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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Systematic Charity as a Moral Outgrowth, Past and Present
By William Edward Hartpole Lecky (1838–1903)
 
From ‘History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne’

THE HISTORY of charity presents so few salient features, so little that can strike the imagination or arrest the attention, that it is usually almost wholly neglected by historians; and it is easy to conceive what inadequate notions of our existing charities could be gleaned from the casual allusions in plays or poems, in political histories or court memoirs. There can, however, be no question that neither in practice nor in theory, neither in the institutions that were founded nor in the place that was assigned to it in the scale of duties, did charity in antiquity occupy a position at all comparable to that which it has obtained by Christianity. Nearly all relief was a State measure, dictated much more by policy than by benevolence; and the habit of selling young children, the innumerable expositions, the readiness of the poor to enroll themselves as gladiators, and the frequent famines, show how large was the measure of unrelieved distress. A very few pagan examples of charity have indeed descended to us. Among the Greeks we find Epaminondas ransoming captives, and collecting dowers for poor girls; Cimon feeding the hungry and clothing the naked; Bias purchasing, emancipating, and furnishing with dowers some captive girls of Messina. Tacitus has described with enthusiasm how, after a catastrophe near Rome, the rich threw open their houses and taxed all their resources to relieve the sufferers. There existed too among the poor, both of Greece and Rome, mutual insurance societies, which undertook to provide for their sick and infirm members. The very frequent reference to mendicancy in the Latin writers shows that beggars, and therefore those who relieved beggars, were numerous. The duty of hospitality was also strongly enjoined, and was placed under the special protection of the supreme Deity. But the active, habitual, and detailed charity of private persons, which is so conspicuous a feature in all Christian societies, was scarcely known in antiquity, and there are not more than two or three moralists who have even noticed it. Of these the chief rank belongs to Cicero, who devoted two very judicious but somewhat cold chapters to the subject. Nothing, he said, is more suitable to the nature of man than beneficence or liberality; but there are many cautions to be urged in practicing it. We must take care that our bounty is a real blessing to the person we relieve; that it does not exceed our own means; that it is not, as was the case with Sylla and Cæsar, derived from the spoliation of others; that it springs from the heart and not from ostentation; that the claims of gratitude are preferred to the mere impulses of compassion; and that due regard is paid both to the character and to the wants of the recipient.  1
  Christianity for the first time made charity a rudimentary virtue, giving it a leading place in the moral type and in the exhortations of its teachers. Besides its general influence in stimulating the affections, it effected a complete revolution in this sphere, by regarding the poor as the special representatives of the Christian Founder; and thus making the love of Christ, rather than the love of man, the principle of charity. Even in the days of persecution, collections for the relief of the poor were made at the Sunday meetings. The agapæ, or feasts of love, were intended mainly for the poor; and food that was saved by the fasts was devoted to their benefit. A vast organization of charity, presided over by the bishops, and actively directed by the deacons, soon ramified over Christendom, till the bond of charity became the bond of unity, and the most distant sections of the Christian Church corresponded by the interchange of mercy. Long before the era of Constantine, it was observed that the charities of the Christians were so extensive—it may perhaps be said so excessive—that they drew very many impostors to the Church; and when the victory of Christianity was achieved, the enthusiasm for charity displayed itself in the erection of numerous institutions that were altogether unknown to the pagan world. A Roman lady named Fabiola, in the fourth century, founded in Rome as an act of penance the first public hospital; and the charity planted by that woman’s hand overspread the world, and will alleviate to the end of time the darkest anguish of humanity. Another hospital was soon after founded by St. Pammachus; another of great celebrity by St. Basil, at Cæsarea. St. Basil also erected at Cæsarea what was probably the first asylum for lepers. Xenodochia, or refuges for strangers, speedily arose, especially along the paths of the pilgrims. St. Pammachus founded one at Ostia; Paula and Melania founded others at Jerusalem. The Council of Nice ordered that one should be erected in every city. In the time of St. Chrysostom the Church of Antioch supported three thousand widows and virgins, besides strangers and sick. Legacies for the poor became common; and it was not unfrequent for men and women who desired to live a life of peculiar sanctity, and especially for priests who attained the episcopacy, to bestow their entire properties in charity. Even the early Oriental monks, who for the most part were extremely removed from the active and social virtues, supplied many noble examples of charity. St. Ephrem, in a time of pestilence, emerged from his solitude to found and superintend a hospital at Edessa. A monk named Thalasius collected blind beggars in an asylum on the banks of the Euphrates. A merchant named Apollonius founded on Mount Nitria a gratuitous dispensary for the monks. The monks often assisted by their labors, provinces that were suffering from pestilence or famine. We may trace the remains of the pure socialism that marked the first phase of the Christian community, in the emphatic language with which some of the Fathers proclaimed charity to be a matter not of mercy but of justice; maintaining that all property is based on usurpation, that the earth by right is common to all men, and that no man can claim a superabundant supply of its goods except as an administrator for others. A Christian, it was maintained, should devote at least one-tenth of his profits to the poor.  2
  The enthusiasm of charity thus manifested in the Church speedily attracted the attention of the pagans. The ridicule of Lucian, and the vain efforts of Julian to produce a rival system of charity within the limits of paganism, emphatically attested both its pre-eminence and its catholicity. During the pestilences that desolated Carthage in A.D. 326, and Alexandria in the reigns of Gallienus and of Maximian, while the pagans fled panic-stricken from the contagion, the Christians extorted the admiration of their fellow-countrymen by the courage with which they rallied around their bishops, consoled the last hours of the sufferers, and buried the abandoned dead. In the rapid increase of pauperism arising from the emancipation of numerous slaves, their charity found free scope for action, and its resources were soon taxed to the utmost by the horrors of the barbarian invasions. The conquest of Africa by Genseric deprived Italy of the supply of corn upon which it almost wholly depended, arrested the gratuitous distribution by which the Roman poor were mainly supported, and produced all over the land the most appalling calamities. The history of Italy became one monotonous tale of famine and pestilence, of starving populations and ruined cities. But everywhere amid this chaos of dissolution we may detect the majestic form of the Christian priest mediating between the hostile forces, straining every nerve to lighten the calamities around him. When the imperial city was captured and plundered by the hosts of Alaric, a Christian church remained a secure sanctuary, which neither the passions nor the avarice of the Goths transgressed. When a fiercer than Alaric had marked out Rome for his prey, the pope St. Leo, arrayed in his sacerdotal robes, confronted the victorious Hun as the ambassador of his fellow-countrymen; and Attila, overpowered by religious awe, turned aside in his course. When, two years later, Rome lay at the mercy of Genseric, the same pope interposed with the Vandal conqueror, and obtained from him a partial cessation of the massacre. The archdeacon Pelagius interceded with similar humanity and similar success, when Rome had been captured by Totila. In Gaul, Troyes is said to have been saved from destruction by the influence of St. Lupus, and Orleans by the influence of St. Agnan. In Britain an invasion of the Picts was averted by St. Germain of Auxerre. The relations of rulers to their subjects, and of tribunals to the poor, were modified by the same intervention. When Antioch was threatened with destruction on account of its rebellion against Theodosius, the anchorites poured forth from the neighboring deserts to intercede with the ministers of the Emperor, while the archbishop Flavian went himself as a suppliant to Constantinople. St. Ambrose imposed public penance on Theodosius, on account of the massacre of Thessalonica. Synesius excommunicated for his oppressions a governor named Andronicus; and two French Councils, in the sixth century, imposed the same penalty on all great men who arbitrarily ejected the poor. Special laws were found necessary to restrain the turbulent charity of some priests and monks, who impeded the course of justice, and even snatched criminals from the hands of the law. St. Abraham, St. Epiphanius, and St. Basil are all said to have obtained the remission or reduction of oppressive imposts. To provide for the interests of widows and orphans was part of the official ecclesiastical duty, and a Council of Macon anathematized any ruler who brought them to trial without first apprising the bishop of the diocese. A Council of Toledo, in the fifth century, threatened with excommunication all who robbed priests, monks, or poor men, or refused to listen to their expostulations. One of the chief causes of the inordinate power acquired by the clergy was their mediatorial office; and their gigantic wealth was in a great degree due to the legacies of those who regarded them as the trustees of the poor. As time rolled on, charity assumed many forms, and every monastery became a centre from which it radiated. By the monks the nobles were overawed, the poor protected, the sick tended, travelers sheltered, prisoners ransomed, the remotest spheres of suffering explored. During the darkest period of the Middle Ages, monks founded a refuge for pilgrims amid the horrors of the Alpine snows. A solitary hermit often planted himself, with his little boat, by a bridgeless stream, and the charity of his life was to ferry over the traveler. When the hideous disease of leprosy extended its ravages over Europe, when the minds of men were filled with terror, not only by its loathsomeness and its contagion, but also by the notion that it was in a peculiar sense supernatural, new hospitals and refuges overspread Europe, and monks flocked in multitudes to serve in them. Sometimes, the legends say, the leper’s form was in a moment transfigured; and he who came to tend the most loathsome of mankind received his reward, for he found himself in the presence of his Lord.  3
  There is no fact of which an historian becomes more speedily or more painfully conscious than the great difference between the importance and the dramatic interest of the subjects he treats. Wars or massacres, the horrors of martyrdom or the splendors of individual prowess, are susceptible of such brilliant coloring that with but little literary skill they can be so portrayed that their importance is adequately realized, and they appeal powerfully to the emotions of the reader. But this vast and unostentatious movement of charity, operating in the village hamlet and in the lonely hospital, stanching the widow’s tears and following all the windings of the poor man’s griefs, presents few features the imagination can grasp, and leaves no deep impression upon the mind. The greatest things are often those which are most imperfectly realized; and surely no achievements of the Christian Church are more truly great than those which it has effected in the sphere of charity. For the first time in the history of mankind, it has inspired many thousands of men and women, at the sacrifice of all worldly interests, and often under circumstances of extreme discomfort or danger, to devote their entire lives to the single object of assuaging the sufferings of humanity. It has covered the globe with countless institutions of mercy, absolutely unknown to the whole pagan world. It has indissolubly united, in the minds of men, the idea of supreme goodness with that of active and constant benevolence. It has placed in every parish a religious minister, who, whatever may be his other functions, has at least been officially charged with the superintendence of an organization of charity, and who finds in this office one of the most important as well as one of the most legitimate sources of his power.  4
 
 
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