Charity as a Private Virtue

The minor philosopher Arcesilaus (316-240 B.C.) was not always the most edifying thinker. He suffered from the indiscriminate hedonism that afflicted many of his contemporaries. Yet his life is not without interest. In particular I think of his magnanimity. At one time Arcesilaus studied under the geometer Hipponicus who was reputedly as lazy as he was brilliant. Arcesilaus poked good-natured fun at the other man, but when Hipponicus had a mental breakdown it is said that the student took the geometer “to his house and nursed him until he was completely restored.” Diogenes Laertius relates that the philosopher “showed the greatest generosity in private life, being ever ready to confer benefits, yet most modestly anxious to conceal the favour.”

One of the things that I learned from my father is the old-fashioned idea of privacy. In an age when so many vices are made public it perhaps worth remembering that virtue starts at home. True charity is not about showing-off, and it is one of my complaints about contemporary society (though it is not really so new) that everything is publicized. There is almost no opportunity to practice acts of kindness in the way that Arcesilaus did, since it is taken for granted that if we do not boast of our deeds it is because we have nothing to boast about.

I recently came across a group letter in which the author described walking around a shopping mall during the holidays randomly handing out fifty-dollar bills. No one doubts the liberality of such an act, but for most people it will seem negated by the author’s bragging narcissism. Still such cases of egotism are relatively benign.  “Charity covers a multitude of sins,” says St. Peter, but not if those sins are acts of malice. One thinks of the infamous robber barons of old who murdered and pillaged and later donated funds for the stained glass windows in the local cathedral. An anecdote of more recent currency, as told by a friend, is that there used to be a patron at a prestigious country club who was notoriously nasty to everyone who waited on him, but was full of showy goodwill whenever he brought his pastor to lunch.  This sort of malignant hypocrisy is worse than mere vanity.

But even these faults do not represent a direct imposition on others. Far more insipid are those forms of public “benevolence” in which one is pressured into donating to causes (which may or may not be of one’s choosing) simply because it is socially fashionable or because one’s employer says so. I have nothing against organized charity, but it must never lose its spontaneous and voluntary character. Otherwise it is not charity at all. This is especially true  of those mandatory “donations” engineered by the government for the sake of wealth redistribution or the funding of politically favored projects. Far from being “charity” they are in fact acts of theft and injustice.

Related post: Diogenes Laertius on the Philosophers

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