“A little nonsense now and then, is relished by the wisest men.” —Roald Dahl
Philanthropy, meaning “humanity loving,” is a word whose origins can be traced to ancient Greece and playwright Aeschylus’ description of Prometheus in his play Prometheus Bound.
By the 1700’s English lexicographer, Samuel Johnson added to the definition by defining philanthropy as, “Having a good-natured love of mankind.”
This good-natured aspect was made manifest during The Scottish Enlightenment when the act of becoming philanthropic was perceived as a “fitness” or, as a way of living in harmony with nature and one’s circumstances. Doing good deeds was proposed as an essential key to human happiness, and helped to build a commonwealth community. Thus, volunteering became a popular pastime among the wealthy, and societies, gentleman clubs, and mutual associations began to flourish.
In the above painting, the morally out-of-shape gentleman, however, whose philanthropic fitness has been woefully unrealized, laments: HE TRIED TO BE A GOOD PERSON, BUT JUST COULDN’T DO IT.
Some time ago in Greek mythology, Athenians Icarus and his clever father Daedalus were imprisoned by the mean King Minos on the island of Crete.
Minos had commissioned Daedalus who was a skilled inventor, puzzle-solver, and master craftsman, to build a labyrinth to house his Minotaur. The Minotaur was a mythical monster who was kept alive to feed upon the king’s enemies.
Without going into it here, let’s just say Daedalus betrayed the King by conspiring to have one of those enemies escape. Naturally that upset the king, and Daedalus and his son too, were incarcerated.
Frightened by the Kings wrath and not wishing to remain imprisoned, Daedalus devised an ingenious plan to get himself and his son off the island.
With a little bit of wax and a few hundred discarded gull feathers, he fashioned for Icarus and himself some wings as an imaginative mode of transportation. Before undertaking their escape, Daedalus expounded a piece of cautionary advice to his teenage son:
“Alright Icarus, I know you’re not going to like hearing this, but when we take flight, whatever you do, don’t have fun. That means no flying too close to the sun with your waxy wings, or flying too close to the sea where they might get soggy. Are you listening? Icarus? It’s really important that you pay attention here because bad things can happen if….”
Unfortunately, for Icarus, he was not listening and bad things did happen. After strapping on his wings and jumping out the window, he did just what his father asked him not to do: he had fun.
He had fun flapping his feathers over the sea, and fun flying as high, and as close to the sun as he could. He had fun, fun, and more fun until he realized the wax on his wings had melted, his feathers had fallen, and he was plunging to his death in the cool blue water.
What a lesson!
What a fun way to go!
What a way to have the Icarian sea named after you!
Assisted suicide is as controversial in this country as it is in many other parts of the world. While nearly legal in three US. states under the Death and Dignity Act, the option to “opt out”, to relieve physical, or emotional suffering a bit ahead of schedule either by direct contact, or with the assistance at a distance of someone else, is a very old solution to our human problem and most likely dates to the beginning of mankind.
In ancient Greece, the death of trouble-maker philosopher Socrates is one such example. Socrates (469-399 BC) was Athens’ unofficial, unwashed, robe-wearing, stick-carrying guru. While an inspiration to his followers (Plato, among them), he was a philosophizing irritant to some of his fellow Athenians.
In 399, following an act of civil-disobedience, he was charged and convicted of the capital crimes of “irreverence” to the gods, and “corrupting” the minds of impressionable teenagers.
Given three options for punishment, with three probable consequences, he could:
1. Go into voluntary exile. (Which would rob him of his guru status among the young.)
2. Take his friends up on their offer to help him escape. (Which would make him look guilty of crimes he did not commit.)
3. Die by drink from a physician-administered hemlock.
(Which would allow him to bypass the decrepitude of old age, afford him the opportunity to converse in the underworld, and give his earthly followers the impression that he was a man of his convictions and a proper philosopher indeed.)
After some deep, philosophical reflection, Socrates made the professionally advantageous decision to opt out, by opting in for hemlock at #3. Leaving us to wonder if “An examined life is not worth living” either.