and mean), it follows that it is characteristic of the magnificent man to do magnificently that which he does, of whatever kind it be (for such work cannot easily be surpassed), and to produce a result proportionate to the expense.
This, then, is the character of the magnificent man.
The man who exceeds (whom we call vulgar) exceeds, as we said, in spending improperly. He spends great sums on little objects, and makes an unseemly display; e.g. if he is entertaining the members of his club, he will give them a wedding feast; if he provides the chorus for a comedy, he will bring his company on the stage all dressed in purple, as they did at Megara. And all this he will do from no desire for what is noble or beautiful, but merely to display his wealth, because he hopes thereby to gain admiration, spending little where he should spend much, and much where he should spend little.
But the mean man will fall short on every occasion, and, even when he spends very large sums, will spoil the beauty of his work by niggardliness in a trifle, never doing anything without thinking twice about it, and considering how it can be done at the least possible cost, and bemoaning even that, and thinking he is doing everything on a needlessly large scale.
Both these characters, then, are vicious, but they do not bring reproach, because they are neither injurious to others nor very offensive in themselves.