New Works in the Field / Philanthropy vs. Charity

A Review of Peter Brown’s RANSOM OF THE SOUL (2015)

Editors’ Note: Furthering the site’s ongoing discussion on the history of philanthropy and charity, Adam Davis reviews Peter Brown’s new book The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity (HUP, 2015).

It may at first seem curious for a blog on the history of philanthropy to review a new book about the relationship between money and the afterlife in early western Christianity. Yet as the historical relationship between charity and philanthropy has begun to be reassessed in recent years, it has become increasingly clear that the history of charity is vital for understanding the rise of philanthropy as a counter-ethic. In The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity (Harvard University Press, 2015), the distinguished historian of Late Antiquity at Princeton, Peter Brown, transforms our understanding of the long historical relationship between money and Christianity. Above all, he demonstrates the ways that early Christian beliefs about sin and the afterlife shaped attitudes toward wealth and pious giving.

Like so much of his earlier work, Brown’s book spans many centuries and a vast expanse of space, ranging from Bishop Cyprian, who lived during the 3rd century in the north African city of Carthage, to the influential Irish monk and missionary, Columbanus, who died in the early 7th century. Resisting the common temptation to offer a single historical master narrative, Brown instead explores the way that ideas about wealth and the afterlife evolved in the early church and were often hotly contested. He traces the continuities and breaks between Greco-Roman and Christian ideas about how the living could use money on behalf of the dead. In both the pagan and Christian traditions, the giving of money was embraced as a way of remembering the dead. However, the Roman tradition of “civic euergetism,” in which it was expected that the rich would impart some of their wealth to their city and its citizens in a spirit of civic solidarity, was eventually supplanted by a radical, rival new system of giving, advocated by Christian preachers, whereby money was to be given to the poor not because they were citizens, but on account of their poverty.

Christian anxiety about the world to come and the journey to get there provoked lively debates during Late Antiquity about how money could affect the fate of the soul. As Brown shows, Christian writers in the Latin West drew both on Second Temple Judaism, particularly the biblical wisdom literature (Proverbs, Ecclesiasticus, Tobit), and the New Testament in explicating the relationship between wealth and the afterlife. Although there is often discomfort today with any suggestion of the commercialization of the religious imagination, such as the idea that salvation can be “bought,” late antique Christians were perfectly comfortable framing pious almsgiving in explicitly commercial terms. In some of his sermons, for example, Saint Augustine likened charitable giving to a savvy investment or advance purchase, likely to earn a handsome return in the world to come. Augustine and others believed that this idea was borne out by Proverbs 13.8: “The ransom of the soul of a man is his wealth.” Another verse frequently invoked to galvanize Christians to act generously was Matthew 19.21, in which Jesus tells a rich young man to sell what he has and give it to the poor, “and you will have treasure in heaven.” During Late Antiquity, Jesus’ promise of treasure in Heaven was understood as suggesting that money could help determine a soul’s fate in the afterlife. Furthermore, because sin was understood in financial terms as a debt that could be paid off, it was believed that the expiation of sin could be achieved through almsgiving. Indeed, the Augustinian notion of the deep and inherent sinfulness of humankind seemed to require the constant expiation of sin, and thus perpetual almsgiving.

One of the many intriguing themes that Brown develops is the parallel drawn in late antique thought between the physically dead and the poor, who themselves represented a kind of social death. In short, the way that the poor were understood by the rich during this time was paralleled in the imaginative relationship between the living and the dead. According to Brown, as the gulf between the rich and the poor widened during the 6th century, almsgiving became less intimate, with the poor increasingly imagined as a distant “other,” not the familial “brothers” invoked in an earlier time. Interestingly, during this same period, the imaginative gap separating the living and the dead also widened.

By the time the influential Irish monk, Columbanus, brought his radical form of asceticism to the European continent in the late 6th and early 7th centuries, almsgiving had been transformed both in idea and in practice from giving to the poor into giving to the church, particularly monasteries. The power of the poor as spiritual intercessors on behalf of the dead was increasingly eclipsed by the perceived intercessory power of monks and nuns, who prayed for their benefactors, this at a time of heightened fear of the Last Judgment. Money mattered just as much as ever in strengthening the bonds between the living and the dead, but monasteries came to replace the poor as the principal objects of religious giving. Even as the ancient worldview of the cosmos and the afterlife gave way to a new, distinctly medieval sensibility, two of the lasting legacies of Late Antiquity were, first, the notion that wealth could serve as a conduit between this world and the world to come, and second, that religious giving could function as expiation for sin and result in significant spiritual and material rewards. Peter Brown’s The Ransom of the Soul is essential reading for anyone interested in exploring the fascinating theological underpinnings behind the long and complex history of Christian charity.

-Adam Davis

Adam Davis is Associate Professor and William T. Utter/Clyde E. Williams, Jr. Professor of History at Denison University. He is the author of The Holy Bureaucrat: Eudes Rigaud and Religious Reform in Thirteenth-Century Normandy (Cornell University Press). In recent years, he has been working on the history of medieval charity, and he is currently completing a book on charity, commerce, and the rise of the medieval hospital. 


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