The decline of patronage and the rise of philanthropy

A patron is to a contemplative age what a philanthropist is to an action-oriented one. During the passage to modernity, we see a slow yet undeniable shift away from patronage as a way of displaying generosity and toward philanthropy as a ‘style’ of contributing to social change. Edward Craig’s well-researched book The Mind of God and the Works of Man provides us with the rich intellectual background underlying this significant epochal shift.

Before the modern age, Craig tells us that the most excellent form of life was a life of contemplation. One sought, by various means or routes, to approximate to the Mind of God. After the seventeenth century, however, it was assumed to be a life committed to the Agency Theory. A good life, it was thought, was one involved in demonstrating one’s agency, in making good on the Works of Man. I would conjecture that Marx’s ‘Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach’ helped to crystallize this change in worldview, memorializing it in the form of an aphorism. ‘Philosophers,’ he wrote there, ‘have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.’ Thus was the philosopher, as the one who seeks to understand things by showing how humans can live in accordance with nature, supplanted by the change-maker, the agent who assumes that the world is ‘out-of-joint’ and thus in need of fixing.

In our time good and great wealth is still amassed, but now it is distributed according to a very different understanding of ethical life. Unlike the patron who seeks to honor the lives of excellent individuals such as poets, painters, and monks, the modern-day philanthropist sets his eyes on funding individuals, organizations, and entities which can demonstrate that they are making positive, measurable social impacts on improving health and education, furthering the cause of social justice, or diminishing the rate of poverty. He wants the world to be better than it is, he believes the world to be a ‘problem’ in search of ‘solutions,’ and he assumes that the way of making it better is by intervening. 

Let’s grant, without delay, that these sorts of things–and doubtless others like them–are worthy causes. Still, is it self-evidently the case that the idea of social betterment must necessarily come before, and be placed higher than, the project of self-cultivation? It is as though we had not only changed the First Question from ‘What counts as a good and beautiful life?’ to ‘How can the world be made less unjust?’ but also forgotten the original question entirely. But, were we to remember the former question, would we be willing to pause and consider whether the latter is the First Question to put to human life?