History of Generosity

The modern English word “generosity” derives from the Latin word generōsus, which means “of noble birth,” which itself was passed down to English through the Old French word genereux.

Most recorded English uses of the word “generous” up to and during the Sixteenth Century reflect an aristocratic sense of being of noble lineage or high birth. To be generous was literally a way of saying “to belong to nobility.”

During the 17th Century, however, the meaning and use of the word began to change. Generosity came increasingly to identify not literal family heritage but a nobility of spirit thought to be associated with high birth— that is, with various admirable qualities that could now vary from person to person, depending not on family history but on whether a person actually possessed the qualities.


  • In this way generosity increasingly came in the 17th Century to signify a variety of traits of character and action historically associated (whether accurately or not) with the ideals of actual nobility: gallantry, courage, strength, richness, gentleness, and fairness.
  • In addition to describing these diverse human qualities, “generous “became a word during this period used to describe fertile land, the strength of animal breeds, abundant provisions of food, vibrancy of colours, the strength of liquor, and the potency of medicine.


Then, during the 18th Century, the meaning of “generosity” continued to evolve in directions denoting the more specific, contemporary meaning of open–handedness, and liberality in the giving of money and possessions to others.


  • This more specific meaning came to dominate English usage by the 19th Century.
  • Over the last five centuries in the English speaking world, “generosity” developed from being primarily the description of an ascribed status pertaining to the elite nobility to being an achieved mark of admirable personal quality and action capable of being exercised in theory by any person who had learned virtue and noble character.


For Christians, to be generous is to be conformed not just to Christ but also to the loving divine Parent, whose sacrificial self-gift into the world makes possible human fellowship in the divine life; “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). The apostle Paul regarded generosity (as expressed in the gifts of other Christian churches to the Jerusalem church) as a proof of the genuine character of Christian love. For Paul, this love is exemplified by Christ who, “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor” (2 Corinth. 8.9). Generosity involves giving beyond one’s means, though Paul also notes that those now giving out of their abundance may at some point be in need and be the recipients of the generosity of others.


The special place of the virtue of hospitality throughout the Middle East has often been noted. The Arab/Islamic tradition in particular emphasizes that the faithful have a duty to God to show generous hospitality towards the stranger, offering them shelter and the best food and drink available. This virtue has deep historical roots, as is witnessed by the Hebrew Bible. It is exemplified in Abraham’s eagerness to host the three strangers who approach his tent in the wilderness, strangers whom the text identifies as Yahweh appearing to Abraham. In showing hospitality to strangers, Abraham has thus honoured God and has been enabled to hear God’s covenantal promise of a son in his old age. Aliens, together with widows, orphans, and the poor, are lifted up for special moral attention, and the Israelites are repeatedly reminded that “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Thus, care for those marginal to the community and thus in danger of being excluded from basic resources, is mandated both as a response to the needs of those persons and as a response to God’s salvific care for the people of Israel.


Generosity was also a virtue in the classical pagan context. It is the third of the virtues of character discussed by Aristotle, following on the heels of courage and temperance. The generous person, for Aristotle, is one who gives of his or her wealth in a way that achieves a mean between wastefulness and covetousness. The generous person does not give indiscriminately, but seeks to give in a way that is good and fine. This, in turn, requires giving to the right people, in the right amounts, at the right time, with pleasure, and without looking out for oneself. Aristotle suggests that giving to those who lack good character, or to those who respond with flattery, is not true generosity. Generosity is proportionate to one’s resources, so it is not contingent on possession of great wealth. However, it is closely allied to the virtue of magnificence, which for Aristotle does involve large-scale giving for worthy ends, in particular those that benefit the community as a whole.


Thomas Aquinas, whose thought represents the peak of medieval scholasticism, absorbed much of Aristotle’s account of generosity into his own account of liberality, but his treatment focuses on the way that freedom from attachment to money and possessions makes possible the good use of these external goods. Like Aristotle, Aquinas suggests that there are more and less fitting ways in which to give of one’s wealth.


The heart of Aquinas’ account of giving, though, is found not in his discussion of liberality, which focuses on the giver’s disposition toward wealth, but in his discussion of the outward acts of charity, notably beneficence and the giving of alms to the poor. Most fundamentally, these acts are significant because they are a way of being conformed to God, whose nature is self-communicative goodness. The mutual love of the divine Persons is expressed outward in the creation and redemption of the world. Human beings are called to respond in gratitude to God’s love by loving God and one another. In acts of beneficence we seek to do good toward others in ways that emulate the good that God has done and is doing for us. To give simply in order to receive a return is not charity but cupidity, a form of selfishness. Aquinas insists that these acts of charity should in principle extend to all, in the sense that we should be ready to do good to anyone at all, including strangers and enemies. He argues that our beneficence should ordinarily focus on those who are nearest and dearest to us on the one hand, and on those whose needs are most urgent, on the other. Aquinas recognizes that these claims may conflict, and that prudential judgment will be required in order to determine how one’s acts of beneficence should be directed in any concrete situation.


Today, we associate the word “charity” primarily with charitable giving to the poor. Care for the poor, together with widow and orphan and prisoner, have always been central activities of Christian churches. Generosity was not simply a virtue of individuals but a corporate responsibility, institutionalized in myriad ways. In the sixteenth century, a fundamental shift toward centralized organization of poor relief took place across Europe. This shift has at times been seen as a corruption of true generosity, as in the widespread chorus of praise for voluntary private giving in the eighteenth-century. The challenge has been to preserve, within corporate forms of charity, governmental and non-governmental, church-related and non-church-related, some element of personal care and spontaneous gift.


But the intense interest they have aroused is an indication of the fact that generosity is endangered in today’s world, a world dominated by contract or economic exchange, which is indeed strictly conditional.


Source: University of Notre Dame