Philanthropy and Education

The Unity of Philanthropy and Education

Editors’ Note: George McCully continues the site’s dialogue on philanthropy & education.

Recent research into the meaning of the word “philanthropy” by reference to its etymology and history, has revealed that today’s customary usage is a pale reflection of the great tradition, which we would do well now to revive —especially in thinking about philanthropy and education, in this rapidly transforming world of both.

It has long been known that the word “philanthropy” was coined 2500 years ago, in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound (line 11). According to myth, the Titan Prometheus created the first proto-human creatures out of clay. Originally they had no culture—no language, knowledge, skills, tools, etc.—so they lived figuratively in darkness, literally in caves, in constant fear for their lives. Zeus, the tyrannical king of the gods, resented their creation, which he had not authorized, so he decided to destroy them. But Prometheus, out of his “philanthropos tropos” or “loving-humanity character”, saved them from destruction with two empowering gifts: fire, symbolizing all culture—language, skills, tools, knowledge, arts, sciences, mathematics, philosophy, etc. —and “blind hope” or optimism. The two were complementary—with fire, humans could be optimistic; with optimism they would put fire to good use. With culture they would save their lives.

In its original coinage “philanthropy” was therefore not a noun (the gifts), nor a verb (giving), but an adjective (“loving-humanity”), describing Prometheus’ character and motivation as a donor/benefactor. But what exactly did “humanity” mean in this new coinage? What did he “love”—in the sense of cherish, nourish, strengthen, cultivate, enhance, or develop (as in “philosophy”, love of wisdom)?

We have been accustomed to think it meant “humankind”—all humans—suggesting a generally favorable disposition toward humans in general—a rather flaccid idea, not of much use, uncoupling the motivation from the transaction, and hardly worth a new coinage. Moreover, Prometheus’ beneficiaries at that mythical point in time had no individuality (which requires culture—language, etc.), so individuals were not involved. The whole point, which made this a new and powerful idea, was that, prior to Prometheus’ empowering and edifying gifts, they were not yet fully humane. They were proto-humans, whose creation was incomplete. What Prometheus gave them was the power to complete their own creation—individually and collectively—with culture, or civilization. What Prometheus “loved” was what we would call their potential “humaneness,” or essentially “what it is to be human.”

That is how the ancient Greeks and Romans understood it. They believed that human potential—self-creation through culture—was what made humans unique among all other animals. The play was explaining the nature and purpose of civilization itself—in Periclean Athens after all, at the birth of Western civilization in so many fields. Aeschylus (or the playwright) was saying that culture itself is essentially “philanthropic”— humaneness-developing, educational, and progressive. This was the new idea, arguably one of the most profound and powerful ideas in the history of Western thought.

The first recorded use we have of the new word as a noun—“philanthropía”—was also educational, a half-century later in an early Platonic dialogue, the Euthyphro. There Plato has Socrates saying that “pouring out” his ideas at no charge to his listeners, was his philanthropía. The philosophical dictionary of the Platonic Academy later defined “philanthropía” as “A state of well-educated habits stemming from love of humanity (i.e., humaneness)…[and] productive of benefit to humans.”

The Greeks had a word— paedeia—for culture that is educational (cf. our word “encyclopedia”, from enkyklos paideia or “universal learning”). Romans later translated both philanthropía and paideia into Latin with one word: humanitas (“humaneness”, not “all mankind”).” The studia humanitatis (“studies of humanity”), “the humanities” as originally conceived, provided the core of the Classical tradition of liberal education—studies which are self-developing, making us more fully humane. Thus philanthropy, the humanities, and liberal education, were originally synonymous—one and the same.

The conceptual unity was sustained when the word was revived, after medieval hibernation, in Renaissance “humanism.” Henry Cockeram, in his first English dictionary (1623) made a Ciceronian U-turn, citing “philanthropie” as a synonym for “humanitie.” It was the central ethical precept of the Scottish Enlightenment, whence it became quintessentially American in the culture of our Founders, who devoted their lives to “private initiatives for public good”, including the American Revolution and Constitution. Alexander Hamilton opened the First Federalist noting that “it is commonly remarked” that Americans were at a new place in history—that designing our own government “adds the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism.” He was not talking about rich people helping poor people, or what foundations do; he was saying that the United States of America was designed to be a philanthropic nation, a gift to humanity, helping us all to become more fully humane—squarely in the Promethean tradition.

Reconnecting philanthropy with education (both formal and informal) is therefore profoundly appropriate. It is also highly attractive to donors, along with its patriotism. Doing so explicitly in schools and colleges, and promoting philanthropy as continuing education for alumni (enhancing their humanity through identifying and exercising their values in giving and volunteering), will help to revive a much-needed culture of philanthropy in America.

-George McCully

George McCully is Founder, President, and CEO of the Catalogue for Philanthropy (est. 1997), author of Philanthropy Reconsidered (2008), and creator of the MA PhilanthropicDirectory (2010). His training was in Renaissance history (Columbia, 1967) which he professed for nearly 20 years with a short stint as Ass’t. Dean of the Faculty at Brown. He entered professional philanthropy full-time in 1983.


McCully, George: Philanthropy Reconsidered, A Catalogue Publication, 2008, Chapters 1 and 2.

Sulek, M. (2010a). On the classical meaning of philanthrôpía. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 39(3), 385-408.

Sulek, M. (2010b). On the modern meaning of philanthropy. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 39(2), 193-212.

For bibliography of primary sources see Google NGram on uses of “philanthropy” in American English, 1700 to the present.

For general use see Wikipedia article on “Philanthropy”, the first sentence of which, using the definition here, has been consulted without emendation by 5.7 million users since it was entered in 2009.


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