No one yet has the remotest idea what the Big Society actually is. Had you asked a Roman, he would have told you: it was the rich spreading their largesse among the poor, as Pliny the Younger did (c. AD 61-112).
In a letter to his friend the great Roman historian Tacitus, Pliny describes a project he has set up which he wants Tacitus to support. He says ‘I was visiting my native town a short time ago when the young son of a fellow-citizen came to pay his respects to me. “Do you go to school?” I asked. “Yes”, he replied. “Where?” “In Milan.” “Why not here?” To this the boy’s father (who had brought him and was standing by) replied: “Because we have no teachers here.” ’
Pliny is shocked and determined to do something about it. He points out to the father the importance of raising children at home (strict upbringing, less expense) and invites him to work out how much it would cost to hire teachers for the town, remembering that they could add in the money they currently spent on travel and lodgings in Milan.
Now comes the offer: Pliny is ready to contribute a third of whatever they decided to collect. He does not want to offer all of it, he says, because he wants the parents themselves involved. He says to the father “People can be careless with other people’s money, but you can be sure they will be careful with their own. If their own is in the pot with mine, they will be sure to appoint a suitable recipient for it”. He urges them to appoint really good candidates so that local towns will send their children to them, instead of the other way round.
Pliny now tells Tacitus what part he hopes the historian will play in this venture. It turns out that it is not money he is after, but recommendations: ‘From amongst the many students who gather round you because they admire your abilities, please keep an eye open for likely teachers we can invite here. But do understand I am leaving the decision to the parents. All I want is to help with the arrangements and pay my share. So if you find anyone who has confidence in his ability, do send him along to us—but I make no guarantees.’
If that is not the Big Society, it is hard to think what might be.