For this inaugural #philanthropyFriday, we return to first definitions. Yesterday, we discussed Neil deGrasse Tyson’s contempt for “Philosophy” or love of wisdom (truth that is eternal and divine). Philanthropy was classically defined as love for humanity, not alms for the poor.
“love of what it is to be human” is the essential nature and purpose of humanity, culture and civilization — was intrinsically philosophical, containing both metaphysics and ethics. The Greeks adopted the “love of humanity” as an educational ideal, whose goal was excellence (arete)—the fullest self-development, of body, mind, and spirit, which is the essence of liberal education.
This definition was lost with the total victory of ‘secular’ Christianity over Classicism that took place in two steps during the life and times of Hypatia the philosopher. The first was the conversion/destruction of the Museum and Library of Alexandria in 391 after the Emperor Theodosian’s decrees and the second was the diaspora of the 700 year-stable Jewish civilization from Alexandria which preceded the murder of Hypatia in 412. It is interesting that the Theodosian Decrees came in response to excommunication by Bishop Ambrose of Milan during the exile of the Roman papacy and emperor while Rome was occupied by Goths.
The inciting event, the Massacre of Thessalonica, is ‘spun’ in Wikipedia to conclude that the ‘Michael Jordan of chariot racers’ was imprisoned for the attempted ‘rape of a male-cupbearer’. As documented in Gibbon’s “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire”, it is possible that sexual territoriality was at issue since the ethnically Gothic Roman army garrison general who owned the slave and the imprisoned charioteer would not have recognized our American contemporary concept of homosexuality, which not be inculcated for many years to come (and arguably, never completely as the church continued to tithe male brothels under the Eastern Empire for centuries). I am not an expert in expatriate Gothic sexual morays of Late Antiquity in the context of an imperial army/governor’s position, so it will remain a “he said, he said” matter but throughout time, only the receptive partner was considered homosexual and the use of slaves for gratification was commonplace.
Gibbons “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter XXVII, April 25, Section 90
It is lamentable that the second event, the greatest diaspora of 412, is relatively unknown to most Jews. Jewish high culture was both secular and integrated and was a stable and perhaps stabilizing influence to Hellenic and Roman civilization despite the chaos of Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire, the messianic revolts, and leading up to and well beyond the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple at the end of the First Jewish-Roman War.
In fact, Jews in Alexandria were the respected scholars, physicians, merchants, and gentry of the time and enjoyed tremendous equality and religious freedom which was never in serious peril despite their external and autologous identification as a subset of mainstream culture. Jews weren’t even required to worship the emperor as a god or serve in the army as long as they paid a tax.
As with the “final solution” of Jewish genocide that followed the persecution of Gypsies, homosexuals, and dissidents in Nazi Germany, the Jewish civilization of Alexandria was the strongest and last bastion of resistance to fascist domination. At the time of its obliteration in 412, it had survived along with Hellenic civilization, in Alexandria, not Rome, which was now a seat of Goth power. In fact, the creation of the Old Testiment or the Septuagint, was a response in the 3rd century BCE to thriving Jewish parents wanting their children to maintain their culture despite the loss of the language to Hellenism.
But I digress…
What I want to explore is the current definition of philanthropy which is really a form of soteriology, or salvation-peddling. As with the indulgences that led to the Counter-reformation and tracing back to the coins and burnt offerings traded in every Cathedral, Mosque, temple and altar, mankind has always tried to buy and sell salvation. I recently met an amazing economist and consultant who discussed a newer paradigm of philanthropy best described as a “handshake, not a handout”. It seems that the model of international aid, whether in lending (read loan-sharking), or development (read NGO’s failing and flailing etic projects like fish out of water), tends towards the great Northern father, trying to help the unsophisticated brown Southern children with dollars and consulting.
“C’est n’est pas le KKK, stupide”
At my first Renaissance Weekend, I attended a session entitled “Re-imagining Philanthropy” in which I, in typical hyperbolic and provocateur fashion, asked whether our current model of philanthropy was really “paternalistic bullshit” because we don’t aim to empower, but rather to elicit emulation. What I really should have asked was a gentler “how do we make our efforts more of a handshake and not a handout?”. The gentleman from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who had quipped that he spent his days allowing people to grovel for money from him despite him not feeling that qualified to hear such entreaties bristled at my critique and let me know that I was way out of my depth for questioning his intentions, which was not my intention. (which reminds me to share with you yet another of my cringe-worthy foot-in-mouth encounters with an NSA lawyer that left me feeling pretty bad at a later RW event).
So where am I going with all this?
Yesterday, I blogged about Sophia Loren and Neil deGrasse Tyson who both espoused the universal preciousness of life as they experienced it, was a direct function of its scarcity. I disagree. A child doesn’t love the wind in its face because it fears summer in a sweltering basement. Our natural state is love and bliss, not fear and separation.
And via the the “fullest self-development, of body, mind, and spirit,” aren’t we all just seeking expansion of consciousness and abundance?
So just what is being expressed by Loren and deGrasse Tyson? I will call it the American, CliffsNotes conception of existentialism: the notion that life is inherently meaningless and filled with absurdity, angst and despair, and that life can only be experienced in a positivistic way and interpreted in a rationalistic way. But what is the true and higher nature of the existential philosophy that eludes them?
1) That existence precedes essence (or that the chicken body comes before the egg soul, if you will). Loren and C.S. Lewis (“you aren’t a body with a soul, but a soul in a body”) might take issue with this but Neil would probably go further and say that existence creates the illusion of essence.
2) Secondly, that we do exist, have freedom, can experience each other’s intersubjectivity (can I get a namaste?)
3) That we should act with authenticity based upon our subjectivity
And so what does all this have to to with #PhilanthropyFridays?
The essence of our conception of philanthropy is rich folks giving alms to poor folks. When a billionaire steps off the yacht and his loafers brush up the dusty streets of the common man, he must imagine: “Who are all these people? How can they survive on such little money? Will they want some of mine?” And so the billionaire, thinking that scarcity is the only measure of their wealth, devises ways to preserve what he sees as the preconditions of his wealth: increase my numerator, decrease everyone else’s denominator.
But the truth that our souls all intuitively gravitate towards is that our destiny is increased consciousness and shared abundance.
There is a saying: “more crows- less grain. more people- more grain”. People are endowed with the talents and desires to enhance, not detract from each other and the planet. I hold that to also be a self-evident truth… And so brother Neil, sister Sophia (whose name is wisdom, after all), please don’t decry philosophy as trite bullcrap because it is really the ultimate in life-affirming pursuits!
As JP Sartre wrote: existentialism is humanism and as the Classical system holds: philanthropy is humanism. Therefore, isn’t existentialism also philanthropy? I would argue yes. But on a more practical note, I am also arguing for a philanthropy that is truly a handshake and teaching men to fish, not throwing a can of Chicken of the Sea and a schmeer of Grey Poupon out of the limo as you drive by.
“I asked for fair trade, micro farm-insurance, and a MacBook Pro…but this is almost as good, I suppose”