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, composer, and occasional amateur comedian living in New York City. He produces and hosts The Catholic Culture Podcast. See full bio.

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