Many philanthropists know Andrew Carnegie’s warning that giving money away wisely is much harder than making it. Few know that Carnegie was paraphrasing Aristotle. And fewer still know that Aristotle argued that there is a specific virtue, not just of giving, but of giving away great sums of money, a virtue he calls “magnificence.” It’s a virtue whose study could help philanthropists meet Carnegie’s challenge.
Virtue is the habit of doing what’s right. We speak in terms of virtues all the time, even when we don’t recognize that we’re doing so. For example, if you believe that giving should be effective, efficient, and strategic, then you imply that effectiveness, efficiency, and strategic thinking are virtues. The same if you criticize a certain expenditure as wasteful: that’s the language of vice.
In essence, Aristotle asks us, “Do effectiveness, efficiency, and even strategy exhaust what you mean by giving well? Or is there something more to it?” He would say that these qualities set the bar too low. We need to raise our eyes to magnificence, the virtue of making “great” expenditures.
Aiming at magnificence may make some people uncomfortable, especially in a democratic age. In what follows I voice some common objections to magnificence, explain its qualities, and offer thoughts on how, if one has the resources, to begin to give magnificently.
Is magnificence just about spending? Doesn’t it matter where you got the money from? And doesn’t it matter whether you give it away versus spend it on yourself?
These objections reflect the usual way we think about philanthropy today. Ideally, it should proceed from hard-earned funds, generously set aside by the wealth-creator, and directed to public not private benefit.
Magnificence confounds these distinctions. It covers more than giving. Aristotle’s examples of magnificence include financing weddings, public celebrations, warships, and temples. These examples suggest that magnificent expenditures could aim at private ends as well as public, civic as well as religious. It rejects the black-and-white distinction of self-interest versus altruism. Magnificent spending could go to build a private company, a civic center, or a church. For magnificence is about results, not the source of funds. Such spending could come out of your own earnings, from an inheritance, from a charitable foundation, or from public funds.
Though surprising, the rejection of these distinctions shouldn’t sound altogether strange. Magnificence anticipates current moves towards socially-responsible investing, multiple bottom lines, “B-Corps,” and public-private partnerships. It certainly demands asking more than, “Does this expenditure qualify for the charitable deduction?”
But why should giving a lot of money involve its own special virtue? Does quality really depend on quantity? Or is Aristotle just flattering the rich?
At first glance, magnificence does seem to depend on size, as those examples of weddings, ships, and temples suggest. But magnificence is not only about size. It must also
· Fit the person doing it. Aristotle says that the doer should be great—and great does not equal rich. Depending on their characters, the rich are more likely to spend vulgarly or stingely than magnificently.
· Fit the recipient. As a gift to a child a beautiful toy may be magnificent. A new Ferrari would be absurd.
· Fit the occasion. Spending the same amount on your own dinner as for a wedding is ugly, not beautiful.
As the example of the child’s toy reveals, magnificence need not even cost a lot. The magnificent person makes even a smallish expenditure come off grand. Magnificence has more to do with the quality of the result than the quantity of dollars spent.
At the same time, magnificence is also about the doer. It means asking yourself, “Does this expenditure fit me—and do I fit it?” You don’t need to be a great wealth-creator. But you must be great in some respect. As with any virtue, magnificence is less about what you have than about who you are.
How does magnificence’s big spending differ from conspicuous consumption, which seems more a vice than a virtue?
Aristotle compares magnificence with the vice of vulgarity or, as he also calls it, “lack of experience in the beautiful.” A vulgar person spends “not for the sake of the beautiful, but to make a show of his wealth and so to make himself wondered at.” In contrast, by spending on public celebrations, public defense, or temples, the magnificent person spends not for himself but for “the things of the gods and the things valued in common.”
To pursue magnificence, then, ask yourself, “Will my spending evoke wonder—at it, not at me? Will it direct our gaze to what is above us and to which we aspire?” Also, have you developed your own experience in what’s beautiful, what we might call “high culture”? Beauty is the guide to magnificence. For example, Aristotle says that the magnificent person’s house should be beautiful, not to brag about, but because “a house too is an adornament” of the city. This result is moral, not just aesthetic. Whatever magnificence spends on, it looks to the beautiful and the common good.
Isn’t what I consider beautiful just a matter of personal taste?
“Magnificence” is a compound word in Greek, megaloprepes. The first part, megalo-, means great. The second part, prepes, can mean both conspicuous and fitting. This ambiguity reflects the complexity of the virtue. Magnificence must be not only greatly conspicuous but also greatly fitting, in several ways:
· As we’ve seen, the magnificent gift fits its giver, its recipient or recipients, and its context.
· It also fits with “the common things.” It aims at our community’s health, common defense, public education, and so on.
· Further, Aristotle says, a magnificent expenditure is a kosmos, in Greek, an “ordered whole.” Naturally, this word reminds us of the larger kosmos, the ordered whole in which we live. The magnificent gift fits together the way that the cosmos fits together. Its beauty resides less in its size than its reflection of the order of the world. This beauty is not just a matter of personal taste.
This quality also makes magnificence about much more than effectiveness, efficiency, or even strategy, which are all tied to specific ends. It should lead us to ask ourselves, “Is my giving partial? Why does it aim at these ends? Does it reflect a vision of the world, this cosmos?” Magnificence no doubt requires focus at times. But focus (not to mention money) can never substitute for vision.
So is magnificence more about dazzling others than truly benefiting them?
Aristotle also says that “The magnificent person resembles the knower, for he or she can contemplate what’s fitting and spend great amounts harmoniously.” The magnificent person is not just a doer but also, in a way, a thinker. As a result, magnificent expenditures achieve two other ends:
· They inspire hope. Aristotle says that they resemble “offerings to the gods.” Such offerings assume that God cares about us. In the same way, magnificence reflects a view that this world makes sense and that our actions within it can make a positive difference.
· They inspire not only wonder but also reflection. The magnificent person’s contemplation, expressed in spending, inspires others who gaze upon his or her works. It inspires their reflection on the nature of our community and the nature of our world.
The last is perhaps magnificence’s greatest public service. It both makes and reflects a beautiful order. It embodies vision, public-spirit, and experience in beauty. It thereby opens the door, conspicuously, to reflection by others, who may or may not have money. It prompts an activity that is truly common and costs nothing: reflection on this wonderful world and our own wondering place within it.