Tuesday, August 30, 2016


It might be supposed upon a priori grounds that no occupation could be nobler in itself, or more elevating in its effects on the characters of those who pursued it, than disinterested efforts to improve the condition of others. A lifetime exclusively devoted to philanthropy might be expected to be as well spent, and to produce, as its final result, as noble a specimen of a human being as any career that could be mentioned. Our time and country afford better opportunities than any other of judging of the degree in which this ideal is realized. A considerable and conspicuous class amongst us do actually pass the greater part of their lives in philanthropic employments. The number of societies which aim at the removal of every kind of human ailment, and the alleviation of every sort of unavoidable misfortune, is incalculable. Some of them dispose of revenues equal to those of a minor Continental State. All find a vast amount of occupation for the thoughts and the practical energies of many men, and of still more women, in the upper and middle classes of society. That such associations do produce a vast amount of good, there can be no doubt at all. They prevent a great deal of suffering, and open to an immense number of persons modes of escape from the consequences of their own guilt and folly. They also enable the rich not only to show sympathy to the poor, but to study the evils which poverty entails, with a degree of care and intelligence probably unexampled in the history of modern Europe. It is unnecessary to dwell upon the merits of these institutions. They are deservedly praised at home and envied abroad as some of the most enduring and characteristic of our national claims to greatness.

There is, however, another question connected with our philanthropic associations which the contemplation of them suggests, and which it is by no means so easy to answer favourably as that which has reference to their immediate effects. How do they influence those who manage them? Are those whose lives are passed in philanthropic undertakings the best and noblest specimens of humanity supplied by our age and nation? Probably no one would seriously answer the question in the affirmative. It is indeed a false and vulgar cry which affirms that those who concern themselves most strongly for charity abroad care least for charity at home—that you may know the children of a lady who interests herself about schools and reformatories by their ignorance and naughtiness—or that a lively concern for the blacks in South Africa is generally accompanied by indifference to the homeless poor in London. To assert that a particular state of facts is true, because, if it were true, it would present an effective contrast, is as contemptible as it is common; but this is quite consistent with the soundness of the common sentiment which asserts that philanthropists are far from holding the same rank amongst human beings that philanthropy might be supposed to hold amongst human occupations. No one expects that a person principally occupied in philanthropy will be very wise, very sympathetic, or very large-minded. We are rather apt to associate the name of a philanthropist with a certain narrowness of understanding, and not unfrequently with a good deal of coldness of temper.

One reason of this is, that an exclusive devotion to philanthropy, as it is usually understood, fosters a low view of life. Philanthropic undertakings, to be successful,. must aim at specific purposes, and must be undertaken by the combination of a considerable number of persons. When set on foot, they are apt to assume, in the eyes of those who are connected with them, a degree of importance which they do not really deserve. It is one of the disadvantages of the intense love of business and active life which is the special characteristic of all classes in this country, that a man's hobby soon comes to appear to him the one thing needful. Whether it is education, or reformatories, or missions to the heathen to which he devotes himself, he gets to look at every part of life in relation to his object, and to estimate its value accordingly. Philanthropists thus come to look upon their fellow-creatures, not as men and women, but as beings capable of being sent to school, to prison, or to church—of being, in some form or other, restrained and remodelled. For many obvious reasons such theories get the character of being especially safe and orthodox, for they fall in admirably with the popular Manicheism which regards human nature as a malum in se. It is needless to say that this is not the view of life which will lead people to discharge its great functions in the temper in which they should be discharged. To acquire and appreciate that temper it is necessary that men should sedulously engage themselves in positive pursuits—that they should enter upon some of the great careers of life, and try to obtain excellence in them. Those, however, who do this are not usually the persons who are most anxious to recast the characters of others into any uniform type. They see the imperfection of commonly received opinions, and the stunted character of the ordinary ideals of goodness, too strongly to be very keen about their indefinite multiplication. Practical philanthropy, as understood in our own time and country, often appears to be based on an unhesitating confidence in the truth of some small definite theory as to what men ought to be and how they ought to feel.

Probably there is no reason in the nature of things why this should be so, but it is comparatively easy to see how it has come to be so. The great distinctive feature of philanthropists is intense pity for wretchedness. They do not pity people for being wicked, so much as for those forms of wickedness which make them physically wretched. With pride, avarice, and worldliness they wage no war; but drunkenness, ignorance, and improvidence enlist their keenest sympathies. Thus they are always in danger of acting as if they held a theory, which thrown into a dogmatic form, would consist of little more than the one doctrine that to be uncomfortable is the great evil of life, and that to rid people of their discomforts is the highest vocation to which men can address themselves. This is simply a generalization from the career of any ordinary well-to-do Englishman. Moderate order, moderate comfort, moderate success—the attainment on the part of one person in a hundred of that sort of position which the other ninety-nine attain without conscious effort—is the kind of object which philanthropists seem to propose, not to themselves, but to their neighbours, as the result of the benevolent exertions in which their lives are passed. They are quite contented that people should endure the ordinary evils of life. That they should be ill, if there are hospitals to receive them in illness—that they should work late and early at all sorts of unpleasant tasks, so long as they can read, write, and cypher—in a word, that they should experience all the diseases so long as they are provided with the medicines of life, appears to these pious and amiable people an arrangement with which it would not only be useless to quarrel, but at which it would be impious to repine.

This keen anxiety to reduce the amount of suffering in the world, though the general necessity of its existence is admitted, would be strange if it were not so common. It shows conclusively how much even the most pious and amiable of ordinary English people have fallen into the habit of caring about the accidents whilst they are comparatively indifferent to the substance of life. True, they say, we are, and must remain, sinners and dying men; we must expect illness, the loss of friends, poverty, and old age; we must expect to see the great mass of men walking along the broad, and not the narrow path. What, then, remains for us to do? Let us pity and console them—let us, if possible, reclaim them from being sinners at all. But if that enterprise is hopeless, let us at least rack our ingenuity to make them comfortable and not miserable sinners. It would be wrong to say a word which could prevent a single kind action, but it is right to look upon the other side of the question, for it is of vast importance. Like many other words, the word "comfort" is illustrated by its etymology. It means consolation, relief, the alleviation of suffering; it implies that the background of life is melancholy and painful, and that the best thing that can be done for men is to make it a little less gloomy and unsuccessful than it naturally is. This view is more or less assumed by almost all philanthropic schemes; but it hardly needs to be proved that it is petty and cowardly. It is a fatal mistake to look upon life as an evil which can be converted into a good by any amount of comfort. It may be humane and excellent in a man to devote himself to pursuits involving great self-denial in order to increase the comforts of his fellow-creatures, the practice is not without risk, and the risk incurred is that the objects of his kindness may come to misapprehend their own position in the world. Instead of feeling heartily ashamed of their past lives, and anxiously desirous to regain something infinitely more valuable than all the comfort in the world—a good conscience, and some perception of the real objects of human life—they will look upon themselves as people who have been got out of a scrape which was rather the fault of circumstances than their own, and from which they have been rescued by an alteration in their circumstances. If we compare this conclusion with the general character of the teaching of the most zealous advocates of philanthropic schemes, their theory and practice will be found to present a contrast not the less instructive because it is essentially amiable, and frequently involves considerable self-denial.

Saturday Review, August 20, 1859.

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