The Revolution of Christian Ingratitude in Western History: A Talk by Peter Leithart

How have Christian teachings on gratitude added basic ideas to the founding of Enlightenment institutions and the modern world we live in?

Pastor and theologian Peter Leithart took up this question recently at a gathering I attended of the Oxford Character project, a faith and leadership group organized by the Oxford Pastorate. Leithart is the author of Gratitude: An Intellectual History, a book that I have found helpful in my own research on the sociology of gratitude. Leithart is also president of the Theolopolis Institute, a theological thinktank in Birmingham Alabama, which focuses on intellectual and cultural history.

Anti-reciprocity signs 1911 Toronto

(19th century Canadian campaigns against trade agreements with the United States)

Leithart starts with a quote from HL Mencken, who once responded with harshly condescending snark to a request for feedback from a young writer. Mencken concluded that the novel was worthless, calling it “the veryest twaddle,” the most “twaddley” novel he had ever read. Mencken wrote back, saying how absolutely bad he thought it was. Several weeks later, when there was no response, Mencken wondered, “I get no thanks for all the time I spent reading her book, sending back the comments.” First he was offended, but then he concluded that the writer had shown dignity by declining thanks. Gratitude, Mencken wrote, “is degrading to the confessor because it always is a confession of inferiority… The grateful man is third-rate and conscious of it from the bottom of his heart.” He was right, Leithart says. The person who engages in thanks acknowledges that the gift was needed and that it came from the giver.

Aristotle didn’t condemn gratitude, says Leithart, but he saw it as important to return gifts as soon as possible to avoid the indebtedness and obligation it entailed. According to Leithart, Derrida was a critic of gratitude, more on the side of the benefactor. He believed that the purest gift, which he acknowledged as impossible, is a gift without expectation or hope of return. He was worried about collapsing gifts into an economy of exchange. Even an acknowledgment of a gift given is a return.

Gratitude is one of the earliest virtues we learn, and one of the earliest we teach our children, Leithart notes. Citing Margaret Visser’s book The Gift of Thanks, he notes that polite thanks are often fairly empty, a conversational routine and a standard response.

Why don’t we reflect on this gratitude? Leithart argues that gratitude has been privatized in modern times, a reduction of an idea that was more important than private, domestic etiquette. Gratitude could be a solvent of political order; manuals on how to be a good prince included instructions on giving and receiving benefits. Gratitude used to be an important philosophical, ethical, theological and political virtue.

Leithart promises to start out with Seneca, whose book De Beneficiis focused on the best ways to give, receive, and choose the beneficiaries of benefits. Throughout, his focus is on the benefactor, but he does discuss the receiver. Aquinas describes gratitude as an annexed virtue to justice, a common classification for gratitude in the middle ages. Next, Leithart considers the idea of political ingratitude in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, which turns on an issue of ingratitude. Finally, he promises to consider the role of gratitude in the modern age.

Roman Ideas of Gratitude

Seneca’s De Beneficis is mainly about giving benefits, doing good gifts, and choosing who to give favors for. He assumes throughout that the circulation of benefits and gifts are the way that society works. They can be objects, things, and favors that obligate the recipient to return the favor. Just as in The Godfather, after you are done a benefit, you are then obligated to the benefactor. According to Seneca, benefits are acts of kindness, gain pleasure to the giver, and it arises from a natural impulse to be generous. But he says that the actual benefit is a thing of the mind—the circulation of them is the stuff of society and political relations. If the person who received a gift loses it, does the benefit remain? Seneca says yes—the obligation remains. If you release someone from pirates and they’re captured again, Seneca asks, are they still obligated by the benefit you did them? The answer, according to Seneca, is yes. These gifts and obligations of gratitude mark out different levels of society in the Roman structure of patrons and clients. Ingratitude, he says, is one of the worst vices. He claims that moral ills include homicides, thieves, traitors, tyranny, and sacrilege, but that ingratitude is the worst, since these others flow from it.

In the Summa Theologica, Aquinas considers gratitude under the heading of justice, which he considers to involving rendering to people what is due to them. Gratitude, Aquinas said, is one of the ways that we render to others what is due to them. But he called gratitude an annex virtue to justice, since it carried moral but not legal obligations. Gratitude involves recognizing a gift, receiving it with expression that you appreciate the gift. Finally, gratitude involves finding a suitable place and time to pay the person back. Aquinas then outlines the criteria for determining the receiver’s obligation. Aquinas also discusses degrees of ingratitude, which involve a failure to return the favor, failures to express thanks, and a failure to acknowledge that you received the benefit.

Gratitude and Reciprocity in Shakespeare’s Roman Plays

In Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, the title character is a great warrior who defends Rome from its enemies. After he conquers the enemies, he is convinced to run for office, which he’s not well suited to. He’s expected to dress up as a plebe and campaign for votes. He shows them his wounds and asks them to vote for him out of gratitude. But since he had been obnoxious to the plebes, he’s opposed by the tribunes, who represent the plebes. They provoke him to condemn Rome’s political system for giving power to plebes, and they get him exiled for treason to Rome. He immediately leaves Rome, switches sides, and joins enemies who have been attacking it. Seeking vengeance, he joins the siege against Rome. The Romans send out delegations to appeal to him, whom he rebuffs. Finally, they send his mother, who convinces him to drop out, attracting the anger of Rome’s enemies, who kill him.

Leithart argues that the play is fundamentally about political ingratitude on both sides. In one scene, “third citizen” argues that the multitude ought to be grateful for the benefits offered by Coriolanus, and that “ingratitude is monstrous” (Leithart has written further on Coriolanus and gratitude). When they exile him, Coriolanus returns the ingratitude to Rome, ultimately attempting to stand alone and act as if he were self-made, owing nothing to his home city. This leads to the fight against Rome—this is the sense in which gratitude is seen as political, as a public rather than private virtue.

The Enlightenment’s Debt to Christianity in The Fight Against Reciprocity and Corruption  

Throughout the Enlightenment, there was an attempt to domesticate the network of favors within public life, Leithart says. Theories from the early modern period, people like Locke were trying to get rid of what he and others saw as corruption. The Romans didn’t see graft as corruption—it was the basic material from which political life was constructed. For this reason, Leithart argues that the post-enlightenment age is founded on the idea of ingratitude. Revolutions, for example, sweep away an old regime and its network of obligations, and try to introduce a new social order.

As destructive as the ingratitude of the post-enlightenment age has been, that ingratitude has its origin in a Christian impulse, says Leithart. By Roman standards, Christianity was fundamentally ungrateful. Christianity loosened expectations of reciprocity that the Greco-Roman world expected. When someone gave Christians gifts, they thanked God rather than their benefactor, opening up spaces of freedom that redirect the obligation toward God. In the letter to the Philippians, for example, Paul thanks God for the Philippians. Rather than saying that he is the servant of his donors, he prays that God would reward the donors rather than him.

In the writings of Paul, says Leithart, Christians are encouraged to give without thought of return, rather than obligate others to you. This value breaks the sometimes-oppressive bonds of gratitude expected in the Roman world. Christian gratitude opens up space for things that look more like individual opportunity and autonomy than what was possible in the Roman world. The enlightenment, argues Leithart, introduced a secularization of that Christian impulse.

Concluding Notes and Further Reading

Sadly, our event came to a close before Leithart was able to fully unpack his arguments on the nature of gratitude in Christian theology and its political impact. If you want to explore those questions more fully, here are some resources:

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J. Nathan Matias

J. Nathan Matias (@natematias), who recently completed a PhD at the MIT Media Lab and Center for Civic Media, researches factors that contribute to flourishing participation online, developing tested ideas for safe, fair, creative, and effective societies. Starting in September 2017, Nathan will be a post-doctoral researcher at the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy, as well as the departments of psychology and sociology department Nathan has a background in technology startups and charities focused on creative learning, journalism, and civic life. He was a Davies-Jackson Scholar at the University of Cambridge from 2006-2008.

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