Ingratitude and the Death of Freedom

The following is an essay published in the newly released book, New Threats to Freedom, edited by Adam Bellow and published by Templeton Press. The collection includes thirty essays by a wide variety of writers including Christopher Hitchens  (Multiculturalism and the Threat of Conformity), Mark Helprin (The Rise of Antireligious Orthodoxy), Shelby Steele (The Illusion of Innocence), Barry C. Lynn (Belief in False Gods), Peter Berkowitz (The New Dogma of Fairness), Richard A. Epstein (The Isolation of Today’s Classical Liberal), Christine Rosen (The New Behaviorists), David Mamet (The Fairness Doctrine), Stephen Schwartz (Shariah in the West), and Ron Rosenbaum (Cyber-Anonymity). The range of topics and writers is impressive. The essays are insightful and a delight to read. To learn more about the book or to purchase a copy, click here.

Kearneysville, WV. I think it is fair to say that gratitude is a somewhat neglected notion, one consigned to the realm of good manners but rarely uttered in dis­cussions of politics. But this oversight comes with a price, for as I will argue, gratitude is one of the necessary, though easily neglected, bulwarks of a sustainable freedom.

Any serious discussion of gratitude must at the same time con­sider its opposite, ingratitude, for—and I am not the first to observe this—we tend to be an ungrateful lot. In 1930 the Spanish philoso­pher Jose Ortega y Gasset observed that modern people are, among other things, characterized by their “radical ingratitude.” This claim does, of course, need defending, and I can imagine the objections from a variety of quarters.

When we speak of gratitude, there will be those who think primar­ily of etiquette: “I taught my children to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ and they usually do.” There will be those who think in personal terms: “I have a nice house, a new car, and a boat. Sure, I’m grate­ful.” Or there will be those who think in terms of the nation: “We live in the greatest nation on earth! Darn right, I’m grateful.” But, although the language of gratitude is not dead—far from it—some­thing is amiss. Our modern, affluent, technological, well-fed society seems to oscillate between smug self-satisfaction and hand-wringing despair, the latter coming on the wave of each new economic, politi­cal, social, or natural disaster.

Gratitude though means more than good manners; it means more than the pleasure associated with possessing plenty of nice things; and it surely means more than mere relief that we’ve managed to escape, or at least survive, the latest crisis. These are perhaps shad­owy reminders of gratitude, but they are not the heart of the issue.

Gratitude is a way of inhabiting the world. It is a disposition toward the world that reminds us that we are not alone. We are not solitary creatures owing nothing to no one. Rather, gratitude points to our dependence. It is a fitting attitude in the face of our creatureliness. When our thoughts are characterized by gratitude, they are outward looking. Gratitude breaks us out of the cocoon of self-satisfaction and self-concern that is a constant temptation and impels us to think of the ways our lives are related to others.

But gratitude is not a disposition we can simply choose to exhibit. We can choose to be friendly regardless of how others treat us. We can choose to act justly even if we have been wronged. But grati­tude is different. It’s a response to goodness. We are grateful when, for example, a stranger helps us find our way in an unfamiliar city, or when a friend presents us with a gift. In both instances we are responding to an act of goodness. Gratitude, then, is different from friendliness or generosity, for they can exist regardless of how another person behaves toward us. They can be initial dispositions. Gratitude, though, is a response. It requires the action of another before it can come into being.

Page 1 of 4 | Next page