Front Page Titles (by Subject) 1.: Of liberality. - The Nicomachean Ethics
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1.: Of liberality. - Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics 
The Nichomachean Ethics of Aristotle, trans. F.H. Peters, M.A. 5th edition (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Truebner & Co., 1893).
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Liberality, of which we will next speak, seems to be moderation in the matter of wealth. What we commend in a liberal man is his behaviour, not in war, nor in those circumstances in which temperance is commended, nor yet in passing judgment, but in the giving and taking of wealth, and especially in the giving—wealth meaning all those things whose value can be measured in money.
But both prodigality and illiberality are at once excess and defect in the matter of wealth.
Illiberality always means caring for wealth more than is right; but prodigality sometimes stands for a combination of vices. Thus incontinent people, who squander their money in riotous living, are called prodigals. And so prodigals are held to be very worthless individuals, as they combine a number of vices.
But we must remember that this is not the proper use of the term; for the term “prodigal” (ἄσωτος) is intended to denote a man who has one vice, viz. that of wasting his substance: for he is ἄσωτος,* or “prodigal,” who is destroyed through his own fault, and the wasting of one’s substance is held to be a kind of destruction of one’s self, as one’s life is dependent upon it. This, then, we regard as the proper sense of the term “prodigality.”
Anything that has a use may be used well or ill.
Now, riches is abundance of useful things (τὰ χρήσιμα).
But each thing is best used by him who has the virtue that is concerned with that thing.
Therefore he will use riches best who has the virtue that is concerned with wealth* (τὰ χρήματα), i.e. the liberal man.
Now, the ways of using wealth are spending and giving, while taking and keeping are rather the ways of acquiring wealth. And so it is more distinctive of the liberal man to give to the right people than to take from the right source and not to take from the wrong source. For it is more distinctive of virtue to do good to others than to have good done to you, and to do what is noble than not to do what is base. And here it is plain that doing good and noble actions go with the giving, while receiving good and not doing what is base goes with the taking.
Again, we are thankful to him who gives, not to him who does not take; and so also we praise the former rather than the latter.
Again, it is easier not to take than to give; for we are more inclined to be too stingy with our own goods than to take another’s.
Again, it is those who give that are commonly called liberal; while those who abstain from taking are not praised for their liberality especially, but rather for their justice; and those who take are not praised at all.
Again, of all virtuous characters the liberal man is perhaps the most beloved, because he is useful; but his usefulness lies in his giving.
But virtuous acts, we said, are noble, and are done for the sake of that which is noble. The liberal man, therefore, like the others, will give with a view to, or for the sake of, that which is noble, and give rightly; i.e. he will give the right things to the right persons at the right times—in short, his giving will have all the characteristics of right giving.
Moreover, his giving will be pleasant to him, or at least painless; for virtuous acts are always pleasant or painless—certainly very far from being painful.
He who gives to the wrong persons, or gives from some other motive than desire for that which is noble, is not liberal, but must be called by some other name.
Nor is he liberal who gives with pain; for that shows that he would prefer* the money to the noble action, which is not the feeling of the liberal man.
The liberal man, again, will not take from wrong sources; for such taking is inconsistent with the character of a man who sets no store by wealth.
Nor will he be ready to beg a favour; for he who confers benefits on others is not usually in a hurry to receive them.
But from right sources he will take (e.g. from his own property), not as if there were anything noble in taking, but simply as a necessary condition of giving. And so he will not neglect his property, since he wishes by means of it to help others. But he will refuse to give to any casual person, in order that he may have wherewithal to give to the right persons, at the right times, and where it is noble to give.
It is very characteristic of the liberal man* to go even to excess in giving, so as to leave too little for himself; for disregard of self is part of his character.
In applying the term liberality we must take account of a man’s fortune; for it is not the amount of what is given that makes a gift liberal, but the liberal habit or character of the doer; and this character proportions the gift to the fortune of the giver. And so it is quite possible that the giver of the smaller sum may be the more liberal man, if his means be smaller.
Those who have inherited a fortune seem to be more liberal than those who have made one; for they have never known want; and all men are particularly fond of what themselves have made, as we see in parents and poets.
It is not easy for a liberal man to be rich, as he is not apt to take or to keep, but is apt to spend, and cares for money not on its own account, but only for the sake of giving it away.
Hence the charge often brought against fortune, that those who most deserve wealth are least blessed with it. But this is natural enough; for it is just as impossible to have wealth without taking trouble about it, as it is to have anything else.
Nevertheless the liberal man will not give to the wrong people, nor at the wrong times; for if he did, he would no longer be displaying true liberality, and, after spending thus, would not have enough to spend on the right occasions. For, as we have already said, he is liberal who spends in proportion to his fortune, on proper objects, while he who exceeds this is prodigal. And so princes* are not called prodigal, because it does not seem easy for them to exceed the measure of their possessions in gifts and expenses.
Liberality, then, being moderation in the giving and taking of wealth, the liberal man will give and spend the proper amount on the proper objects, alike in small things and in great, and that with pleasure; and will also take the proper amount from the proper sources. For since the virtue is moderation in both giving and taking, the man who has the virtue will do both rightly. Right taking is consistent with right giving, but any other taking is contrary to it. Those givings and takings, then, that are consistent with one another are found in the same person, while those that are contrary to one another manifestly are not.
But if a liberal man happen to spend anything in a manner contrary to what is right and noble, he will be pained, but moderately and in due measure; for it is a characteristic of virtue to be pleased and pained on the right occasions and in due measure.
The liberal man, again, is easy to deal with in money matters; it is not hard to cheat him, as he does not value wealth, and is more apt to be vexed at having failed to spend where he ought, than to be pained at having spent where he ought not—the sort of man that Simonides would not commend.*
The prodigal, on the other hand, errs in these points also; he is not pleased on the right occasions nor in the right way, nor pained: but this will be clearer as we go on.
We have already said that both prodigality and illiberality are at once excess and deficiency, in two things, viz. giving and taking (expenditure being included in giving). Prodigality exceeds in giving and in not taking, but falls short in taking; illiberality falls short in giving, but exceeds in taking—in small things, we must add.
Now, the two elements of prodigality are not commonly united in the same person:† it is not easy for a man who never takes to be always giving; for private persons soon exhaust their means of giving, and it is to private persons that the name is generally applied.‡
A prodigal of this kind [i.e. in whom both the elements are combined], we must observe, would seem to be not a little better than an illiberal man. For he is easily cured by advancing years and by lack of means, and may come to the middle course. For he has the essential points of the liberal character; he gives and abstains from taking, though he does neither well nor as he ought. If then he can be trained to this, or if in any other way this change in his nature can be effected, he will be liberal; for then he will give to whom he ought, and will not take whence he ought not. And so he is generally thought to be not a bad character; for to go too far in giving and in not taking does not show a vicious or ignoble nature so much as a foolish one.
A prodigal of this sort, then, seems to be much better than an illiberal man, both for the reasons already given, and also because the former does good to many, but the latter to no one, not even to himself.
But most prodigals, as has been said, not only give wrongly, but take from wrong sources, and are in this respect illiberal. They become grasping because they wish to spend, but cannot readily do so, as their supplies soon fail. So they are compelled to draw from other sources. At the same time, since they care nothing for what is noble, they will take quite recklessly from any source whatever; for they long to give, but care not a whit how the money goes or whence it comes.
And so their gifts are not liberal; for they are not noble, nor are they given with a view to that which is noble, nor in the right manner. Sometimes they enrich those who ought to be poor, and will give nothing to men of well-regulated character, while they give a great deal to those who flatter them, or furnish them with any other pleasure. And thus the greater part of them are profligates; for, being ready to part with their money, they are apt to lavish it on riotous living, and as they do not shape their lives with a view to that which is noble, they easily fall away into the pursuit of pleasure.
The prodigal, then, if he fail to find guidance, comes to this, but if he get training he may be brought to the moderate and right course.
But illiberality is incurable; for old age and all loss of power seems to make men illiberal.
It also runs in the blood more than prodigality; the generality of men are more apt to be fond of money than of giving.
Again, it is far-reaching, and has many forms; for there seem to be many ways in which one can be illiberal.
It consists of two parts—deficiency in giving, and excess of taking; but it is not always found in its entirety; sometimes the parts are separated, and one man exceeds in taking, while another falls short in giving. Those, for instance, who are called by such names as niggardly, stingy, miserly, all fall short in giving, but do not covet other people’s goods, or wish to take them.
Some are impelled to this conduct by a kind of honesty, or desire to avoid what is disgraceful—I mean that some of them seem, or at any rate profess, to be saving, in order that they may never be compelled to do anything disgraceful; e.g. the cheeseparer* (and those like him), who is so named because of the extreme lengths to which he carries his unwillingness to give.
But others are moved to keep their hands from their neighbours’ goods only by fear, believing it to be no easy thing to take the goods of others, without having one’s own goods taken in turn; so they are content with neither taking nor giving.
Others, again, exceed in the matter of taking so far as to make any gain they can in any way whatever, e.g. those who ply debasing trades, brothel-keepers and such like, and usurers who lend out small sums at a high rate. For all these make money from improper sources to an improper extent.
The common characteristic of these last seems to be the pursuit of base gain; for all of them endure reproach for the sake of gain, and that a small gain. For those who make improper gains in improper ways on a large scale are not called illiberal, e.g. tyrants who sack cities and pillage temples; they are rather called wicked, impious, unjust. The dice-sharper, however, and the man who steals clothes at the bath, or the common thief, are reckoned among the illiberal; for they all make base gains; i.e. both the thief and the sharper ply their trade and endure reproach for gain, and the thief for the sake of his booty endures the greatest dangers, while the sharper makes gain out of his friends, to whom he ought to give. Both then, wishing to make gain in improper ways, are seekers of base gain; and all such ways of making money are illiberal.
But illiberality is rightly called the opposite of liberality; for it is a worse evil than prodigality, and men are more apt to err in this way than in that which we have described as prodigality.
Let this, then, be taken as our account of liberality, and of the vices that are opposed to it.
[* ]ἄσωτος, ἀ priv. and σω̂ς, σώζειν.
[* ]The connection is plainer in the original, because τὰ χρήματα, “wealth,” is at once seen to be identical with τὰ χρήσιμα, “useful things,” and connected with χρεία, “use.”
[* ]Were it not for some extraneous consideration, e.g. desire to stand well with his neighbours.
[* ]This is strictly a departure from the virtue; but Aristotle seems often to pass insensibly from the abstract ideal of a virtue to its imperfect embodiment in a complex character. Cf. infra. cap. 3.
[* ]No single English word can convey the associations of the Greek τύραννος, a monarch who has seized absolute power, not necessarily one who abuses it.
[* ]See Stewart.
[† ]i.e. in men of some age and fixed character; they often coexist in very young men, he says, but cannot possibly coexist for long.
[‡ ]As he has already said in effect, supra, § 23.
[* ]Lit. “cummin-splitter.”