Philanthropy vs. Charity

Philanthropy Preceded Charity: the True History

Editors’ Note: Continuing the live forum on philanthropy vs. charity, George McCully challenges common knowledge by explaining how philanthropy has a longer history than charity. Earlier this week, the forum’s first contributor, Jeremy Beer, offered his thoughts on the charity-philanthropy dichotomy and suggested why a traditional charitable ethic still has much to teach us in the 21st century. 

The distinction between “philanthropy” and “charity” is not just a current and arbitrary semantic quibble; it has a rich history not commonly understood by either scholars or practitioners, going back far beyond the turn of the 20th century and the creation of large American foundations, to the ancient subject of Gibbon’s “madeleine” moment on Rome’s Capitoline Hill, when he first realized the significance of hearing “barefooted friars singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter” and decided to write a history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Charity succeeded philanthropy, as it were, when the friars took over the Temple of Jupiter, 1500 years ago—in the so-called “Dark Ages” following the collapse of Rome and its economy, and with the rise of monasticism leading to the Middle Ages.

From Classical Greek and Roman times, and through most of its modern history, “philanthropy” has been a humanistic term, an educational and cultural ideal, meaning the “love of humanity”—“love” in the same sense that “philosophy” was the “love of wisdom,” and “humanity” in the sense of “what it is to be human” (i.e., not “mankind”). It was originally coined (line 11, Prometheus Bound) as an adjective (philanthropos tropos), describing the character and motivation of the Titan Prometheus in giving “fire” (civilization) and “blind hope” (optimism) to the original proto-humans, empowering us individually and collectively to complete our own creation with culture—reason, knowledge, and all the arts from mechanical to fine—as fully humane beings. Its first recorded use as a noun was in the early Platonic dialogue Euthyphro, in which Socrates says that “pouring out” his thoughts to his listeners, free of charge, is his philanthropía. The philosophical dictionary of the Platonic Academy defined “philanthropía” as “A state of well-educated habits stemming from love of humanity [i.e., humaneness]…[and] productive of benefit to humans.” (For its etymology and long history, see the HistPhil blog of Sept. 25.) Romans later translated philanthropía into Latin as humanitas [“humaneness”, not “mankind”]. The studia humanitatis (“studies of humanity”), or the “humanities,” provided the core of the Classical tradition of liberal education—studies which are self-developing (as distinct from training, which is knowledge- and skills-developing) making us more fully humane. Thus philanthropy, the humanities, and liberal education, were originally synonymous—one and the same. Practical philanthropy—donations by wealthy aristocrats for civic improvements (baths, stadiums, temples, etc.)—were understood humanistically, to enhance both the benefactor’s and the community’s quality of life.

But with the barbarian invasions, the collapse of the Roman Empire and its economy, and the rise of early Christianity, Classical education passed out of fashion as population, commerce, and agricultural production declined into destitution, so that “becoming more fully humane” lost all market value. Practical philanthropy—“private initiatives for public good”—devolved into poor relief, chiefly by monks in monasteries who produced the only agricultural surpluses, which they devoted to feeding the poor. What remained of Classical civilization was accidentally preserved in the soon-forgotten manuscripts of monastic libraries, not to be rediscovered until the Renaissance.

Thus over several centuries “humanitas” gradually gave way to “caritas” (charity), derived from the Greek agapé, meaning selfless, altruistic, love of others, following Christ’s Gospel teachings. Aristocratic donors and patrons were succeeded by monks; gifts of money for civic enhancement yielded to in-kind distributions of small agriculture surpluses to neighboring poor; desire for public respect and citizenship gave way to the pursuit of Christian salvation and the Kingdom of Heaven.

Given these exogenously imposed transformations in the economics, demographics, infrastructure, conceptualization, and vocabulary of practical philanthropy, this was arguably the first paradigm-shift in philanthropy’s long history—from Classical and secular to Christian and religious, from early “philanthropy” to early “charity.” But it is important that both paradigms were successive governing models within a continuous cultural and practical tradition, of “private initiatives for public good,” our conventional definition of philanthropy today.

The history of the religious paradigm paralleled that of medieval civilization. Not at all oblivious to “root causes” of poverty, it saw them from a religious perspective as grounded in human sin—greed or covetousness—which of course yielded no practical solutions. It was not until the early modern period that more practical understandings and initiatives arose, as in Juan Luis Vives’ 1526 sociological analysis of permanent poverty and his poor relief plan for Bruges; Sir Thomas Smith’s economic analysis of ruinous inflation and the 16th-century Commonwealth Movement in England; and the 1601 Elizabethan Statute of Charities.

-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.

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