Approaches to philanthropy

Photo of book

The little book ‘Creative Suffering’ by Iulia de Beausobre is well worth reading.

An excursus on the difference between the English and Russian approaches to philanthropy c. 1940. From Creative Suffering, by Julia de Beausobre. (SLG Press, Fairacres, Oxford, 1984, p. 15-17.)

The English mind sees the world divided, as it were, horizontally. Above the division are the spacious rooms of the well-to-do, of all those who are successful, fortunate and probably virtuous. Below it, in the basement so to speak, the very poor are herded together in a mass where it is difficult to distinguish individuals. Here can be found all those who are unfortunate or unsuccessful, incompetent or unreliable; men and women who have possible been found lacking in some important virtue.

English pity investigates conditions in the basement, finds them intolerable, and does what it can to fit those who are capable of it to rise and join in the life above stairs. But to go down there and stay down, without any thought of return or of reform – that would be silly, it would not lead anywhere.

Now to the Russian, the line of cleavage that divides humanity seems to run vertically, cutting through the whole of human life. Indeed it does not divide humanity alone; it is a wound that mars the whole of creation; it severs the world of spirit too between good and evil so that the whole world we know, both of thought and action, is split, from top to bottom between good and bad, between joy and wretchedness. It could never occur to a Russian that, as was once suggested to me by an Englishman, even the basest of men knows that the devil is lowest of all, lower than the basest of men; or that, as Charles Williams says, ‘While he (the devil) exists there is always something to which we can be superior’. As the Russian sees it, there is in the created world a sunlit order of good and bliss, and a dark order of evil and woe; between them the two embrace all creation, man belongs to both and, in his own order, the devil is supreme.

How does Russian pity then strive to mend the ill, to heal the wound, to bridge the gap? On the grand scale it simply cannot be done; it cannot be done at all without losing caste. It can only be done from man to man; by no amount of organisation or subscriptions, but only through a complete dedication of oneself – because the Russian’s chief aim is not to sweep away relatively superficial, secondary conditions of poverty but to help the wretched individual to overcome is misery of heart and mind. Monetary help, and all that money can buy can well be given impersonally, even anonymously. But to speak of impersonal compassion or of giving consolation anonymously would be to use a contradiction in terms. Therefore, concludes the Russian, he whole pities another must leave his own place among the good people on the sunny side of the gap, must go out and find the other where he is – in the darkness, on the side of evil – and be ready to stay with him there; if he returns at all it is with the other and at his pace.

This looks an unpractical attitude – maybe it is; the risk of both getting left on the wrong side of the gulf is great. But this attitude rests on a conviction, on our profound conviction that evil can be overcome by man only through knowledge, the knowledge of evil; and it seems to the Russians that man can know a thing, as a man, only through participation.”

Icon of St Juliana of Lazarevo

An icon of St Juliana the Merciful of Lazarevo, “distinguished only by the generosity and intelligence with which she spent her time, money and energy in meeting the needs of those around her.” — Iulia de Beausobre

Note: Much has changed since 1940 and the simple generalization along national lines that de Beausobre draws does not ring as true as it once would have. In particular, the long tenure of the Soviet Union on Russian soil has meant that a systematizing, depersonalizing culture has clearly filtered through to have significant effects on the popular consciousness. Meanwhile, the collapse of modernism as a general, worldwide philosophical phenomenon has also filtered through to the popular consciousness, recently leading many in the west to seek more personal solutions in philanthropy. Even so, the brilliance of de Beausobre’s passage stands, as it is de Beausobre’s native, Orthodox Christian thought world that is able to use words to explain why a primarily personal culture of philanthropy succeeds where the primarily systematic culture would fail. Also – truth be told – old cultural patterns die hard!