The Everlasting Power of Philanthropy

Bronze statue of Seneca in Cordoba, Spain (jgaunion/Getty Images)
Seneca counsels givers to be anonymous and forget they’ve given, and urges recipients to be grateful and remember.

How to Give: An Ancient Guide to Giving and Receiving, by Seneca, edited and translated by James S. Romm (Princeton University Press, 288 pp., $16.95)

When the Roman emperor Nero was young and still earning his reputation for profligacy, he announced his intention to give 10 million sesterces to a favorite member of his court. This extravagance appalled his mother, who came up with a plan to get her son to reconsider. She ordered the coins piled up, believing that once Nero saw the size of the heap, he’d reduce it. Her gambit failed: “I did not realize that I had given him so little,” said Nero, who then declared that he would double the gift.

If the story is true — it comes to us by way of Cassius Dio, a historian who described it more than a century after it would have happened — then the Roman writer and statesman Seneca almost certainly knew about it. He even may have witnessed it: Seneca was Nero’s boyhood teacher and later his imperial adviser. The man who was arguably ancient Rome’s greatest philosopher never wrote about the episode in his letters or elsewhere, at least not directly. That wasn’t his style: Seneca rarely recorded the incidents of his life. Yet Nero’s rash act, if it occurred, must have been on his mind when he composed his longest manuscript on a single subject, De Beneficiis. Usually translated into English as On Benefits, this tract on the morals of giving and receiving now appears in an abridged version and with a snappy new title from Bard College classicist James S. Romm: How to Give. Seneca doesn’t mention Nero anywhere in these pages, but it’s easy to suppose that the emperor’s bad example inspired the philosopher to offer an alternative vision.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca — sometimes called “Seneca the Younger” — was born in what is now Spain around the time a better-known fellow was born in Bethlehem. He lived until the year 65, when Nero — by this point, a full-on megalomaniac — ordered him to commit suicide. Admirers of Seneca tend to see a virtuous man who wrote compelling meditations on great subjects and suffered at the hands of a tyrant. Critics regard him as a treacherous and cold-blooded schemer who maneuvered his way into political power and in the end got what he deserved. The truth is surely somewhere in the middle, but all can agree that Seneca was a man of considerable talents. Had he never served the emperor or written a word of philosophy, his Wikipedia entry still would recognize him as a popular playwright.

A testament to his contemporary influence may be found on a wall in Pompeii. Preserved by the volcanic ashes of Mount Vesuvius, a graffito reproduces a few words from his play Agamemnon (which is not to be confused with the more famous version by the Greek dramatist Aeschylus). The line is simple: “I see the groves of Ida.” Scholars have no idea why anybody would have wanted to render it as a slogan, but there it is, like a Roman version of “Trust Jesus” spray-painted on the abutment of a highway underpass.

Today, Seneca is celebrated mainly as a thinker, and How to Give is the latest entry in a series of short volumes from Princeton University Press called “Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers.” Other authors in the collection include Cicero, Plutarch, and Thucydides, and each compact book features the original Greek or Latin text as well as an English translation on facing pages. How to Give is in fact Seneca’s third appearance in the series, following How to Die (2018) and How to Keep Your Cool (2019). As the titles suggest, these editions aim to make long-dead writers fresh and relevant.

Seneca’s opening statement in De Beneficiis is an eye-opener: “We don’t know how to give and receive.” He seeks to set us straight — and he has a lot more in mind than the mere manners of putting crisp dollars into birthday cards for grandkids and hoping they’ll reply with sincere thank-you notes. His idea of gifts is expansive. It includes material objects as well as deeds: “Help this one with cash, that one with credit, another with influence, another with advice, another with healthful teachings.” These are all, at bottom, “generous acts, done in an eager and voluntary spirit, that bring joy, and also reap joy, from the act of giving.”

They’re also vital. Giving and receiving, Seneca believes, are the lifeblood of a healthy civil society. If that sounds exaggerated, perhaps it’s because we moderns are so accustomed to a vast web of public entitlements that provide everything from schooling to health care to old-age pensions. In Seneca’s age, as Miriam Griffin and Brad Inwood write in the introduction to their translation of De Beneficiis (University of Chicago, 2011), giving and receiving took on “a function of particular importance in an ancient society where the state apparatus was minimal and there was little in the way of impersonal mechanisms of exchange or welfare.” Even today, of course, a lot of life runs on handshakes and favors. Seneca couldn’t imagine another way.

Although How to Give is not really a how-to guide for modern philanthropists, it does offer thoughtful advice. Donors should be bighearted. Recipients should be grateful. It sounds so simple, but any number of potential complications can disrupt the mechanics of generosity and gratitude. Donors can have ulterior motives, such as using their beneficence to acquire fame. Recipients can feel humiliated, if a gift conveys a hurtful message. (Does a gift basket of personal-hygiene products imply that the giver regards the recipient as unclean?) Seneca also worries about gifts that can cause more than psychic harm: You wouldn’t want to give a set of blades to a grief-stricken person, he observes.

For donors, writes Seneca, the most important factor is intent: “If you give a benefit in order to reap a reward, you didn’t give it,” he writes. Givers should require no public acknowledgment of their giving: “Otherwise, it’s not good deeds that gratify you but the appearance of doing them.” Seneca even recommends that givers forget what they have given. At the same time, he urges recipients to remember: “Let the one who gave keep quiet; the one who got should tell.” This has implications for naming rights: Seneca would say that naming or renaming a building, for example, never should be a condition of donating but rather an expression of genuine gratitude by beneficiaries. How to Give is as much about receiving as it is about giving, and Seneca regards ingratitude as a social threat: “No other flaw so much undoes and tears apart the harmony of the human race.”

Big gifts can make a big difference, but the greatest gifts can come from the smallest givers: “Often the ones who put us more in their debt are those who gave little but with great spirit, . . . who forgot their own poverty.” This is the gospel message of the poor widow who gave two copper coins at the temple — and won the praise of Jesus for her sacrifice.

T. S. Eliot once condemned Seneca’s prose as “extraordinarily dull and uninteresting.” If this were true, we wouldn’t still read it two millennia later. Seneca’s writing certainly made an impression on Gac Filipaj, a janitor at Columbia University who took advantage of an employee tuition waiver and spent a dozen years earning a degree. Upon his graduation in 2012, the New York Post asked him to name his favorite subject. He replied: “I love Seneca’s letters because they’re written in the spirit in which I was educated in my family — not to look for fame and fortune, but to have a simple, honest, honorable life.”

Now that’s a fitting expression of gratitude for a man of literary gifts who wrote, at the close of De Beneficiis, “I got the reward of my gift when I gave it.”


John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


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