The burden of tackling each day’s practical difficulties tempts all of us to ignore life’s large questions-“Where am I headed? Am I on the right road?” Philanthropists are especially vulnerable, because it’s easy to think, “I’m doing good by giving to others,” and then assume that this answers the question of whether one’s life is being well spent.
But that reply doesn’t satisfy Amy Kass, a long-time, prizewinning professor at the University of Chicago and editor of a new anthology, The Perfect Gift: The Philanthropic Imagination in Poetry and Prose. The book’s 52 brief readings attack the sentimental assumption that good intentions suffice to guarantee good philanthropy. “Gifts,” Kass insists, “are equally conducive to benefit and harm, to joy and sorrow.”
Half the book’s readings are drawn from literature. All are meant to help philanthropists engage in the eminently practical activity of pausing from daily work to reflect on “the grounds of our own judgments about why, how, to whom, and what we should give.” Kass warns the reader he “will find here no specific practical advice . . . . Caught up in the particulars, we seldom make clear to ourselves the standards that guide us as givers or the expectations we have of our recipients.”
To her chosen texts, Kass puts the questions that organize the five parts of her superb anthology: Why should I give? How should I give? To whom or for what shall I give? What should I give? and Can giving be taught? With selections from the Bible’s Cain and Abel to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, George Eliot’s Romola to P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie and Jeeves stories, she asks us to consider the reasons for giving. With readings from Maimonides to Rudyard Kipling, she poses the problem of the means we use for charity. Shakespeare, the McGuffey Reader, Andrew Carnegie, and the like offer suggestions for the proper object of our philanthropy. Alexis de Tocqueville and confréres help us consider the question of what we give. Authors from Benjamin Franklin and Woodrow Wilson to the Dalai Lama combine to weigh the possibility of teaching our children and ourselves to practice the philanthropic impulse.
Arguably the most difficult issue involved in giving is whether, at its deepest level, philanthropy is primarily about the recipients or the donors? Many of Kass’s selections—from O. Henry’s almost perfect comedy “The Chair of Philanthromathematics” to Dorothy Parker’s surprisingly powerful “Song of the Shirt, 1941”—raise the issue sharply.
All this must be expressed in questions, for you won’t find the answer in The Perfect Gift. Or rather, you’ll find all the possible answers, from the capitalist Carnegie’s famous “Gospel of Wealth” to an astonishingly vicious little attack on alms-giving in a story by the Communist John Reed. Amy Kass has the impulse of all great teachers: She will not tell us what the correct solution is; she insists we first get the question right. Indeed, her refusal to reveal the answer almost becomes aggravating. One begins to feel that a mind capable of making selections this good ought to stop fooling around with passages from other people’s writing and tell us straight out which of them is right.
Not that one cannot quibble here and there with Kass’s choices. I think the story Kipling wrote later in life, “The Wish House,” might have put the question more tellingly than Kass’s selection of the brash young Kipling’s “The Record of Badalia Herodsfoot.” Apart from Aristotle and Maimonides, philosophers get surprisingly little space in this anthology, though on point might be passages from Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure or, for more recent work, the French neoplatonist Jean-Luc Marion’s The Gift.
The Perfect Gift helps us realize that the Victorians—from the robber barons all the way to Karl Marx—invented our modern idea of philanthropy. And we are, in many ways, still caught in the trap they left us. The Victorians hoped to maintain traditional ethical ideas about good actions while avoiding the troubling religious and philosophical questions of why those actions are good.
They paid the price for this in their endless fascination with their own motives and their incapacity to sort those motives out. Never was there a people so obsessed with hunting out the least vestige of hypocrisy, as Kass’s selections from the Victorians and their twentieth-century heirs brilliantly reveal. The passage from George Eliot’s novel Romola contains the entire intellectual history of Victorian England in its eight pages. These stories contain an amazing number of attacks on the practice of philanthropy—and always because of the muddled motives involved in it. O. Henry’s “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentleman” inverts the moral status of the giver and the receiver (and then, in his typical style, inverts it once again in a trick ending). Tales from Sylvia Warner, Henri Barbusse, and Pierre Mac Orlan examine the goal of philanthropy. Stephen Leacock’s comic “Mr. Plumter, B.A., Revisits the Old Shop” and John O’Hara’s more sober masterpiece “Memorial Fund” unite to tear away the mask from donations made to colleges. Edith Wharton seems motivated by kindness and Dorothy Parker by cruelty, but both their stories in The Perfect Gift are soul-wrenching exposures of human action.
Would-be philanthropist after would-be philanthropist in these stories becomes self-conscious about the motivations of his philanthropy—and then self-conscious of his new self-consciousness, and then . . . . Bah, as that good Victorian Ebenezer Scrooge might have put it, there is no sorting through this mess.
The essay in The Perfect Gift from the editor’s husband, Leon Kass (currently chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics), suggests a way to temper these problems of motivation by submitting the impulse of compassion to the demands of justice. The later Victorians roundly mocked the early Victorian idea of the “deserving poor,” but that idea contains a meaningful distinction between the people who brought their suffering upon themselves and the people who suffer through no fault of their own. If the proper goal of philanthropy is to enable its recipients to reach, so far as they are able, the point where they no longer need philanthropy, then the best place for compassion to spend itself is among those who haven’t wasted themselves in vice and self-destruction. (Of course, even this idea of compassion informed by justice is challenged by the biblical tradition, which suggests that justice, too, must be subordinated in the end to something higher.)
There’s a note on the first page of The Perfect Gift which says the book was published with funding from the Lilly Endowment and the generous support of Barbara E. and Karl R. Zimmer. A philanthropic donation to produce a book about philanthropy may seem an endeavor hopelessly ensnared in all the questions that The Perfect Gift raises. But the imagination and skill Amy Kass brings to her work leap beyond all that. Producing The Perfect Gift was a real act of philanthropy, a very good thing to do.