Making room for, and sense of, largesse

In his otherwise scathing New York Review of Books review of Jean Starobinski’s Largesse, Ernst Gombrich notes at the outset that the term refers not just to gift giving of any sort but, ‘in a more technical context, [to] the ceremonial scattering of gifts expected from a king or prince on festive occasions.’ Largesse, Starobinski asserts, is an example of an ‘ostentatious gift,’ and we might observe the concept of largesse slowly expanding beyond the realm of kings and princes to include great men and women of wealth: landed gentry, captains of industry, mafia dons, investment billionaires.

Jane Jacobs, in Systems of Survival, and Gombrich in his New York Review of Books review are both quick to point out how often and how easily largesse becomes–or is–a bribe, yet, despite this tendency and this danger, the more basic question remains, ‘How does largesse proper fit into our grasp of our economic relationships?’

Rather bizarrely, Jacobs cannot find a good place for largesse in her book about ways of making a living. Even though she mentions largesse quite often (again, mainly in the form of bribes), she mistakenly places it under the category of ‘taking,’ and this hardly makes sense. For securing a territory and cultivating its plenty does not amount to largesse: it could lead to spoilage (a misuse of Category I) or to ongoing commercial transitions (Category II).

The reason she cannot account for largesse is that she only operates with two categories–taking and trading–rather than three. But largesse is neither of these. What then?

Reading her book and examining my own experiences of working within a gift economy, I realized two important things:

1.) That she puts an improper emphasis on the acquisition of something or other (‘taking’), not on that to which something or other is put (‘using’). I believe the weight should fall on what we use with ‘what we have’ (Gunter Pauli speaks well about the ‘what we have.’). This mistake led me to reformulate my first maxim of economic relationships: Use (properly) what you’ve got.

2.) That, in addition to the categories of using properly and exchanging fairly, a third category of economic relationships is necessary if we are going to have any luck in making sense of our everyday experiences of helping, sharing, giving, requesting, doing a favor–in short, all the ways that we get on daily with our fellows, ways that we couldn’t do without if we wished to continue to get on on our own and with each other. My maxim for this third category is Offer (generously) what you can.

These two considerations bring me back to the concept of largesse. How are we to find a place for it in our basic set of categories? The magnanimous man in Aristotle has a superabundance (Category I); this is true. Out of this superabundance, he needn’t engage in trade since he can offer more than what is normal and expected to his friends. In lieu of simply having a decent meal with his guests, he can make a great display of things, grandly and ceremoniously offering much unto them. He can celebrate them and, in turn, life’s bounty.

True, he may be full of himself or he may be vain, but it is also possible that he may want to show a kind of overflowing generosity toward those he cares about. In any case, such a possibility cannot be ruled out from the beginning. And if it is possible for there to be largesse, then we had better not confuse it with simply having abundance (Category I) or with expecting a return on investment (Category II: Exchanging (fairly) what’s in hand). I myself have had enough experiences with largesse that I would want to find a rightful place for it in my accounting of the range of economic relationships governing our daily affairs. And so, we can say with reason that largesse proper represents the permissible and rightful transition from abundance (Category I) to plentiful offering (Category III).