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Beyond the self

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[Editor’s note: This is part of continuing series of profiles of civic and philanthropic heroes.]

By Claire Gaudiani

Philanthropic impulse calls people to connect with others.

Philanthropy has a long and distinguished life in human culture.

The sacred and civic texts that have shaped the West, calling people to generosity and compassion, are part of a wisdom tradition that is thousands of years old.

Non-Western texts advocating generosity, although less directly formative of American culture, become more important to our country each year as our nation becomes more diverse.

Across cultures and geographies, all these texts witness to the presence of something of importance beyond the self, something each of us can consider worthy of our attention and our effort.

The words of Hebrew Scripture, the words of Christ, St Paul, Maimonides and Aquinas, and those of the Founding Fathers, Adam Smith and Tocqueville, among many others, affirm the spiritual connection to civic well-being.

The balance between generosity and capitalism is not more important than the balance between self and others, and the balance between the individual and society taught in these texts.

All three are important. All three demand levels of maturity that seem, paradoxically, more elusive as we achieve higher levels of material comfort.

In different ways, the sacred and civic texts call people to respond to a center of importance beyond themselves. The words inspire self-sacrifice for the greater good, which in turn delivers a sense of meaning to the self.

As these texts show, some people find their center in religious faith, in God, in the poor, or in a cause.

In wartime, people have been inspired to see their country as this center and they have been willing to sacrifice their lives for it.


Claire Gaudiani is a professor at The George H. Heyman Jr. Center Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising at New York University and the author of The Greater Good: How Philanthropy Drives the American Economy and Can Save Capitalism.

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Other columns by Claire Gaudiani:

Helping hands [9.20.04]

Change agent [10.11.04]

Retailing generosity [10.25.04]

Prescription for change [11.22.04]

Whitewashing history [12.06.04]

Breakthrough philanthropy [12.20.04]

Critical thinking [01.03.05]

Tsunami lessons [01.17.05]

Making money [02.01.05]

Pension payoff [02.14.05]

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