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 At the Origins of the Modern Philanthropic Spirit

According to Antoine Furetière (1960), the reason why philanthropy is part of the humanistic traditions is because it is characterized by kindness, gentleness, tenderness, and to some extend honesty towards fellow men. Emile Littré defines philanthropy in the Dictionnaire de la Langue Francaise (1982) as "love of mankind". The word may be used in an adjective phrase, meaning "gentle and patient with the humankind". According to Le Grand Larousse Encyclopédique (1963), philanthropy is "the drive to help other people", whereas the Grand Dictionaire Encyclopédique Larousse (1984) adds the idea of "selflessness, volunteer work when it should be paid." As for the Trésor de la Langue Française (1986), philanthropy refers to "charity practice", "noble-heartedness and generosity", "uncalculated acts and behaviour". The word has also kept its old French for "a love that someone naturally feel for fellowmen".

 The Founding of a philanthropic spirit

From its outset, the term has held a Christian content. It was introduced in 1712 by François de Salignac de la Mothe Fenelon (1651-1715), an archbishop, theologian, preceptor of princes and political thinker. Philanthropy announced itself as a personal more than of a social virtue. Subsequently, the concept of philanthropy would be challenged more or less successfully by many other words : liberality, generosity, kindness, benevolence, help, assistance, etc. Among them, charity and compassion became its main competitors, with a convergence between charity and philanthropy. "The philanthropist strove to discern the most useful action, to prevent rather than relieve poverty, to provide job assistance instead of alms-giving, to cheer people and encourage production. An efficient action was thus acknowledged as superiorly virtuous" (Sabran, 1900).

In the Old Regime, relations with the poor fluctuated between Christian compassion for their misfortunes and State harshness due to their condition for which they were never quite forgiven. Charity was almost never free of castigation and, while physically helping the poor, makes sure to indoctrinate them. In practice, poor, vagrants, beggars, the valid idle were unwelcome and ill considered. Either they were sent to the galleys or they were locked in institutions such as the Royal, General or Regional Hospitals, or in workhouses. Christianity presided over charity. The Royal Institution of the High Chaplaincy of France (Foignet, 1943) was in charge of managing it together with the Church and parishes.

The Enlightenment gave birth to a new attitude that would run through the Revolution and lead to the emergence, in the 19th century, of an elaborate concept. The two decades before the French Revolution were rife with social trouble, accompanied by growing idleness, an increase in vagrancy, begging and child abandonment. That period, Historians showed rampant corruption of part of the clergy, the persistence of huge financial privileges, the oldest and most titled nobility maintained in the most desirable positions in the administration as well as the growth of a proficient "bourgeoisie" eager to access those same positions. The Monarchy responded to the crisis with its unvarying "policing of the paupers". Indeed, assistance was launched during the second half of the 18th century. The idea was to humanize the hospital, to implement outdoor relief, support through work and prevent begging.

During the Revolution, the concept of philanthropy took a broader meaning to refer more generally to any benefactor of humankind whether he was an inventor, a scholar, an explorer, a scientist or a generous man. The philanthropist was no longer an isolated actor in a social class system, but an individual known for his "universal social role". However, the prevalent notion of class, associated with philanthropy, introduced a covert and sometimes conflicting dimension to social relations. Philanthropy promoted standards of behaviour among the working classes, but also among the privileged. It meant to be a science and provide charitable visitors with a status of social workers. Assisting the poor was not the primary goal of philanthropy. Its aims were to encourage moral or cultural activity, to popularize new ways of being and humanitarian campaigns.

 Thinking philanthropy

Among the thinkers who reflected on the causes of poverty, some observed the insufficiency of wages in various occupations and groups of workers. The lowest-paid were women and children. A philanthropic spirit, still rather undefined, infused the perception of the poverty issue and also some socio-economic studies. In 1840, E. Buret (quoted by Yannick Marec in 1981) drew a relation between poverty and the wealth of a happy few, whereas in 1848 P.S. Lelong denounced both low-wages and domestic market crunch.

According to A. de Tocqueville (1805-1859) it was "among the most opulent people that a segment of the population was forced to live of handsouts". Tocqueville studied the comparative effects of "legal charity", i.e. State-organized aid, and of private charity. He objected to legal charity, exemplified in his eyes by the English Poor Law, which had made the terms and conditions for government relief more drastic, and as a result increased destitutes in the British population who were left to idleness and crime. To him, that type of alms-giving divided people into two opposed social classes, the rich and the poor, "driving them to fight each other". By contrast, "private alms-giving established, a valuable link between the rich and the poor. The first one was very much concerned with the fate of the poor that he had undertaken to alleviate; the latter ... felt moved by gratitude [and] thus a moral bond was established between two classes so many interests and passions contribute to drive apart." In his study of pauperism, A. de Tocqueville raised the issue of income, although without delving into it. Apart from the Socialists, he was one of the few philanthropy thinkers who reflected on the socio-economic reasons for poverty. J. Ruskin (1819-1900) followed suit.

According to that British art critic and social reformer, the laws of supply and demand made prices depend on a struggle between two rival selfish forces. Ruskin expressed his horror of a social system that condemned most people to poverty and ugliness, and attacked the capitalist system as a whole. To him, "life was the only blessing", men were not driven by a thirst for money that drove the men but by "admiration, hope and love" (Enc. Univ., 1998).

Under the Third Republic, in France, philanthropic thinking spreaded into trends of thought :

"On one hand, Socialists (i.e. Utopians) proposed to abolish property and family and replace them by a State management of needs. On the other hand, the Christian political economy... promoted an overhaul of the old charity system, restoring the obedience bonds of formely united rich and poor... Charity established rapports and bonds of affection between classes, creating a salutary and soft hierarchy ... leaving to religion [to judge and] to address stern criticism to the rich ... A third group, the so-called social economy (represented by such Leonardo Sismondi, Joseph-Marie de Gérando, François Guizot, René-Louis Villermé) perpetuated the old 18th century philanthropy spirit (i.e. as benefactor of humankind) ..."(Donzelot, 1977).

The latter group of philanthropists were trying in effect to ward off the emerging State charity that would "confiscate" wealth, believing that "the ancient system of patronage and corporatism has planted the seeeds of socialism" (Donzelot, 1977). They encouraged savings as the centerpiece of a new relief system that would essentially dispense advice rather than goods. Opposing Christians economists who promoted the direct link between rich and poor – i.e. between a minority of people -, those philanthropists stressed the importance of dealing with the whole mass of citizens. And they fought Socialists to defend the family unit from the threat of destruction and replacement by State authority. Philanthropy thus proceeded to move away from age-old charity towards new modes of granting relief, setting up screenings to sort out "fake poverty" and "genuine poverty". In 1820, Baron Joseph Marie de Gérando introduced the subordination of alms-given to in-depth investigation of needs and the study of possible fraud. Philanthropy was trying to assert its difference from charity through a proficient, pragmatic approach.

By 1840, the image of philanthropy had already deteriorated as a result of class conflicts. It appeared suspicious to both the working classes and professionals of relief assistance and soon became the target of Radicals and Socialists critics. The move away from "age-old" towards "philanthropic goodwill" eventually led to "social assistance" (Verdes-Leroux, 1978), a counter-movement meant to turn the working class away from socialism by showing a revolution would be useless to improve their condition. That "social assistance" programme was devised and funded by a fraction of the privileged class made of Conservatives who lost political power after President MacMahon resigned in 1879. Its implementation was thus an initiative from high-class bourgeois and aristocrats opposed to the Republic or who reluctantly joined it.

 Philanthropy in Action

The first philanthropic societies opened during the Revolution, when members of the Parisian aristocracy and the Tiers-Etat (Commoners) promoted philanthropists who joined clubs such as the Feuillants, Cordeliers, Jacobins, Amis de la Vérité and brought them to power. But, the Directoire then moved public assistance to private foundations which caused Parisian Charitable Societies such as the Charité Maternelle or the Société Philanthropique to suspend their activities until the advent of the Consulate. Then, under the Restauration, Catholic and Royalist Charitable Societies that had been abolished by the Revolution were reinstated. Philanthropic and Charitable Societies soon competed with each other (Duprat, 1992). In 1827, there were around thirty Philanthropic Societies. Initially conciliatory and ecumenical the Societies started as of 1820-30 to experience conflicts with different religious institutions and political parties.

However, several philanthropists were keen on developing their activity as a "science". F. Le Play’s (1806-1882) founded the Société d’économie sociale in 1857 to meet that expectation and lead the way towards industrial "patronage". The idea was to replace the authority of former feudal lords by "the moral ascendancy of the managers of workshops" (Castel, 1995).
That method had something in common with the Charity Organization Society of C. Loch (1849-1913), founded in England in 1869 (Mowat, 1961). Strongly structured and playing on favorable economic prospects, the Society aimed at managing poverty rather than fighting it. In other words, it focused less on controlling and punishing the poor rather than proving that they were capable of managing their needs decently with their limited resources. The purpose of the Charity Organisation Society was to ensure that charity should primarily go to the deserving poor. As for C. Loch, he thought that "charity was a science, [based] on principles and social observations ... Only the knowledge of facts and a systematic organization of the charity ... could help to differentiate between the deserving poor and the undeserving, and as the case may be, to justify a charitable action" ( Mowat, 1961).
In 1896, that philosophical construct of philanthropy was taken up by Marquis de Beauregard who admired the work done in Britain and cited it in example. Then in 1900, Louis Paulian, the Secretary in chief in Parliament and Deputy Secretary of the Board of prisons deplored that charity was not considered as a genuine science, in France. A year later, Louis River, member of the International Society for the study of assistance, declared that it was necessary to take after British philanthropists who had "developed the character and the feeling of independence" among the destitued.
Although the methods used by the Charity Organization Society to improve the condition of the poor clashed with the ideas advocated by the Socialist Fabian Society and with Social Democrats, they did inspire the Office Central des Œuvres de Bienfaisance founded by Léon Lefebure (1838-1911) in 1890. Like its British counterparts, that society turned inquisitive. Its goal was to coordinate the multitude of existing charitable work and to avoid "industry of false poverty", whereby the needy collected relief from multiple charities. Its mission was to investigate charitable societies, connect them together, collect information on destitutes, encourage work-based charitable societies, ensure safe repatriation of those likely to find a way of living outside the city and to exchange information and services with foreign charitable societies.
Through the establishment of various societies, such as the Charity Organization Society and l’Office Central des Œuvres de Bienfaisance, philanthropy advertised itself as an attempt to educate ill-cultured people and readjust them to society. It conceived of a large part of the population as immature and in need of assistance. Therefore, family roles were transposed to both the whole public society and its segments. Managing a philanthropic society was assimilated to running a family – a family where problems of solidarity and mutual aid were ultimately solved. And, as in a home, the daily tasks were mostly performed by women, especially the mother or eldest daughter.
Coming from the upper middle class, attracting donations on the strength of their name, mostly single and seeking an alternative to family life, these women ruled the patronage committees. To them, charitable work was more than a job : it was a form of political action. Before 1914, social assistance was available in the form of homes or "social settlements" that opened in poor neighbourhoods, offering child daycare, "talks" and moral advice, and sometimes indoor work (Gourlet , 1904). Educated women were trying to reach out to working class families. Their educational endeavours targeted women, who were thought to be more malleable than men. In reality, the action of women philanthropists was based upon their deep ignorance of popular classes. They thought that social inferiority was in the order of things and that only minimal changes should be brought to that community. Women of the middle and upper classes who interacted with the "lower class" were mostly Catholics, making a small circle of social assistance pioneers. The embodiment of family joy and female benevolence, those philanthropists had been deemed the best placed to initiate a "happy and natural relationship" with the lower classes.



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How to cite:
Corinne M. Belliard, «PHILANTHROPY », in Houari Touati (ed.), Encyclopedia of Mediterranean Humanism, May 2015, URL =