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?’

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