Aristotle's Liberality

I mentioned Aristotle’s ideas about taking the moderate position between two vices in my last post. Well one of the traits that he spends an exceptional amount of time on is Liberality. What he’s talking about here is our relationship with money and giving. This particular section was very interesting to me because I believe we live in an individualistic consumer culture and because all over the world (and just as often in our own backyards) we are confronted with staggering poverty and depressingly large gaps between the wealthy and the poor.At first I got quite frustrated because if he was writing about this very same issue over two thousand years ago and its clear we haven’t done much to resolve the matter, what does that mean about human evolution? We’re more civilized now? Ha!

All ranting aside, Aristotle has a pretty interesting view on the matter. He believes that wealth is simply a thing that can be used, a bit like a tool, and someone who makes the best use of their wealth is the most virtuous. And he outlines pretty clear rules about giving and receiving from the right people as well as not giving and not receiving from the wrong people.

Nor will he accept money from a wrong source; because such acceptance is inconsistent with indifference to money.

His main point centers on this idea of indifference. Money is a fine thing to have simply because it’s a tool. But too much pleasure in having money makes us lose our indifference to it and so we will experience pain when we have to give it away and therefore give less. And Aristotle’s view is that we should give.

But he will accept money from the right source, e.g. from his own property; not because it is a fine thing to do so, but because it is necessary so that he may have something to give.It is not easy for a liberal man to be rich, since he is neither acquisitive nor retentive of money, but is ready to part with it, and does not value it for itself, but only with a view to giving.

I love the notion of moderation coupled with responsibility here. He’s not saying that people should shed their homes and their clothes and go traipsing over the wilderness doing good deeds. He is reminding us that as social creatures we have a certain responsibility to take care of ourselves and make sure we have extra to give to people who haven’t reached the same level of virtue. This reminds me of Plato talking about how gains in intellectual and political wisdom come with a responsibility to go back and work with those who haven’t gotten there yet. I don’t think there is anything condescending in these ideas, not at all. What I find in both is real social compassion.

And he has a funny little insight into the perversity of human nature. He recognizes that there is a back door shortcut to this virtue. The difference between not taking and giving. It is wrong to take so of course we shouldn’t take from others for our benefit. Aristotle reminds us that this is a lot easier to do than giving, and probably what most law-abiding citizens concern themselves with. But it’s harder to give up what is our own and therefore more virtuous. And he rather darkly admits that illiberality (or stinginess) is more deeply rooted in human nature.

He also rightly points out that giving is all proportional. A poor person can give a small amount and come out more virtuous than a rich person giving a huge amount – it all depends on how much of our wealth we’re willing to part with.

In one of my scribbled notes for this section, I wrote a question about capitalism and whether Aristotle would consider it an inherently unethical activity. I suppose it would depend on how profits are used and re-distributed. I can say for sure that he was opposed to making money out of money – money lending with high rates of interest. To him, this wasn’t ethical because it removes the practical aspect out of money (money for exchange of goods and/or services) as well as encourages others to live beyond their means (prodigality).

All in all, Ethics was a great read. I may still have more to post but I’ll see what strikes me first. I’d love to get started on Politics right away but I’m up to my ears in a lot of other books at the moment, and really enjoying all of them. I mentioned Gargantua et Pantagruel last week and I am still cackling my way through it. I’ve also gotten halfway through Keri Hulme’s The Bone People and am rather engrossed in the story, even if it’s a difficult one to read. And I started Michel de Montaigne’s first volume of Essais, as if I didn’t have enough to read already!

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Michelle

Reader, writer, translator, nature-lover, happy expat and concerned world citizen.

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