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Cahill’s Rule on Generosity


Cahill’s Rule on Generosity

Today’s blog is one for which the title and a draft have been waiting a long time in the Blogs In Progress folder on my computer screen (which I can never see without thinking: Progs In Blogless--that’s the way my mind works.) Opening the file, I see that I’ve put off posting it, partly out of a resolve to avoid moralizing, but partly also because I wrote out at different times several ways of introducing my theme, and couldn’t decide between them. This morning I’ve decided to use them all, so as not to lose any good ideas.

Basic statement: I’ve told both my pairs of children over the years, and numerous others as well, what I call Cahill’s Rule on Generosity. It goes:

If you can do something that costs you only a little in time and trouble and material possessions, and that can be of great benefit to somebody else: DO IT. Don’t even stop to think, just do it.

I hope that all my children, and grandchildren to whom I assume they’ve repeated it, have made this a principle in their lives. It has always seemed to me both beneficial and sensible: I’m not advocating any huge self-sacrifice, like that of Mother Teresa or of Albert Schweitzer (see below if that’s an unfamiliar name.) Just the general practice of Cahill’s Rule, at small cost to yourself and great benefit to others.

Now, what are the ways I’ve thought of introducing this idea? I’ll copy them all below, and add still another.

1. A young woman writes to thank me for spending an hour making up a reading list to help her with writing her thesis. I respond:

I taught my two pairs of children (by two marriages) the following rule about generosity: If you can, at small cost to yourself . . . (and so forth.)

2. I remember two notable examples of receiving such kindnesses myself during my student days. One was when I traveled to Boston from Ann Arbor, during my graduate studies there, and at the Museum of Fine Arts met their Japanese art curator, the late Robert Treat Paine (d. 1965, Fig. 1).


When he heard from me about my dissertation topic, the Yuan dynasty artist Wu Zhen, he went into a back room and came out with a copy of an old reproduction book published in Japan of an album attributed to Wu Zhen, and gave it to me as a present. This impressed me deeply, as Paine did generally—he represented the most positive example of the Boston tradition of younger sons of distinguished families (his had come over at the time of the revolution) becoming museum curators. I realized that the album was probably of small interest and value to him—he must have acquired it long ago in Japan—but was important to me: here was a good example of what would become my principle. The other was during my Fulbright year in Kyoto, when my growing enthusiasm for the works of the great Japanese artist Tomioka Tessai (a photo of him was in the previous blog) led me to visit his grandson Tomioka Masutaro at Tessai’s old home. (Fig. 2--Tomioka Masutaro is the person at far left--this is a photo taken many years later.) He presented me, an unknown foreign student, with a small but genuine Tessai painting, a picture of a rock, simple and unmounted but genuinely from the artist’s hand. Again, it was a small gift for him, a big one for me. And again it exemplified my principle.


3. The philosophical argument (this also copied from an old draft, never published):

When asked about my religion or basic philosophical belief, I used to say, somewhat facetiously, that I was Neo-Confucian. That was largely a joke, but with some truth to it. I have always used the Confucianist-Legalist distinction in my relatively few moralistic admonitions to my students and children. These two systems were antagonists in pre-Han China: the Legalists, with the First Emperor of Qin as their champion, tried to eradicate Confucianism by killing Confucian scholars and burning Confucian books. Resisting them, preserving the canonical texts and other early writings, and more generally working to preserve the wisdom of the past and pass it on to the future, became the mission of the Confucianists.

(PICTURES: FIRST EMPEROR’S TERRA-COTTA ARMY--he was a notable Legalist--VS. FU SHENG, an equally notable Confucianist.) (Later: no, I won’t reproduce those again, they are well-known, and can be seen in my video-lectures among other places--the picture of Fu Sheng ends several of them, including the last.)

Their representative image is this one, of the old scholar Fu Sheng, who survived the Legalist purge and spent his last energies lecturing to an emissary sent by the new Han emperor on a Confucian text that he had preserved by hiding it in the wall of his house.

One of the Legalist mottoes was: You win by doing things that your opponent would be ashamed to do. I used to quote that, and mention my candidates for Legalists in their particular fields, people who had won, for a time at least, by doing what their opponents were ashamed to do. In semi-popular music, it was Andrew Lloyd Webber; in recent Chinese painting, Fan Zeng, whose pictures featuring aggressive males striking poses and thrusting out their bearded chins made him popular among certain kinds of collectors. IMAGE OF FAN ZENG PAINTING (No, again I will save this for a future video-lecture--I don’t have a digitized image of one of his paintings handy.) And I used to cite the Han philosopher who was reputedly so un-generous that it was said of him: if he could save the whole world by giving up one hair of his head, he wouldn’t do it. He obviously represents the opposite extreme, within what might be called a system of proportional morality.

So, with these as examples, I would argue for a certain principle for determining whether or not to do some generous act. I  never advocated giving up a great deal of one’s time and possessions to save the less well-off, although in an abstract way I admired those who did that: an extreme example was Albert Schweitzer, who gave up his career as philosopher, musicologist, and organist to found a hospital in Africa and devoted his life to helping the people there. I admired that without wanting to follow his example; I made my charitable contributions without ever feeling the urge to give up everything for the less fortunate. My principle, which I have told over and over again to both my sets of children, always was this: (and then I repeated Cahill’s Rule.)

My firm belief in this principle, and my practice of automatically carrying it out when the occasion arises, has led me to take the time to respond as helpfully as I could to numerous notes from students of Chinese and Japanese art who wrote me about problems they were encountering in their research. I always shared all my research materials freely—that was a practice inspired also by the example and teaching of the Freer Gallery director Archibald Wenley (Fig. 3) who believed that the Freer and its curators were obligated to do that by the fact of the Freer being a public institution—he had been trained as a librarian, and brought the librarian’s principles to his job. I would come back from China with slides that I knew would be valuable for some colleague’s research, and make them freely available, or simply send them to her or him.


4. Applicable today: If Cahill’s Rule could be impressed on the one percent, the super-rich who have managed to secure for themselves a huge proportion of our country’s wealth, making the lives of the 99% a lot harder, they would voluntarily give up some part of their super-wealth to help out the less fortunate (who are not necessarily the less capable, or even the less smart.) I have told my boys, now young men, Julian and Benedict: that what we are seeing today is a breakdown or abrogation of the old social contract, by which those with more give up some of it to those with less. That has been an ideal, and in varying degrees and places a reality, for several centuries; but now it is being replaced by the principle that I think of (in a British phrase) as “I’ve got mine, now buzz off, chum!” If the 1% followed Cahill’s Rule, that is, they would join Warren Buffet and others in calling for their taxes to be raised so that they would be paying at least their “fair share,” with the loopholes and exemptions given them during the Bush Era dropped--they would accept this or even advance it, instead of spending huge sums to buy congressmen who will block any legislation in that direction.

So, there it is, Cahill’s Rule of Generosity, with four different introductions. And, to alter slightly what a character in Lewis Carroll says: What I introduce four times must be true.

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