"Philanthropy," "charity," and related concepts were well known to late antiquity and the Middle Ages. Rulers, wealthy individuals and, early on, the Christian church founded hospitals, distributed food, and established forms of relief for the needy of various sorts throughout the period. The problem comes in interpreting these activities, their motives, and their goals. Is the philanthropia of a pre-Christian philosopher of a piece with the agape, or Christian love, of a fourth-century bishop? When the Roman emperor provides bread and circuses, what does he intend and why does he do it? Does the twelfth-century nobleman intend the same? As with so many of our social, moral, and political concepts, placing "philanthropy" and its premodern cognates in their historical and intellectual context highlights our contemporary understanding of philanthropic work and its place in our moral world.

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Copyright © 1996 Indiana University Press. This chapter first appeared in Giving: Western Ideas of Philanthropy.

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