Liberality, prodigality, and meanness are about the giving and taking of wealth.
So now let us talk about liberality. Liberality is the virtue of giving and taking the right amounts of wealth. Before we used as an example treating others to a meal and then accepting their treat in return. But the word "liberality" can be used with anything that involves spending or receiving wealth, anything that has value in terms of money. The person that goes too far, and spends too much, and receives too little is called 'prodigal' (again, think of the "prodigal son"). The person that does not go far enough, and spends too little, and takes too much is called 'mean', and cares more about money than friendship.
Now, sometimes people use the term 'prodigal' for people that have big appetites and then spend a lot and consume a lot. Such people are both self-indulgent and prodigal (which is pretty bad). But when we are talking about prodigality here, we specifically mean spending money, and we keep 'self-indulgence' as a separate term.
Things that have a use can be used well, and they can be used badly. Riches are useful to have, useful as means to ends. And who is the one who can best use means to achieve ends? It is the one who does things just right, the one who has the virtue which is concerned with those means. For wealth, the virtue is liberality, and so the liberal person is the one that makes good use of wealth. Now, here we do not consider holding on to wealth as making good use of it, we rather say that that is merely keeping it. Using wealth means giving and taking.
Liberality means giving to the right people at the right times and taking from the right sources at the right times. It also means not taking from the wrong sources or giving to the wrong people, and it means not giving or taking at the wrong times. For example, a liberal person will not give money to someone that is going to turn around and waste it on gambling or drink (this is giving to the wrong sources). Also, a liberal person will not take money from people that have gotten that money by doing bad things (this is getting it from the wrong sources). Finally, a liberal person will know not to give money or ask for it in front of people that are also hard up for cash (this is getting or giving at the wrong time).
Virtue is more about us doing good to other people than having people do good things for us. Virtue is also more about taking action and doing noble things; virtue is not as much about avoiding doing bad things. With this in mind we can see that giving rightly means doing something good and noble, while taking rightly means to have good done to oneself, and yet not acting badly when receiving it (i.e. remembering to express gratitude and later repaying the favor).
People are grateful to the people who give, not to the people that do not take. Also, it is easier to not take than it is to give. This means it is less virtuous, because virtue is more about things that are harder to do. People who give rightly are called liberal, but not people who do not take. Those who do not take are called 'just'. Those who do take hardly ever get praise.
Of all the virtuous characters, the liberal are the ones that get the most love. This is because they are useful, and they are useful because they give to the right people, at the right time, and in the right amount. This kind of giving is what lets the liberal person do the most good.
Now we have probably all seen cases where someone does give, but they do it in a very reluctant way, and it is like it pains them to do it. The liberal person is not like that. As we have said before, to do what is right is something that virtuous people take pleasure in, or at the very least they are not pained at being virtuous.
What about people that give, but either to the wrong people or for something that is not noble? They are not to be called liberal. What if the person takes money from the wrong sources? If so, they are not liberal. The liberal person also does not ask for money, nor do they accept money lightly, but only if they must. But when they must, the liberal person will take from the right sources. The liberal person also looks after their own property, because they need to keep that up so that they will have wealth ready to give to those in need. Also, the liberal person will not waste all their wealth by giving anything to anybody that asks. Rather, the liberal person will actually say "no" except when it is the right time and for the right people, then they will say "yes". We would hope that the liberal person will give in the right amount, but as the term is actually used, many of the people that are called 'liberal' go a bit too the excess in giving, and leave too little for themselves.
Rich people are not the only people that can be liberal. Liberality is how well you use what you have. So it is possible for someone that is poorer to give less often than someone that is richer, and yet the poorer person is still the more liberal. How so? Because they do a better job of giving to the right people and at the right time. Also, if the person did not inherit their wealth, but earned it themselves, and then also gave it away, then that person has more the character of being liberal. The less that someone has to give, the more it means for them to give what they have.
It is hard to be both liberal and rich for very long. Being liberal does not mean being good at taking or keeping wealth, but rather at giving it away. Such people do not want to have wealth just so they can say they have it, but rather in order to have something that they can give. And this is why we often hear people say about fortune that "those who deserve the most wealth, have the least". But really, it is to be expected that the people that take pains to get wealth will have it, and those that do not, will not. But again, even if a liberal person does not keep wealth, that does not mean that they waste it. If they waste their wealth, then that means they give to the wrong people or at the wrong time, and so they do not have anything left to be able to give to the right people at the right time; if someone wastes the wealth that they have, then they cannot be said to be liberal.
Now, wealth relates to the substance of a person. For instance, the substance of the farmer is (in part) the farmland and the animals that they own. It is likewise with other people. If people do right with their substance, then they will have wealth. Now, a liberal person is not going to use up their substance and go beyond their means when it comes to giving. If someone does that, then they are prodigal (not liberal). The right way is to have some wealth built up and on hand, ready to lend to worthy friends in their times of need. Incidentally, despots that control vast domains are not called 'prodigal' when they give lavishly, and this is because they own so much that it is hard for them to give beyond their means.
The liberal person also takes pain in the right way when it comes to money matters. I mean, a liberal person will be pained if they do not give the right amount of money when called for or if they ever give to the wrong people or at the wrong times. In this way of being pained at doing wrong, they get and keep their virtue of liberality (same way as with any other virtue). But they are not greatly pained, but moderately, and as they ought. But we must note that there a bias towards giving and liberal people are the type that can be got the better of in money matters. They are the type of people that would rather give too much than it ever be said that they were cheap or stingy.
Now let us talk about the prodigals, those who waste their substance in giving. It is hard to be totally prodigal, prodigal in every way. It is certainly hard to be like that for very long. And why is that? Because it is not easy to give to all when you take from none. A person that tries that will use up all they have, and end up broke. These are the people that we call prodigal. Well, on the bright side, this type of person is better than the mean person. Once the prodigal is broke, they have to stop being prodigal because they cannot keep giving. At this point, they can start to learn how to be liberal instead. After all, such a person that gives and does not take is already like the liberal person, but they now have to learn to give at the right time and in the right amount and to the right people, instead of just giving indiscriminately. And this is why this kind of person is not thought to be wicked, but only foolish.
But there are other kinds of prodigals, perhaps even most of them, who not only do not avoid taking, but they also take from the wrong sources, and so these are like the people that are mean. They take because they love to use up money, and so they need to get something in order to have something use. But this type of person does not really care about honor or getting themselves a bad name, so they will take from whereever they can get. Likewise also, they do not take care in who they turn around and give money to. So they usually end up making people rich that really deserve to be poor and they leave poor people unhelped when they really deserve help. This is the kind of person that flatterers latch onto, because the flatterers know that they can get things easy from the prodigals. Also, this kind of prodigal will tend to be self-indulgent, and blow their money trying to live it up.
But the prodigal will change, like we said, if they will let someone teach them different; if they can learn to take and give from the right sources and in the right way and so on, then they can become liberal. But as far as mean people go, it is very hard to change them. First of all, people become mean when they get old or become disabled, and we cannot cure them of things like that. Besides that, meanness is more stuck in the character of people, because people like to get and keep money, and that is what meanness is about. For a prodigal to change, it means that they do not waste money. For a mean person to change, it means they are going to lose money. It is not easy to convince them that they will be better off having virtue instead.
There are different kinds of meanness, because it has different parts to it and some people are worse when it comes to not giving and others are worse when it comes to taking too much. People that are called 'miserly' or 'stingy' or 'tight-fisted' do not give when they should or as much as they should, but that does not mean that they also want to try to get ahold of what other people have. Sometimes this is because, even though they are miserly, they are still honest and want to avoid disgrace. Some of them claim that this why they hoard money -- so that they then will not be so hard up for money that they are in a bad position, and may be forced to do something disgraceful in order to get by. Others of them do not try to take because they are afraid that if they do take from others, then others may take from them (and so they would rather neither take nor give).
Then are those people that are takers in life, including people that will take from any source (e.g. pimps, loan sharks, and the like). All of them like to gain in bad ways, and they do not actually gain very much, but rather they end up with a bad name. And there are those who go so far beyond this we cannot even call them mean, but rather wicked and impious and injust. Here I am talking about warlords that sack cities and rob from temples. Those that cheat in gambling and those that hold stickups or other robberies are not as bad as warlords, but they still classed as takers and they are mean. Gambling cheats make friends of people so they can take from them. Robbers run dangers to get loot. Both end up take from the wrong sources, and both end up with a bad name.
Now it should be clear that between meanness and prodigality, meanness is the worse and it is more opposed to liberality than prodigality is. But more people make mistakes on the side of prodigality.
Here ends our talk about liberality, prodigality, and meanness.
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