Suppose a virtuous man inherits a large sum of money. Formerly he lived hand-to-mouth, with only enough cash to meet his daily needs. But he was virtuous in how he used his money, giving or lending when appropriate; not hoarding; not wasting. In this daily use of money, the virtue which came into play was “generosity” (or “liberality,” as it was traditionally called). But now, after he has received his large inheritance, he can easily spend money on a grand scale. He can buy and decorate a house, for instance, or build a church. Are there right and wrong ways of doing this, of spending money on a grand scale? If so, does he need to acquire a new virtue, or is his old virtue of “generosity” enough?
These questions probably sound odd to you. But they were natural for St Thomas Aquinas to ask. He viewed virtues as powers which enabled someone to act well with regard to certain classes of things, in specific circumstances. So it was natural to ask if a virtue which was sufficient in small matters carried over into large matters – as if someone were to ask, suppose I can drive a small car, will that same skill enable me to drive a large truck?
In the case at hand, St. Thomas followed Aristotle and held that, yes, there is a distinct virtue which we specifically need when we are spending money on a grand scale, which is called “magnificence.” Like every virtue, magnificence finds the mean between an error involving excess and an error involving deficiency. When we go to excess in a grand expenditure, we err through “extravagance”; when we are deficient in some way, we err through “niggardliness” or “penny-pinching.
The standard of rightness is different in large expenditures. In the small expenditures of daily life, what matters in our use of money is basically captured by the concept of a budget. We should not spend money that we do not have, or spend money on something not proportionate to its importance and value. Whether it was right to spend $50 on a bottle of wine depends upon rules which involve analogies and comparisons (if $20 for an 88-point wine makes sense, then probably $50 for a 95-point wine makes sense).
But for large expenditures, the nature of the work itself sets a standard. If a mansion in Port Royal, Naples, is to be decorated, the stateliness and setting of the building set a standard for the expenditure. One is not free to improvise for oneself. If a wedding is to be hosted for financiers in mid-town Manhattan — rather than, say, for shopkeepers in Albany — the nature of the event sets the standard. In these cases a different virtue is needed beyond generosity, one which senses the “greatness” of the expenditure and exemplifies good grace and taste.
The high point of magnificence is some expenditure for God’s glory, as St Thomas says: “The intention of magnificence is the production of a great work. Now works done by men are directed to an end: and no end of human works is so great as the honor of God: wherefore magnificence does a great work especially in reference to the Divine honor.”
When I was at Ave Maria University, I taught a course on ethics which met on a patio overlooking the buildings and oratory. Once we were discussing the virtue of magnificence. “Look around you,” I said, “What character do you need to do this sort of thing?” At that moment, magnificence was not a theory for them but something real.
MICHAEL PAKALUK is professor of ethics at the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America and an Ordinarius in the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas. He lives with his wife, Catherine, a professor of economics at the Busch School, and seven of their children in Hyattsville. He is author of many books and articles, both scholarly and popular. His new translation and commentary on the Gospel of Mark, The Memoirs of St. Peter, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway