Study Guide

The Nicomachean Ethics Book 4, Chapter 1 (1119b20-1122a17)

By Aristotle

Book 4, Chapter 1 (1119b20-1122a17)

  • On to "liberality."
  • Aristotle wants to discuss the just and proper uses of money. To be liberal means that you've got cash, and you spend it in the right ways and for the right reasons.
  • If you spend too much, you are prodigal; too little, and you're stingy (think Scrooge).
  • Though prodigal people run into many vices along that road, they really have one major vice: ruining their resources. It's a kind of self-destruction.
  • The liberal person is known by his ability to give money where he should and not take from someone or something he shouldn't. And he does all of this with great pleasure.
  • Liberality is a virtue because it is noble and is done for noble ends.
  • A person who gives his money (or takes it) where he shouldn't isn't a virtuous person. This is a person more concerned with money than with virtue—hence, not liberal.
  • There's a downside to the liberal person: they're apt to give away too much of their resources without taking where they should. This results in a badly managed account book.
  • But, Aristotle says, if they're steering a middle course (as they should), a properly liberal person would manage his resources in the right way—otherwise he would be prodigal.
  • It's possible for a person with little money to be liberal. In fact, this person might be considered more generous, since he gives from an already small pool of resources.
  • Generally, it is not easy for the liberal person to build wealth. He's too busy giving it all away and won't accept money from others.
  • People with access to bottomless pits of resources can't really be called prodigal, since they can never exceed the limits of their wallets. They may, however, be considered unjust (see Book 5).
  • Prodigal people give too much money (and often to the wrong people). They're deficient in taking, just as the liberal are. Stingy people are the opposite: they love to take and not give.
  • Prodigality is a weird vice because the balance sheet doesn't fit the actions: spending freely without the desire to accumulate wealth.
  • But on balance, the prodigal person is better than the stingy one, since one who is prone to spend money freely can be brought round to the mean (liberality) much more quickly.
  • Also, a prodigal person is foolish rather than corrupt. He's also good for the economy, where a stingy person worries only about his own wallet.
  • But there can be a huge problem with prodigality. Running out of cash can make a person desperate, and then he might take money from places and people he shouldn't. This is injustice.
  • They also really love pleasure, which can lead to hardcore vice (think licentiousness).
  • Stinginess, on the other hand, is totally incurable.
  • And it's an epidemic, since most people love and honor money above all things.
  • There are two categories of stinginess: 1) deficiency in giving (the "thrifty" or "misers"); 2) excess of taking.
  • Some fail to give when they ought to avoid the shame of poverty; others avoid taking money from others because they fear retaliation and loss of their own resources.
  • And then there are people who will take money wherever they can get it (i.e. brothel keepers and usurers).
  • Side note: stingy people are often controlling when it comes to small amounts. Tyrants who plunder and deal with coin on a large scale aren't simply stingy—they are wicked and unjust.
  • Anyone who is up for financial gain in a shameful way may be called stingy as well.