The Virtuous Rich

If anyone out there should happen to have a small fortune to dispose of, I would urge them to consider entrusting it to the Lu family. As philosophers, my husband and I can debate almost anything, but on this we have always agreed: we would make excellent rich people. As of yet, the theory is untested, but who better qualified to spend a pile of dough than two Catholic moral philosophers? The lesson in stewardship would itself be ample return on the investment.

Until someone takes me up on this generous offer, I’ll have to content myself with distributing advice on the best way to be rich. It is a contentious topic nowadays, in light of heated political debates over wealth gaps, redistribution and the politics of envy. Democrats make electoral hay from demonizing the rich, while happily accepting their donations and most of their votes. Republicans, showing their libertarian colors, seem wary of criticizing even the most obviously corrupt ultra-wealthy (such as, for example, crony capitalists). On a political level, Americans are buffeted on either side by the doctrine of envy and the doctrine of unapologetic greed.

Is there a better way? One obvious but underexplored tactic for political conservatives would be to avoid statist redistributive policies while using the soft pressure of social disapprobation to shame the wealthy into better spending habits. Anyone interested in virtue should easily understand that coercive state redistribution is a poor substitute for a civic-minded citizenry who are prepared to make sacrifices for the public good.

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Unfortunately, spending money well is no simple matter. Christianity has always taught the importance of helping the poor, but today our discussion of poverty is heavily saturated in non-Christian philosophies such as Marxism and Rawlsianism, and this can make it difficult to discern the true Christian path. As a refreshing counterpoint, it might be helpful to look to a pre-Christian source that was held in great esteem by the Church fathers (and especially the Scholastics). This we find in Aristotle, who offers an “ethics of greatness” through his discussion of the virtues of magnificence and magnanimity.

In the fourth book of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle treats each of these virtues in turn beginning with magnificence, the virtue especially concerned with the spending of large fortunes. At the core of this virtue is the requirement to spend well, which for Aristotle means investing in beautiful, tasteful things, and especially in things that will benefit the general public, such as religious shrines or public entertainment. The magnificent person does not cut corners, understanding that quality is not cheap. At the same time, the magnificent person has a sense of propriety, which enables him to avoid pompous extravagance. Aristotle obviously abhors conspicuous consumption, as seen in the example of the person who throws a dinner party and furnishes it as lavishly as if it were a wedding banquet. Such excess, Aristotle suggests, is tacky and vulgar; the magnificent person would appreciate that an ordinary social occasion called for more moderate festivities.

From here, Aristotle moves into a discussion of magnanimity, which, more than the previous passage, may give modern readers pause. Aristotle’s magnanimous man might be succinctly described as someone who is conscious of his own greatness. Thus, he accepts as his due the honors that appropriately come his way. Some features of magnanimity are obviously appealing; for example, the magnanimous man is free of vanity, and cannot be goaded by petty slights. At the same time, Aristotle acknowledges that the magnanimous person may be perceived as disdainful or ungracious insofar as he avoids asking for help, and rarely expresses gratitude. He takes care to affect a kind of gravitas by walking slowly and, ideally, speaking in a deep voice.

Woe to the tenor or the soprano! It is hard not to laugh a bit over the more superficial details of Aristotle’s account. More seriously, any Christian should object to the idea that gratitude is unbecoming even to the great. Aristotle’s account is critically lacking insofar as he fails to grasp that humans are fallen and in need of repentance. It may also be troubling to notice that Aristotle’s magnificent person seems more attentive to great public works than to the needs of the poor. Without dismissing these criticisms, however, we may find valuable insight in Aristotle’s account of greatness, and the actions that proceed from it.

Both of Aristotle’s “virtues of greatness” reflect a common theme, namely, that we should hold in esteem a person who is able and willing to act well on a large scale. In a society that idealizes equality, we have difficulty interpreting the lavish gesture as anything more than pompous excess, particularly when it comes from a private individual. This may be a mistake. As political conservatives regularly point out, industry and entrepreneurship are good for society, and honestly acquired wealth should not be a source of shame. Nevertheless, the fact remains that material wealth opens opportunities that are available only to a few. The truly civic-minded person should see this as a responsibility as well as a privilege, and should understand that he is obliged to use his resources well, not squandering the opportunity to create goodness and beauty.

We might find a useful corrective, both for the more off-putting elements of Aristotle’s account of magnanimity, and also for some of the objectionably libertarian elements in Republican political rhetoric, if we bear in mind that no person, however hard-working, can attain great wealth without some measure of providential help. The cleverest of entrepreneurs is still beholden to unpredictable changes in markets, in weather patterns, or even in his own personal health. A general sense of gratitude for happy life developments is always appropriate. But, as Aristotle’s account reminds us, a prosperous life should not be a source of shame. Rather, the prosperous should strive to live up to the obligations laid upon them by being virtuously rich. If they do, they will properly be admired by all who truly care about human excellence.

The Aristotelian ideal offers a truly refreshing contrast to so much contemporary rhetoric concerning wealth. According to this ethic, the conscientious person should not deliberate about how much of his fortune he is obliged to give away before spending the rest as he likes. This paradigm is simultaneously too demanding, and not demanding enough. The virtuous rich will properly devote all of their resources to projects that give them joy, and that make their lives more meaningful. At the same time, virtue lays claim to every penny of even the largest fortune. Waste and extravagance are always morally reprehensible, and considered from the perspective of virtue, no one can ever afford them.

A discouraging number of people in our society seem utterly lacking in discernment concerning the good uses of wealth. They see no distinction between the ethereal beauty of Mother Angelica’s Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament and the tawdry excess of Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. The Vatican Museums, where rich and poor alike have basked in some of humanity’s finest achievements, are painted with the same brush as Steven Schwarzman’s three-million-dollar birthday party.

It is true that all of these projects directed resources towards something other than the alleviation of poverty. This, however, cannot be our only criterion for assessing the stewardship of wealth. Giving to the poor may actually do harm if it is done thoughtlessly, in such a way as to encourage dependence and vice. Meanwhile, a lavishly adorned cathedral or an exquisite recording of Mozart might inspire and uplift the minds of rich and poor alike. A true commitment to excellence should inspire admiration, not envy, from all people of good will.

If, indeed, America is becoming more materially stratified, it is critically important that we foster some sense of the value of stewardship. The prudent and generous private use of wealth is by far the best solution to growing inequality, and is certainly to be preferred to heavily redistributionist government programs. Conservatives have long been in the business of preaching personal responsibility to the poor and destitute. Perhaps it is time to start preaching personal responsibility to the rich.


  • Rachel Lu

    Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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