Thoreau: philanthropy is overrated (Walden 44)

“Philanthropy is almost the only virtue which is sufficiently appreciated by mankind.  Nay, it is greatly overrated; and it is our selfishness which overrates it.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” Walden

Here’s a provocative quotation! To my amusement I found the first sentence quoted on the websites of several philanthropic organizations.

Henry goes on to say, “I would not subtract anything from the praise that is due to philanthropy, but merely demand justice for all who by their lives and works are a blessing to mankind.” So part of his argument is that there are many other activities that benefit humanity and which aren’t as likely to receive credit.

But he also goes on to make a complex point about what he believes to be the nature of reformers, that they are mostly acting to relieve some sort of personal misery:

“I believe that what so saddens the reformer is not his sympathy with his fellows in distress, but, though he be the holiest son of God, is his private ail. Let this be righted, let the spring come to him, the morning rise over his couch, and he will forsake his generous companions without apology.”

And he goes on to a startling indictment of organized religion:

“Our manners have been corrupted by communication with the saints. Our hymn-books resound with a melodious cursing of God and enduring Him forever. One would say that even the prophets and redeemers had rather consoled the fears than confirmed the hopes of man. There is nowhere recorded a simple and irrepressible satisfaction with the gift of life, any memorable praise of God.”

By giving only selected quotes I’m greatly simplifying his argument, but the idea seems to be that he feels there’s something false-hearted about much of philanthropy, that too often it springs from hypocrisy and a desire for self-justification, or from a desire to purge inner demons of one kind or another.

Thoreau tends to be more concerned with motives than with effects. He seems to think that in the long run being at peace with yourself will produce pure motives which will produce the best effects, even if you don’t set out to do anything specifically philanthropic. “His goodness must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which cost him nothing and of which he is unconscious.”

Yes, that would be great, but can we afford to be that picky? We do what we do for a lot of reasons, and usually act out of mixed motives of which we are largely unaware. Maybe doing good and being good are part of the same feedback loop, the one building upon the other, so that it doesn’t matter where you start.

Henry is giving us an ideal. I’m not sure that he or anyone else can live up to it, but maybe that isn’t the point. The point is, can we draw any closer to it?

And so we come to the end of “Economy,” the first and longest chapter of Walden.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


One thought on “Thoreau: philanthropy is overrated (Walden 44)

  1. exposingfalsestoics

    I agree completely with Thoreau. Just see how the richest in the world give scraps of their fortune to feel better, and to assert a smug sense of (false) virtue and moral superiority over “the plebs” they despise at heart, and while they keep on reaping their fortune out of the abusive system that carves it out of the misery of the poor, and they never moved a single finger to change it.
    For Thoreau, if they really cared about the injustice of the system, they would disconnect themselves from it. This is a radical but coherent step to make, and Thoreau can’t be accused of hypocrisy; in Walden he proved how one can subsist, thrive and live with dignity out of the system.


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