The Art of Gratitude

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Jeremy David Engels
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , May
     236 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Art of Gratitude is a clearly written exploration of gratitude, and extends and expands on author Jeremy David Engels’ earlier work, suggesting that the ability to improve one’s emotions is an essential human quality. The approach taken is historical, philosophical, and cross-cultural. Engels begins with an ear towards contemporary critiques of neo-liberalism, and attentiveness to the work of scholar-journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, who calls for resistance to the lure of the complacency often associated with gratitude. Acknowledging this challenge, Engels suggests that the rhetoric of gratitude holds forth hope, and “represents the possibility for a democratic politics oriented toward the common good” (9).

Engels undertakes a philosophical retrieval of the ideas of gratitude as found in Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca, where it becomes intrinsically associated with the generation, and need for the repayment of, debt. Christianity preaches the avoidance and then the forgiveness of debt. Engels cites Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “[o]we no one anything, except to love one another” (13.8). Thomas Aquinas wrote about a hierarchy of gratitude, beginning with thankfulness to fellow human beings who lend support, and culminating with gratitude for existence itself. Engels notes that “[f]or Aquinas, gratitudo held society together” (83). Moving from the theological to the literary, Engels cites Dante Alighieri’s placement of Brutus, Cassius, and Judas in hell due to their ingratitude. Shakespeare, in As You Like It, proclaims ingratitude to be worse than the freezing winds of winter (86). However, the rhetoric of gratitude can become a “weapon for promoting obedience,” as seen in George W. Bush’s insistence that the Iraqis be expected to demonstrate thankfulness for the removal of Saddam Hussein (108).

Yoga provides an alternative vision of gratitude, one which emphasizes a way of acceptance without acquiescing to indebtedness. Engels sets aside the facile assumption that Yoga can be reduced to its commodification, and sees in Yoga “an opportunity for a new social movement based in a gratitude that transcends narrow egoism and directs our attention instead to the well-being of us all and to the precariousness of what we hold in common” (120). Through the key practice of yogic contentment (santosha) one learns to disconnect from the petty desires for acquisition and conformity. Engels invokes key Sanskrit and Chinese terms in this regard—including mindfulness as both resting (shamatha) and looking deeply (vipashyana)—as well as placing the heart and mind in the present (jin xin). Noting that the goal of Yoga, and various other forms of Buddhist meditation, is a state of absorption, Engels quotes David Emerson’s pronouncement that “the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God” (123).

The Bhagavad Gita describes Karma Yoga as a form of sublime acceptance of reality, and the embrace of action without attachment to its fruits. Its sixteen chapters, according to Engels, “outlines the yogic practice of virtue ethics” (126), with a penetrating critique of demonic types who display no sense of gratitude or reciprocity. Aristotle—and his student Emerson—both eschew the acceptance of un-earned gifts, stating that they put one in debt to the giver. Swami Vivekananda similarly warns against receiving gifts; as Engels writes, “Yoga teaches self-reliance because no can achieve moksha for us. We must do it ourselves.” (130).

The Art of Gratitude advances a philosophy of self-reliance, an avoidance of debt, and a cultivation of appreciation as a path toward healing and wholeness. By moving from selfishness to greater attunement and awareness, as advised in yogic meditation, one can de-center the ego and become open to taking responsibility for emotions, both large and small. A great fan of Walt Whitman, Engels holds forth a vision of striving democratically for the greatest good through cultivating gratefulness, while simultaneously working against social injustice.

This monograph provides a good model for clear and informed thinking. It would be useful for undergraduate classes on rhetoric as well as introductory philosophy. It speaks to those who identify as spiritual and not religious, and with its twin invocation of Whitman and William James, stands squarely in the tradition of American optimism.



About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher Key Chapple is Professor of Indic and Comparative Theology at Loyola Marymount University.

Date of Review: 
October 3, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jeremy David Engels is the Sherwin Early Career Professor in the Rock Ethics Institute and Associate Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State University. He is the author of The Politics of Resentment: A Genealogy and Enemyship: Democracy and Counter-Revolution in the Early Republic.


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