In an episode of NBC's sitcom The Office, the obnoxious boss, Michael Scott, brings an iPod as a Christmas gift to a "Secret Santa" party. Everyone else, sticking to the usual custom, has wrapped a small item of junk from home or else purchased a five-dollar trinket for the occasion. When the iPod is opened and the gap between its price tag and all the others becomes apparent, the game is immediately changed. By giving a gift worth hundreds of dollars to people he barely knows, Michael has skewed the dynamics of the party. Confusion and hurt feelings are the predictable result.
It's a silly scene in a frivolous TV show, but Michael's gift nicely highlights something we all know intuitively: that there is a culturally acceptable choreography for giving gifts. Not all gifts are appropriate, and many of the ones that are acceptable are carefully calculated to achieve certain aims or build up specific relationships. We wouldn't, for instance, usually give a diamond ring to someone who wasn't our spouse, nor would we, as Jesus points out, give a snake to a child who asked for a fish. But we would give a return gift to the couple next door who dropped a small Christmas present in our mailbox, and most of us would look for a reciprocal invitation from the family we invited over last week, hoping to get to know them better and strengthen the ties of new friendship.
All these movements and gestures, and many more besides, have been thoroughly analyzed in recent philosophy, theology, and cultural anthropology, turned inside and out in academic studies with titles like The Enigma of the Gift and God and the Gift. What has received less attention is gratitude, the response of the recipients to all those gifting movements and gestures. Peter Leithart's new book, titled simply Gratitude: An Intellectual History, tries to fill that void. Like everything Leithart writes, it's the result of a jaw-dropping breadth of research. One of the distinct pleasures of a new Leithart book is the opportunity it gives us to watch a smart, unpredictable mind sharing his reactions to the books he's worked through. This new work deepens that pleasure.
The Dance of Giving
Gratitude starts before the Christian era, with the ancient Greeks and Romans. A wealthy patron might offer a present to a friend, but such a favor wasn't about establishing equality. On the contrary, the recipient of the gift was expected to demonstrate gratitude by returning the favor in a correspondingly concrete way. Greek and Roman moralists fretted over the elaborate maneuvering this system required. Aristotle and his followers suggested that return gifts should outshine their originals, allowing receivers to enjoy a certain independence. Meanwhile, Cicero and Seneca, the first-century Latin authors, counseled shrewdness. Better, they thought, to use the newly established patron-client relationship for one's own advantage.
Demonstrating gratitude by giving return gifts was a way to climb the social ladder. If you heralded your patron's generosity by publicly showing him your gratitude, you might stand a chance of benefitting from his gifts again in the future, and thus the cycle would be perpetuated. "Paganism did not have to learn gratitude from Christians," Leithart concludes. "Paganism knew all about gratitude, the oppressions of gratitude included."