What are Emerson's views on philanthropy?

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While Emerson believes in the efficacy of helping one’s fellow man, he loathes the societal pressure to give to good causes that are too distant, or serve only to build ego. Think of all those people who post their “thoughts and prayers” on social media after a disaster because they...

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While Emerson believes in the efficacy of helping one’s fellow man, he loathes the societal pressure to give to good causes that are too distant, or serve only to build ego. Think of all those people who post their “thoughts and prayers” on social media after a disaster because they worry they’ll be insensitive if they don’t, but after a week, are no longer thoughtful, praying, or outraged, and have moved on to a more trendy cause. When one is not connected to those they are giving to, this is the likely result. Emerson sees a true man (a non-conformist) as one who is able to distinguish those causes that truly affect him, are close to him, and are likely to make a real impact in the world he actually lives in. He uses the abolition of slavery (a prime cause in his day) as an example of one such event that might attract those individuals who give only to jump on the bandwagon:

If malice and vanity wear the coat of philanthropy, shall that pass? If an angry bigot assumes this bountiful cause of Abolition, and comes to me with his last news from Barbadoes, why should I not say to him, 'Go love thy infant; love thy wood-chopper; be good-natured and modest; have that grace; and never varnish your hard, uncharitable ambition with this incredible tenderness for black folk a thousand miles off. Thy love afar is spite at home.'"

Though Emerson would doubtless injure the pride of the individual he spoke to in this way, he admits that though “Rough and graceless would be such greeting . . . truth is handsomer than the affectation of love.”

In short, Emerson appreciates philanthropy, but only when it’s a cause that’s immediate to one’s life and where one can see the effects of their giving in their own community. Help your own home thrive before you try to fix those of individuals you will never meet.

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Emerson has a somewhat shocking view of philanthropy. He writes:

I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies; — though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.

What Emerson means in this passage is that he objects to giving to causes and people he doesn't have direct experience of. He is glad to give to people he knows well and who he feels share his sensibilities and way of looking at the world. They are worth his effort, and he would even go so far as to allow himself to be imprisoned for them.

This kind of direct charity, he suggests, comes from the heart and is real and genuine. It makes the soul vibrate. Simply giving to good causes, on the other hand, is living in a secondhand way. It is like going into a career you feel lukewarm about only because it is what your family expects you to do. It is rote and conformist, and Emerson questions whether it does any good for society in the end.

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"are they my poor?" Emerson asks in his Essay "Self-Reliance". Philanthropy, therefore, is out of the question. Self-reliance is god's purpose and to help others would be going against God's purpose. A man is only true to himself, Emerson believes, when one has self-worth, and self-worth comes only through self reliance. Philanthropy, therefore, does not work.

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