The Gospel of Wealth

Do you give alms to the poor?

Sometimes I do.  Not always.  If I were to distribute largesse at every opportunity travelling east on Princes Street or Sauchiehall Street, by the time I had reached, respectively, Edinburgh’s Balmoral Hotel, or the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, I should be bankrupt.  There is an argument that, faced with a huge and intractable problem, there is no point in carrying out an individual act, because its effect on the overall problem will be indiscernible.  The counterargument is that the effect on the individual who is helped is tangible, and therefore worth doing.

Some people think the problem is factitious.  These people sitting on the pavement, perhaps shrouded in a cowl, accompanied by a snoozing dog, with an empty polystyrene cup in front of them, with a message of helpless abandonment scrawled on a piece of cardboard – well, maybe they’re skivers, working under the tutelage of an overseer organising a corporate scam, much as a bevy of prostitutes might be overseen by a pimp.

When I was a medical student in Edinburgh I was once accosted by a tramp (I have a notion that terminology might be politically incorrect but it was the patois of the time) in Nicholson Square.  Nicholson Square was a meeting place for tramps.  It was a stone’s throw from Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. I particularly remember Mr Black, alias Mr Green, a tramp who would occasionally present to the Emergency Department with an acute medical problem.  He would be admitted, sorted out, and discharged to resume his former vagrant life.

Anyway, this particular tramp said to me, as I passed, “Have you got the price of a cup of tea?”  I said to him, “Come with me and I will buy you your dinner.”  We attended a fish and chip shop and I bought him a fish supper.  He stuffed it in a pocket of his overcoat and as I bid him farewell, he said, “Have you got the price of a cup of tea?”

Around the same time I treated a waif, a street urchin, in the Infirmary’s Emergency Department.  He had no shoes.  I nicked up to the hospital residency and grabbed an old pair of slippers and proffered them to him.  He gave me a look of disgust and said, “I wouldn’t be seen dead in these.”

I was reminded of these and similar memories on July 1st when I happened to visit the newly opened Carnegie Library and Museum in Dunfermline.  It is a splendid facility in a spanking new building beside Dunfermline Abbey.  The Abbey and its ancient environs give the town a medieval feel.  The library has an old-fashioned air.  Good heavens, it’s full of books!  Mr Carnegie opened almost 1600 libraries in the US alone during his lifetime.  His generosity continues.  He gave Pittencrieff Park to Dunfermline.  It is situated directly west of the Abbey, with a deep gorge (“The Glen”) its remarkable geological feature.  Directly above it stands the remains of Malcolm Canmore’s tower.  The king sits in Dumferling toune, drinking the blude-ried wine!  The park is very well maintained.  I imagine that is due to Carnegie‘s legacy again.  In the new museum’s café I sat and read his remarkable essay The Gospel of Wealth.  Agree with it or not, it is a beautifully written piece.  It is a robust defence of Capitalism and an abrupt dismissal of Communism.  It’s basically a piece of advice directed towards rich men.  By rich men he meant people like himself, people of fabulous wealth.  He said, don’t pass your wealth on to your descendants.  That’s just vanity and it won’t do your offspring any good.  He even said don’t give your money to the poor and needy, or at least, not without provisos.  It will merely be diluted and likely as not squandered.  Rather you must do good works.  Give a helping hand not to the indolent but to those who would help themselves.   And don’t merely leave the money in your will for this purpose.  You will have no say in what becomes of it.  Rather, you must spend the bulk of your wealth on public works, while you are alive, so that you bring to the project the same talent that allowed you to accrue all that wealth.  It is disgraceful to die rich.  You can’t take it with you.

In his argument, Carnegie chided a friend of his who gave a quarter of a dollar to a beggar.  Another act of vanity.  He does not advocate “such imitation of the life of Christ as Count Tolstoi gives us.”  The Gospel of Wealth is indeed a new gospel.  I am reminded of Mrs Thatcher’s take on the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  The Good Samaritan was able to help the injured man at the roadside precisely because he was a man of wealth.  I’m always a little wary of invocations of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  They often shed more heat than light.  On Radio 4’s The Moral Maze about a year ago the issue of how to deal with the influx of refugees crossing the Mediterranean was discussed.  Don’t patrol the waves, ran one argument; it only encourages them!  This inevitably led to an invocation of the Good Samaritan.  You can always tell when The Moral Maze is about to degenerate into a shouting match.  Did the Good Samaritan merely encourage lots of other people to make that dangerous trip from Jerusalem to Jericho?  So who are you in this story, passing by on the other side?  The priest?  The Levite?

I think I’m the man lying injured in the gutter.  I confess Andrew Carnegie paid me through Medical School, courtesy of a Carnegie Trust Grant.  It was my second degree.  I might still have been paying off the fees.  38 years later I was sitting at the back of Dunblane Cathedral and I had an odd moment of epiphany.  The Reverend Macintosh asked the question from the pulpit, “What is that one thing that you need to do, that you have been putting off?”  It was as if the entire cathedral emptied itself so that the minister and I were the sole occupants.  He addressed me across the vast space of the nave.  What is that one thing?  I realised I needed to hang up my stethoscope.  So I visited my accountant – his office happens to be in Dunfermline – and asked if I could afford to quit.  Well, I could.  I danced out of the office and popped into the modest cottage beside the Abbey that is Andrew Carnegie’s birthplace, to pay my respects.  Then I returned to my car in the carpark next to the Abbey and, in a trance, promptly reversed into the BMW parked behind me.

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