In the religions that are familiar to us, the idea of grace is of fundamental importance. The term (Latin gratia) translates a variety of words in Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, and Sanskrit, but all the sacred texts seem to point in the same direction, affirming that God’s relation to the world as a whole, and to each of us in particular, is one of giving. The beseeching of God’s grace is the central feature of the Anglican liturgy. The great prayer of the Catholic Church, based on a poem in the New Testament, greets the Virgin Mary with the words “Hail Mary, full of Grace, blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” The Koran opens with the verse that forms a refrain in the life of all Muslims: bism illah il-rahman il-rahim, in the name of God, full of grace, full of graciousness, as Mohamed Asad translates it, and the root rhm is shared with Hebrew, used often in the Old Testament to denote God’s concern for us, His recognition of our weakness, and His abundance of gifts. The idea that the world is sustained by gift is second nature to religious people, who believe that they should be givers in their turn, if they are to receive the gift on which they depend for their salvation.
But, as we know, we are entering a new period of human history, in which religious faith is not the normal condition into which children are born. Young people grow up without those rituals, such as grace before meals, which rehearse the distress of their ancestors, and which remind them of their amazing good luck in finding food on the table and comfort all around. Gratitude, if it occurs at all, is for special occasions, when some individual makes a point of stepping in to help them.
Gift supposes ownership: I cannot give you a thing unless that thing is mine. In giving it to you I relinquish ownership, while demanding nothing in exchange. Gratitude is your acknowledgement of this: your recognition that I have deliberately incurred a loss, in order that you should receive a benefit. And we normally expect the relation between us to be changed by this. We assume that you will bear in mind the good that I have done you, and be prepared, in the right circumstances, to reciprocate. Of course, the opportunity to reciprocate may never arise, and the truly generous person, the one who takes pleasure in giving and who regards giving as a good in itself, will not think that he is, through his giving, securing some future benefit. The greatest gifts are those that can never be reciprocated, like the gift of health that the doctor makes to a poor patient, demanding nothing in return, or like the gift of life and nurture that a mother makes to her child, or like the gift of his own life that a soldier makes when he dies in battle for his country.
This means that all gifts are arrayed on a spectrum of interest, ranging from those that belong to a strategy of reciprocation, hardly gifts at all but simply uncompleted bargains, and those that are detached completely from the possibility of some future return, and are to be seen as sacrifices. Anthropologists have made a study of gift-giving cultures, in which gift has become ritualized, as a way of securing peace and goodwill between neighboring tribes and families, but in which reciprocity is minutely calculated, so that each gift must be met in due course by a return that is of equal value. Failure to reciprocate, in such a culture, may lead to anger, remonstration, and even war. To us, looking on from the secure standpoint of a legal order that has emancipated itself from such simple rituals, the gift-giving culture may seem to be very far from anything that we understand as giving.
Still, that is not entirely true. There is, in the gift-giving culture, a display of gratitude at the moment of gift, and a kind of rejoicing that warms the hearts of those involved. On the gift day the tribe does not merely put aside old quarrels; it feels a renewed surge of affection toward its neighbors. This affection is a kind of moral capital on which it may draw in times of conflict. It delays belligerence, providing the breathing space in which offenses can be rectified before it is too late. When you give something to another, however cool your relations may be prior to the gift, you feel a surge of affection in the giving, an affection that the act of giving itself brings into being. When I give something I am present in the gift: it comes from me and is a symbol and an out-growth of the free self that is the moral heart of me. The gift comes wrapped in affection, an out-going of me to you that is created by the very act of giving. Even if the gift belongs to a context of ritual and reciprocity, it is something more than a bargain or a contractual exchange. It is I, going out to you.
It should not be forgotten, however, that this kind of affection needs to be renewed, if it is to bring stability and reliability to human relations. Societies that depend upon “favors” rather than legally enforceable contracts are notably given to conflicts and blood feuds. As products of the clearheaded English-speaking culture, who see law, contract, and promise-keeping as the foundation of social order, we are suspicious of favors. The gift culture of southern Italy is repugnant to us, especially when conjoined, as it inevitably seems to be, with the code of omertà; and the granting of favors is unacceptable in politics. In this frame of mind we are apt to look with suspicion when gifts intrude into relations that ought to exist on a more legal and publicly accountable footing. Gift privatizes a relationship, and some relationships ought not to be privatized — so we think, at least.
However, we should make a clear distinction between two kinds of gift: those that are part of creating and cementing individual ties, and those that are gifts of charity — arm’s-length gifts, the purpose of which is to provide help where help is needed, but not to create a debt or a bond of individual affection. There is an interesting contrast here between the English-speaking culture and the culture of the European continent. Figures for private charitable giving for 2006 showed the United States at the top of the list, with charitable gifts from individuals and private companies amounting to 1.67 percent of GDP; Britain was a long way behind, but nevertheless second on the list with charitable giving at 0.73 percent of GDP. Canada was in third place, followed by South Africa and the Republic of Ireland. Germany and France were way down the list at 0.22 percent and 0.14 percent respectively, and Italy and Spain were off the map altogether. Countries with strong gift-giving routines may be very poor at charitable giving, and conversely countries with strong private charities may be suspicious of the privatization of public life that occurs when gift-giving takes precedence over contract and law.
Charity, or caritas, is the Latin term with which the Vulgate translates agape — the Greek word introduced by St. Paul to describe the special love for others to which Christians are commanded, and on which the Christian community is built. Many theologians and philosophers have discerned a deep meaning in this word. The Greeks had made eros-sensual love — fundamental to their worldview. Plato argued that eros is only apparently directed toward other human beings, and that, in itself, it aspires toward God. It is on the wings of eros that we can rise to the heavenly sphere where we belong. St. Paul was introducing a more Hebrew conception when he praised faith, hope, and agape as the three virtues of the Christian life. Agape does not raise us to God, but comes down to us from God. It is received as a gift, and then distributed by each of us to our neighbors, as another gift. Hence C. S. Lewis, in The Four Loves, called it “gift-love.” It fills the world with the spirit of gift — but not a personal, exclusive, or jealous gift, like erotic love. It is a gift that makes no demands; agape pursues the interest of the other and not that of the self. Eros is the opposite: jealous, possessive, wanting pleasure for the self, and often indifferent to the other’s well-being. Of course eros can rise above that condition, but in the Christian view it is something to be disciplined. Eros is to be turned in another direction by infusing it with agape — with the love that redeems and liberates. (For the Christian this transmutation of the erotic into the agapic is the work of marriage, and it is why marriage is a sacrament, and not just a deal.)
The proper response to a gift, even a gift of charity, is gratitude. People who feel gratitude also wish to express it. The easiest way is to give in one’s turn. By giving you pass on and amplify the goodwill that you received. Thus it is that, in America, where the tradition of giving is very much alive, and the state has not yet extinguished the desire or the need for it, people give to their old school, to their university, to the hospital that cured them, to the local rescue service that saved them, and to the veterans who fought for them. They give without seeking or expecting recognition, but simply because gratitude is expressed through giving.
However, the state is taking over many of the functions that were previously performed by charities — not least education, health care, and the relief of poverty. And the state deals on impersonal and equal terms with its citizens. It has no favorites, and it is governed by the rules — anything else is received by the citizens as an injustice. Hence charity is replaced by justice as the ruling principle upon which social benefits are distributed. But while charity deals in gifts, justice deals in rights. And when you receive what is yours by right you don’t feel grateful. Hence people who receive their education and health care from the state are less inclined to give to schools and hospitals in their turn — something that is borne out vividly by the figures concerning charitable giving. The spirit of gratitude retreats from the social experience, and in countries like France and Germany, where civil society is penetrated at every level by the state, people give little or nothing to charity, and regard gifts with suspicion, as attempts to privatize what should be a matter of public and impartial concern.
When gifts are replaced by rights, so is gratitude replaced by claims. And claims breed resentment. Since you are queuing on equal terms with the competition, you will begin to think of the special conditions that entitle you to a greater, a speedier, or a more effective share. You will be always one step from the official complaint, the court action, the press interview, and the snarling reproach against Them, the ones who owed you this right and also withheld it. That is the way European society is going, and American society may one day follow it. Agape, the contagious gentleness between people, survives only where there is a habit of giving. Take away gift, and agape gives way to the attitude that Nietzsche called ressentiment, the vigilant envy of others, and the desire to take from them what I but not they have a right to.
Moreover, ingratitude grows in proportion to the benefits received. When those good things, like food, shelter, education, for which our ancestors had to struggle, are offered as rights, and without cost or effort, then they are “taken for granted,” as the saying is, which means quite the opposite from “taken as gifts.” In such conditions there arises what we might call a culture of ingratitude — one that does not merely forget to give thanks, but regards thanks as somehow demeaning, a confession of weakness, a way of according to the other person an importance that he does not have. This thanklessness is growing around us today. It is written on the faces of pop idols and sports stars; it is announced in all kinds of ways by the media and by our political representatives. And it is one reason for the radical decline in public standards. Politicians are unlikely to behave as they should when they feel that they are acting on behalf of an entirely thankless public.
But the situation is not hopeless. Within the culture of ingratitude pockets of thankfulness can grow. Everyone who has suffered some major calamity, be it illness, loss, or some sudden reversal of fortune, feels, on pulling through, a great surge of gratitude. And gratitude comes in two forms. First, you are grateful for pulling through — you are still alive, still functioning, still able to love. Secondly, you are grateful for the experience itself. Here again the religious person would be disposed to speak of the workings of Grace. You can be grateful for something bad: grateful for the affliction that awoke you to the truth about yourself, that enabled you to confront it, to overcome it, to understand. You are grateful to have learned that life is a gift, and that to receive it fully you must give in turn. As William Law expressed the point, in his A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, “whatever seeming calamity befalls you, if you can thank and praise God for it, you turn it into a blessing.” It seems to me that this is the way we learn gratitude — not from abundance, but from dearth, not from comfort but from affliction.