“Liberality consists less in giving a great deal than in gifts well timed” (Jean de La Bruyère).
SET ASIDE FOR A MOMENT THE CONCEPT OF POLITICAL OR RELIGIOUS “LIBERALISM” AND CONSIDER THAT THE BASIC MEANING OF “LIBERALITY” IS GENEROSITY. Coming into English from the Latin liber (“free”), the word suggests that in the matter of giving, a liberal person gives freely rather than in a stingy or miserly way. The character trait of liberality means that we have open hearts and hands. When wisdom indicates that a thing is to be done, we do it generously, wanting to do as much (rather than as little) as possible.
But people who have learned the skill of liberality know that it involves more than just the giving of gifts. As Jean de La Bruyère noted, “Liberality consists less in giving a great deal than in gifts well timed.” If there is the question of how much we should give, there are also the questions of when we should give and in what manner. Since the “how” of giving is every bit as important as the “how much,” it takes wisdom, thoughtfulness, and empathy to be authentically liberal.
Indeed, if we just toss gifts here, there, and everywhere, we are not being generous but careless. If you give me a gift of money, the gift will not mean nearly as much if I know you are wasteful in the management of your finances. So James Boswell was exactly right when he said, “If a man is prodigal, he cannot be truly generous.”
But real generosity is ironic in that it makes us richer while holding on to our treasures makes us poorer. The Book of Proverbs puts it this way: “There is one who scatters, yet increases more; and there is one who withholds more than is right, but it leads to poverty.”
Some people think liberality is a sign of weakness. A judge, for example, who shows mercy to a guilty defendant might be thought of as weak in comparison to a judge who takes a tougher approach. And a nation that deals generously with other nations in its foreign policy might not be considered as strong as a nation that takes a military approach to every issue. In the long run, however, individuals (and nations) who have been generous end up being stronger than those who have chosen not to be. It is an undeniable fact of life: generosity can do many things that brute force is incapable of.
“The hand of liberality is stronger than the arm of power” (Saadi).