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On Gratitude, by James Ceasar

On Gratitude, by James Ceasar

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Published by Hoover Institution
On Gratitude
by James W. Ceaser

AN ENDANGERED VIRTUES ES SAY

Boyd and Jill Smith Task Force on Virtues of a Free Society www.endangeredvirtuesessays.com

Gratitude is one of the most fundamental and complex of the virtues, undergirding and overlapping with many of the others. Cicero once characterized it as “the mother of all the virtues.” Although precision of definition in such matters is neither possible nor desirable—some things being better investigated by what Pascal called an esprit de
On Gratitude
by James W. Ceaser

AN ENDANGERED VIRTUES ES SAY

Boyd and Jill Smith Task Force on Virtues of a Free Society www.endangeredvirtuesessays.com

Gratitude is one of the most fundamental and complex of the virtues, undergirding and overlapping with many of the others. Cicero once characterized it as “the mother of all the virtues.” Although precision of definition in such matters is neither possible nor desirable—some things being better investigated by what Pascal called an esprit de

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Published by: Hoover Institution on Aug 30, 2011
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04/06/2014

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   t  a  s   k   f  o  r  c  e   o  n   v   i  r   t  u  e  s  o   f  a    f  r  e  e   s  o  c   i  e   t  y
Gratitude is one o the most undamental and complex o the virtues, undergirding andoverlapping with many o the others. Cicero once characterized it as “the mother o allthe virtues.” Although precision o denition in such matters is neither possible nordesirable—some things being better investigated by what Pascal called an
esprit defnesse
rather than an
esprit de géométrie
—there is need or at least a rough idea ogratitude’s meaning.And where better to begin, at least in an American context, than by consulting ourgreatest lexicographer, Noah Webster? Webster commences his 1828 dictionary entryon gratitude as ollows: “An emotion o the heart, excited by a avor or benet received;a sentiment o kindness or good will towards a beneactor; thankulness. Gratitude is anagreeable emotion, consisting in or accompanied with good will to a beneactor, and adisposition to make a suitable return o benets or services, or when no return can bemade, with a desire to see the beneactor prosperous and happy.”The characterization o gratitude as an “emotion” or “sentiment” seems to identiy itas a eeling that wells up spontaneously. Even so, it has been subjected to the strongestkind o moral judgment. An incapacity to experience gratitude is commonly regarded notjust as unortunate, but as evidence o a deective soul (or, in the case o a collectivity,o a deective community). At the same time, a capacity or gratitude can be developed,shaped, and trained. How oten, or example, do we see earnest parents reminding theirchildren to “say thank you” when receiving a git? In so doing they are hoping not justto teach good manners—the outward perormance o good behavior—but also to orma disposition o character.To identiy gratitude as an emotion places it squarely within the subject matter o themodern science o psychology, which until recently paid it surprisingly scant attention.Freudians ignored it, with the notable exception o Melanie Klein. In her
 Envy and Gratitude
 (1957), Klein got right down to basics, locating the source o gratitude in inancy: “A ullgratication at the breast means that the inant eels he has received rom his objecta unique git which he wants to keep. This is the basis o gratitude.” She goes on toobserve that “the more oten gratication at the breast is experienced and ully accepted,
AN ENDANGERED VIRTUES ESSAY
On Gratitude
James W. Ceaser 
 
 
On Gratitude 
Hoover Institution
Stanford University
by James W. CeaserBoyd and Jill Smith Task Force on Virtues of a Free Society
www.endangeredvirtuesessays.com 
 
James W. Ceaser 
 
 
On Gratitude 
 
2
Hoover Institution
Stanford University
the more oten enjoyment and gratitude, and accordingly the wish to return pleasure,are elt.”Little else was written about gratitude or the next orty years, until a new school, knownas “positive psychology,” made it a subject o sustained inquiry. Relying on empiricalmethods, scholars in this eld developed quantitative scales or measuring subjects’experience o gratitude and then proceeded to correlate that gratitude with othereelings and behaviors. Studies showed that people who experienced greater levelso gratitude also experienced more happiness, less stress, and more satisaction inpersonal relationships. High gratitude scores even correlated with sleeping better.Gratitude, in short, can be an important actor in contributing to good mental health.There are some obvious questions about this research. On one level, we may wonderwhether the personality type that enables a subject to experience high levels ogratitude also accounts or the other positive results ound to be associated with it.Gratitude, in the parlance o social science, would then be less an independent thanan intervening variable. On another level, humanist-oriented thinkers might object tohaving a virtue so rudely measured and clinically dissected. Would the great ThomasAquinas, who gave us one o the classic treatments o gratitude, ever have dreamed oemploying a psychometric “GRAT scale”? Humanists might also take exception to theidea that gratitude “pays.” They would argue that a virtue is a virtue because o itsintrinsic beauty or nobility, not because o its utility. In airness to the new science,however, only the most severe o moralists deny that virtue sometimes brings its ownpsychic rewards. Recall Webster’s description o gratitude as an “agreeable emotion,”probably meaning agreeable to the one who experiences it as well as to those whoobserve it.Psychological investigation certainly provides insights, but gratitude is surely somethingmore than just an emotion or eeling. It is a norm o behavior. Gratitude is generally madeknown through conduct—hence such well-known phrases as “displaying gratitude,”“showing gratitude,” “expressing gratitude,” or more strongly, “paying a debt (or thedues) o gratitude.” The dimension o “perormance” is necessary i only or the practicalreason that no one can see into the heart o another: “For what man knoweth the thingso a man, save the spirit o man which is in him?” (1 Corinthians 2:11) Gratitude has asocial aspect and is incomplete i it does not include the act o
acknowledgment 
. Therequirement o perormance transorms gratitude rom being a mere eeling to being avirtue, in the ordinary understanding o doing or practicing what is a good.The perormance dimension o gratitude looms larger in public than in private lie.Within the narrower circle o amily or riends, the minutest o gestures, like a smileor a warm look, may be sucient to reveal an inner emotion. For a broader public,however, such reserve will not do. Gratitude must be expressed in a record or publicevent. Following the battle o Chattanooga, or example, President Abraham Lincoln
 
James W. Ceaser 
 
 
On Gratitude 
 
3
Hoover Institution
Stanford University
wrote a letter—already a quasi-ocial act—to General Ulysses S. Grant expressing his“prooundest gratitude” or the “skill, courage, and perseverance” displayed in achievingvictory, and the Congress ollowed up shortly thereater with a joint resolution to thesame eect. When it comes to the political realm, terms such as “duty” or “obligation”in expressing gratitude are no mere gures o speech. Webster, in the next sentenceo his entry, concurs: “Gratitude is a virtue o the highest excellence, as it implies aeeling and generous heart, and
a proper sense o duty 
.”The obligation to display gratitude in public lie leads to the development o “rules”respecting the time, place, and manner or the perormance o the rites. Yet gratitudehas the special characteristic that its outer orm should also be thought to express aninner disposition; it includes sincerity, which means that people are always looking orevidence o good intention. Gratitude in this respect diers rom many other virtues,like practicing justice or even honoring one’s ather and mother, where the state o mindis, by comparison, a lesser consideration in judging the virtue and where doing one’sduty counts most. The importance o “interiority” or gratitude has the consequencethat deviations rom the ordinary orms are sometimes permitted, and perhaps evenencouraged, on the grounds that mechanistically ollowing convention can betray alack o genuine eeling.Still, rules are important. Matters cannot be let up to each individual, as i what he orshe does is all that counts. Gratitude involves considering the times and occasionswhen it ought to be elt. It must accord with a standard, even i there is no simpleormula or governing conduct or all occasions. Many actors, including the intentiono the beneactor, the degree o sacrice incurred, and, the magnitude o the git, mustbe taken into account.In cases where gratitude is expected, the ailure to make a respectul and properacknowledgement, or, worse, the display o a willul disregard toward the beneactor,opens one to the charge o ingratitude. Even the proud must learn to submit to theyoke o gratitude. Ingratitude is more than just the obverse o gratitude; it is a greatervice than gratitude is a virtue.
Gratitude and Culture
Gratitude gures importantly in the shaping o three great constituents o Americanand Western culture: religion, understandings o human nature, and doctrines o socialchange.The connection o gratitude to religion is one o the major themes o religious thought.Martin Luther, or instance, called gratitude “the basic Christian attitude,” and it hasbeen at the heart o the liturgies o both Christianity and Judaism. Its centrality turnsmost on the biblical view that there is no necessity or God to have created the heavensand earth, made man in his likeness, or shown his grace. God is accordingly the ultimate

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