How St. Augustine replaced philanthropy with charity

By Thomas V. Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 08, 2015

Lapham's Quarterly has published a superb essay by Peter Brown, a leading authority on the society and culture of late antiquity, about how Christianity in general, and St. Augustine in particular, worked to transform the way the rich gave their money.

The model of giving inherited from Greco-Roman culture is now known by the neologism euergetism: nobles were expected to pay for public building projects, games, festivals, and the general improvement of the cities they lived in. The wealthy were accustomed to benefiting their fellow-citizens by means of ostentatious gifts, but not to helping the poor as such. Indeed, the idea that they had any special obligation to the poor, or anyone outside the borders of their home city, was quite new to them.

Brown writes: “The duty of the Christian preacher was to urge the rich no longer to spend their money on their beloved, well-known city, but to lose it, almost heedlessly, in the faceless mass of the poor.” In his letters and sermons, St. Augustine little by little persuaded the nobility of Africa to adopt new attitudes towards their wealth and new habits of giving.

He often used thought experiments that could be easily understood by men of wealth and enterprise: think of giving to the poor as making an investment in the next world, or of making an "advanced purchase" of "treasure in heaven." The idea of, in effect, using earthly cash to shore up one's salvation is somewhat embarrassing to modern Christians, but it was essential to establishing the model of Christian giving that would last for many centuries.

For Augustine, giving in relatively small amounts on a daily basis was a way of doing penance for one's daily sins. This was also a change in the way the rich viewed their giving: formerly, it had been a means of self-glorification, much as today's philanthropy often is. Now it was something that emphasized that the rich were just as much sinners in need of salvation as anyone else.

I highly recommend reading Brown's essay, adapted from his new book The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity, which I plan on reviewing here at a later date.

Thomas V. Mirus is a pianist living in New York City. He is the director of audio media for CatholicCulture.org and hosts The Catholic Culture Podcast. See full bio.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: billmccann7994 - Aug. 10, 2016 8:01 AM ET USA

    If I had to make a judgment I would say that the widest road to perdition is reserved for Catholics who put allegiance to any material thing, any philosophy or any person in defiance of the 10 Commandments or the Laws of Christ's Church. Are not these people the ones to whom Christ will say, "I never knew you?" Final Judgment -- an invitation to eternal life or eternal damnation. Our Choice!

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jul. 30, 2016 2:02 PM ET USA

    I saw her lips moving when she said that she has studied the abortion "issue" for many years, and the Pope is clearly wrong about abortion. So here we have a self-proclaimed Catholic chastising the theologian/philosopher St. JPII for his wrong-headed and immoral teaching that abortion is not a sacrament in the Catholic Church, but instead a moral evil grave enough to cause automatic excommunication under canon law. Condemned from the 1st century in the Didache and down the succeeding centuries.

  • Posted by: MatJohn - Jul. 30, 2016 1:06 AM ET USA

    Is there any chance Pelosi will put God ahead of her political interests?

  • Posted by: ElizabethD - Jul. 29, 2016 8:16 PM ET USA

    Back when I was a progressive the popular book advancing a political strategy of convincing voters to vote "their economic interests" rather than social issues, was called _What's The Matter With Kansas?_. Even at the time I halfway thought there was something noble about the willingness of the red-staters to "vote against their interests" based on moral principles. Now it's obvious to me as a cynical appeal to selfishess, and that the Democrats are deceivers unlikely even to help economically.