How to Give Sensitively: Edmund Burke’s Remarkable Letter to His Children About Generosity and the Importance of Honoring the Dignity of Those in Need
By Maria Popova
The Anglo-Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke (January 12, 1729–July 9, 1797) was a rare centaur of a creature. Although in the centuries since his death his ideas have been somewhat hijacked to conservative ends, in his own day they were embraced by liberals and conservatives alike. A staunch champion of freedom and a vocal critic of British colonialism, he influenced minds as vast and varied as Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, her radical philosopher father William Godwin, Romantic poetry beacons Coleridge and Wordsworth, Enlightenment torchlight Immanuel Kant, liberalism founding power-couple John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor, and misunderstood free market patron saint Adam Smith.
But however far-reaching the political consequence of Burke’s published writings, emanating from his private letters is the sense that he was, plainly, just a good-hearted man. Nowhere do his goodness and generosity of spirit shine more radiantly than in the warm letter he penned to his children one frosty winter morning in Paris at the age of forty-four, later included in the grandly titled 1844 tome Correspondence of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke (public library | public domain).
Addressing his only surviving biological son and a cousin’s orphaned son, whom Burke had adopted, simply and sweetly as “My Dear Children,” he asks after their health and how they have settled into their new home, then proceeds to give them some splendid moral advice as they embark on a life of independence as young adults. Urging his sons to take care of themselves, Burke considers the delicate line between self-care and self-indulgence:
When I wish you to avoid superfluous expenses, as giving the mind loose and bad habits, be aware that I wish you to avoid everything that is mean, sordid, illiberal, and uncharitable, which is much the worst extreme. Do not spare yourselves nor me in this point.
With this Burke turns to the attendant question of generosity, which he placed at the center of his moral universe as the lever of justice. Drawing another line of great sensitivity and nuance — how to give sensitively, in a way that doesn’t become a statement of superiority or an imposition of indebtedness but honors the recipient’s human dignity, whatever their state of need — he writes:
As you are now a little setting up for yourselves, suffer me to give you a little direction about the article of giving. When others of decent condition are giving along with you, never give more than they do; it is rather an affront to them, than a service to those that desire your little bounty. Whatever else you do, do it separately. But always preserve a habit of giving (but still with discretion), however little, as a habit not to be lost. When I speak of this, the funds of neither of you are large, and perhaps never may become so. So that the first thing is justice. Whatever one gives, ought to be from what one would otherwise spend, not from what he would otherwise pay. To spend little and give much, is the highest glory a man can aspire to.
A generation later, Mary Shelley, poverty-stricken and recklessly generous throughout her life, would copy this last passage from Burke’s letter into her journal during one of her most trying periods, as a kind of existential mantra affirming her own philosophy when it was most challenging to uphold.
Complement with Seneca on what it means to be generous, W.E.B Dubois’s superb letter of existential guidance to his only surviving daughter, Kurt Vonnegut’s life-advice to his children, and this compendium of fatherly advice from other notable dads in history, then time-travel back to the present with Jacqueline Woodson’s lovely letter to children about kindness.
Published December 11, 2019