Walking with Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics IV.1-2

by Peter Saint-Andre


Next Aristotle turns to generosity. A more literal rendering of the Greek word ἐλευθεριότης might be "free-giving", since it is derived from ἐλευθερία, the Greek word for freedom. We'll talk more about freedom farther along in our walk with Aristotle, but for now it's worth noting that Aristotle's conception of freedom is not purely political but also includes personal aspects of character, behavior, and thinking.

The paradigmatic sense of generosity is giving - and, interestingly, earning - money in appropriate ways. (Presumably in an extended sense we could speak of being generous with one's time or attention or other resources, but we'll leave that for another day.) The two opposites of generosity - both falling short and going too far of what's beautifully right in this domain - are stinginess and wastefulness: the stingy person thinks money is a more serious matter than it really is, whereas the wasteful person doesn't take it seriously enough and thus might not have enough to live on, which is self-destructive.

Aristotle introduces two key principles in Chapter I:

A further wrinkle is that for Aristotle, giving is personal (the ancient Greeks didn't have non-profit foundations, so generosity was one-to-one). The character of the recipient matters a great deal. A wasteful person doesn't necessarily give too great an amount, but might give to the wrong kind of person, such as a sycophant or someone who brings pleasure in unwholesome ways.

Similar considerations apply to getting or earning money. Here you are the recipient, and your character matters, too: Aristotle observes that it doesn't befit a free person to engage in shameful lines of work (his examples are pimps and loan sharks). This insight might prove helpful later on when we consider Aristotle's discussion of leisure (σχολή).

In Chapter 2, Aristotle talks about a special flavor of generosity he calls magnificence, which applies only to people of great wealth - the kind of public benefactors who could fittingly fund a dramatic festival, a diplomatic delegation, or a warship (in classical Greece such things were paid for by the rich individually, not through general taxation). The magnificent person knows how to spend money on a grand scale without being gaudy or chintzy; what's beautifully right about this rather specialized excellence of character is its sense of grandeur (μέγεθος).

In this respect, Chapter 2 on magnificence (μεγαλοπρεπεία) serves as a segue to Chapter 3 on greatness of soul (μεγαλοψυχία). That's a topic fraught with controversy, which is why I'll cover it separately in the next stage of our Aristotelian journey.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal