The purest form of generosity is to give without concern for a return on the gift. In such a phenomenon generosity is its own reward. Within the power dynamic of philanthropy, from the simplest act of giving to the gargantuan financial awards bestowed to museums by their wealthy benefactors, generosity is in its own way, a benevolent act, whether or not there is a transactional nature to the exchange of giving.
To be sure, philanthropic endeavors by the super wealthy are often critiqued as “easy giving” or simple “tax-liability write-offs.” While these insights are by no means invalid, the larger scope of the philanthropic dynamic is often lost amidst such perspectives. The beneficiaries of such gifts, be they individuals or cultural institutions and charities, benefit regardless of the intent of the giver. What we are concerned with in questioning generosity of spirit is the phenomenon that drives the intent to give.
Generosity of spirit is the dynamic of philanthropy that transcends financial and material considerations to encompass the psychological, emotional and philosophical components of the phenomenon we call giving.
Whether a person benefits from her act of charity means nothing to the beneficiary of such act. It is a uniquely human phenomenon to find fault with those who give, particularly by others who are unlikely to be philanthropists or donors of any kind. Such a failure of the moral imagination begs many questions better left unattended in this exploration of generosity of spirit.
The term “spirit” has many meanings, many connotations and many histories. Thinkers from Hegel and Heidegger to Jesus and Plato have voyaged through the dense jungle of meanings such a term conjures, each with a uniquely enlightened path worthy of review, study and memory.
For our purposes, spirit may be employed as a way of thinking about belief, intention, attitude and origin. When generosity comes from an innocent and thoughtful place of purity then one can say such a generosity is of an enlightened spirit, one worthy of emulation, study, and homage. In short, what is gained most from generosity of spirit is honor. The Greeks call the love of honor “Philotemi.” Honor is here understood as a way of thinking and being that glorifies word and deed in the eyes of a community or individual.
In this way honor is intimately tied to the concept of dignity. Both ideas are essentially value systems shared between individuals and communities that center on the concept of worth. Worth can be defined and measured in many ways. In today’s world, most people measure worth through money. When it comes to the worth of actions, of behavior and generosity of spirit in particular, worth cannot be measured in dollars, it can only be measured in esteem, respect, love and affection. Such phenomena are shared emotions and yet go beyond the emotional to encompass a foundation upon which people interact and pay their love and respect to each other. Dignity and honor are the highest forms of valuation when it comes to love, be it for a stranger, friend or intimate companion.
Generosity of spirit is the expression of love for others, usually those less fortunate in a material sense, while honoring our shared humanity. This is the ultimate form of wealth in human capital.