Largesse (Chivalric Virtues series)

This post is part of a series on the chivalric virtues. For the series introduction, go here.


Probably the one of the knight Roland’s chivalric vows (from the Mediæval Song of Roland) that intrigues me the most is the vow “to despise pecuniary reward”.

This fairly closely matches my own attitude, but it’s scarcely a common one, particularly in our modern business- and entrepreneurship-worshipping culture.

The idea of payment is central to our Western democratic Capitalism: an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. The wealth of nations. The law of supply and demand. Entrepreneurship – the idea that you can start a new business and make good money doing it, and that that is always and only a good thing – is deeply embedded in American culture.

And it’s alien to me.

Not because of some transatlantic difference, but because of me. I’m what I describe as an “economics atheist” – I don’t believe in the worship of money. Not only that, but I mistrust and do not like the avaricious impulse that seems to be at the heart of it all.

When I was in Central Asia, my first language teacher gave me the local name Zhomart. Names in the local culture are almost as significant as they are in the Bible, and most of the time, when the locals rename a foreigner the name is very apt. The literal meaning of Zhomart is “generous”, and for a long time I puzzled over why this would be deemed so apt. My best friend (whose local name translated to “wing” and carried the connotation of support) excelled much more than I in the grace of giving. We joked a few times that we needed to switch names – he was the generous one, and I… Well, I wing it.

Looking at the Mediæval idea of largesse, however, and in particular the knight Roland’s peculiar vow, I’m struck by how very appropriate the name is. I don’t really care about making money. As long as I have enough, and so far I do, I’m really not that concerned with getting more.

This is perhaps not quite the true thrust of the vow, but the attitude of opposition to Mammon and holding worldly wealth lightly is certainly allied. The idea of despising pecuniary reward means not doing things with the idea of getting paid. Doing the right thing because it’s the right thing, not because you’re going to get something out of it. The distinction being drawn is between the knight and the mercenary.

The knight is supposed to fight for what’s right. The mercenary will fight for whoever pays them.

The knight is concerned with honour. The mercenary is concerned with payment.

The knight fights for the welfare of all. The mercenary fights for the welfare of self.

The knight wants to serve. The mercenary wants to get rich.

The mercenary impulse seems overwhelmingly common in this day and age. The stock market dominates all. Buying and selling of goods, services, time and information transcend national boundaries and make the world what it is.

There’s nothing wrong with getting paid for what you do, but the Kingdom of God (and the knightly code, too) operates on a higher level than buying and selling.

The generous attitude of largesse stands opposed to the avaricious and mercenary impulses. Star Trek’s Ferengi, with their “Rules of Acquisition”, sum up the mercenary impulse; the First Rule is “once you have their money, you never give it back”.

Frankly, I find Klingons easier to understand. The whole business of acquisitiveness seems somehow… sordid. My view of money is more that it’s a necessary evil than that it’s a good thing in itself.

It’s a very knightly attitude, but I’m unlikely to ever get rich.

I’m fully aware that my attitude is fairly extreme, and probably unrealistic on a large scale, but I do think we could all do with a bit more largesse.

What would the world look like if corporations were a little more concerned with doing the right thing than doing the profitable thing? What would it be like if we could stop being afraid of not having enough? What would happen if we learned contentment when we have enough rather than a continual desire for more?

Largesse, simply defined, is open-handedness. It resists the thinking of the modern corporate world that “money isn’t the most important thing – it’s the only thing”. There’s nothing wrong with having money, or getting paid. But money is a terrible master even if you have it, and it’s one of the few things that can get a hold of you without you getting a hold of it.

Even on the left side of the political spectrum, we often act as though money is everything. What is the redistribution of wealth but an attempt to use money to fix all our problems? I find it instructive that the one false god we never put a name to is the only one that Jesus named: Mammon. Mammon is the opposite of largesse; the idea that “money is the only thing” or that “only money can make things happen” or that “only money can help”. Trust in the almighty dollar rather than the Almighty God.

Largesse is generosity, the cure for covetousness and avarice and the cause of thankfulness. Holding wealth lightly, able to give where needed, and not seeking payment as an end in itself.

Payment, of course comes in multiple forms, and coin is not the only currency there is. The mercenary impulse also manifests in a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” mindset that can result in false expectations or a reciprocal rather than generous outlook.

In our teaching on husbands and wives, we’re often told that “men need respect, women need love”.  Like, men don’t also need love, and women don’t also need respect?  Or the idea that “men give love for sex, and women give sex for love”. The idea often comes across, even in Christian teachings, that when a husband does something nice for his wife, like helping with the housework or buying her flowers or something, that she’s supposed to reciprocate in the bedroom.  (If I hadn’t heard it myself, I’d think this was a straw man argument, but…)

While it’s true that no wife is going to feel interested in sex on a Saturday night if you’ve been being a jerk to her all week, the reciprocity at the heart of this idea bothers me.

Actually, that’s putting it mildly. I think it’s in danger of turning our wives into whores. If we have an expectation that they will do something nice for us in the bedroom if we do something nice for us around the house, how is that not sex for payment?

Man up, guys. You signed on to an equal partnership when you got married, and part of that is doing your share. Caring for your wife. Doing nice things for her because you love her, not for some kind of payment. Giving her the respect she deserves (Proverbs 31:31). Largesse in the marriage relationship.  Doing the right thing because it’s the right thing.

It’s part of being a man by the code of chivalric virtues.

Historically, the Mediæval planet Sol, the sun, was associated with largesse and liberality. Solar deities were often associated with dragon-slaying, and in the Western tradition dragons hoarded gold and gems. If dragons personify Mammon and greed, the dragon-slaying Sol is appropriate for the opposition to Mammon characterised by the virtue of largesse. Let us, like the sun, not hold onto our “light” but shed it abroad, freely giving as we have freely received.

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One thought on “Largesse (Chivalric Virtues series)

  1. Pingback: The Chivalric Virtues (series introduction) | The Word Forge

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