Doing Well and Doing Good: Money, Giving and Caring in a Free Societyby Os Guinness, Ginger Koloszyc (Other), Ginger Koloszyc
ver since the first coin was minted in the seventh century B.C., money has been central to human society as one of the elemental forces driving the affairs of individuals and nations. But in spite of mankind's preoccupation with the making of money, little attention has been paid to the meaning of money in modern society. Modern society has also overlooked questions about the culture of giving and caring.
What motivates one to give? Why should someone care for those outside his or her own social circle-especially for the poor dwelling on the fringes of society? How a society answers questions such as these is critical in determining the character of that society. And yet, these are questions that modern societies have largely ignored. Doing Well and Doing Good addresses this blind spot, exploring the big ideas that shaped the rise of the unique Western tradition of giving and caring by examining selected writings from some of the most influential thinkers of Western society. Sometimes controversial, often challenging, always illuminating, the issues of money, giving, and caring are vital themes that stand at the crossroads of many issues in contemporary society. They are topics that no responsible citizen or leader in a free society can afford to ignore.
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EXCHANGE OR MAMMON?
One of the great oddities or philanthropy is that many people try to understand the meaning of giving without understanding the meaning of money. Giving, it is true, goes back earlier than both money and the ancient barter system. But now that money has assumed a dominant position, especially within the ruling empire of capitalism, no one can begin to understand giving without understanding money.
Giving, it is also true, entails far more than simply giving money, just as wealth encompasses abundance of all kinds. But most major, modern giving includes giving money, so the trails return again to its meaning.
Money, money, money. Along with sex and power, money is a little word but a gigantic force. The place it occupies in our lives and in our culture provides a measure of who we are. No society has ever made the money factor more pervasive and more decisive than we do as proponents of democratic capitalism. In a means-oriented society, money is the ultimate means without which the modern world would slow and stop.
The story of the rise of philanthropy in Western civilization is a response to two leading questions about money: First, whose is it? And second, what is the problem?
Beguilingly simple, perhaps, these two questions have traditionally elicited very different responses with different effects in society. Our concern here is the influence on the rise of a culture of giving and caring. But the answers to these two questionshelpus to see whether money is simply a medium of exchangean instrumental and neutral meansor whether it is also an end, even a dangerous end, and worth giving away for that reason alone.
"Whether you like it or whether you do not, money is money and that is all there is about it."
Gertrude Stein, Saturday Evening Post, July 13, 1936
"Money is nothing. It's just something to make bookkeeping convenient."
H. L. Hunt, Texas oil billionaire
Trying to solve the
problem of money through
tinkering with the
economic system or
altogether will always
be a failure.
The truth is, as the classical writers knew well, it is a monumental mistake to see money only as an economic issue. It was, and is, a spiritual issue. Trying to solve the problem of money through tinkering with the economic system or switching systems altogether will always be a failure. Money is money regardless of whether it is working in a free or centralized market and first needs to be understood as such. In an obvious sense we take money too seriously today. But in a less obvious sense we only do so because we don't take it seriously enoughto understand it.
Point to Ponder:
Money and PropertyWhose Is It?
The distinctive Western tradition of giving and caring is the child of Jewish and Christian beliefs. But the biblical perspective was only one of antiquity's three major views of moneyJewish/Christian, Greek, and Romanand each gave a distinctive answer to the question underlying money and property: Whose is it?
One view, represented by an influential if minority stream of Greek thinkers, most notably Plato and the followers of Pythagoras, was that money should be shared because its ownership is (or rather, was) common. Unlike Marxists, who place the golden age of sharing in the future, the Greeks put it in the past. They believed in an earlier age of community when all was shared, so in today's ideal society all should be held in common againat least by those with the responsibilities of leadership (Plato's "guardians").
This first view, it must be said, was not universal among the Greeksthe comic playwright Aristophanes pilloried Plato mercilessly, and Aristotle strongly disagreed with his master. But Plato was expressing an old and powerful Greek tradition. The idea of redistribution of land in the name of equality, for instance, was prevalent even in the constitutions of Sparta and Crete. The utopian element and the drive toward justice viewed as redistribution are unmistakable. However, so too is the tendency toward despotic consequences because the gap between the real and the ideal must eventually be bridged by coercion.
A second view, represented by the Romans speaking almost unanimously, was that individuals had absolute rights over their money and property. Property, by an old definition, is a right of action. It is an expression of the human will acted out over things and people, so the concept of property without an actor has no meaning. (This line of thinking is seen today, for example, in the current slogan, "A woman has a right to her own body.")
The strength of this position is striking. For Romans, ownership in the full sense included the right to use, to enjoy, and even to abuse one's property (jus utendi, jus fruendi, jus abutendi). This was the backbone of the Roman system. A farmer could burn down his farmhouse with impunity. The father of a family (paterfamilias), acknowledged to have power of life and death over his family, could kill his children with impunity at any time. The horrible practice of maiming children to raise their potential as beggars was common in Rome. So also was the evil of exposing unwanted babies, mostly girls, to die.
Such a view of absolute property rights is obviously congenial to elements of today's capitalistic, even libertarian, climate. But the potential ruthlessness should be noted too. This view tends toward an unbridled, winner-takes-all mentality that is careless of limits and deaf to weakness and need. The Roman view also led to a characteristic hypocrisy. Such writers as Seneca were striking for having great personal wealth and yet producing eloquent passages disparaging it.
The third view, represented by Jews and Christians, was that human beings have a qualified right over money and property. Or, put more precisely, God has the ultimate ownership but we have stewardship of money, property, and our talents. The resources of the earth are held in trust for a divine purpose. Thus our relationship to money and property may by custom or law be defined as ownership but is really a conditional form of trusteeship. In the true sense of the Old English word "steward," we are responsible for the prudent management of an estate that is not our own.
The contrast with the other two views is profound and the differences very practical. One example was the Jewish harvest custom of not gleaning fields to the edges to create a margin for the care of the poor.
John D. Rockefeller Sr. stood clearly in this stewardship tradition when he voiced what Andrew Carnegie, despite his generosity, could never have said, "The good Lord gave me the money." It would be easy, of course, to turn such a statement into a pious cant. But there is no question that, historically, this response to "Whose is it?" was an important motivation for the generous giving that gave rise to philanthropy.
Plato (about 427-347 B.C.), along with his mentor Socrates and his disciple Aristotle, is a giant of the mind and a leading shaper of Western civilization and its intellectual tradition. Born a year after the death of Pericles, Plato came from a family that was prominent in Athenian politics. He, however, refused to enter politics after he became disgusted by the corruption and violence of Athenian democracyculminating in the execution of Socrates in 399 B.C. Living in troubled times, he sought his cure from the ills of society in philosophy, not politics. He became convinced that justice would not arriver "until either real philosophers gain political power or politicians become by some miracle true philosophers."
The excerpt beginning on the next page is from Plato's most important dialogue, The Republic, an imagined conversation between Socrates and a student. In this excerpt, Socrates describes his ideal society. A class of people called the "Guardians" are the ones from whom he hopes to groom his Philosopher-Rulers. Socrates argues that to meet the Guardians' needs and encourage their devotion to the community, they must share all money and property communally. "Oneness in spirit" is to be created by "oneness of possession." By holding all goods in common, they escape the corrupting power of the quest for material goods.
It was because of passages such as this one that Karl Popper in The Open Society and Its Enemies argued that Plato was the founder of authoritarianism in the West because of his view that society must limit human freedom in the name of utopian ideals. The two paragraphs from Aristophanes and Aristotle at the end of the reading represent Plato's strongest critics.
"It would therefore be reasonable to say that, besides being so educated, they [the leaders of the republic] should be housed and their material needs provided for in a way that will not prevent them being excellent Guardians, yet will not tempt them to prey upon the rest of the community."
"That is very true."
"Well then," I said, "if they are to have these characteristics, I suggest that they should live and be housed as follows. First, they shall have no private property beyond the barest essentials. Second, none of them shall possess a dwellinghouse or storehouse to which all have not the right of entry. Next, their food shall be provided by the other citizens as an agreed wage for the duties they perform as Guardians; it shall be suitable for brave men living under military training and discipline, and in quantity enough to ensure that there is neither a surplus nor a deficit over the year. They shall eat together in messes and live together like soldiers in camp. They must be told that they have no need of mortal and material gold and silver, because they have in their hearts the heavenly gold and silver given them by the gods as a permanent possession, and it would be wicked to pollute the heavenly gold in their possession by mixing it with earthly, for theirs is without impurity, while that in currency among men is a common source of wickedness.... [O]ur purpose in founding our state was not to promote the particular happiness of a single class, but, so far as possible, of the whole community....
"It follows from what we've said, and from our whole previous argument"
"that our men and women Guardians should be forbidden by law to live together in separate households, and all the women should be common to all the men; similarly, children should be held in common, and no parent should know its child, or child its parent...."
"As law-giver, you have already picked your men Guardians. You must now pick women of as nearly similar natural capacities as possible to go with them. They will live and feed together, and have no private home or property. They will mix freely in their physical exercises and the rest of their training, and their natural instincts will necessarily lead them to have sexual intercourse...."
"We must, if we are to be consistent, and if we're to have a real pedigree herd, mate the best of our men with the best of our women as often as possible, and the inferior men with the inferior women as seldom as possible, and bring up only the offspring of the best. And no one but the Rulers must know what is happening, if we are to avoid dissension in our Guardian herd."
"That is very true."
"So we must arrange statutory festivals in which our brides and bridegrooms will be brought together. There will be religious sacrifices and our poets will write songs suitable to the occasion. The number of unions we will leave to the Rulers to settle. Their aim will be to keep numbers constant, allowing for wastage by war and disease and the like, and, so far as they can, to prevent our state becoming too large or too small."
"And we shall have to devise an ingenious system of drawing lots, so that our inferior Guardian can, at each mating festival, blame the lot and not the Rulers."
"That will certainly be necessary."
"And among the other honors and rewards our young men can win for distinguished service in war and in other activities, will be more frequent opportunities to sleep with women; this will give us a pretext for ensuring that most of our children are born of that kind of parent."
"Each generation of children will be taken by officers appointed for the purpose, who may be men or women or bothfor men and women will of course be equally eligible for office"
"Yes, of course."
"These officers will take the children of the better Guardians to a nursery and put them in charge of nurses living in a separate part of the city: the children of the inferior Guardians, and any defective offspring of the others, will be quietly and secretly disposed of."
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
1. How does Socrates plan to set up the Guardian class? What are his goals in doing so? What are some of the potential dangers he foresees if the Guardians don't have his desired attitude toward possessions?
2. Practically speaking, how does Socrates see the Guardians living? Why?
What will be the explanation to the Guardians for this lifestyle?
3. At the end of the second full paragraph, he gives them his inspirational rationale"they have no need of mortal and material gold and silver" and so on. How would you describe his appeal? Do you find it convincing?
4. Socrates says the "purpose in founding our state was not to promote the particular happiness of a single class, but ... of the whole community." What are the implications of this for individuals?
5. Is he consistent in his reasoning for the setup of the society? Why or why not?
6. How does Socrates plan for men and women to interact? To marry? What role do women and children play in the Guardian class? Do you see any conflicting purposes?
7. Socrates never describes the society in terms of "family." What is striking about how he portrays the interaction of men, women, and children? Who ultimately is in charge of these relationships? What would be the consequences for society?
8. What overtones do you hear in such references as "our Guardian herd," "mating festival," "defective offspring," and so on?
9. What part does deception play in making the Guardian class a reality? Why is deception necessary?
10. What is the link between utopianism and despotism in these readings? Is it a stretch to go from developing a "Guardian class" to purifying the "Aryan race"? How do both go back to the underlying view of possessions?
11. What do you think of Aristophanes' and Aristotle's attacks on Plato? How far would they apply to the modern forms of communism, such as Marxism?
12. What sort of giving, if any, would this Greek view be likely to encourage?
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