What is philanthropy?

Jack Budington
August 3, 2023

If you were to ask your friends about the word philanthropy and what it means to them, chances are financial giving would be a common response. The word philanthropy has become synonymous with money, but the origins of the idea are much more complex. The concept is rooted in empathy and love for humankind, and of course the gift of fire.

In Greek Mythology, Fire was once a divine secret held from humanity by indifferent gods. Without this knowledge mankind lived in darkness and ignorance. One day, the Greek god of fire, Prometheus, took pity on mankind.

He stole an ember of fire from the workshop of Hephaestus—the god of metallurgy—and gave it to the insignificant humans living on the earth below. With this act,  he brought the gifts of art, warmth, and knowledge. He gave humanity the tool it needed to build civilization and rise out of desperate poverty.  

Prometheus would pay dearly for this theft. A much angered Zeus chained him to a rock and sent an eagle to eat his body for eternity. Prometheus understood the costs to his actions. Unlike many acts of mythology Prometheus was not angling for power or carrying out revenge. He knew he would be punished for his action and had nothing to gain by carrying out his theft. He did it out of selfless Philos (Love) - Anthropos (Of Mankind).

It was in the context of the play “Prometheus Bound,” written by the famous playwright Aeschylus in the early 5th century BCE, that the word philanthropos first entered the written record. The concept though would not have been alien to the audience. A sense of communalism and mutual aid was a universal virtue and expectation in Greek society. The ancient city states of the Mediterranean were not all that different in some ways from the hunter-gatherer bands that depended on each other for survival. The idea of loving mankind helped alleviate anxiety in a violent and uncertain world.  

The ancient Greeks like us wanted their world to improve. They wanted to see their cities grow more beautiful, prosperous, and safe. The elite of the city felt both a sense of responsibility and pride in donating large sums of money to build public works. This philanthropy was an example of the natural human drive to contribute to the greater good. But the story of Prometheus expresses a different motivation for philanthropy.

It may have been widely understood in the Ancient Mediterranean that each person had a responsibility to their community but this was also still a society that glorified conquest and viewed slaves as spoils of war. Prometheus’ selflessness led to a new school of thinking: humanism.

A universal humanism was a radical and idealistic concept, but one increasingly debated by philosophers around the world of antiquity. Pre-socratic academics debated the concepts of human nature, reason, and agency without reliance on gods or myth. These concepts were examined further in the writings of Socrates and Aristotle, and eventually the formation of Christian Doctrine, where philanthropy takes on a more charitable definition.

In 1623, Philanthropy entered the English lexicon through Henry Cocherams dictionary—an important precursor to the Oxford English Dictionary. In the latter, the word is defined as: Love of humankind; the disposition or active effort to promote the happiness and well-being of others; practical benevolence. This definition combines the early Greek concept of love for humankind with the later, more charitable idea of practical benevolence.

So while giving may have become the practical demonstration of love for our fellow humans, it isn’t in itself philanthropy. Giving is the byproduct of that love. To be truly philanthropic, one must engage in the hard work of empathy and develop a complete understanding of all of those unique and individual humans. Empathy—we’ll cover that idea in another blog post.

Original image
by Patrick Rasenberg. Uploaded by Ibolya Horvath, published on 01 February 2018. The copyright holder has published this content under the following license: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike.

About the Author

Ever since Jack was a kid he has been absorbed in learning everything he can about the world. On family road trips he would constantly pester his parents with questions:

“How far away is it to the moon? How fast is Roger Clemens fastball? What is the oldest town in Connecticut?”

Luckily, for everyone involved, smart phones were invented.

However, Jack’s desire to understand the world never ceased.  As he grew older he became especially interested in history. To Jack history is a vast web of billions of stories with endless complexity. His time at Kenyon College solidified what he loves about studying history—finding patterns, omissions, and meaning in this vast web of stories.

Now as a writer for Mythos, Jack finds and share stories about what it means to create communities of belief and bind people together through values and ideas. Each week Jack hopes to learn something new and hopes you do too.

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