Westerners owe the word “philanthropy” to the Greeks, who, since the fifth century BC elaborated on the idea. Etymologically, “philanthropy” means “the love of humanity.” It was coined 2,500 years ago by its use in the myth Prometheus Bound. In the tale, primitive humans had no knowledge, skills, or culture and lived in dark caves. Zeus decided to destroy them but the titan, Prometheus, out of his “philanthropos tropos” (“humanity-loving character”) gave them two empowering gifts: fire, symbolizing all knowledge, skills, technology, arts and science; and “blind hope,” symbolizing optimism. With fire, humans could be optimistic. With optimism, they could use fire constructively to improve the human condition.
The new word, “philanthropos,” combined two words: “philos”, loving in the sense of benefiting, caring for and nourishing; and “anthropos,” human being. What Prometheus loved was their human potential. The two gifts completed the creation of humankind as a distinctly civilized animal. “Philanthropia,” loving what it is to be human, was thought to be the key and essence of civilization. The Platonic Academy’s philosophical dictionary defined Philanthropia as, “a state of being productive of benefit to humans.” Philanthropia was later translated by the Romans into Latin as humanitas – humane-ness. And because Prometheus’ human-empowering gifts rebelled against Zeus’ tyranny, philanthropia was associated with freedom and democracy. Both Socrates and the Athenian laws were described as “philanthropic and democratic” – a common expression, the idea being that philanthropic humans are reliably capable of self-government.
The Greeks also adopted “philanthropia” as an educational ideal with the goal for excellence of body, mind and spirit. For centuries, Greek subjects even addressed the emperors of Byzantium, “Your Philanthropy,” a doubly appropriate title since, by the 6th century BC, a ‘philanthropy’ in Greek also meant the tax exemption the emperors gave to charities such as hospitals, orphanages and schools. The tax-exempt condition of many modern charities has its roots in this ancient practice.
In Greek cities, forms of philanthropy strengthened urban culture and became symbols of communal strength and solidarity. Most important were the civic duties rich men assumed either voluntarily or under peer pressure. These responsibilities obligated them to subsidize the cost of temples, city walls, theaters, dramatic festivals, etc. In fact, prominent citizens vied with one another to show the superiority of their own civic virtue. Personal vanity was a prime motive for donors; as was the risk of being ostracized by peers and plebeians alike if rich citizens failed to share their wealth with the community.