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Philanthropy: From Aristotle to Zuckerberg, by Paul Vallely

11 September 2020

A meticulous and rich study of philanthropy, says Alan Billings

STEPHEN TOULMIN, the philosopher, once wrote that definitions were like belts. Just as belts had to be very elastic to fit all human shapes, so definitions had to encompass many different instances. “Philanthropy”, as used by Paul Vallely, is elastic enough to range from the widow’s mite to Bill Gates’s billions, from a religious duty to a voluntary offering, from one-to-one almsgiving to the charitable foundation, with mixed motives at every point. It also ranges across time — from Aristotle to Mark Zuckerberg. It is a very big book.

The narrative is mainly chronological, beginning with the Greeks and Romans and ending with a brief epilogue on philanthropy after the pandemic and the global disruption it has caused. The author is particularly good at drawing out those moments in history when social or economic developments lead to significant changes in attitude towards philanthropy.

In Greek and Roman society, charitable giving did not come naturally. When Aristotle argued for generosity, it was not to show pity for the poor, but to develop the good character of the giver. For Jews, however, showing compassion was a religious duty, an imitation of the compassion that God had shown Israel: “Love the stranger; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This religious impulse was to have profound implications for the subsequent development of philanthropy.

“Forty-millionaire Carnegie in his great double role. As the tight-fisted employer he reduces wages that he may play philanthropist and give away libraries, etc.” declared a satirical cartoon in an American illustrated newspaper, the Utica Saturday Globe (9 July 1892). From the book

Most of the book then charts the history of Western philanthropy from Jesus the Jew to the emergence of the modern welfare state and philanthro-capitalism. Everything is meticulously researched, and every chapter is rich in wonderful asides and anecdotes.

For Christianity, there were always New Testament passages that created some tension between simply responding to need — Matthew 25 is the classic text — and St Paul’s insistence that if someone were unwilling to work they should not eat, which suggests a degree of discrimination.

Many of the issues that philanthropy raises have their origins in such tensions, and throughout the book these are discussed. Does charity create dependency, robbing the poor of their autonomy and dignity? Is everything best left to the State? Do the mega-rich pose threats to democracy? Is there “good” philanthropy and “bad” — and who should decide? What does any of this do to the soul?

In addition, after each chapter, the author includes transcripts of interviews that he has had with some 17 contemporary figures who are either significant philanthropists themselves — such as David Sainsbury and Trevor Pears — or have an involvement with charities.

In the final chapters, Vallely argues for restoring a spiritual dimension to giving. Modern philanthropy has focused on greater efficiency: “more bang for the buck”. In future, there must be a greater focus on the recipient, for everyone’s sake and soul.


The Revd Dr Alan Billings is Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire.


Philanthropy: From Aristotle to Zuckerberg
Paul Vallely
Bloomsbury £30
Church Times Bookshop special price £25


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