Of Gratitude

25 November 2010


Human nature is not well known for spontaneous expressions of gratitude. To give thanks is, on the contrary, a thing of sufficient rarity that we usually know it (and usually remember it) when we receive a sincere and authentic “Thank you.” William Blake wrote that, “Gratitude is heaven itself,” and if we know anything, we certainly know that the City of Man in this world is not to be mistaken for the City of God in the other world. Thus it is all the more astonishing that there should be a national day of giving thanks.

The Spanish for Thanksgiving Day is El Día de Acción de Gracias. The literal translation of this would be “The Day of an Act of Thanks,” but we can easily see that the Spanish for “thanks” — “gracias” — is etymologically related to the same root (the Latin gratia) that we get the word “grace” in English. Thus it would be fair (at least, in a sense) to translate the Spanish as An Act of Grace. This is a poetic and even a beautiful formulation.

What ought a national day of acts of grace to consist of? Theologically we know that grace is an unmerited gift. But a gift requires both a giver and a receiver. Thus for every act of grace understood as the bequest of a gift, there is at the same time an act of grace understood as the receipt of a gift. Thus grace, presumably among the purest of the theological virtues, has a transactional character. In the language of phenomenology, grace has an intentional structure: there can be no giver without a receiver, and no receiver without a giver. Thus grace implies a community.

The transactional nature of grace makes its resemble what economists call Say’s Law. Say’s Law of Markets was named after French economist Jean-Baptiste Say, who however was not the first to formulate it. Here is Say’s formulation of the economic law that bears his name:

It is worthwhile to remark that a product is no sooner created than it, from that instant, affords a market for other products to the full extent of its own value. When the producer has put the finishing hand to his product, he is most anxious to sell it immediately, lest its value should diminish in his hands. Nor is he less anxious to dispose of the money he may get for it; for the value of money is also perishable. But the only way of getting rid of money is in the purchase of some product or other. Thus the mere circumstance of creation of one product immediately opens a vent for other products.

Say’s law is much more familiar to us in its aphoristic forms, such as, “Supply creates its own demand,” which also implies that, “Demand creates its own supply.” The reasoning behind this is that every purchase is a sale, and every sale is a purchase. Thus there is an intentionality of economic activity that mirrors the intentionality of grace, and equally implies a community. The intentionality of economic activity implies an economic community; the intentionality of grace implies a moral community. We are, all of us, embedded in both communities. It is a judgment upon our character how far these two communities overlap and intersect, to employ a Wittgensteinian locution to express the family resemblance of economic exchange and gift exchange.

However, the exchange mechanism of Say’s Law would not appear to apply to the transactions of grace, since the transactions of grace embody an asymmetry. There can be no gratitude without a previous a prior action of generosity, but there can be an action of generosity that is not followed by the action of gratitude. Thus it would seem that there can be a general glut of generosity, but not of gratitude. No doubt this is precisely why Blake said that “Gratitude is heaven itself.”

In The Moral Truth of Re-Gifting I wrote, “What one gives is a function of what one can give, and there are conditions for the possibility of giving. One can only give that which one possesses.” All giving, I now realize, is a form of re-gifting, and the transactional nature of grace raises the act of re-gifting to a higher level of complexity. But however complex the hierarchy of giving and receiving becomes, it boils down to a few simple moral truths. Among these we may count this moral truth: One can only give gratitude in return for generosity if one has gratitude to give. And to give the gift of gratitude is perhaps the gift of greater rarity.

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