Peter Brown’s “Remembering the Poor and the Aesthetic of Society” (Journal of Interdisciplinary History) presents a wonderful analysis of charity through a lens of history and society:
Looking at the medieval and (largely) early modern societies described herein with more ancient eyes reveals patterns of expectations that are familiar from the longer history of the three major religions studied in this collection. First and foremost, those who founded and administered the charitable institutions of early modern Europe and the Middle East plainly carried in the back of their minds what might be called a particular “aesthetic of society,” the outlines of which might be blurred by the quotidien routines of administration. This “aesthetic of society” amounted to a sharp sense of what constituted a good society and what constituted an ugly society, namely, one that neglected the poor or treated them inappropriately.
Europeans and Ottomans alike instantly noticed when charitable institutions were absent. Of the great imarets of the Ottoman empire, Evliya the seventeenth-century traveler, wrote, “I, this poor one, have traveled 51 years and in the territories of 18 rulers, and there was nothing like our enviable institution.”
The article delves into comparisons of social norms of charity—of which I have quoted before:
Divided as European Protestants and Catholics were in their ideas about the good society, the differences between Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire were even more decisive, subtle though they sometimes could be. Christian Europe concentrated on a quality of mercy that was essentially asymmetrical. It strove to integrate those who, otherwise, would have no place in society. As the founder of Christ’s Hospital wrote in the sixteenth century, “Christ has lain too long abroad . . . in the streets of London.” To him, those deserving of mercy were “lesser folk,” and those who “raised them up” were “like a God.” In Catholic countries, much charity was “redemptive,” directed to tainted groups who might yet come to be absorbed more fully into the Christian fold—including Jews, some of whom might yet be converted, and prostitutes, some of whom might yet be reformed. In the more bracing air of Protestant Hadleigh, however, “reform” meant making sure that those who were “badly governed in their bodies” (delinquent male beggars) were brought back to the labor force from which they had lapsed. For both Catholics and Protestants, the “reform” of errant groups was a dominant concern.
By contrast, in Ottoman society, receiving charity brought no shame. To go to an imaret was not to be “brought in from the cold.” Rich and poor were sustained by the carefully graded bounty of the sultan: “Hand in hand with the imperial generosity is that of a strictly run establishment, carefully regulating the movements of its clients and the sustenance each received.” The meals at the Ottoman imaret are reminiscent of the Roman convivium, great public banquets of the Roman emperors, in their judicious combination of hierarchy and outreach to all citizens. Nothing like it existed in Christian Europe.
So who cares? (This is always a good question to throw at the dewey-eyed young-ins):
One issue concerning the “aesthetic of society” that deserves to be stressed is often taken for granted in studies of poverty: Why should the poor matter in the first place? The heirs to centuries of concerted charitable effort by conscientious Jews, Christians, and Muslims are liable to forget that concern for the poor is, in many ways, a relatively recent development in the history of Europe and the Middle East, not necessarily shared by many non-European and non-Middle Eastern societies.
The Greco-Roman world had no place whatsoever for the poor in its “aesthetic of society.” But ancient Greeks and Romans were not thereby hardhearted or ungenerous. They were aware of the misery that surrounded them and often prepared to spend large sums on their fellows. But the beneficiaries of their acts of kindness were never deaned as “the poor,” largely because the city stood at the center of the social imagination. The misery that touched them most acutely was the potential misery of their city. If Leland Stanford had lived in ancient Greece or in ancient Rome, his philanthropic activities would not have been directed toward “humanity,” even less toward “the poor,” but toward im- proving the amenities of San Francisco and the aesthetics of the citizen body as a whole. It would not have gone to the homeless or to the reform of prostitutes. Those who happened, economically, to be poor might have benefited from such philanthropy, but only insofar as they were members of the city, the great man’s “fellow-citizens.”
The emergence of the poor as a separate category and object of concern within the general population involved a slow and hesitant revolution in the entire “aesthetic” of ancient society, which was connected primarily with the rise of Christianity in the Roman world. But it also coincided with profound modiacations in the image of the city itself. The self-image of a classical, city-bound society had to change before the “poor” became visible as a separate group within it.
Similarly, in the context of the Chinese empire’s governmental tradition, the victims of famine were not so much “the poor” as they were “subjects” who happened to need food, the better to be controlled and educated like everyone else. This state-centered image had to weaken considerably before Buddhist notions of “compassion” to “the poor” could spread in China. Until at least the eleventh century, acts of charity to the poor ranked low in the hierarchy of official values, dismissed as “little acts” and endowed with little public resonance. They were overshadowed by a robust state ideology of responsibility for famine relief, which put its trust, not on anything as frail as “compassion,” but on great state warehouses controlled (it was hoped) by public-spirited provincial governors.
If the phrase “aesthetic of society” connotes a view of the poor deemed fitting for a society, one implicit aspect of it notably absent from the ancient world and China was the intense feeling—shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims—that outright neglect of the poor was ugly, and that charity was not only prudent but also beautiful. Despite the traditional limitations of charitable institu- tions—their perpetual shortfall in meeting widespread misery, their inward-looking quality, and the overbearing manner in which they frequently operated—they were undeniably worthwhile ventures. The officials who ran them and the rich who funded them could think of themselves as engaged in “a pro- foundly integrative activity.” This widespread feeling of contributing to a “beautiful” rather than an “ugly” society still needs to be explained.
Why remember the poor? There are many obvious answers to this question, most of which have been fully spelled out in recent scholarship. Jews, Christians, and Muslims were guardians of sacred scriptures that enjoined compassion for the poor and promised future rewards for it. Furthermore, in early modern Europe, in particular, charity to the poor came to mean more than merely pleasing God; it represented the solution to a pressing social problem. To provide for the poor and to police their movements was a prudent reaction to what scholars have revealed as an objective crisis caused by headlong demographic growth and a decline in the real value of wages.
Yet even this “objective” crisis had its “subjective” side. Contemporaries perceived the extent of the crisis in, say, Britain as amplified, subjectively, by a subtle change in the “aesthetic of society.” The poor had not only become more dangerous; their poverty had become, in itself, more shocking. As Wrightson recently showed, forms of poverty that had once been accepted as part of the human condition, about which little could be done, became much more challenging wherever larger sections of a community became accustomed to higher levels of comfort. When poverty could no longer be taken for granted, to overlook the poor appeared, increasingly, to be the mark of an “ugly” society. Moreover, that the potentially “forgettable” segments of society were usually articulate and well educated, able to plead their cause to their more hardhearted contemporaries, had something to do with how indecorous, if not cruel, forgetting them would be.
Paul’s injunction to “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10) and its equivalents in Jewish and Muslim societies warned about far more than a lapse of memory. It pointed to a brutal act of social excision the reverberations of which would not be confined to the narrow corridor where rich and poor met through the working of charitable institutions. The charitable institutions of the time present the poor, primarily, as persons in search of elemental needs— food, clothing, and work. But hunger and exposure were only the “presenting symptoms” of a deeper misery. Put bluntly, the heart of the problem was that the poor were eminently forgettable persons. In many different ways, they lost access to the networks that had lodged them in the memory of their fellows. Lacking the support of family and neighbors, the poor were on their own, floating into the vast world of the unremembered. This slippage into oblivion is strikingly evident in Jewish Midrash of the book of Proverbs, in which statements on the need to respect the poor are attached to the need to respect the dead. Ultimately helpless, the dead also depended entirely on the capacity of others to remember them. The dead represented the furthest pole of oblivion toward which the poor already drifted.
Fortunately for the poor, however, Jews, Christians, and Muslims not only had the example of their own dead—whom it was both shameful and inhuman to forget—but also that of God Himself, who was invisible, at least for the time being. Of all the eminently forgettable persons who ringed the fringes of a medieval and early modern society, God was the one most liable to be for- gotten by comfortable and conadent worldlings. The Qur’an equated those who denied the Day of Judgment with those who rejected orphans and neglected the feeding of the poor (Ma’un 107:1–3). The pious person, by contrast, forgot neither relatives nor strangers who were impoverished. Even though he might have had every reason to wish that they had never existed, he went out of his way to “feed them . . . and to speak kindly to them” (Nisa’ 4.36, 86).
The poor challenged the memory like God. They were scarcely visible creatures who, nonetheless, should not be forgotten. As Michael Bonner shows, the poor, the masakin of the Qur’an and of its early medieval interpreters, are “unsettling, ambiguous [persons] . . . . whom we may or may not know.” In all three religions, charity to the easily forgotten poor was locked into an entire social pedagogy that supported the memory of a God who, also, was all-too-easily forgotten.
The poor were not the only persons in a medieval or an early modern society who might become victims of forgetfulness. Many other members of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic societies—and often the most vocal members—found themselves in a position strangely homologous to, or overlapping, that of the poor, and they often proved to be most articulate in pressing the claims of the poor. They also demanded to be remembered even if, by the normal standards of society, they did nothing particularly memorable.
Seen with the hard eyes of those who exercised real power in their societies, the religious leaders of all three religions were eminently “forgettable” persons. They contributed nothing of obvious importance to society.
And of course, I respect any scholar who manages to connect their paper to their ability to continue drawing a salary:
The manner in which a society remembers its forgettable persons and characterizes the failure to do so is a sensitive indicator of its tolerance for a certain amount of apparently unnecessary, even irrelevant, cultural and religious activity. What is at stake is more than generosity and compassion. It is the necessary heedlessness by which any complex society can and a place for the less conspicuous elements of its cultural differentiation and social health. Scholars owe much to the ancient injunction to “remember the poor.”