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Since ancient times, philanthropy has been intrinsic to humanity. Though the virtue of benevolence was extolled in Babylonian poetry and the sacred writings of ancient Egypt, it is in Greece that we find the origin of what we call “philanthropy” today. 

And it began as a rebellion. Against the gods, no less.

Meet Prometheus

Prometheus as envisioned by American sculptor Paul Manship at the Rockefeller Center Plaza in New York City.


The Greek word, philanthropía, is comprised from two words: love (philos) and mankind (anthropos). In the spirit of inclusion, let us simply say that philanthropy is the love for humanity. 

This love was especially evident in the ultimate philanthropist, Prometheus. A trickster titan who famously absconded away with the treasure of fire, Prometheus snatched it from the heavens and gifted it to the struggling and very mortal humans down below. The gods, Zeus in particular, had been concealing fire as a tyrannical strategy to keep the masses ignorant and the pantheon in ultimate power. Prometheus’ act enabled the human race to not only survive, but to prosper as well.

Philanthropy became a core tenet that was fundamental to the Greek ideals of freedom, democracy and a thriving society. The act of giving also epitomized an influential statement of communal solidarity. A Greek citizen of means who failed to do so could even be ostracized, a political penalty designed to curb any hint of oppressive prestige. 

Philanthropy flourished as an educational ideal that would nurture the holistic and healthy development of the human spirit. On a more pragmatic level, it was also during the classical Greek era that the tax-exempt advantage of donating to modern charities began to take shape when political leaders of the era made it a practice to donate to their preferred charities.

Prometheus did pay for his crime in a rather gruesome manner, exemplary of no good deed goes unpunished. Later, with Pandora as an unwitting accomplice, Prometheus’ act of rebellion also gifted humanity with the concept of hope. Talk about lasting impact.

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