Paul Johnson

What I would do if I were a multibillionaire

What I would do if I were a multibillionaire

There is nothing sinful in amassing wealth, provided it is done justly. Andrew Carnegie, in his essay ‘Wealth’, got it right. What is reprehensible is to hang on to it: ‘The man who dies thus rich, dies disgraced.’ By the time he went, in his sleep, in his 84th year, Carnegie had disposed of virtually everything, and he was buried at Sleepy Hollow, Tarrytown, New York, next to Washington Irving. A sizable volume, A Manual of the Public Benefactions of Andrew Carnegie (1919), shows that, by this date, $350,695,693.40 had been spent on a variety of gifts, including 2,811 free libraries and 7,689 church organs. The last item, considering he was an atheist, is interesting. Are you listening, Richard Dawkins?

If I were able to operate large-scale philanthropy, I would concentrate on one major project, to which I could make a personal contribution, as well as providing the cash. One scheme would be to create a college of all the arts with a particular mandate to produce Christian iconology of the highest quality. Modern church furnishings and decoration — and the churches themselves, for that matter — are deplorably dowdy, when not downright ugly. My college would seek to restore the creative glories of the Middle Ages. The college itself would be a work of high art. There are precedents. For instance, there is Cranbrook Academy of Art, 20 miles from Detroit, founded in the 1920s by a newspaper publisher, George G. Booth. Its 300-acre campus is a paradise of pools, streams, fountains, gardens and woods, and the buildings, planned by the great Finnish architect, Eliel Saarinen, are of the highest quality, splendidly furnished in wood, glass, bronze, stone and marble. Cranbrook today has a threefold function. It is a training academy of skills for gifted students, a design laboratory for new ideas, and an artists’ colony where all live in delectable artistic harmony (don’t laugh).

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