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Enlightened self-interest

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

By Claire Gaudiani

Spirit of generosity drives engagement in civic life.

Adam Smith believed generosity brought enormous benefits to those who practiced it.

“No benevolent man ever lost altogether the fruits of his benevolence,” he wrote. “If he does not always gather them from the persons from whom he ought to have gathered them, he seldom fails to gather them, and with a tenfold increase, from other people.”

Particularly in the United States, enlightened self-interest, or what Tocqueville called “self-interest rightly understood,” is both deeply spiritual — “love your neighbor as yourself” — and also strictly pragmatic.

In the “Sermon on the Arabella,” written on the boat that brought him from England in 1630, John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Colony, called his compatriots to see others as the center of importance outside themselves.

He reminded them of the importance of a generous spirit to the success of their new venture: “Wee must be knit together, in this worke, as one man. Wee must entertaine each other in brotherly affection. Wee must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities.”

At first, Winthrop’s words do not sound radical to contemporary ears. He was simply calling for a generosity that was, after all, a central teaching in Judeo-Christian spirituality and a mark of citizenship in the traditions of Greece and Rome.

Standing back and listening again, though, we can hear what is radical in Winthrop’s urgent call — actual implementation of generosity as a way to succeed together as a nation.

Practice what you preach because it will help you survive and thrive.

The words are still true.

For centuries, American society has applied the wisdom texts and gathered a 10-fold increase from our tradition of generosity, just as Adam Smith predicted.


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]

Beyond the self [02.28.05]

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