In the US, where for all sorts of reasons voluntary donations amount to roughly twice their level in the UK, this remains an influential ideal.
In 2008 we can expect it to be writ large on the international stage. On 30 June, Bill Gates will give up his day job at Microsoft and start full-time at his charitable organisation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. What with Warren Buffet's decision in 2006 to add much of his $44bn (£23bn) fortune to the $30bn (£15bn) with which Gates has endowed his foundation, he'll be in charge of the biggest charity budget in the world.
Others have been inspired. Carlos Slim Helu, a Mexican telecoms billionaire, has promised $13bn (£7.6bn). Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum, prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai, pledged a similar sum to promote education across the Middle East. In Britain, hedge fund investor Chris Hohn recently gave away £230m, and Sir Tom Hunter, the Scottish entrepreneur, plans to give away £1bn in his lifetime.
Much scepticism surrounds the new philanthropists, with cynics suggesting this generosity is an attempt to lose the Scrooge tag and add fame to fortune. But for those who do wish to make the world a better place, it may just as easily, for instance, reflect a lack of faith in governments' abilities to help the poor and disenfranchised.
The use of these whopping sums of money should be monitored with intense scrutiny, but this is a new trend that should also prompt self-scrutiny by others. Thanks to the Government introducing and improving Gift Aid and cutting capital gains tax for property and shares given to charity, giving is easier than ever.
"My own personal belief is that with great wealth comes great responsibility," Hunter has said. But with charitable giving in the UK falling overall, we should remember that with all wealth comes responsibility.
- Nick Seddon, an author and journalist: firstname.lastname@example.org