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thoughts on euergetism

here are peter jones’ thoughts on ‘ancient and modern’ from the spectator for 11 september 2004:

Today’s rich are not, apparently, giving enough of their wealth to good causes. The ancients would have known why.

Euergesia — ‘benefaction, philanthropy’ — had always been seen as a virtue of the well-born Greek (for Aristotle it was an act that characterised the ‘magnificent’ man). It was, therefore, highly popular among the great and good of the Hellenic world, as the vast number of inscriptions and statues attesting such ‘euergetism’ indicate, whether erected by the euergetist himself or a grateful people. The culture spread to Rome too. Pliny the Younger, for example, endowed his home town, Como, with a school and a library, and in his will bequeathed it a public bath and a capital sum to give everyone a free annual dinner. The emperor himself was the ultimate euergetist: public buildings, banquets, free bread, extravagant games, cheap baths, etc., were all treated as if they were personal benefactions to the Roman people.

In 5th-century bc Athens, however, where radical democracy reached its full flowering under Pericles, the culture of liberal benefaction was slightly frowned on. The reason was that the citizens saw each other as equals, and suspected any citizen who lavished benefactions on others of trying to gain political ascendancy. If benefaction, therefore, was not to dry up, it would have to be under the Assembly’s direction. As a result, Athenians invented the leitourgia system (our ‘liturgy’), under which the 300 richest citizens in each year were ordered to subsidise a number of state activities, like the annual drama festivals, equipping a trireme, and so on.

This sounds like a New Labour paradise, but unfortunately we already have a tax system that achieves the same purpose all too well. Is the state, then, the universal euergetist? No. It certainly sets itself up as the universal provider, but simply grabs our money and spends it how it likes. The point about ancient euergetism is that it was personal and reciprocal: it served the interests of the giver — everything from patriotic display to political self-advancement — as well as that of the recipient.

There will always be saints to whom the ‘what’s in it for me?’ mentality is anathema. In their absence, however, good causes will be properly served again only when the giver is as much the ‘good cause’ as the cause to which he is giving.