Gratitude: An Intellectual History

Article by   November 2014
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Peter J. Leithart, Gratitude: An Intellectual History (Baylor University Press, 2014), 340 pages. $49.95/₤29.99

The latest book from the prolific Peter Leithart is another installment of what we have come to expect: an accessibly written synthesis of specialist research advancing a deceptively simple thesis that is sure to provoke a great deal of commentary. Here Leithart takes the reader through the highlights of the Western tradition to demonstrate the history of the (especially Christian) understanding of gratitude.

In an admirably clear and concise introduction, Leithart describes the genesis of the book as arising from his frustration that for all the academic attention to the concept of gift, there are very few contemporary treatments of gratitude, or favorable response to gift. His big picture (he also calls it coloring with crayons) intellectual history of Europe follows the contours of "persons responding to social and political circumstances with the intellectual resources at their disposal" (3). Borrowing from Peter Brown, Leithart thinks that charting the history of gratitude can provide a kind of stethoscope by which to measure "the heartbeat of Western intellectual life, both its regularities and its arrhythmias" (p. 14). He concludes the introduction with a candid admission that the book is intended as a provocation towards the more accurate filling in (or contestation) of the details. Leithart is confident about the broad strokes of his story, but says that he "will be content if I am proven wrong in every particular  (well, most particulars), so long as my book helps put gratitude back into the indexes, search engines, and syllabi" (p. 16). 

Baldly summarized, Leithart argues that the ancient world held to a circular understanding of gifts and gratitude as religious, political, and social quid pro quo, the grease that oiled the wheels of honor and power. Aristotle's ideal of the magnanimous man who is so great as to be able to give unilaterally, without apparent need of return is the exception that proves the rule, especially since such largesse is seen as divine and pragmatically unrealistic. These circles of reciprocity were massively disrupted by the cosmic Christian counter that all things are ultimately a gift from God--a purely gracious donation of existence, combined with the astonishing claim that the Triune God gives Himself that prompted a correspondingly linear graciousness on the part of the church. Christians were to give to others as they had received, without thought of return, a difference interpreted as profoundly ungrateful by their Roman neighbors, since this took aim at the very roots of their honor system. Such Christian "ingratitude" was enclosed within the infinite circle of gratitude to God who sees and rewards (eschatologically) what is done in secret (Matthew 6). 

By the late medieval period, the radicalism of the New Testament and early church had largely reverted to a lightly christened version of the ancient view, most clearly illustrated in the debased popular understanding of indulgences. The Reformers attempted to recover the sheer gratuity of grace, but their reaction to the commercialization of salvation focused on the pure linear side of Jesus and Paul at the expense of the infinite circle of gratitude to the Father who does reward his children, an idea which became increasingly difficult. The cultural upheavals that followed the Reformation eventually produced the liberal Enlightenment project which distinguished between private sentiments of gratitude and purified public (i.e., rational) contracts, politics revisioned as economy untainted by client-patron relations. The shifting relationship between expanding and contracting circles and lines of reciprocity was further disrupted by a recovery of the idea of "gift" in the twentieth century via anthropological rediscovery of so-called primitive tribes. For all its attention to the concept of "gift," post-modernity does not escape the modern Enlightenment construction, built out of various fragments of the Christian understanding. Leithart is particularly good on Marcel Mauss' The Gift, as well as Derrida and Levinas: Heidegger receives a thrashing.

Leithart's cure is a prescription of theistic modernity: a recommendation that we recover the biblical view of gratitude without simply jettisoning all that has taken place between Jesus and today. While this may run the risk of being interpreted as nostalgia, Leithart is fairly clear that there is no particular era where this vision was perfectly enacted. I read him as urging the church to return to the truly liberating message of grace, set free from the circular bonds of reciprocity that have characterized most cultural (including ecclesial) conceptions of gratitude by cultivating habits of focused ingratitude within a larger global frame of absolute gratefulness. The church is therefore freed to enact its vocation as offering a continuous sacrifice of thanksgiving--a Eucharistic existence, so to speak. I take this to be a project in line with the mission of the Theopolis Institute (formerly known as Trinity House), the organization of which Leithart is president.  

Sadly, such a sketchy summary robs the book of very nearly all its manifold joys. I strongly encourage readers to return to the source. 

Specialists will no doubt have much to say about the specifics of Leithart's depiction of gratitude. His biblical case is compelling, though his treatment of Luke 14 would be significantly strengthened by attending to the presence of people with disabilities in the parable of the great banquet: Jesus is truly upending all social conceptions of honor and reciprocal hospitality. I found Leithart's treatment of Mauss to be a tour-de-force, though the chapter on the Enlightenment (cleverly titled Methodological Ingratitude) does occasionally turn into loose chains of book summaries--a risk Leithart admits to running in the introduction. The picture of Kantian ethics as purely linear (pp. 154-160) needs more nuance, particularly in light of the development in Kant's thought that Leithart briefly notes.  

More generally, there is a swashbuckling flavor to some of Leithart's crisp handling of various figures that prompts a larger question about the place of scholarly gratitude in intellectual history, particularly when it comes to theology. I typically think of the debt we owe our predecessors as one of charity--we ought to give the benefit of the doubt to those who have come before us, not only because they were faced with different contextual challenges, but ultimately because we exist together as the temporally extended communion of the saints. As Karl Barth put it in his history of Protestant theology in the nineteenth century, echoing the book of Hebrews, we the living co-exist with those who are dead but still speak. G.K. Chesterton loved to describe a similar idea by saying that tradition is the democracy of the dead. However, I found myself wondering whether Leithart's explicit analysis of Christian gratitude (and implicit rhetorical exemplification) might provide a helpful supplement to this issue.  

Consider the double-edged sense of Paul's exhortation to owe nothing to anyone except love in Romans 13:8, which Leithart references a few times (most importantly on p.74). The negative sense (owe nothing) is liberating, while the positive force is expansively prescriptive (love everyone). In this understanding, the action of love is guided by the frame of gratitude, which both situates us as members of the one communion of saints with obligations to one another, while simultaneously freeing us to criticize for the sake of the truth. Think of the ethics on display in the call to mature union in Christ in the fourth chapter of Ephesians, which undergirds the call to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). As members of the Christian church in the twenty-first century, we are in receipt of a complicated intellectual legacy, and we may not always react with unmixed gratitude to what we have been given. But thinking of that legacy as a gift is a significantly different way to regard our past.

To be human is to live in gratitude. Christians are grateful for many things: the unmerited gift of existence; the wondrous self-donation of the Triune God Himself; undeserved salvation from sin and corruption; incorporation into the community of the people of God; and for every good and perfect gift, each of which comes from the Father (James 1:17). That must include, in an appropriately balanced way, gratitude for the intellectual legacy we have been given.
Leithart brilliantly brackets the book with a thought experiment: what would you do if your grandmother gave you an ugly soup tureen as a wedding present? Throw it away? "Re-gift" it? Use it to feed the cat? He provides a pitch-perfect list of imagined responses by the figures he treats throughout the book at the beginning of his conclusion (pp. 217-218). My personal favorite is Kierkegaard, who would remind you that we are to thank God even in suffering (p. 218).  

What difference would it make if you had purchased the soup tureen? For all his criticism of Mauss, Leithart thinks that something of the giver is in the gift, which distinguishes a gift from a purchase at least in the presence of the giver (p. 16). Some of Leithart's harshest rhetoric (apart from his contempt for Heidegger) is reserved for what he calls liberal fantasy: "the mythology of a political economy purged of the dynamics of gratitude is one of the defining mythologies of modern politics. Liberal theory is a fantasy; works of liberal theory are fantasy fiction" (p.141). But in the next sentence, Leithart is able to say that "for all that, liberal theory is a Christian, or at least a post-Christian fantasy" (p. 141). I think that Leithart would be able to level that criticism if Locke were in the room, but I am sure that Leithart's work (both in programmatic form and rhetorical force) raises the question of how we as scholars treat our predecessors.  

On balance, Leithart exemplifies the equipoise of focused ingratitude enclosed with greater gratitude that his book recommends. Consider the carefully phrased dedication Leithart writes "To Pastor Doug Wilson, with thanks, for his example of giving thanks for all things." In the Acknowledgements, Leithart says that, "for reasons that will be clear in the book, I do not offer thanks to Doug, but I do thank God for him, not least for the many things he has taught me, by word and example, about what it means to live in and out of gratitude." In the introduction, Leithart notes how academic books drip with grateful (not to say obsequiously flattering) acknowledgements that demonstrate the perduring importance of being thankful, even if academics remain uninterested in actually analyzing gratitude. In the real world, we are enclosed and supported by webs of debt: social, economic, and intellectual. We therefore are in desperate need of a more realistic analysis of the ethics of gratitude, in the market as well as what our culture inconsistently regards as the private realm of morality. Leithart has provided a valuable foundation for that analysis, and I join him in wishing that this book succeeds in provoking such further detailed exploration. We should thank God for the gift of this stimulating work.

Ben Rhodes is the Manager of Academic Studies at the Christian Institute on Disability at the Joni and Friends International Disability Center. Among other responsibilities, Dr. Rhodes helps oversee international education and training at Joni and Friends. He holds a PhD in systematic theology from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, and teaches at the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University

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