Jeremy David Engels is Sherwin Early Career Professor in the Rock Ethics Institute and Associate Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at the Pennsylvania State University. (In the not too distant past, he served on my dissertation committee!) In his new book, The Art of Gratitude, Engels traces the genealogy of the concept back to Greek antiquity before following it forward through Rome, Christianity, and the contemporary self-help literature.
ECM: After your last book, The Politics of Resentment, I was expecting The Art of Gratitude to be really uplifting. But it’s not, exactly. What’s the problem with gratitude?
JDE: Initially, I hoped to pivot away from negative emotions like fear and resentment and focus instead on a more positive emotion, gratitude. I hoped to write a book in the tradition of the affirmative philosophy that I associate with Emerson, Whitman, and William James, who argue that our writing should be about inspiration rather than condemnation or critique.
But as I dug into the gratitude literature, I found a persistent theme of indebtedness. For many authors, gratitude is not about thanksgiving, but instead about calculating what we owe in return for the things we are given. And I was alarmed to see how this sense of gratitude as debt was leveraged politically to articulate positions that, to me, stand contrary to the aims of a democracy that seeks to ensure that everyone, not just the well off and well connected, is able to live and live well.
In a nutshell, I think the problem with the contemporary literature is how closely it ties gratitude to debt. Recognizing this, my book shifted pretty radically during the literature review stage, because to write an uplifting book I first needed to wrestle with a long history of power and exclusion.
ECM: You write that, historically, gratitude has functioned as a tool of social control. How?
JDE: In Politics of Resentment, I argued that resentment is a natural and often completely justifiable democratic emotion. Anytime you have a stratified society in which there is a strong divide between elites and masses or between rich and poor, those who find themselves in a disadvantaged position naturally feel resentment. That resentment can be a powerful tool of democratic social change, but it can also be a tool of oppression—depending on where the emotion is directed.
Historically, resentment has been the emotion that elites feared the most—because it inspired the masses to rise up and demand whatever they were lacking. In the twentieth century, however, many elites found that they could wield it themselves. Resentful people are always desirous of targets for their resentment, so by shifting targets, elites could pit the masses against each other, creating a vertical divide between the people in place of a horizontal divide between the classes. That’s how it stops being a democratizing force and starts to insulate the status quo.
Gratitude operates in a similar way, with similar potentials. When we find ourselves in a position of owing—and people in a democratic society always owe something to other people—we may become vulnerable to control. Certain Roman figures, like Cicero and Seneca, recognized the power of gratitude to maintain social stability. Cicero argued that, when we accept a gift from someone else, we enter into a contractual arrangement whereby we owe something in return—a reciprocal gift—but we also owe a feeling of thankfulness. That feeling allows us to become more comfortable in the position of owing.
Since wealthy Romans were always providing something to the poor, whether it was grain or protection or some other resource, the debt of gratitude owed from poor to rich had the power to stall their resentments and keep them contented. That’s how gratitude can counteract the positive potential of resentment as a democratic emotion.
ECM: At a couple of points in the book, you describe Christianity as “beautiful and dangerous and democratic” because of its emphasis on forgiving our debts and debtors. Should this faith be understood as a response to the Roman conception of gratitude?
JDE: It’s difficult to talk about Christianity since there are so many Christianities. I recognize that, and I would love for someone to write a detailed history of Christian visions of gratitude. My book is not that.
But when I began this project, I took the time to the read the New Testament in full, in a few different translations, with attention to the original Greek text as well. One of the things that I found to be really beautiful and dangerous—and here I mean dangerous to the status quo—is the radical rhetoric of equality and debt forgiveness that Christ espouses. I was shocked, then, to see how his words were reinterpreted later, especially in the Middle Ages, to defend the debt of gratitude.
So, yes, I understand Christianity to respond to Roman discourses concerning gratitude as debt. And I am persistently vexed when contemporary Christians invert this message and argue the opposite, ignoring Christ’s message that debts should be cancelled and instead arguing that, in various ways, Christianity means learning to be comfortable living in debt.
Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.