Social Darwinism and the Gospel of Wealth

Start Free Trial

Does the life of Andrew Carnegie support or counter the philosophy of Social Darwinism?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Andrew Carnegie is known as both a “Robber Baron” and “The Father of Modern Philanthropy.” These conflicting identities could make it difficult to understand how his role in forming modern American business and philanthropic practices fit into an understanding of Social Darwinism.

In a general understanding of Darwinism, those that...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Andrew Carnegie is known as both a “Robber Baron” and “The Father of Modern Philanthropy.” These conflicting identities could make it difficult to understand how his role in forming modern American business and philanthropic practices fit into an understanding of Social Darwinism.

In a general understanding of Darwinism, those that are best adapted to their environment survive. This has been effectively understood as “only the strong survive,” but it is not always strength that wins the day. Sometimes it is better to be more slight than strong, more intelligent than wealthy. Carnegie gained his wealth by making quick investments, buying and selling companies, and cornering the market on the steel industry to drive up prices. He was a diligent and hard-nosed businessman, and he became one of the wealthiest men in America, alongside Rockefeller and Mellon.

Later in his career, he published “The Gospel of Wealth,” in which he outlined his philosophy of substantial giving to those less fortunate, which he felt the wealthy class had a duty to do. Carnegie did not believe in handouts, and his money typically went to building organizations which would provide resources to those who wanted them: numerous libraries, a famous concert hall, and a university all bear his name. Carnegie himself was a self-made man—an immigrant to America from Scotland—and a believer of the benefits of hard work.

The Carnegie Corporation of New York still works to give away grants to philanthropic organizations, to support libraries, and to bring awareness to social issues in America. One could argue that Carnegie found a new way to adapt to the new American capitalism: he made a greater name for himself by giving away his money than by hoarding it. In Social Darwinist terms, Carnegie was smart, and his name survives past many other robber barons of the era not because of his ruthlessness in business but because of his humility in giving. The human animal is a different beast, indeed.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The life of Andrew Carnegie both supports and counters the philosophy of Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism refers to the concept of survival of the fittest. With this concept, those who are strong and able to make adjustments will survive. Those who are strong will overrun those who aren’t as strong and cannot make adjustments.

Andrew Carnegie was ruthless in some of his business activities. He would buy out the competition that couldn’t compete with his businesses. This allowed him to control industries such as the steel industry. Many competitors were forced out of business or to sell their businesses to him.

Andrew Carnegie also believed the wealthy had an obligation to help the less fortunate, though. Andrew Carnegie donated a lot of money to provide people with opportunities to help themselves. For example, he funded the construction of many libraries to help people become more educated. Andrew Carnegie didn’t believe in giving handouts to the less fortunate. He believed in providing them with opportunities to improve their situation in life. This runs counter to the concept of survival of the fittest.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team