Gratitude may not be the parent of all the other virtues, but it has an important place in our public life. Adam Smith believed gratitude was essential to a free society, inspiring people to care for others without the threat of coercion or the presence of incentives. “Beneficence is always free, it cannot be extorted by force, the mere want of it exposes to no punishment,” the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. To oblige a person “by force to perform what in gratitude he ought to perform, and what every impartial spectator would approve of him for performing, would, if possible, be still more improper than his neglecting to perform it,” he added. “But of all the duties of beneficence, those which gratitude recommends to us approach nearest to what it called a perfect and complete obligation.”
Gratitude, for our country and our station in life, helps sand off the edges of anger toward those we disagree with. You will never meet a person in possession of a gracious spirit who is burning with rage toward others. Gratitude is also a close cousin to other important civic sentiments, like sympathy and compassion.
Gratitude is not only an important civic virtue, it’s also an efficacious one. It’s true enough that if we search long enough and hard enough, we can always discover something to be angry and agitated about—in life and in politics. There is always some heresy to attack, some outrage to condemn, some threat to live in fear of. But resentment is not a very attractive human quality. On the whole, people drawn to a political movement like to feel that those representing the movement are both principled and amiable, philosophically grounded and irenic. This hardly precludes conviction and tough-mindedness when it comes to articulating policy. Democracy was designed for disagreement, and the proper role of an opposition party is to oppose. But anger, personal attack, and extreme language do nothing to expand the appeal of a political movement.
The well-springs of gratitude differ. For some, it’s undoubtedly based on a predisposition and presuppositions (see above). For others, fate has smiled upon them. For still others, gratitude is the outworking of faith. In both Judaism and Christianity, for example, gratitude is based on the belief that we are beloved by God, the object of His affection (often the most powerful testimonies of all come from those who retain a thankful heart even in the face of hardships and brokenness in our lives).