Is it possible to understand the concept of person and rights without a concept of gratitude? The two may not seem to be necessarily linked! In a series of posts, we hope to unpack the connect, beginning with this one.
Many of us, perhaps, tend to think of “gratitude” as being some kind of feeling or emotion. When we receive a gift or someone does something nice for us we utter a word of “thanks.” If it is genuine, we will feel a certain warmth towards the benefactor at the same time. It’s a very common way of understanding thankfulness: gratitude is something we ought to feel. But while this may seem a completely natural view it misses the depth and richness of what gratitude is really all about.
In order to appreciate what gratitude really is, we should first ask what a virtue is. After all, gratitude is a virtue: at least, that is the way it has been understood throughout antiquity to modern times. Considered as a virtue, gratitude makes a lot of sense. Considered as a feeling however, it does not make much sense!
Many religious traditions, especially Christianity and Judaism, have a long-held appreciation for the concept of virtue. But we also find the concept of virtue informing both Greek and Roman societies in antiquity too, as well as many other societies in antiquity and throughout history. In fact, every society has a set of actions that it considers to be desirable for the healthy functioning of society. Such virtues throughout history have included loyalty, intelligence and bravery. Today, we might be inclined to add the virtues of generosity, honesty and patience to the lists we’ve inherited.
Simply put, a virtue is a good habit. It is something we do on a regular basis; something good action which has become so ingrained into our personalities that we do not need to think about doing it: such virtuous actions flow naturally from us.
A courageous person, for example, would be someone who—when the need arises—can be counted on to act bravely. An honest person is someone who we can trust to look after our home and finances while we’re away or incapacitated.
All good parents today want to instill virtuous behavior into their children. Such parents want their children to grow up and function in society as honest, hard-working, kind, generous, loyal and trustworthy. Training children in the virtuous life is understood to be, and indeed always has been, among the primary roles of the parent.
It’s quite common today for people to think of gratitude as being a kind of feeling. Such an attitude stems from some of the issues we examined in the last chapter: western societies today tend to exaggerate the role of emotion to the extent that virtues become subsumed under the banner of feelings.
All virtues, including gratitude, are about habits of action. They train us to do something on a regular basis and not just feel something. While very important to life, feelings are secondary and not essential to the exercise of the virtues.
Consider for example the virtues of generosity and courage. A person who gives money to the poor is a generous person. Similarly, a courageous person is someone who rushes into a burning house to rescue a child trapped inside. We wouldn’t call a person “generous” who claims to feel generous while never doing anything we might consider a generous action. Nor would we call someone “courageous” who claims to feel brave but does nothing about it. We call people “generous” or “brave” based on their actions and not how they feel. It is entirely possible that someone may do something brave while feeling afraid! We might even say that this person is especially brave for acting in a way that overcomes their feelings of fear.
And so it is with the virtue of gratitude. It is not a feeling but a kind of habitual action. In fact, there is no such thing as a “grateful feeling” since we do not ascribe virtues to feelings, which are so subjective and hard to understand or command.
In pagan times (for example, in pre-Christian Rome) acts of gratitude typically followed a set formula. Gratitude was expressed in orations of praise to the emperor or someone high up the political ladder. The early Christian writers were quite struck at the way in which even pagans understood that being grateful involved some kind of liturgical action oriented to honor and praise (‘liturgy’ simply means ‘public work’ and predates the Christian use of the term). That’s why one often finds ancient Christian commentators referring affectionately to the Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero as “Our Tully”. Cicero wrote quite a bit on gratitude and his writings were a favourite reference for St Thomas in his own treatment of gratitude. Cicero understood that to be grateful was not a feeling but a public demonstration of friendship.
These grateful and public orations written by the pagans have an unmistakable liturgical flavor to them. One of the most famous examples comes to us from Ausonius who wrote a gushing hymn of praise to the emperor Gratian for making him a consul. Parts of it read like the Gloria we sing at mass and one would be forgiven for thinking that these parts belong in a Christian liturgy.