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Few men have ever grown wealthier than Andrew Carnegie, who amassed a huge railroad and steel fortune—then gave it away.
That’s why, when I need to check out a book, I go to an Andrew Carnegie-funded public library building in the town where I live. If you’re an American, you may do that, too—since Carnegie funded and built an amazing total of 3,000 libraries all across the United States. In fact, during the last two decades of his life, Carnegie gave away the modern equivalent of about $80 billion to charity, if you can imagine that. No one in human history has ever given away that much money for charitable causes.
In 1912, Andrew Carnegie and Abdu’l-Baha met in New York. Abdu’l-Baha praised Carnegie’s philanthropy and advised him, in a letter sent after their meeting, that:
…the Teachings of Baha’u’llah advocate voluntary sharing, and this is a greater thing than the equalization of wealth. For equalization must be imposed from without, while sharing is a matter of free choice.
Man reacheth perfection through good deeds, voluntarily performed, not through good deeds the doing of which was forced upon him. And sharing is a personally chosen righteous act: that is, the rich should extend assistance to the poor, they should expend their substance for the poor, but of their own free will, and not because the poor have gained this end by force. For the harvest of force is turmoil and the ruin of the social order. On the other hand voluntary sharing, the freely-chosen expending of one’s substance, leadeth to society’s comfort and peace. It lighteth up the world; it bestoweth honour upon humankind.
I have seen the good effects of your own philanthropy in America, in various universities, peace gatherings, and associations for the promotion of learning, as I travelled from city to city. Wherefore do I pray on your behalf that you shall ever be encompassed by the bounties and blessings of heaven, and shall perform many philanthropic deeds in East and West. Thus may you gleam as a lighted taper in the Kingdom of God, may attain honour and everlasting life, and shine out as a bright star on the horizon of eternity. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 114.
Influenced by the Baha’i teachings on global peace and international unity, Carnegie built the Peace Palace in The Hague, the Netherlands, in 1913. The Peace Palace now houses the U.N.’s International Court of Justice. Originally constructed as home to the antiwar Permanent Court of Arbitration, an early international court created by the Hague Convention of 1899, the Peace Palace cost Carnegie $40 million in today’s dollars. He worked to end imperialism and promote planetary peace, and many of his ideas, which paralleled the Baha’i ideals of world peace, were incorporated into the League of Nations and eventually found their way into the charter of the United Nations, as well.
Can you imagine what the world would look like if all wealthy people took this path of service to the world of humanity?
In this exact vein, Abdu’l-Baha told a cautionary tale about a king who revels in his own good fortune, but forgets the misery of his subjects:
A Persian king was one night in his palace, living in the greatest luxury and comfort. Through excessive joy and gladness he addressed a certain man, saying: “Of all my life this is the happiest moment. Praise be to God, from every point prosperity appears and fortune smiles! My treasury is full and the army is well taken care of. My palaces are many; my land unlimited; my family is well off; my honor and sovereignty are great. What more could I want!”
The poor man at the gate of his palace spoke out, saying: “O kind king! Assuming that you are from every point of view so happy, free from every worry and sadness—do you not worry for us? You say that on your own account you have no worries—but do you never worry about the poor in your land? Is it becoming or meet that you should be so well off and we in such dire want and need? In view of our needs and troubles how can you rest in your palace, how can you even say that you are free from worries and sorrows? As a ruler you must not be so egoistic as to think of yourself alone but you must think of those who are your subjects. When we are comfortable then you will be comfortable; when we are in misery how can you, as a king, be in happiness?”
The purport is this that we are all inhabiting one globe of earth. In reality we are one family and each one of us is a member of this family. We must all be in the greatest happiness and comfort, under a just rule and regulation which is according to the good pleasure of God, thus causing us to be happy, for this life is fleeting. – Abdu’l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, pp. 41-42.
The wealthy and those who control the wealth of nations, the Baha’i teachings say, have a tremendous responsibility to the human family. Those who expend their mortal riches on that family, Baha’u’llah wrote, “shall illuminate the dwellers of heaven:”
O ye that pride yourselves on mortal riches! Know ye in truth that wealth is a mighty barrier between the seeker and his desire, the lover and his beloved. The rich, but for a few, shall in no wise attain the court of His presence nor enter the city of content and resignation. Well is it then with him, who, being rich, is not hindered by his riches from the eternal kingdom, nor deprived by them of imperishable dominion. By the Most Great Name! The splendor of such a wealthy man shall illuminate the dwellers of heaven even as the sun enlightens the people of the earth! – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, p. 41.