Etymological and Cultural Aspect of Generosity
Pr. Christopher Varughese
The Etymology of Generosity
The modern English word “generosity” was derived from the Latin word generōsus, which means “of noble birth,” which itself was passed down to English through the Old French word genereux. The Latin stem gener – is the declensional stem of genus, meaning “kin,” “clan,” “race,” or “stock,” with the root Indo–European meaning of gen being "to beget." It is from these roots that we have the words: genesis, gentry, gender, genital, gentile, genealogy, and genius, among others.
Up to the 16th Century, to be generous reflected an aristocratic sense. It meant “to belong to nobility.” During the 17th Century the meaning and use of the word began to change. Generosity began to be associated with a nobility of spirit than that of a family heritage. Nevertheless, this quality was believed to be possessed by those of high birth and that it also varied from person to person. In this way generosity increasingly came in the 17th Century to signify a variety of traits of character and action such as: gallantry, courage, strength, richness, gentleness, and fairness. In addition to describing these diverse human qualities, "generous" became a word during this period used to describe fertile land, the strength of animal breeds, abundant provisions of food, vibrancy of colours, the strength of liquor, and the potency of medicine.
Then, during the 18th Century, the meaning of “generosity” continued to evolve in directions denoting the more specific, contemporary meaning of munificence, open–handedness, and liberality in the giving of money and possessions to others. This more specific meaning came to dominate English usage by the 19th Century. Thus, over the last five centuries in the English speaking world, “generosity” developed from being primarily the description of an ascribed status pertaining to the elite nobility to being an achieved mark of admirable personal quality and action capable of being exercised in theory by any person who had learned virtue and noble character.
Modern Usage of the Word
Despite significant evolutions in its meaning over the past centuries, it cannot be said that the historical tag over the word has been entirely erased. Generosity, even today, is not considered as a normal trait of the ordinary, or of all people. Rather, it is believed to be a virtue practiced by those of higher quality or greater goodness. While truth, respect, and other similar qualities are considered as ideals achievable by the common man, generosity in its positive side, is still seen as something attainable by someone who belongs to a higher standard. This automatically points to a negative side whereby the majority find it an excuse from wanting to practice generosity on the pretext of falling within the perceived status of being common or ordinary and not the elite.
Understanding Generosity Today
After having evolved through various stages of development, generosity is today understood as ‘readiness or liberality in giving’ or as ‘freedom from meanness or smallness of mind or character’ or the ‘virtue of giving good things to others freely and abundantly’. Thus, it reflects a character trait that involves both attitude and action. Generosity is therefore a basic, personal, moral orientation to life that on one side entails the moral good and on the other rejects many moral vices such as selfishness, greed, fear, meanness. It also involves giving to others those things that enhances the true well being of the recipient. It must be noted that the tendency to perceive generosity in mere financial terms limits the scope that it encompasses. Generosity extends its boundaries to relate to possessions, time, attention, aid, encouragement, emotional availability, and more.
Several forms of generosity can be seen today. The failure of someone to guard their purse can lead to unintentional generosity. Sometimes, generosity is reluctant, particularly when one feels pressured to give. Generosity can also be manipulative, especially in situations where a gift is given for some ulterior motive. And it is not uncommon for generosity to be self-serving when one gives to gain some attention or advantage. Nevertheless, in stark contrast, there is another form of generosity that is intentional, not the least bit reluctant, not manipulative and definitely not self-serving.
The Culture of Generosity: A Historical Search
In the Western tradition, the culture of generosity has long been continuing within a broader context. It can be understood in connection with hospitality, liberality, love, and charity. A careful search can lead us to the discovery that the nature of generosity has most often involved fundamental religious questions concerning the nature of humanity, God, and the human-divine relationship.
The special place of the virtue of hospitality throughout the Middle East has often been noted. The Arab/Islamic tradition in particular emphasizes that the faithful have a duty to God to show generous hospitality towards the stranger, offering them shelter and the best food and drink available. This virtue has deep historical roots, as is witnessed by the Hebrew Bible. It is exemplified in Abraham’s eagerness to host the three strangers who approach his tent in the wilderness, strangers whom the text identifies as Yahweh appearing to Abraham. In showing hospitality to strangers, Abraham has thus honoured God and has been enabled to hear God’s covenantal promise of a son in his old age. Aliens, together with widows, orphans, and the poor, are lifted up for special moral attention, and the Israelites are repeatedly reminded that “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Thus, care for those marginal to the community and those in danger of being excluded from basic resources, is mandated both as a response to the needs of those persons and as a response to God’s salvific care for the people of Israel.
For Christians, to be generous is to be conformed not just to Christ but also to the loving divine Father, whose sacrificial self-gift of His Son into the world makes possible human fellowship in the divine life (John 3:16). Apostle Paul regarded generosity as a proof of the genuine character of Christian love. This is especially clear when he talks of the gifts given by other Christians to the Jerusalem Church. For Paul, this love is exemplified by Christ who, “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor” (2 Cor 8.9). Biblical generosity also involves giving beyond one’s means.
Generosity was also a virtue in the classical pagan context. It is the third of the virtues of character discussed by Aristotle, following on the heels of courage and temperance. The generous person, for Aristotle, is one who gives of his or her wealth in a way that achieves a mean between wastefulness and covetousness. The generous person does not give indiscriminately, but seeks to give in a way that is good and fine.This, in turn, requires giving to the right people, in the right amounts, at the right time, with pleasure, and without looking out for oneself. Aristotle suggests that giving to those who lack good character, or to those who respond with flattery, is not true generosity. Generosity is proportionate to one’s resources, so it is not contingent on possession of great wealth. However, it is closely allied to the virtue of magnificence, which for Aristotle does involve large-scale giving for worthy ends, in particular those that benefit the community as a whole. Following in a parallel line of thought, Thomas Aquinas, enhanced the Aristotelian view by calling forth for a freedom from attachment to external goods. He opined that this disassociation helps make possible the good use of money and possessions.
The heart of Aquinas’ account of giving is found in his discussion of the outward
acts of charity, notably beneficence and the giving of alms to the poor. Most fundamentally, these acts are significant because they are a way of being conformed to God, whose nature is self-communicative goodness. Human beings are called to respond in gratitude to God’s love by loving God and one another. Aquinas insists that these acts of charity should in principle extend to all, in the sense that we should be ready to do good to everyone, including strangers and enemies.
Today, we associate the word “charity” primarily with charitable giving to the poor. Care for the poor, together with widow and orphan and prisoner, have always been central activities of Christian churches. Generosity was not simply a virtue of individuals but a corporate responsibility, institutionalized in myriad ways.
An influential strand of contemporary continental philosophy has argued that the dominant received conceptions of generosity are insufficiently unconditional and betray expectations of reciprocity. Emmanuel Levinas insists that true generosity does not differentiate between more or less deserving recipients, nor does it give in the expectation of return. Rather, it is an unconditional openness to the Other, an opening of oneself to otherness in a way that is willing to have one’s own identity called into question. Jacques Derrida has developed this line of reflection into an assertion of the impossibility of gift. As soon as something is recognized as a gift, the receiver becomes indebted and obliged to offer a return; free gift thus collapses into economic exchange. A gift can only exist so long as it remains unrecognized by both giver and receiver. The intense interest that has been aroused recently is an indication of the fact that generosity is endangered in today’s world, a world dominated by contract or economic exchange, which is indeed strictly conditional.
This is where one of the most important principles for balanced Christian living, ‘the Law of Hilarious Generosity’ comes to play says Dave Sutherland and Kirk Nowery. The word translated as “cheerful” in most English Bibles literally means “hilarious.” It carries the idea of one who is uproariously delighted to give. Not grudgingly, but freely and openly and happily. It’s the absolute opposite of one who gives to God because he feels he can’t refuse to give, or because someone else is giving and it would reflect poorly on him if he didn’t give. Living by the Law of Hilarious Generosity, one does not give under the whiplash of necessity, complaining inwardly or being bitter in any way. Rather, one is thankful to even be able to give.
Think of all the reasons to give with hilarious generosity. God, with a heart full of perfect love and compassion, gave His only Son to purchase our salvation. He gave the Holy Spirit as our eternal comforter, guide and teacher. He gave us the promise of life abundant here and life forever with Him in heaven. He gave free access into His presence, allowing us to come with our petitions, and promising to hear and answer when we pray. He gave all this and so much more! How can we not reflect this generosity?