Gratitude: An Intellectual History by Peter J. Leithart
(Baylor University Press, 2014, 350 pages)
The notion of “the gift” has played a big role in twentieth and twenty first century sociology, philosophy, and theology. For all the reflection that has been done on the nature of gift-giving, Leithart sees a lack of serious reflection on the response of gratitude. This book seeks to fill that gap in the literature by tracing ideas about gratitude from the ancient world and the advent of Christendom, to the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment, and into contemporary thought.
The tight circles of gratitude between patron and benefactor in the ancient world gave way to the “ingratitude” of the Christian church toward their Roman patrons. The Enlightenment picked up this ingratitude and applied it to tradition in general. Contemporary sociology rediscovered the existence of “gift” economies, and contemporary philosophy struggled with whether true expressions of gratitude are necessary or even possible. This, in brief, is the plot of Leithart’s story about the role of gratitude in Western culture.
Leithart, demonstrates a wide-ranging command of literary, philosophical, sociological, and theological sources. The project is ambitious, and it leaves plenty of room for debate, detraction, and development. However, its overarching narrative is convincing. Leithart’s extended treatment of Shakespeare’s Corolianus as an example of shifting Renaissance understandings of gratitude is a particularly strong point. This is a creative and engaging book. Like many of Leithart’s books, it is theological at its core, even while its appeal spans multiple disciplines.