This fourth post in my series on Nobility continues expositing the first definition of “nobility” given by the Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, as follows:
1. Dignity of mind; greatness; grandeur; that elevation of soul which comprehends bravery, generosity, magnamimity, intrepidity, and contempt of every thing that dishonors character.
Etymologically, generous is related to the Latin verb meaning “to give, beget,” and the Latin noun meaning “race, class, kind.” At one time, it was simply assumed culturally that a noble person would be a more-than-average giving person: this was just part of what it meant to be born “noble.” (Ironic, then, that today’s “noble” class – where “noble,” in that characteristically Modern cynical mode, is just a stand in for “the rich and famous,” are increasingly viewed with suspicion as greedy hoarders and manipulators, via their fantastic wealth, of the supposedly “democratic” political system.)
To again refer to Aristotle’s idea of the virtuous mean, an actually generous person would be the one who can size up a given situation and “give to the right people, the right amounts, and at the right time.” Far from being some squishy-minded, possibly guilt-induced unmoderated giving, the actually generous person recognizes real needs and ensures he won’t have little to give in those circumstances because he’s already given too much in inappropriate ways.
As Aristotle puts it in Book IV of his Ethics: “In crediting people with [Generosity] their resources must be taken into account; for the [generousness] of a gift does not depend on its amount, but on the disposition of the giver, and a [generous] disposition gives according to its substance.”
Moreover, an actually generous person does not give to be noticed, to receive accolades for their philanthropy, for he does not expect anything in return for his generosity. This is most of the point: he already has far more than he himself needs, so what better, more humane way to dispose of the rest than to give to others who have real needs?
Thus does that elevation of soul Webster referenced make it possible for the noble person to rise above mere sensory reports of “needs,” determine what are and aren’t real needs, and give appropriately to alleviate those. He “catches, seizes, holds onto” an accurate understanding of need and what he himself can properly do about it.
One may see from the careful unpacking of the terms above that nobility’s face of generosity may actually require significant adjustments of attitude and perception for those committed to various “hardline” dichotomous political perspectives.
The well-off person who give out of a sense of guilt over his excessively lavish lifestyle or out of a desire (however suppressed) to be seen giving is in no wise noble. Rather, such a person may be exhibiting “the “Vice of Excess,” specifically that of Prodigality, which consists in wasting one’s resources on ignoble pursuits, and in the process ruining one’s own soul. This is only one reason why our great Western tradition is packed full of warnings against immoderate acquisition of money and goods: such vicious activity has brought down not only vast numbers of individuals, but also whole cultures.
On the other hand, neither is the well-off person who grotesquely fantasize that his prosperity is due to his having pulled himself up by his own bootstraps – so get your lazy hands off my stuff and go get a job! – in any wise noble. Rather, such a person may be exhibiting the “Vice of Deficiency,” specifically that of Meanness, which is “fall[ing] short in giving and go[ing] to excess in getting.” Priding himself on his fantastic “work ethic,” this sort of person may, paradoxically, fall short of true nobility exactly to the degree that he is proud of his own achievements and exceedingly jealous to ensure that others do not manage to “steal” one red cent from him.
In short, the aspect of Nobility that we call generosity is, like the rest of nobility, not an easy thing to seek or find, nor, having found it, will it necessarily be easy to keep.