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Gratitude: An Intellectual History

Peter J. Leithart
Published by Baylor University Press in 2014

Reviewed by Kelly M. Kapic, Theological Studies, Covenant College

How should one react to the following claims? “Jesus was an ingrate” (68); or “‘ingratitude’ is one of Christianity’s great contributions to Western civilization, precisely the contribution Christianity made to the formation of modernity” (225). Such lines, scattered through this volume, may strike the reader as overstated rhetoric, or at least deeply counterintuitive. Yet, as the pages turn we begin to believe the author offers not only a fresh telling of the history of a key idea (that is, gratitude), but also a compelling account of how Christianity has both resisted and contributed to this conversation. By the end we are taken from the descriptive to the prescriptive as we are told that the Church may alone have the ability to answer social, individual, and political dilemmas that swirl around both the ancient and modern approaches to gift and gratitude.

Peter J. Leithart is a creative scholar and prolific writer who is not easy to pigeonhole. He embodies multi-disciplinary interests and in this new volume we get him at his best: provocative, witty, interdisciplinary, well read, creative, and relevant. Gratitude is a wide-ranging book. Thinkers covered range from Cicero to Jean-Luc Marion, from Aristotle to Machiavelli, from Shakespeare to Derrida. As the subtitle makes clear, it is principally An Intellectual History, but it does include moments of not merely mapping out past options but of advocating for distinctive theological values. Those who work in such fields as philosophy, anthropology, and political theory will be familiar with the abundant recent literature on “Gift,” but much of this research and advocacy focused on giving rather than receiving (why so little about “reception”?). It also tended to fail to appreciate the historical dimensions of this nuanced discussion. Enter Leithart.

Overall, Leithart sees two tendencies for how gratitude occurs in theory and practice: one frames it in circular terms, while the other advances a linear approach. The circular attitude was assumed in one form or another throughout most of the ancient world: “a donor gives a gift or does a favor for a ‘donee’ or a beneficiary, and the donee is expected to return a gift or favor at some future time to the donor” (5). This could include a return of public support, crops, labor, honor, and so on. Here Leithart navigates through the vast terrain of classical Greek and then Roman literature and religion, recognizing general circular patterns even as he also notes occasional modifications (for example, Aristotle) that sought to loosen this potentially suffocating reciprocity. He concludes, “even at its most humane, Greco-Roman gratitude cannot provide the basis for a true body politic, a polity of mutual dependence, of multidirectional gift and return that run in every direction” (55, original emphasis).

While becoming suspect later in history, this circular pattern received renewed interest as a result of certain modern anthropological studies, represented especially by Marcel Mauss’s early twentieth-century classic The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies.1 According to Mauss, the anthropologist should look for a “total social fact” which would embody in practice, institutions, and rituals, the fullness of a culture. Examining the data of a number of earlier scholars who had studied “primitive peoples” (164), such as Kwakiutl Indians or the Trobriand Islanders, Mauss believed gift giving and receiving has this distinctive “total” role because “gifts” uniquely “impregnated” all of the ordering of society: social, political, and economic (167). What mattered more than possessions was generosity, because in giving another had to receive, and in receiving one person was now connected—even if in debt—to another person. The way to power and honor came not through accumulation, but through generosity. In this way, however, gratitude can have a cruel function, for it puts one in debt to the giver; while you may not want to receive, culturally you must, and with that reception comes obligation. Rulers can use gifts as a way to require “gratitude” among their people, whether in the ancient world or a more recent tribal one. But let us not think this potential negative is merely a danger of the past, as Leithart occasionally reminds us: in theory we can rage against such manipulation and problematic applications of “gifts,” yet in practice, politics the world over still normally works in this circular fashion.

On the other hand, given the potential abuses that can come with circular forms of gift and gratitude, others have advanced a more linear approach. Thinkers like Hobbes and Locke changed the conversation because their starting assumption was that humans are “originally autonomous rather than originally dependent” (122). Gifts, then, necessarily come wrapped in self-interest, so beware. One must be very careful about entering into another’s debt, and thus such motions of generosity should only be allowed if it brings mutual benefit and peace. Adam Smith raised similar concerns, although he held the two sentiments of gratitude and resentment together, warning about how one brings pleasure and the other pain, but each imposes certain obligations on us (136). The enlightenment alerted people about the dangers of gratitude and sought to be free from it, a posture that makes sense with rugged individualism but tends to undermine communal life.

In contemporary intellectual history, we must here distinguish between “Gift” and “gratitude.” Leithart puts it well:

Gift—especially in the singular, especially capitalized—is a hurrah word. Say it, and everyone nods and smiles. What rankles is not gift but the expected, obligatory response to the gift. What rankles is gratitude, the response to the gift that seems to shift the gift back into the realm of economy. (195, original emphasis)

Thinkers like Derrida begin to question even the idea of gift, because anything that has a circular nature to it—some response is expected—leaves the realm of gift altogether since it tends to move one into a position of debt or payment. Jean-Luc Marion carries this even further, although in his own way. Rather than destroying the real possibility of gift, Marion looks for “pure givenness”: the problem is that as soon as we recognize something as a gift, we lose the gift itself (209). Marion answers this in his own creative, if not deeply problematic way, by arguing then for a “God without Being”: “Gxd [sic] does not need to be; ‘Gxd gives’ is a sufficient confession” (213). Marion thinks he can argue along such lines even while employing Trinitarian language and conceptions of gift; however, in the end one is left wondering how closely his conception is to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Mary, and Paul.

Advocates of both approaches often draw from particular biblical insights to advance their perspective, but few have been able to hold together the radical reorientation found in Jesus and Paul. Between the circular and linear one discovers the unexpected in Christianity. The dynamic of gifts and gratitude was central to Christian self-understanding, but its distinctive contribution was to expand the circle to God himself, and in so doing, it actually disrupted and disturbed all of the smaller circles, introducing the possibility of “holy ingratitude” (59).

Since everything ultimately comes from the Creator and Sustainer, those who follow Yahweh are called not only to be thankful (not doing so is a form of idolatry), but to cultivate generosity, most especially directed toward the needy. Here lay a real difference: Outside of the biblical scriptures, the ancient world called people to generosity, but it was normally understood in tightly constructed circular form. One gives, yes, but always with some expectation to receive. The scriptures, from the Old Testament and then embodied by Christ in the New, offers a radically different vision. This vision is anchored in the reality of Christ crucified for those who could never repay him. Believers are called to give freely, but not merely to family or those with whom some form of repayment could be expected; no, generosity was especially to be directed toward those who cannot repay. Give in secret. Do not draw attention to generosity, and do not keep accounts of all you have done. Give liberally. This breaks the cultural, ethical, and political frameworks of the ancient world, which so valued reciprocity.

Yet here is the secret: the biblical account maintained the expectation of ‘return’ for what was given, but now, since the circle had been expanded beyond the finite and toward the infinite God, the belief was that the Creator himself would reward. God knows what you do in secret, and he values such generosity. Do not worry about depleting resources or the lack of honorable responses: “because givers look to the Father and not to the recipients for repayment, recipients are freed from debt burdens” (71). In such exchanges “debts” are released; the only debt that remains is for us to thank God in all things and to extend genuine love to our neighbors.

Intriguingly, the Christian vision outlined by Paul, for example, does not restrict gift-and-gratitude to an ecclesial setting nor does it require cultural withdrawal. Instead, it is something that extends to all of society. Recognize God’s generosity in all that is given and love your neighbor. But this also meant that Christians could be thankful for a gift without entering into an unhealthily debt to those who try to use gifts to secure ultimate allegiance. In this way, Jesus and Paul “look like ingrates because their gratitude is so big, so indiscriminate, that it confuses and destroys normal expectations about giving and receiving. They look like ingrates because they looked past every benefit to thank a divine Benefactor” (77). To those whose vision does not include this Benefactor, Jesus and Paul understandably risk appearing like offensive ingrates.

Leithart believes that through the centuries, in one form or another, even Christians could not maintain this perspective and were often tempted back into forms of reciprocity that fostered abuses of power and manipulation. Those who tried to break the circles did so by only highlighting the biblical call to “owe no one anything” (Rom. 13:8). However, such freedom from debt was always supposed to go hand in hand with the Christian call to “love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return,” but also, that “your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Lk. 6:35). We only owe love, and we will receive our rewards from the Heavenly Father.

In the Reformation, a renewed emphasis on the infinite circle of God’s grace and human response would once again liberate Christian attitudes. “Good works” appropriately come in response to divine Gift, but are never the basis for it (100-106). The danger would be to sever this relationship. On the one hand, this comes when those who highlighted God’s free gift then undermined any sense of human agency and response: God did it all and there is nothing expected of me. This fails to appreciate the appropriate and natural movement of reciprocity that is part of God’s relationship to this world. On the other hand, other Protestants can be found flirting with views that risk reducing God’s gifts to something that is dependent upon our worthiness as recipients, which then calls into question if these are properly gifts of grace in the first place.

Leithart nears the end by appreciatively dipping into the recent emergence of “The Psychology of Gratitude.” Growing out of the Positive Psychology movement, these researchers have begun to trace the physiological benefits that can be associated with those who cultivate attitudes of generosity; they have also recognized that gratitude is not merely a form of etiquette, but should be understood as a “moral affect” (221). Accordingly, gratitude helps social relationship flourish and cuts against contemporary individualistic impulses.

In the end modern thinkers did pick up on one or another biblical fragment regarding gift and gratitude, but they have not been easily kept together. Christianity can make sense of this tension between the circular and linear because it extends the circle to the infinite God. Christians are to be thankful to God for all things. All good gifts ultimately can be traced back to the Giver. This helps make sense of the human hunger for gratitude and provides a foundation for cultivating lives of self-sacrifice in which we willingly die to ourselves out of a love for neighbor, even when the neighbor is our enemy. Gifts can then be received from wherever they come—secular state, non-Christian scientist, artists, and so on—without running the risk of becoming enslaved to those who provide these gifts. Ultimately, believers have the freedom to be ingrates, to know that they owe no human anything but love. Such love opens us up to others without requiring us to follow them blindly. Thus, if the Christian Church in China receives more freedom from the state authorities, it should praise God and be thankful to its political leaders. However, if the state then expects gratitude in the form of requiring the Church to modify or compromise the gospel message, the Church becomes a countercultural expression of ingratitude (229).

Overall, Leithart is a good writer, clever and interesting. As he flies at 30,000 feet, seeing the contours of the forest and observing where the rivers break through the trees and the fields open up, he can be masterful. But to fly that high also means you cannot see all of the details one would find if they hovered much closer to the ground. The test, then, is not if the author has been overly general, but to see if his account can stand the gaze of different specialists (anthropologists, philosophers, historians, theologians, sociologists, psychologists) who read what he says about their particular fields. Let the conversation begin. My assessment is that he achieves his goal of starting a much-neglected conversation. In my opinion, his intellectual history is needed, especially for Protestants. We continue to believe one must choose between disruptive radical divine grace and significant human agency. This is a false dichotomy. Might it be true that deep down humanity longs to discover the life-giving circle of gift and gratitude that is uniquely offered to this world by the Triune Creator?

Cite this article
Kelly M. Kapic, “Gratitude: An Intellectual History”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 45:1 , 79-82


  1. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Kelly M. Kapic

Covenant College
Kelly M. Kapic is Professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College.