Renewing America's Promise: Fired Up for Philanthropy and Democracy in 2012

12/31/2011 04:00 pm ET | Updated Mar 01, 2012
  • Maxim Thorne Senior executive, lawyer, motivational speaker, professor, philanthropist and consultant

2012 is almost upon us, and I am optimistic and fired up for the New Year. In 2011 we celebrated the Centennial of Andrew Carnegie giving back all his wealth to society when there was no tax incentive to do so, and the disgrace of Steve Jobs' apparent choice to die with his extreme wealth in his pockets. We saw how a progressive movement now celebrates the Martin Luther King Memorial on the National Mall, and another one, the signing of a gay marriage license in New York City.

Occupy Wall Street has fired us up about economic exploitation and wealth inequality, the job losses, and the growing number of poor children and people in general.

We Americans like being fired up! For the Founding Fathers, frustration with British monarchial exploitation, and inspiration from Greek classical notions of philanthropy and democracy, led to the American Revolution. The Founding Fathers internalized the great Ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus's story of philanthropy in "Prometheus Bound" (ca. 460 BCE). In Aeschylus' myth, Prometheus' committed the revolutionary act of stealing Zeus' fire to give to humankind and gave us the classical understanding of philanthropy: private action for public common good and against tyranny. Prometheus was the Titan who created the human race out of clay - but these first humans had neither knowledge nor skills and lived in caves, in darkness, and constant fear for their lives. Unimpressed, Zeus the tyrant king of the Gods, decided to destroy them. Prometheus, out of his "philanthropos tropos" (humanity loving character) stole fire from Mt. Olympus, and rebelling against Zeus' rule, gave two gifts to his humans: the "Fire" he stole symbolizing all knowledge, the arts, science, technology and practical skills that make humans "civilized," and "Blind Hope" meaning optimism. Given the fire, humans' optimism could be justified, and optimism justified using fire to continually work towards a more perfect utopia and improving the common good.

Zeus punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock in the Caucasus, and sending an eagle to devour Prometheus' liver each day for 30,000 years (being immortal Prometheus' liver grew back overnight). This gruesome story shows that Prometheus did not help humans for his own advantage, and yoked philanthropy with freedom and democracy (and sacrifice) against tyranny. Pre-Enlightenment Christian iconography portrayed Prometheus as a Christ-figure, suffering his love for all humankind. With Enlightenment Prometheus became a symbol for freedom and progress. The story ends with Zeus finally forgiving Prometheus, and sending Hercules his illegitimate son to kill the eagle and free Prometheus. The moral superiority of Prometheus' philanthropy, and his steadfastness under torture, compelled Zeus' respect. Prometheus was reconciled with Zeus' more generous reign and thus Philanthropy was associated with heroism, virtue and the Greek ideal of excellence in all aspects of an individual's life. The political dimensions of Prometheus' philanthropia was understood by the ancient Greeks and by the Founding Fathers. It was a theme of freedom, and republican government overcoming tyranny and slavery, and for the betterment of ALL humankind.

Like Prometheus, Ben Franklin also stole fire (he captured electricity from lightening) to serve the common good. Called the "necessary man" for the American Revolution, he is the only one of the Founding Fathers who shaped all five, and signed four, of our Nation's founding documents. Among other things, in 1747 he had uniquely raised money in Philadelphia for a private army, a "military association" where people voluntarily signed "a pledge" organizing themselves into a "Militia Association," featuring self supporting democratically elected processes. This private militia would operate for the public good, and in lieu of the government, to resist French Canadian privateering in the lower Delaware River and Indian attacks in the West. Franklin's philanthropic project was the prototype of the American Revolution, and he recognized its ominous potency, that could lead to actions independent of government, and actions against the government, to democratic "self government" -- and of course it did.

I am not the first to draw the comparison of Franklin and Prometheus. Philosopher Immanuel Kant called Franklin the "new Prometheus." This is important. I believe Franklin offers us a role model for American philanthropy and for being a philanthropist. He uniquely, self-consciously and purposefully built his life around a distinctive American version of private assumption of public responsibilities which is the essence of the Classical Greek "philanthropic and democratic" ideal of society. Even John Adams, his political rival, had to admit that "there was scarcely a peasant or citizen" who "did not consider him as a friend of humankind." Who can wear that moniker today?

Occupy Wall Street reminds how much we have forgotten about our founding, and our commitment to the "common good," promoting the general welfare, and our philanthropic essence. Alexander Hamilton in the very first Federalist Paper that launched the Founders' advocacy for the ratification of our Constitution stated:

This idea will add the inducement of philanthropy to those of patriotism, to heighten the solicitude which all considerate and good men must feel for the event. Happy will it be if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good.

His paper is STEEPED in the classical understanding of philanthropy as the basis for the founding of the United States.

In the New Year, let's get "fired up" and get some fire for and about the public good -- and be "unperplexed and unbiased" by self interest. This is the idealistic purpose that OWS seeks to remind Americans to renew. "We the People" now as we did then, should confront who we are and what we stand for. And next year we get to show it in the Presidential election.

It is time that we get back to our philanthropic and democratic essence and our voluntary associations. The American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were the world's great philanthropic and democratic enterprise. On the authority of the "The People" we declared ourselves free, sovereign and independent and we "mutually pledge[d] to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor." Professor George McCully has written convincingly that it was the great incorporation of classical philanthropy at the founding of our nation "conceived, planned, organized, funded and implemented by private initiatives for public good, focusing on quality of life. Private donations funded it (... skillfully fundraised by Benjamin Franklin), and volunteers implemented it, explicitly as a philanthropist project -- on behalf of, and for the good of, all humanity." Let's do so again.

Our American Founding is about philanthropy in action -- the title of the course I begin teaching at Yale University next semester.

Let 2012 also be about philanthropy in action, about getting fire and getting fired up for our national movement for more equality, more human rights, more justice, more opportunity. Like Ben Franklin (and hopefully Bill Gates and others) we can change the course of history, for the betterment of all not just the 1 percent. Let's renew America's Promise.