Magnificence vs. Luxury
Defining Magnificence (the historical words that described Magnificence).
As part of the initial literature search on the nature of luxury, the concept of Magnificence vs. Luxury caught my attention. In its origins, luxury was not a term to describe consumption by elites, but one used to denigrate the aspirational consumer practices of the newly emerging wealthy classes. In contrast, magnificence is related to the positive uses of wealth, i.e. doing something valuable for the public good.
Historically, magnificence was the term used for the undertaking of great projects and actions designated to the public/greater good. It was understood as a moral framework that obliged those who were wealthy to do something that was of value to society and hence could highlight the wisdom and prestige of the person undertaking the project. The exact nature of what was valued the most at the time depended on circumstance, but it often involved public buildings (libraries, cathedrals, temples, universities and later museums or art galleries). The spirit of such magnificence was generosity, virtue, honour and a desire to leave a lasting legacy. Examples are found in all historical civilisations, but, in the main, the concept went out of fashion with the Industrial Revolution. Some recent examples of what could be termed as magnificence are described below.
Defining Luxury (the historical words that described Luxury)
In contrast to magnificence, luxury was and remains self-serving. Seen from the beginning as the aspirational consumption of the non-elites, it was seen as a vice, not a virtue. Luxury was associated with immorality, envy and lust and hence deemed improper. A pale imitation of elite lifestyles it was seen universally as extravagant, decadent and practised by the mediocre and those with vain ambition. This overwhelmingly negative view of luxury slowly disappeared from the 16th to 18th century as a class of newly wealthy emerged (merchants, business owners) and the language of magnificence was subverted to now describe luxury.
By the 19th century magnificence was largely forgotten and confined to individual acts of greatness and luxury had, for the most part, lost its negative connotations. Today, few people will have even heard of magnificence and luxury consumptions is something most people aspire to.
Today, a lot of money and energy goes in to telling & selling us that we need lifestyles filled with luxury goods, experiences and services if we want to be seen as successful in the social comparison stakes.
Post Industrial Revolution
Post the industrialised revolution, the number of examples of what could be termed as magnificence has dwindled. Much of what is contributed feels small scale compared to the available wealth of the world’s top 1%. Similarly, too many philanthropic endeavours appear to be ‘pet projects’, serving personal desire rather than a generosity of public spirit or the public good. It is also difficult to fully respect the work of people who are making a contribution when you know that the company they own or manage is shifting money to minimise tax and/or exploiting their workforce. In addition, given the ad-hoc nature of many charitable endeavours they predominantly tackle symptoms rather than resolving the problem. All this adds up to these contributions being closer to a self-indulgent luxury rather than magnificence.
Examples of individuals whose contribution more closely demonstrates the generosity of spirit associated with magnificence may be:
Prince Albert, the Prince Consort, husband of Queen Victoria. Albert led reforms in education, welfare, housing and slavery. The Great Exhibit, which he championed, and battled MP’s to stage, was not only a success in itself but the surplus funds it raised (£180,000) were used to purchase land in South Kensington on which to establish educational and cultural institutions—including the Natural History Museum, Science Museum, Imperial College London, the Royal Albert Hall and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Prince Charles. Since the early 1980s, Charles has promoted environmental awareness. His ideas were often ridiculed in the early years; he promoted organic gardening and farming together with sustainable production. These have now entered the mainstream and not only because of an ideology but by necessity; for example, the decline of bees forcing Asian farmers to pollinate their orchards by hand has triggered questions on global farming methods. For many years Charles has spoken out on climate change and its sceptics; in a speech to the Low Carbon Prosperity Summit in 2011, he said that climate change sceptics are playing “a reckless game of roulette” with the planet’s future.
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation has consistently demonstrated a strategic approach to difficult public health problems. Using sustained investment and building the partnerships needed to convert independent global health projects into coordinated efforts, it has achieved great success in tackling issues such as death rates through rotavirus infections. The Gates Foundation has brought a sense of urgency, passion, and commitment that allowed it to solve some very difficult problems that only a few years ago seemed almost beyond solution.
The Pankhursts and Eleonore Roosevelt could be other examples added to the list. In summary, some individuals have demonstrated a magnificence mindset but, as mentioned, relatively few compared to the amount of available wealth. To see a current example of Magnificence linked to conservation