I love a good intellectual history when I can get my hands on one. Intellectual histories, if done right, give you a solid blend of philosophical (theological, etc) engagement, history, and joy of a well-told story. That’s exactly what Peter Leithart delivers in his recent (2014) offering Gratitude: An Intellectual History. Many will know that the idea of “the Gift” has gotten a lot of attention over the 20th Century in philosophy, anthropology, and related fields. When anthropologist Marcel Mauss “rediscovered” the reciprocity involved in the process of gift-giving in the tribal culture of Polynesia and Melanesia, he kicked off a chain of reflection on the conditions and reality of the gift. What goes into making a gift a gift? What are the ties implied in the giving of the gift? Contemporaries tend to think of gifts as, of necessity, having “no strings attached.” But if every gift implies an obligation, a “debt” of gratitude, can there every truly be such a thing as a gift?
Leithart noticed a gap in the literature. While there’s no end of resources on the gift, there’s little that’s focused on the corresponding category: gratitude. Gifts and gratitude go together. But just exactly what that means, it turns out, has been a matter of debate and controversy over the centuries in the West. Gratitude hasn’t always been simply an issue of thank you cards after your wedding—indeed, it probably never has been simply an issue of anything. The circle of gifts and gratitude have made the world go round, encompassing everything from the deepest questions of political theory, interpersonal ethics, and the nature of the divine-human relationship itself. Paul, lest we forget, says ingratitude–not acknowledging God’s gifts for what they are–is at the heart of human rebellion against God (Romans 1).
Taking an expansive view, Leithart, then, aims to tell the story of the Western history’s various political, philosophical, theological, and cultural orientations towards the nature of gift and the corresponding enactment of gratitude. Guided by Leithart’s steady hands, we are led through a movement from circles of honor in ancient Greece and Rome, to the ingratitude of Jesus, on to the patron(age) saints of the Middle Ages, the disruptive ingratitude of the Reformers, an attempt to bend the circles into straight lines in modernity, and up through the methodological ingratitude of postmodernity. Summarizing this engagement is beyond me. That said, it’s not beyond Leithart to summarize himself. And that’s exactly what he does at the end of the work, using a delightful thought experiment: Grandma’s gift soup tureen.
Leithart asks us at the beginning of the book to enter into the dilemmas of gift of gratitude by imagining this situation:
Imagine that your beloved grandmother gave you a rather ugly soup tureen as a wedding gift. Seeing as you have no use for the tureen, how ought you respond? You would, of course, write an appropriately deceptive note of thanks, but what then? Would you box the tureen away and never use it? Would you use it to feed the cat? What if Grandma were coming for dinner? Would you let her see you using her gift to feed the cat?…Variations on the hypothetical can be spun out further…but the point is clear enough. Gifts, especially from a respected giver, carry something of the giver with them. (16-17)
Gifts carry a responsibility, then, of showing proper gratitude and an ethic that is associated with it.
With this in mind, Leithart decides to summarize his story by playfully imagining what a variety (though not the totality!) of the figures treated in his narrative would tell you about how to respond to Grandma’s ugly, gift tureen:
- Aristotle would warn you that receiving the tureen puts you in a position of inferiority and that, if you want to be a virtuous and independent person, you should pay Grandma back with a bigger gift as soon as possible. Then forget you ever received the gift in the first place.
- Cicero would tell you to follow accepted custom, take the gift, look for a chance to reciprocate, and expect that your good offices will advance your political career.
- Seneca would encourage you to exaggerate the quality and beauty of the gift, to appear at Grandma’s door every morning to accompany her on her way to the grocery store, loudly celebrating her generosity at every stoplight. He would encourage you to look for the right time and way to repay her.
- Jesus and Paul would tell you to honor and love Grandma, thank God with sincerity, and move on.
- The Beowulf poet would encourage you to pass out soup tureens to your employees to display your largesse.
- Calvin and Luther would tell you to thank God, while recognizing you do not deserve the tureen or your grandmother’s love. They would remind you that grace is a gift that can never be repaid.
- Hobbes would tell you that you should receive the tureen in such a way that Grandma will never regret having given it to you, which means, do not use it to feed the cat.
- Locke would say that you should thank her and show esteem for her, so long as her gift was not an attempt to influence your decision to vote Democrat.
- Adam Smith would tell you that gratitude is a proper sentiment in response to something that give pleasure, like a tureen.
- Kant would tell you that since Grandma gave first, you are obligated to her by a sacred duty, a debt that can never be repaid.
- Kierkegaard would remind you that we are to thank God even in suffering.
- Nietzsche would urge you to show gratitude especially if the tureen is ugly, to show Grandma how powerless she is to harm you.
- Heidegger would mumble something incomprehensible in German, hike up his lederhosen, and leave with Nazi salute.
- Mauss would be at the head of a gaggle of anthropologists warning you that there is no such thing as a free gift, that Grandma might return later to reclaim her property, and that her display of generosity is likely a power play intended to put you in her debt.
- Derrida would say that you soiled the gift as soon as you said thank you.
- Marion would strip the tureen to its essence of pure givability, and you and Grandma would both disappear into phenomenological vapor. (217-128)
And there you have it: the history of Western thought on gratitude, served up in Grandma’s tureen. If this hasn’t whet your appetite, I’m not sure what else I can say. I suppose I’ll say this: Peter Leithart has written first-rate book. It’s a gift for which I’m very grateful. (To God, of course.)
Soli Deo Gloria
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