The Magnificence of the Wealthy
Aristotle's Definition of Magnificence
As an artist, I have some concern with magnificence and whether or not there still is any in the world. According to Aristotle, magnificence is a virtue pertaining to wealth, but unlike generosity it is confined to expenditures involving the use of money, and is concerned only with spending on a grand scale, as in donating for civic projects. It usually involved the building of great buildings and paying artists to decorate those buildings inside and out with magnificent works of art. The scale for judging magnificence is relative; depending on how much is a suitable outlay considering the spender of the project, the circumstances in which he makes the outlay, and the object of his spending. To clarify the difference between magnificence and generosity, it should be noted that the magnificent man is always generous, but the generous man is not always magnificent. With this in mind, few of us have ever been able to be “magnificent” but many of us can be generous to a fault.
“I have made my world and it is a much better world than I ever saw outside.”
— Louise Nevelson
Dictionary Definition of Magnificence
The dictionary defines magnificence as a quality or state of being magnificent, splendor, grandeur, and sublimity. Also, it is impressiveness of surroundings. But the Middle English origins would define it as majesty, nobility, stateliness or even sumptuousness. Then a person who has magnificence does things on a grand, and luxurious scale. I’m glad that Aristotle pushed the definition a bit further in stating that a truly magnificent benefactor gave on a grand scale freely and without personal gain for the betterment of the general public and not himself. Without that, I would say Citizen Kane was magnificent in building his Xanadu mansion for himself, as many millionaires do.
Before I go on, I wanted to throw in my two cents worth about an inspiring TV show that aired back in 2009 called "The Philanthropist". The show was loosely based on an actual multi-billionaire philanthropist. The premise was that this selfish self-absorbed billionaire was transformed by the death of his only son and began using his money and efforts to help the poor and helpless in other countries like Nigeria, Burma, Kosovo, etc. He built hospitals, orphanages, schools, and did most of the relief personally instead of just sending a check or a representative. The show was so awesome, that my husband and I watched faithfully and we were woefully disappointed when it was canceled after only 8 episodes. Is this an example of the apathy we have developed in this country or as a people in general? Do we not care about hearing what the 1% could do, what magnificence the rest of the 99% of us cannot hope to experience personally? Why wasn't this show more popular? I still wonder. I found it inspiring and heart-warming.
There is some argument as to whether the acts of “The Philanthropist” were pure and therefore, magnificent. He did do many of the acts of generosity at first because of a loss he had experienced and because he wanted to feel better. Yet later he got into the true motivation of magnificence and genuinely loved helping others, or so I believed by the end of the show. Can anyone’s gesture of giving be truly pure 100%? I’m not sure. At some level, even the smallest generosity helps not only the recipient but also the giver. When that happens, does it negate the gesture or just reinforce it? Who can say? Maybe it is both.
Another TV show that showed true magnificence was “Undercover Boss” where these corporate type’s gestures to help were genuine to most viewers. Yet how can one person ever touch the needs of all? It is enough that they want to touch the needs of a few. I think we have to go back to the premise that we will always have poor, and suffering people around us who need help. We will always face disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, and famine, and only as we all join together to do what little we can, will we be closer to true magnificence. It takes all of us, not just a few wealthy ones. I guess Aristotle would argue the point with me.
"The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection."— Michelangelo
Contemporary Examples: Alfred Nobel
I found so many contemporary examples of magnificence as Aristotle would define it, that it was hard to narrow it down. How about Alfred Nobel who was a Norwegian chemist, engineer, and inventor. He became rich from the patenting of 355 inventions including dynamite. He was sorry that many of his inventions were used for war, but when he read a premature obituary about himself in a French newspaper quoting "the merchant of death is dead" he became very disheartened. I’m sure I would be too if I were labeled such a thing. He decided to dedicate 94% of his wealth to be bequeathed to Prizes for outstanding work in the fields of chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace. Established in 1895, each year recipients, chosen by the Nobel Foundation, receive a gold medal and a sum of money (decided by the Nobel Foundation); today usually amounting to about $1.2 million each. A couple of recipients were Mother Teresa for Peace and Welhelm Conrad Rontgen for his discovery of X-rays.
Contemporary Examples: Henry Huntington
In the southern California area is the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens. Henry Huntington (born 1850) built up a financial empire through his work in railroad, utilities and real estate holdings in Southern California. But he had an interest in rare books, art, and gardens. In 1919 he and his wife signed over ownership of his property and collections to a non-profit trust for the public. In his library, there is a copy of a Gutenberg Bible on vellum, a double-elephant folio edition of Audubon's Birds of America (which is 10 volumes), and original editions of Shakespeare. In the mansion, he amassed 18th and 19th century British and French art including Gainsborough's Blue Boy and Lawrence's Pinkie. I've been there to see them. They are magnificent (obviously). And then there are the 120 acres of botanical gardens all open to the public. I especially like the Shakespeare garden, which had species of every plant and flower mentioned in Shakespeare works: A rose by any other name… It was rather magnificent of him to donate these collections back to the public.
“We should comport ourselves with the masterpieces of art as with exalted personages—stand quietly before them and wait till they speak to us.”
— Arthur Schopenhauer
Contemporary Examples: Beatrix Potter
If that's not enough, there is Beatrix Potter. Yes, the Beatrix Potter who wrote and illustrated (among others) The Tale of Peter Rabbit. With her profits from the books, she began buying Lake District property in northern England and raising sheep. Before her death, she bequeathed the 14 farms and 4000 acres of land (and the sheep) to the National Trust on the proviso that it would not be developed... that it all remains farmland as it was when she first purchased it. And so it has. Her little home has been turned into a museum as well. Okay, so she didn’t donate millions toward the building of some magnificent building but I think we already have plenty of high-rise apartment buildings, shopping malls and concrete parking lots. What we are increasingly in need of is untouched farmland that shows us the look of 100 and 200 years ago. And that is what Beatrix Potter left us.
Were their motives "pure"? Maybe not, but the world is a better place for their efforts, I think.
Do we have magnificent wealthy people anymore?
The Church's Magnificence
The church in the Renaissance could be considered a patron of magnificence when hiring artists to decorate the churches, cathedrals, and basilicas. However they couldn’t be considered a “person” of wealth as Aristotle described, but still magnificent. Abbot Bernard, a powerful religious man with quite a following in France in the 12th century wrote: the immense height of your churches, their immoderate length, their superfluous breadth, the sumptuous decoration and strange images that attract the worshippers' gaze and hinder their devotion...o vanity of vanities, yet no more vain than insane. The church is resplendent in its walls, but its poor go in want; she clothes her stones in gold, and leaves her sons naked; the rich man's eye is fed at the expense of the indigent.
What Would You Do?
It is said that there is some truth in this and it still goes on today. So the decoration of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo is indeed magnificent, but is it seemly? Is it a waste? Again who is to say?
What do you think about magnificence? Have you been able to donate to magnificent public works for the betterment of mankind? If you were a billionaire, what magnificence would you be likely to contribute to?
What about people like John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed? He went throughout the countryside in the wilderness of the United States spreading apple trees. He didn’t just throw seeds around as many would have believed but seeded orchards and gave away the seedling trees to pioneers headed west. Apples from seed like this were usually quite bitter but made a great Apple Jack Cider that was quite popular in those days. If he had SOLD the trees rather than give them away but the hundreds, he quite probably could have been a very wealthy man. Instead, he traveled around barefoot and in with few belongings because he preferred it that way. Does that make him magnificent or just generous? Who can say? But his name has gone down in history just the same.
Today's Billionaire's Magnificence
I’m an artist and I just don’t see many philanthropists hiring artists to decorate great buildings or civic works for the people to enjoy. I see precious few artists actually working gainfully. The question then is, where are all the magnificent benefactors?
Today we have a multi-billionaire spending money running for President of the United States. Not all of the money being spent is his own, either, because there is a fund on his behalf contributed to by millions who believe he should run for president. Is this magnificence? I think not. Serving as president comes with a salary, so that is not true benevolence. Also, the monies spent are not all his own and are not necessarily for the betterment of the general public. But there may be a few who would argue with me on this point. I’d love to hear what you think.