Vermont Humanities Council
A VPR Commentary by Peter A. Gilbert
When most of us think of philanthropists, we think of wealthy people who give a lot of money to charity, like Andrew Carnegie and Bill Gates. But the real meaning of philanthropy is found in the roots of the word itself.
The word comes from two Greek words — philein, meaning to love, and anthropos (as in anthropology), meaning humankind. And so philanthropy means love of humanity. That’s really who a philanthropist is — one who acts out of love for humankind.
Author George McCully argues that the Greek mythological figure Prometheus might be considered the first philanthropist, even though he didn’t really exist in the flesh. Prometheus was the mythical Titan said to have created humankind out of clay. But initially, those humans were without any knowledge or skills; they were really brutish animals who lived in caves, in darkness. Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, decided to destroy them. But Prometheus, out of his humanity-loving character, steals fire from Mt. Olympus and gives it to humans, fire symbolizing knowledge and skill — all that constitutes civilization. Imagine how great a gift fire would be to brutish humans who didn’t have it — to cook food, to protect and warm themselves, to illuminate the darkness, and to gather around with others in community.
Prometheus also gives humans hope — optimism. As McCully points out, the two gifts are complementary: with fire, optimism is justified; and optimism motivates people to use fire — their new abilities — to better the human condition, to embrace one’s human potential.
And so what separates humans from other animals is not opposable thumbs, or even language, but culture — civilization — the knowledge and skills that enable us to understand and improve our situation. That’s what philanthropists do — they strive to better the human condition and help people achieve their potential.
I like that notion of philanthropists being people — wealthy or not — who act out of a loving desire to better the human condition. And I especially like McCully’s observation that Cicero and other Romans translated the Greek word philanthropia into Latin as humanitas, in the sense of caring about and nourishing human potential. And so it is that history, literature, and other areas of thought that help us understand ourselves better have come to be called the Humanities, and are central to that lifelong process of understanding and bettering the human condition.
Most of all, I like the notion that if philanthropy is not about giving money, but rather about acting out of love for humankind, then philanthropy can be hugely positive — even transformative — for the donor as well as the recipient. That’s because in giving donors grow more into their own human potential; they grow in generosity and understanding. And if we give not until it hurts but rather until it feels good, then we tend to do it more. Now obviously, donating to a charity at the end of the year will not make you a saint or mahatma; but thinking of yourself — not in pride but in humility — as a philanthropist, even one of modest means — as a person who acts and gives out of love for humankind — well, that’s probably at least a step in the right direction.