Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Gratitude: An Intellectual History?
by peter j. leithart?
baylor, 350 pages, $49.95

Peter Leithart’s Gratitude: An Intellectual History is a creative, insightful, and ambitious book. It takes its point of departure from the voluminous literature on the subject of the gift. Though the topic has been pursued most rigorously among such diverse theorists as ­Derrida, Marion, and Milbank, it has made a noticeable impression on scholars working in the fields of late ­antiquity and the Middle Ages. The recent books of Seth Schwartz in the field of Rabbinic Judaism and of Peter Brown on the Church Fathers is an indication of how important this sort of inquiry has become.

It is in this context that ­Leithart’s book is to be placed. It varies, ­however, in one very important way. Rather than being limited to a single historical epoch, it traces the notion of gratitude for a gift from its biblical origins to the present day. Though stops are made on most of the expected theological themes, the book takes special interest in the impact that Christian notions of gratitude have had on political and economic ­theorists (John Locke and Adam Smith among others) and devotes a chapter to the “rediscovery” of the gift by Mauss and other modern anthropologists. Leithart has read widely and deeply on this subject, and the result is an informed overview of the subject of gift and gratitude that cannot be found elsewhere.

In spite of its long reach, the book is not a purely “linear” progression through time. The history of gratitude is not “one damn thing after another.” Special focus is given to what Leithart calls three moments of disruption: that of the early Church, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. The word disruption presumes, of course, that there was a preexisting norm that was ripe for destabilization. The major moment of disruption is the first: Jesus’s ­overturning of Greco-Roman notions of reciprocity. The whole story unfolds from the implications of this original revolution.

Though it is always dangerous to generalize about reciprocity among the Greeks and the Romans (and Leithart explores with considerable sensitivity the wide variety of positions on offer), it is not unfair to say that gift giving was imagined as a closed circle of exchange between clients and their patrons. What one ­received from another was expected to be returned. Roman culture, in particular, was founded on very tightly honed notions of reciprocity.

The teaching of Jesus as well as the movement he spawned served as a dramatic interruption in this system. No longer was giving to be reduced to the closed circle of donor and donee. With the introduction of God into the system, the donor was no longer motivated by the expectation of a conventional return of the favor. What struck pagans was that Jesus “gave priority to gifts to those who could not repay—hospitality to the homeless, alms for the poorest, generosity to those without resources to return.” The Gospel broke the conventional expectations of ordinary gift exchange. By putting a priority on the poor, Christians placed God at the center of an “infinite circle of exchange.”

The result was gratitude toward God and “ingratitude” toward conventional patrons. Paul’s advice to owe debts to no one was revolutionary in its time. The emperor Julian famously attributed the growth of the Church to the unique Christian virtue of giving to the poor and urged his pagan priests to act in a similar fashion. But to no avail.

Greco-Roman religion was primarily a cultic affair; moral ideas such as charity did not enter into it. Not that the Greeks and Romans were indifferent to morals—they just considered them philosophical questions rather than religious ones. When Julian tried to locate concern for the poor within the religious realm, it was like Jane Doe receiving a kidney transplant from her brother John Doe. Her body recognizes it as a foreign object and, without drugs to ­suppress the reaction, rejects it. So went Julian’s attempt to transplant a piece of Judeo-Christianity into the pagan realm.

Neither, as Leithart points out, can the Christian idea of gratitude be brought into conformity with the modernist interest in altruism (­Auguste Comte coined the term in the early nineteenth century). True, Jesus exhorted his followers to give without any expectation of return from the recipient. But this did not prevent God from promising his own reward. “The force of this is evident,” Leithart argues, “in Jesus’ jarring (to us) habit of introducing commercial language into religious talk.” Gifts to the poor were thought to accumulate in a heavenly treasury. “For Jesus, generosity is at its root an act of faith; one gives not because one sees where the return is coming from but because one trusts one’s Father to see in secret and to reward, perhaps in the unseeable and unforeseeable future.” This is a brilliant insight that has been lost on a generation of readers of the New Testament. The influence of Kant’s sense of duty has been so pervasive that even a dominical teaching about the assurance of a heavenly reward has been suppressed.

The treatment of medieval Catholicism is less effective. Here Leithart claims that the ­medieval Church fell back into the errors of Greco-Roman systems of patronage and lost the radical sense of “ingratitude” that Jesus had inscribed into the closed circle of human reciprocity. On his reading the Mass was “commercialized” and turned into a human work. Popular piety, on the other hand, was in thrall to the “jingle of Jan Eck—As soon as the copper rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” ­Leithart concludes: “It was a jingle of reciprocity. Coins jingled in his collection can as they rolled around in a narrow late medieval circle.”

I do not doubt there were many abuses in the Catholic Church of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but it seems highly unlikely that the Catholic tradition as a whole can be so summarily dismissed. One ­wishes that Leithart had explored the ­variety of approaches to the Mass and indulgences with the same care he had shown for Greek and Roman thinkers. The picture is not as monochrome as he portrays it.

But let the reader not suppose that the book devolves into Protestant apologetics. Leithart argues that while Luther and Calvin corrected many “Catholic” errors, the Protestant movement very quickly began to sow the seeds of its own demise. A too insistent sounding of the theme of sola gratia “put pressure on Protestant theologians to minimize or deny the circularity of the New Testament’s teaching on grace.” The fear that a divine reward might compromise the dignity of the Gospel led thinkers such as Kant to define gratitude in a this-worldly fashion. With no divine participation in the circle of gift exchange, altruism—with its single-minded focus on the moral agency of the donor—­becomes the privileged modern category for understanding the gift.

This distortion of a crucial piece of the Gospel has led to an enormous loss for the Church. In an important concluding remark, Leithart writes: “Only the infinite circle underwrites an ethic of self-sacrifice, which, for Christians, does not operate on the premise of ‘Those who lose their lives lose them’ but the promise of ‘Those who lose their lives shall gain them.’ Only the infinite circle harmonizes self-interest and altruism, and thus only the infinite circle can underwrite the second great commandment that is the basis of all social life: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The Gospel squares self-interest with altruism; it folds eros into agap?.

Gift and gratitude do not take place solely between human agents. The miracle of the Gospel was to infuse gratitude into every nook and cranny of human life. This was possible because of a deep faith in the utterly gratuitous quality of God and of the world he has made; the world of modern politics and economics, in contrast, has reduced the gift to a mere commodity of exchange.   

Gary A. Anderson is the Hesburgh Professor of Catholic Theology at the University of Notre Dame.