Charity as a Virtue
Updated: Apr 18
This year has been incredibly challenging for all. Many are suffering; from bereavement, job loss, economic uncertainty, food poverty, homelessness. It is during such times of hardship that charity should be foremost in our minds.
But what is charity? The term ‘charity’ itself can mean different things. We can say that Mary performed an act of charity, or that she donated to charity. We can describe different actions that are instances of charity e.g. feeding the hungry or treating the sick. We can identify organisations as charities if they are non-profit providers of much needed services (such as Clothing Collective). The contemporary definition tends to describe charity as something like ‘freely giving to those in need’, essentially grounding the conception of charity in action.
All of these different meanings relate to each other in an obviously significant way. But are they related only in terms of the similarities between the respective actions to which they refer, as suggested by the contemporary definition? Or could it perhaps be that these actions are all underpinned by an internal sentiment? There needs to be more to the idea of charity than just a set of actions constituting ‘freely giving to those in need’, and this, I believe, is where the idea of charity as a virtue comes in.
For Saint Thomas Aquinas, the 13th Century scholastic philosopher, charity is a virtue; a disposition “by which we love God and neighbour”. This means that charity is an internal principle of loving one’s neighbour that corresponds to outward behaviour rather than just a set of actions. The disposition by which we love our neighbour naturally entails all of the charitable actions we have described, and it encompasses the definition of charity. But it also allows us to see more truly and compassionately the suffering of others, to recognise that everyone has good in them, and to understand that every person is therefore deserving of help, kindness and love.
Having charity (love of neighbour) requires will, a concerted effort to orientate oneself towards the good. As Iris Murdoch writes: “loving is an orientation, a direction of energy, not just a state of mind”. As such, the doing of charitable things, the freely giving to those in need, acquires a greater significance. Not only can we donate to worthy causes but, even if we have nothing material to offer, we can freely give our time and care to those who need it.
When we love someone, we fix our attention onto them, our consciousness is directed outwards towards them, and our own concerns dissolve into the background. If we can nurture and develop the charity (love of neighbour) within us then perhaps we can do even more to address the needs of those who are suffering.
“People should not worry so much about what they do but rather about what they are. If they and their ways are good then their deeds will be radiant.” Meister Eckhart
We can all work on our charity and freely give our love to others, and even the smallest things can make a great impact. We wish everyone a Happy New Year and a happy and loving 2021.
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