From the Editors

What does philanthropy look like?

On Monday, we will begin a discussion on philanthropy & inequality. In the meantime, though, here is a light-hearted call for suggestions on a “stock” image for HistPhil:

You may have noticed that HistPhil has been using photos of our contributors to accompany posts. We thought that as we develop a community of scholars and practitioners all interested in the history of philanthropy, it would be a good idea to be able to put names to faces (and we must admit, we are a good looking bunch!). There will, of course, be occasions in which we can’t locate a photo in time and thinking of what we should do in those cases sparked an idea with me. I remember in college, those students who didn’t submit a photo for the yearbook had a “stock” one imposed on them–I seem to remember it was Homer Simpson for some, and for others, a noted 18th century Puritan divine. I thought we could do something similar for HistPhil. But what would our “stock” image of philanthropy be? What does philanthropy look like? And here is where some crowdsourcing comes in. We’d like to ask those questions of our readers. What image would you suggest to represent philanthropy? It could be figurative or non-figurative. Contemporary or ancient. A photo, a cartoon or some other media. Send us your suggestions and tell us a bit about your choice. We’d like to post these and choose one among them as HistPhil‘s icon.

– Benjamin Soskis, HistPhil co-founder

8 thoughts on “What does philanthropy look like?

  1. Great question, Ben! A few years ago the Catalogue for Philanthropy had a similar discussion with colleagues, in which we proposed searching for a suitable logo for philanthropy, which would have many uses in donor education.

    Our best guess then was to adopt an image of Prometheus, the first “philanthropist”, designated as such when the word was originally coined on line 11 of “Prometheus Bound”, long attributed to Aeschylus.

    Prometheus was the Titan who saved the early proto-humans from Zeus’ destruction by giving them two gifts, with which they—uniquely among all animals—could complete their own creation: “fire”, symbolizing culture—language, tools, skills, knowledge, all arts and sciences and philosophy, etc.—and “blind hope” or optimism. The two were mutually reinforcing: with “fire”, the proto-humans (who without culture had lived in darkness, in caves, in constant fear for their lives) could afford to be optimistic; with optimism they would put fire to good use, to improve the human condition. The first recorded use of the word was “philanthropos tropos”—humanity-loving character, meaning NOT loving all humans (because before culture there was no individuality), but “loving” (in the sense of cherishing, nurturing, developing, as in “philosophy” or “loving wisdom”) “what it is to be human”, enhancing human potential, human fulfillment, perhaps “humaneness”.

    The new word was not a noun referring to the gift, nor a verb referring to the act of giving, but an adjective referring to the character and motivation of the benefactor. The first use of it as a noun came soon after, in “Euthyphro”, an early Platonic dialogue in which Socrates is reported to have said that his “pouring out of his thoughts” without charge to those who would listen, was his “philanthropía”. It was essentially an educational and cultural ideal, later translated into Latin simply as “humanitas”. There is more on this in the Wikipedia article on “Philanthropy”.

    Now for the image: one of the best we could find was the gold statue of Prometheus bringing fire to humanity, at the skating rink in (naturally) Rockefeller Center:

    [I don’t know how to attach an image here, so I’m sending it to you as an email.]


  2. This eighteenth-century historian has to make the case for an image of John Howard (1726-1790), the English prison reformer. Famed for his arduous journeys around Europe to investigate prisons and hospitals, Howard extended his philanthropy — love of mankind — to all humanity, as contemporaries understood it. They celebrated him as “the Philanthropist.” I’ll send along an image.


    • If a person more recent than Prometheus, we should consider Benjamin Franklin, the paragon of American philanthropy, who dedicated his adult life to “private initiatives for public good”, and whose benefactions are both numerous and significant, including the American Philosophical Society, the University of Pennsylvania, and in 1747 a “voluntary association” funded by donations of armed civilians to keep the public peace in PA—a prototype of the American Revolution. Immanuel Kant called him the “modern Prometheus” for his discovery that lightning, coming down from heaven to Earth, is electricity.


  3. When you pop “philanthropy” into google, the first image that comes up is a cartoon of Andrew Carnegie by Louis Dalrymple, published in Puck magazine in 1903 – or so the gurus at Wikipedia tell me. Theirs is the page hosting the image. They also state that it’s in the public domain. I think it’s a contender. (image sent by e-mail)


  4. Here’s a new and improved suggestion. The admirers of John Howard — “the Philanthropist” — wrote of his carrying the “torch of philanthropy” to distant peoples as he investigated prisons across Europe. George McNally’s discussion of Prometheus makes me realize that that phrase must have referred back to Prometheus. So how about a torch as philanthropy’s image?


  5. I’m interested in the financial side of philanthropy – so for me the stock images would be money and the subscription list of an annual report


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