No Thanks to Gratitude: Struggling to keep national memory and appreciation alive
Twenty years ago the noted political commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. published a short book, Gratitude, to promote his version of a plan for national public service. His proposal proved highly controversial, especially among conservatives, with some assailing it as a dangerous expansion of state power and others praising it as a way to rebuild patriotism. Views on the idea of national service at the time were already so firmly fixed, however, that few commentators bothered to consider Buckley’s novel justification for the program, which was encapsulated in the work’s title.
Buckley introduced his essay by recounting a touching short story by Anatole France, which drew on an old medieval legend. It describes a humble young monk who arrives as a postulant at a monastery possessing the one talent of juggling. Ashamed how this skill compared to the refined proficiencies of the other brothers, who excelled in singing, musical instrumentality, and poetic expression, the young monk slipped furtively into the sanctuary in the dead of night to perform his juggling act before the statue of Our Lady. This gift was all he could offer; but in its very simplicity and sincerity it represented “gratitude reified.”
Buckley then posed the question of how young Americans might display devotion to their heritage — not just to the country, but to its laws and practices that have given them their liberty. His answer? A term of public service that would include such nonheroic jobs as helping to care for the old and the sick: “By asking them to make sacrifices we are reminding them that they owe a debt, even as the juggler felt a debt to Our Lady.” And if these young citizens do not feel a need to repay this debt, or perhaps even acknowledge that they owe one, still, Buckley insisted, performing service is important, for “the failure to express gratitude … brings on the coarsening of the sensibilities, a drying out of the wellsprings of civic and personal virtue.” In the end, Buckley’s primary goal was less to provide the concrete benefits from service activities than to “shape the national ethos” of the citizenry by developing a capacity for gratitude.
Today, two decades removed from this proposal, little enthusiasm and no funds are available for a program of this kind. The whole idea has vanished from public discussion. What remains of interest, however, are the questions that Buckley introduced about gratitude and its role in political life. In what measure do public actors (or the state) have a stake in expressing or promoting gratitude? Is the virtue of gratitude diminishing in modern America, and if so, what are the sources or causes of its decline?
WHAT IS GRATITUDE?
Gratitude is one of the most fundamental and complex of the virtues, overlapping with and undergirding many of the others. Cicero once characterized it as “the mother of all the virtues.” Although precision of definition in such matters is neither possible nor desirable — some things being better investigated by what Pascal called an esprit de finesse rather than an esprit de géométrie — there is need for at least a rough idea of gratitude’s meaning.