How “Gratitude” Underwrites Inequality, Power and Exclusion

An Appalachian man shakes the hand of LBJ during the president's 1964 War On Poverty tour.

As far as moral values go, gratitude isn’t particularly controversial. For the religious and non-religious alike, when good things happen in our lives we’re reminded to feel grateful. The failure to express this emotion is condemned as ingratitude, the disgrace of the ungrateful. In our polarized and often vitriolic public sphere, gratitude is increasingly offered as the antidote to negative feeling. But it’s not that simple.

The Art of Gratitude
Jeremy David Engels
SUNY Press
May 1, 2018

In his new book, The Art of Gratitude, Jeremy David Engels identifies gratitude as a political emotion with a close relationship to indebtedness. Tracing the genealogy of the term back to Greek antiquity, Engels follows it forward through Rome, Christianity, the early American republic, and into the contemporary self-help literature. To date, Engels argues, gratitude has served neoliberalism by conditioning people to think of their social relations in the transactional terms of lending and debt. A practicing yogi, he turns finally to Eastern religion and philosophy to prescribe a healthier alternative. RD’s Eric C. Miller spoke with Engels about his project.

After your last book, The Politics of Resentment, I was expecting The Art of Gratitude to be really uplifting. But it’s not, exactly. What’s the problem with gratitude?

Initially, I hoped to pivot away from negative emotions like fear and resentment and focus instead on a more positive emotion, gratitude. I hoped to write a book in the tradition of the affirmative philosophy that I associate with Emerson, Whitman, and William James, who argue that our writing should be about inspiration rather than condemnation or critique.

But as I dug into the gratitude literature, I found a persistent theme of indebtedness. For many authors, gratitude is not about thanksgiving, but instead about calculating what we owe in return for the things we are given. And I was alarmed to see how this sense of gratitude as debt was leveraged politically to articulate positions that, to me, stand contrary to the aims of a democracy that seeks to ensure that everyone, not just the well off and well connected, is able to live and live well.

In a nutshell, I think the problem with the contemporary literature is how closely it ties gratitude to debt. Recognizing this, my book shifted pretty radically during the literature review stage, because to write an uplifting book I first needed to wrestle with a long history of power and exclusion.

You write that, historically, gratitude has functioned as a tool of social control. How?

In Politics of Resentment, I argued that resentment is a natural and often completely justifiable democratic emotion. Anytime you have a stratified society in which there is a strong divide between elites and masses or between rich and poor, those who find themselves in a disadvantaged position naturally feel resentment. That resentment can be a powerful tool of democratic social change, but it can also be a tool of oppression—depending on where the emotion is directed.

Historically, resentment has been the emotion that elites feared the most—because it inspired the masses to rise up and demand whatever they were lacking. In the twentieth century, however, many elites found that they could wield it themselves. Resentful people are always desirous of targets for their resentment, so by shifting targets, elites could pit the masses against each other, creating a vertical divide between the people in place of a horizontal divide between the classes. That’s how it stops being a democratizing force and starts to insulate the status quo.

Gratitude operates in a similar way, with similar potentials. When we find ourselves in a position of owing—and people in a democratic society always owe something to other people—we may become vulnerable to control. Certain Roman figures, like Cicero and Seneca, recognized the power of gratitude to maintain social stability. Cicero argued that, when we accept a gift from someone else, we enter into a contractual arrangement whereby we owe something in return—a reciprocal gift—but we also owe a feeling of thankfulness. That feeling allows us to become more comfortable in the position of owing.

Since wealthy Romans were always providing something to the poor, whether it was grain or protection or some other resource, the debt of gratitude owed from poor to rich had the power to stall their resentments and keep them contented. That’s how gratitude can counteract the positive potential of resentment as a democratic emotion.

At a couple of points in the book, you describe Christianity as “beautiful and dangerous and democratic” because of its emphasis on forgiving our debts and debtors. Should this faith be understood as a response to the Roman conception of gratitude?

It’s difficult to talk about Christianity since there are so many Christianities. I recognize that, and I would love for someone to write a detailed history of Christian visions of gratitude. My book is not that.

But when I began this project, I took the time to the read the New Testament in full, in a few different translations, with attention to the original Greek text as well. One of the things that I found to be really beautiful and dangerous—and here I mean dangerous to the status quo—is the radical rhetoric of equality and debt forgiveness that Christ espouses. I was shocked, then, to see how his words were reinterpreted later, especially in the Middle Ages, to defend the debt of gratitude.

So, yes, I understand Christianity to respond to Roman discourses concerning gratitude as debt. And I am persistently vexed when contemporary Christians invert this message and argue the opposite, ignoring Christ’s message that debts should be cancelled and instead arguing that, in various ways, Christianity means learning to be comfortable living in debt.

From its inception, the American republic has been profoundly influenced by both Christianity and capitalism, both of which speak to the question of debt, if from opposite angles. How do you assess the legacy of the partnership?

I was recently reading Kate Bowler’s Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, and she does a nice job of tracing how the Protestant ethic and this sort of rugged, liberal individualist ideal of capitalism came together. Today, Christianity and capitalism seem to go together like a key and its lock.

And yet, when he wrote Democracy in America in the 1820s, Tocqueville was emphatic that Christianity was the one thing standing in the way of free market capitalism taking over the United States and ruining the morals of the citizens. He saw Christianity as providing a check on market logics. There have been times when certain forms of Christianity—that of the Transcendentalists in the 1830s and 40s, for instance—exhibited the potential for a gospel of debt forgiveness to stand in opposition to the free market. But it does seem that the two opposing traditions have come together today to act as a powerful rhetoric of gratitude as indebtedness.

Today we have a thriving self-help industry that churns out a steady stream of books on pop psychology, happiness, and gratitude. How well do these grapple with the issues you’ve raised?

I was a little surprised by how little attention is paid to the history of gratitude in the self-help literature. I see my goal as writing the history of the present, telling the story of how gratitude came to be so closely associated with indebtedness. Most contemporary writers simply accept that gratitude as indebtedness is how things are and how they have always been. Most of the books that I read in preparation for this project essentially uphold the debt of gratitude as central to human life and ethical behavior, without interrogating its origins or critiquing any of the negative aspects.

That said, I think I may be more sympathetic to the literature than some of my colleagues might be. The self-help genre goes back a long way, and is very closely associated with American culture and democracy. I still have faith in the idea that individual transformation is important to social transformation, and this literature speaks to an impulse toward self-betterment that so many of us feel. 

After diagnosing the various problems with gratitude, you turn eastward to offer solutions. What is the “yoga of Gratitude,” and how can it help to address the abuses of neoliberalism?

Yoga means connection or union, from the Sanskrit root “yug.” Yoga is the process by which we overcome our mistaken sense of being isolated and alone and reconnect with others and with the world around us. The yoga of gratitude is the practice of recognizing that all forms of life, including our own, are supported. We live in a condition of universal dependence, but that dependence need not yield a sense of indebtedness—it can simply yield recognition and appreciation. Recognizing mutual support is important because neoliberalism preaches the false doctrine of pure independence—that the individual exists before society, before government, before relationships—which makes any form of relationship a threat to the individual’s autonomy.

Yoga teaches us that there is no autonomy. We are interdependent. We inter-exist from the very beginning. As we look outward from the individual to the social web of the community, we realize our interdependence in a way that prompts us to respect each other and to value our common goods. The type of gratitude meditation I describe in the book leads us to recognize both our shared humanity and the shared public goods that we must defend. In this way, the art of gratitude as I define it has the potential to reinvigorate democratic politics—or so I hope.