Our Complicated Response to Extravagance

by Emrys Westacott

ScreenHunter_2327 Oct. 24 10.53Donald Trump epitomizes extravagance. Not the imprudently living beyond one's means sort of extravagance criticized by Ben Franklin, but the kind that spares no expense in the quest to gratify one's desires and impress people.

Gold-gilded towers, marbled mansions, emblazoned private jets: all of them scream out, “Look how f____ing rich I am!”

There is a paradox here. You'd think that Trump flaunting his wealth so unabashedly would turn off the majority of voters. You'd expect it to especially turn off the ones that the polls say make up his base–men without a college education who feel they are losing out in a changing world. After all, most people aren't rich. That's why politicians like to present themselves as commoners: so that voters can identify with them. Even those who ate baby food off silver spoons will typically tell stories about some parent or grandparent who was dirt poor and worked their way up.

There is also a deep strain in American culture that has always been highly critical of luxury, extravagance, boastfulness and pride. These are, after all, the opposite of: simplicity, frugality, modesty and humility–the traditional Christian values taught by Jesus, practiced by the Puritans, and associated with the rural homestead.

Furthermore, a preference for frugal simplicity and related values is not just a Puritan prejudice. It's supported by a rich philosophical tradition, from Socrates and Epicurus in ancient times to Thoreau and Wendell Berry more recently. Like our religious heritage, this tradition has left its mark on our thinking. According to these sages, frugal simplicity is the path to both virtue and happiness.

Now some might argue that these traditional values are out of fashion. But that's not entirely true. Simplicity is still respected. When the current pope was chosen in 2013, his simple lifestyle was hailed on all sides as a sure sign of his moral integrity. Warren Buffet, “the sage of Omaha,” has a reputation for wisdom that is decidedly enhanced by his choosing to live in the same unexceptional house that he bought in 1958.

So how is Trump able to turn not just his wealth but his showy, extravagant lifestyle into political capital?

Well, to some extent he taps into a parallel and equally venerable tradition that sings the praises of those who are able and willing to splurge. The same bible that commends frugal simplicity also admiringly describes the unequalled wealth of Solomon, who, among other things, used kitchen utensils made of gold and commissioned a throne of ivory and gold that was larger and grander than any other in existence. In the Iliad and the Odyssey, Homer gushes over the wealth of kings and the splendors of their palaces. Marco Polo is unstinting in his admiration of Kublai Khan's palace, which he describes as “so vast, so rich, and so beautiful, that no man on earth could design anything superior to it.”

Nor is this sort of admiration entirely passé. UnknownThink of where people go as tourists. They go to see the pyramids, the Taj Mahal, the Hagia Sophia. What are these but extravagant productions motivated by massive egoism. Are they so different from Trump Tower? And who among the visitors flocking to Florence to see the art and architecture of the Renaissance really wishes that the Medici family had been frugal zealots committed to simple living?

Some may envy Trump his spending power. But others–sometimes even the same people–see him as inspirational. They think: look how wealthy it's possible to become–even without any obvious talent!

So our attitude to extravagance is complex and often inconsistent. On the one hand, we understand, when we watch Orsen Welles' Citizen Kane or read The Great Gatsby that lavish spending quite likely masks (and seeks to compensate for) an inner emptiness. We condemn waste. We despise vulgarity. We can't help but feel a shot of schadenfreude when some decadent fat cat is sent to prison for larceny.

On the other hand, living in a materialistic world and a competitive culture as we do, it is hardly surprising that many also envy the ability of people like Trump to indulge in wanton extravagance. There but for fortune, we might say, go you or I.

These materialistic tendencies are further supported by a shift in our ideas about wisdom. In the past, the paradigm of wisdom was the philosopher, the theologian, the scholar, the deep thinker: someone filled with learning who withdrew from the hurly burly world in order to find time and space for rumination. Today, we value “smarts” more than wisdom. The icon of intelligence today is not Rodin's Thinker, forehead on fist, but the faces of Zuckerberg, Bezos and Brin–individuals who think fast, are tech savvy, and can see (and seize) commercial opportunities in the real world. Intelligence that can't be monetized is not respected. “If you're so smart, how come you're not rich?” people ask. And by a natural, if fallacious, thought association, the rich (including Trump) are assumed to be smart.

As noted earlier, most philosophers have criticized extravagance. One who was less critical of it than most, though, was Aristotle. In his Ethics he praises what he calls “magnificence,” exemplified by the super rich individual who uses his wealth to finance something beautiful that benefits the whole community: a temple, say, or a festival.

So would Aristotle vote for Trump? Unlikely. And not just because Trump's extravagant expenditures tend to be on himself rather than on communal goods. Aristotle also insists that magnificence, like other virtues, has to be tempered by wisdom, by which he means not “smarts” but sound practical judgment. Courage without wisdom is recklessness. Friendliness taken to an extreme become obsequiousness. And the attempt to be magnificent, in the absence of wisdom, turns into vulgarity–a tasteless, egotistical display of affluence.

Aristotle didn't deny that such vulgarity may impress the masses. But then that was one reason why he was unenthusiastic about democracy.