IN A stirring speech, Tony Blair declared last week that charity was no substitute for justice. His own policy was "about much more than the affluent wishing to help the poor. That is charity," he said. One is tempted to point out that charity is about more than "the affluent wishing to help the poor".
Or was. But the word has been diminished. It was already downgraded well before 1881, when the Revised Version of the 1611 Bible altered St aul's "faith, hope and charity" to "faith, hope and love". St aul's word was agape, the Greek for brotherly love, sometimes rendered as "love" in 1611, but sometimes as "charity", which was the same word as the caritas of the Vulgate, the 4th-century Latin version. Caritas didn't mean alms- giving, it meant affection or esteem, and came in turn from carus, meaning highly priced or "dear", a word which in English, too, does double duty for "expensive" and "loved". Anyway, I suppose the 1611 translators put "charity" to make it clear that St aul was talking about agape rather than eros, the other sort of love.
In the early Middle Ages alms-giving was an important function of Christian charity, and a way to Heaven for the better-off. You might not fancy your indigent neighbours much, but you could give them something instead. So charity was in danger of becoming a substitute for love, and something separate from it. In the late 18th century, George Crabbe, in his splendid poem "The Village", much admired by Johnson, observed the dehumanising effects of charity on the wretches who lived in the poor house. In the early 20th, a member of the Royal Commission on the oor Laws wrote that public charity was "definitely antagonistic to the good development of family life" unless kept in check.
It's a sad history. But a bit of St aul survives in our Charitable, meaning merciful or forgiving; "Charity suffereth long", says the Epistle, "and is kind."
Nicholas BagnallReuse content