Gratitude is difficult to practice, and even more difficult to think about well. If, because I’ve given you a gift or done you a favor, you feel bound to thank me for it, is what you’re expressing really gratitude? Isn’t it more like acknowledging an obligation? If I must thank you because you’ve given me something and return the favor when I can, and if you’ve given it to me just so that I’d be bound to you in these ways, then are “gift” and “gratitude” the right concepts? Aren’t gifts supposed to be freely given, without expectation of return? Isn’t the ideal gift non-economic, in the sense that it lifts both giver and receiver out of the circle of obligation and into that of mutual delight?

But perhaps non-economic gratitude is an oxymoron, like academic clarity or American irony. Perhaps we need to acknowledge that there aren’t any gifts without expectation of return and therefore none that avoid obligation. Even if the free gift—the one we didn’t expect, don’t deserve, and don’t have to repay—is what we yearn for, perhaps we should give up on that ideal and realize that, really, we need to look every gift horse in the mouth.

These questions are of pressing concern to everyone. Speakers of English use stereotyped verbal expressions of gratitude dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times every day, and no familial, social, or political order can survive without establishing conventions about gifts and gratitude. For Christians, the matter is even more central: the name of our essential liturgical act—Eucharist—just means “thanks,” and it is arguably the case that all Christian theology and all Christian life is constituted by the reception and return of God’s gifts.

Gratitude: An Intellectual History addresses all this and more. In much of this fine book, Peter J. Leithart writes as a historian of ideas, relating how gratitude was understood and practiced by pagans and Jews and Christians in the long history of the West, from Homeric Greece to our own century. But really Leithart is a Christian theologian, as he acknowledges, and the heart of the book is his treatment of the Christian disruption of settled ideas about gift-giving and gratitude. Central to his telling of this story is a distinction between lines and circles—between, that is, linear understandings of gratitude and circular ones.

Linear gifts are those given without intent or expectation that gratitude, or any other return, will circle back to the giver. Rather, the gift moves outward from the giver and has its effects in distant places and times. There aren’t many such gifts in the human sphere. Perhaps the gift of blood is like this, especially when it’s anonymous. Gratitude in that case can’t be received by the giver, and if the recipient feels it, she can express it only by giving what she’s been given to someone else. That’s about as close as we can get to the linear gift, the one that prevents any explicit bond of gratitude between giver and recipient.

The circular gift is everything that this is not. It’s a gift intended to bind giver and recipient together, and so it’s essential that the giver’s name and identity be known. And it’s a gift for which return is expected—an expression of gratitude now and a reciprocal favor later. In Leithart’s telling, the gift-circles of pre-Christian Greece and Rome are all more or less like this. The munificence of the patron, whether the local godfather or the Caesar in Rome, bound patron and clients together. At the very least it created loyalty, but it could also involve the expectation that clients would fight and die for the patron if circumstance required. According to this model of gift and gratitude, there’s no anonymous giving, but of course it’s not essential, and usually not possible, that the patron know the names of all his clients. Whether local (village, town, province) or almost universal (empire), the structure of reciprocal circular giving and gratitude is always essentially the same, though there have been philosophical attempts to remove from it what might seem to be crass self-interest. Seneca, for example, in his first-century treatise On Benefits, defends gifts and gratitude as the principal conditions necessary for the flourishing of a polity. As Leithart puts it, Seneca believed that ingratitude was “the great obstacle to social cohesion.”

It’s against this background that -Leithart depicts the Christian disruption of gratitude. Jesus (and later Paul) recommended giving without expectation of return—and even without permitting it to be known that you are the giver. This is not, however, simply to replace the circular gift with the linear one. Reward is still promised, but now it doesn’t come from a human client, but from God. This meant that, for Christians, the poor were the ideal recipients of gifts exactly because they could not repay. Since God would repay, the recipient does not need to be able to do so. In this way the Christian community, drawing here upon its Jewish inheritance, was able to regard anonymous or collective gifts to the poor as the ideal way to express gratitude to God for his gifts. As Leithart puts it, the circle of gratitude was made boundaryless: any and every human creature could now be a proper object of generosity, and God would show his gratitude for all such gifts. It isn’t that Seneca was wrong, exactly; it’s just that he drew his circle too narrowly.

In Leithart’s view, this distinctively Christian understanding of gratitude, fundamentally theological in its commitments and deeply transformative of the socio-political sphere in its effects, is the right way to think about gifts and gratitude. He also thinks that this position was partly obscured during the medieval period, largely recovered during the Reformation, and corrupted in the Enlightenment, when it lost its underlying theology. It is now ripe for recovery. Leithart is here offering a high-gloss Protestant-triumphalist narrative, one that is more sanguine about modernity than typical Catholic (and Jewish) narratives of the same matter.

One reason for the difference—and perhaps the deepest—is that Leithart is excessively fond of the either/or, the dialectical opposition. For him, either we are grateful to others for the gifts they give us, and thereby locked into an endless chain of reciprocal obligation, or we are grateful only to God for others because of what they do for us. Certainly, this kind of distinction has deep roots in Christianity. Something like it can be found in Paul, as well as in Augustine’s distinction between our use of creatures and our enjoyment of God. But Leithart states it too sharply and deploys it too dialectically. Surely we must be grateful to other people as well as to God, though not in the same way or to the same degree. Such gratitude does proper honor to our status as creatures. Leithart, in spite of his emphasis on the importance of community and church, does not give sufficient weight to local and particular gifts and gratitudes—the gift of this spouse, these children, these colleagues, these fellow citizens. They are all God’s beloved creatures, of course, and I am grateful to God for them. But I am grateful (I hope) not only for them but also to them—face to face and by name. It isn’t clear that Leithart’s position allows this kind of gratitude sufficient Christian weight. On this point, Seneca remains with us, and it’s good that he does.

Nevertheless, this book is a considerable achievement. Leithart surveys and comments on an enormous range of literature, writes with great lucidity, and provides one of the few recent detailed treatments of a topic of fundamental importance to us all. I’m grateful to him for this book (the fact that he hasn’t published it anonymously suggests that I ought show him exactly that kind of gratitude), as well as to God for creating someone capable of writing it. Gratitude deserves wide and careful reading.

Paul J. Griffiths is a longtime contributor to Commonweal and the author of many books, most recently Regret: A Theology (University of Notre Dame Press) and Why Read Pascal? (Catholic University of America Press).

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Published in the August 15, 2014 issue: View Contents
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