The story of philanthropy

The world is full of self-help books, it always seems to me, and rather short on books on how to help others. A new book on philanthropy by the distinguished writer Paul Vallely tries to redress the balance.

The book, Philanthropy from Aristotle to Zuckerberg (Bloomsbury), is weighty. It runs to around 750 pages – excluding the footnotes and references which are set apart online. It justifies the length with the quality of research and writing that takes the reader on a journey from the earliest times and ideas around giving to others around you through to the extraordinary chapter of contemporary philanthropy at a time of deep inequalities.

An example is what appears to be the oldest continually operating charity in England, which is the medieval hospital of St Cross near Winchester.

The founder was Henry of Blois, grandson of William the Conqueror. Appointed as a young Bishop of Winchester in his twenties, in 1129, Henry was an active warrior during the period dubbed ‘The Anarchy’ of struggles between the supporters of Stephen and of Mathilda for the crown. The Peterborough Chronicle described the period as ‘nineteen long winters, when Christ and his saints slept.’

Whether as a penance for his warfare, on the side of both candidates in turn, or because he saw a vision of the Virgin Mary, some time between 1132 and 1136, he founded the Hospital of St Cross as an almshouse to provide shelter for thirteen poor men in dire need of help. Mary had visited him in the form of a young peasant girl who begged him for help as people were starving because of the civil war which had laid waste to the land.

The construction of the building, the size of a small cathedral, with its limestone walls and associated buildings made a big impact on the local economy. The nursery rhyme ‘See Saw Marjorie Daw’ is said to have its origins in the efforts of Henry, whose name was anglicised as ‘Messr de Blaw’ which then became Marjorie Daw. The new master was offering an attractive wage – a penny a day – to workers (Johnny, an Everyman name for craftsmen).

The possible original version of the rhyme is quoted by Vallely as:

See Saw: Messr de Blaw, Johnny shall have a new master, He shall get a penny a day, yet shan’t have to work any faster.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the story slows down as it comes closer to the present, including indeed a late inserted chapter on philanthropy at a time of COVID. What results is an expansive account of the accelerating recent trends in philanthropy, good and bad, with Matthew Bishop’s book on philanthrocapitalism critiqued in effect as a prescient but one-sided account of the field.

The value of a historical approach is to allow the writer to elucidate on but not endorse the increasingly bold claims and big sums of contemporary philanthropy. He commends the understanding, dating back to Jewish, early Christian and Muslim teachings, that “the act of giving creates a three-way relationship between the giver, the receiver, and the society in which they both live.”

Drawing in particular on Catholic social thought, on which the writer is both at his best and at his most comfortable, Vallely sets out how philanthropy can ‘recover its lost soul’.

Having written a short history of mutual aid myself, I found parallels and differences in reading the story of philanthropy. The most evident contrast is in where power lies – so much mutual aid is the self organising of those relatively without power in society, where philanthropy is both the exercise and expression of that power.

As the soldier priest Henry de Blois showed, in a gift of enduring generosity that continues today, you probably don’t have to be anywhere near perfect to show your love for other people through an act of philanthropy. But as in his vision of Mary in a field of hunger, you have to be open to what love asks of you.

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