Ripples in the Water: The Beauty and Practice of Largesse

March 24, 2020 Updated: March 25, 2020

Largesse.

What a fine word. The first syllable cracks on the eardrum, the second arrives soft as a feather.

Even more beautiful is the meaning: to give generously, to share, to bestow money or gifts on others. 

Poets and troubadours celebrated the knights, barons, and kings of the Middle Ages, both real and legendary, not only for their courtesy, courage, and wisdom, but also for their largesse. In a story regarding King Arthur, for example, a visitor to his court remarks with astonishment “…whoever wants to see the son of Largesse himself need only look at King Arthur. God help me, he’s so generous and worthy that in all the world there’s not a man so low or so cowardly who wouldn’t be improved by being around him.”

American Munificence

America remains one of the most generous countries, giving money to those in need both here at home and abroad. We also admire largesse in others, the billionaire who sets up scholarship funds at a university, the recluse who after his death leaves a boatload of money to the local animal shelter, the victim of cancer who wills his small savings to medical research. Here Andrew Carnegie comes to mind: some may consider the Scots-American industrialist a robber baron, but those of us who love books remember that he gave 1,679 libraries to the American people. 

Many of us are the recipients of such generosity on a more personal level. A physician offers to pay grandson Jack’s medical school bills if he will join his family practice. Single mom Myra works as a grocery store clerk, but carefully saves a little of her weekly wages for her daughter’s 16th birthday party. 

My mother-in-law was a grand mistress of such largesse. Before her husband’s death in 1993, she and Jim lived in the same small house in Milwaukee they’d purchased after his return from the Pacific following World War II. Jim worked as a school guidance counselor and served in the Reserves, Dorothy as a part-time nurse and a stay-at-home mom for her three daughters. Children of the Great Depression, Jim and Dorothy lived frugally, invested their money in stocks like IBM, and eventually became the quintessential “millionaires next door.”

When it came to family, however, that thriftiness transformed itself into largesse. Dorothy put braces on the teeth of all four of my children, gave them an abundance of gifts for Christmas and birthdays, and several times pulled my wife and me out of the flames when we experienced financial meltdowns. After her death two years ago, she left all of her grandchildren generous endowments.

Largesse of the Spirit

But largesse is more than the giving of money or gifts. It is also that spirit of generosity that transpires when we give of ourselves to others, when we listen with empathy to their troubles, picking them up and dusting them off when they have fallen, and offering encouragement and insights when asked for help.

My friend John describes himself as a spectator of life, “a man in the stands,” as he puts it. That description is a bit harsh—he is more engaged in the lives of others than he knows—but John does have a knack for being able to stand aside, look at an unfavorable situation, and propose workable solutions. Recognizing this talent in him, I have several times called on his services, using him for a listening post and then carefully considering any advice he offers. Sometimes I have declined that advice, but his words often make me look anew at the problem.

This is largesse at work, John’s gift of the spirit to me.

My daughter has an equally bounteous heart. Her friends often seek her advice. Three years ago, when my life fell apart for a while, she took me without question or reprimand into her home, made me a part of her family’s life, and gave me what knights once called “succor,” or support in times of adversity and distress. Slowly, my heart and mind healed, in part because of her love and support.

When we can lay claim to such wise and loving friends and family members, we are indeed blessed.

Magnanimity Takes a Hike

Unfortunately, such magnanimity of the spirit all too often gives way in our larger culture and in the political realm to vindictiveness, name-calling, obscenities, and threats. Some politicians and celebrities savagely berate and belittle their opponents, attacking them through social media, on television, or at public events. Their extreme rhetoric can produce dangerous consequences when it encourages others to take to the streets, physically assaulting those with whom they disagree and threatening those they regard as enemies with mayhem and even murder. 

As a consequence of this vast canyon of separation, many people believe that our country is now more divided than at any time since the Civil War. The old knightly virtues—charity, courtesy, largesse—seem to have gone the way of gauntlets and greaves, shields and lances, and no legislation on earth can force us to be civil to one another. 

So what to do? 

Largesse Personalized

As in so many other matters, a sea change in the spirit of our age must come not from the government, but from within ourselves. 

If we possess the financial resources, we can contribute generously to institutions and causes we support: schools and colleges, charities, organizations supporting traditional culture. If we prefer to practice such liberality more intimately, we can offer that young man who just flunked out of college a job, or lend money to the niece who wants to open a floral shop, or pay, as Dorothy did, for braces for the grandkids. 

More importantly, by word and example, we can teach courtesy and generosity to others.

A number of writers have used the phrase “Charity begins at home.” The same holds true for largesse.

When we practice such generosity, whether of the pocketbook or of the soul, when we teach magnanimity to our children, when we help troubled friends or neighbors, we cast a pebble into the waters and create ripples of kindness. 

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.