December 1, 2005
by A. Keith Whitaker
The following essay was prepared as a response to a discussion on bequests and legacies—part of a series of six discussions entitled "The Dialogues on Civic Philanthropy: Perfecting Our Grants" (2005-2006). By clicking the links to the right, you can access more information on this series, learn about the Dialogues project as a whole, read other prepared essays, and download discussion transcripts.
IT'S A COMMONPLACE, especially during Christmas-time, that ‘tis better to give than to receive. A cynic might say that we repeat these wearied words to help us buck up in the face of buying bags of presents that others don’t need. It’s a saying that appears oddly confirmed when we have to accept many presents that we don’t want.
But children are life’s antidote to cynics, and the world over they love Santa Claus, not because Santa receives milk and cookies so well but because he is the red-nosed jolly embodiment of generosity. He steals down the chimney and gives, and gives, and gives. In return, he asks only, rather vaguely, that we be “nice” instead of “naughty.” Though it is claimed that he makes a list and checks it twice, his standards are obviously forgiving.
A similar dynamic operates with bequests and legacies. Flinty old businessmen or emotionally distant grand-aunts become transformed into momentary Santas through the disposition of their wills. A great estate heralds a great man, and not only for the task of amassing it. People who receive nothing directly from large bequests still admire the bequeather. And yet no one points to receiving an inheritance with pride. It’s not exactly shameful, but one doesn’t talk about it in public.
Without denying the obvious—that it is good to give—I think we should give what’s due to receiving. Giving forges and strengthens the ties that bind our common life together. A world that recognized only commerical transactions, tit for tat, would be a cold and heartless place. At the same time, no giver acts alone. Givers need those who receive their gifts, and the character of the receiving decisively affects the consequences of the gift. If we wish to give well, we need to inculcate in ourselves and others a deeper appreciation for receiving.
There’s an old Greek story—the myth of Prometheus—that highlights the importance of both giving and receiving.
The Western tradition identifies the Titan Prometheus as the first “philanthropist.” And what a high bar he set! Prometheus fashioned the first human beings out of clay. When Zeus refused to share fire with these cold and miserable clay people, Prometheus stole the fire from Olympus and gave it to them. Human beings got warm; they also used fire to develop a thousand arts and lay the foundations for civilization.
But the consequences of Prometheus’ theft were severe. Zeus chained him to a mountain and sent an eagle every day to devour his liver. His immortal liver always grew back, meaning Prometheus’ torment could last forever. Zeus also punished the newly enlightened human beings, sending them a charming “gift”: the beautiful Pandora with her jar of evils. Zeus meant the evils (illness, discord, and death) to humble humanity so that they would forget Prometheus’ rebellion. Instead the evils stung people into a frenzy and made them wicked. Zeus then resolved to destroy the entire human race with a flood.
But Prometheus had one more trick up his sleeve. Before being chained to the mountain, he had had a mortal son, Deukalion. Deukalion was dutiful and kind, and he tried to comfort his father and keep the eagle away from his liver.
A. Keith Whitaker is managing trustee of the Morton Foundation and a research fellow at the Boston College Center on Wealth and Philanthropy.
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