Is thankfulness, or gratitude, a special virtue?
Aquinas writes that we are indebted to others and justice requires that we repay them appropriately. He provides a four-tiered ranking of those whom we owe: God, parents, persons in positions of dignity, and benefactors. We owe most to God, from whom all good things flow. To each descending category we appropriately owe less. This reminds us that we should be not only thankful to our gift-givers this season, but also to God and others whom we always owe thanks. Once we understand how to give thanks to those other categories, we can finally understand the gratitude which we owe our benefactors, or gift-givers.
Christmas can be a reminder that we should be giving thanks every day of our lives. We can appropriately thank God for his infinite gifts through religious worship and prayer. Secondly, we can thank our parents for our existence and upbringing through practicing piety, says Aquinas. Thirdly, persons in positions of dignity (such as governors or professors) also deserve to be given thanks for their service in our character development. Aquinas only deals with giving proper thanks to gift-givers after God, parents, and persons of dignity. To answer the original question, Aquinas says that thankfulness or gratitude is a special virtue because it is a response specifically suited for our gift-givers.
Should we give thanks to everyone that gives us gifts?
“In all things give thanks” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)
Yes. Aquinas reasons that the gift-giver is the cause of the gift-receiver. In a similar relationship, God is the cause of all things that exist in the world and all of His creation points to him. In the same way, the gifts from the giver point to that giver. This leads Aquinas to say that “he who has received a favor should, by repaying the favor, turn to his benefactor according to the mode of each.” On Christmas, we owe our gift-givers thanksgiving and gratitude. Aquinas even notes that if someone gives a gift reluctantly or without joy, we still owe him thanks for his gift. Man is bound by justice to give thanks to every benefactor, and to do so with genuine gratitude.
Are we bound to repay for our gifts immediately?
Aquinas quotes the philosopher Seneca to begin his answer:
“He that hastens to repay, is animated with a sense, not of gratitude but of indebtedness.”
Aquinas says that repaying immediately would seem more like paying a legal debt than giving true thanks. The best time to give thanks for our gifts is at a time that is convenient for the gift-giver. Imagine if we had thank-you cards pre-filled out on Christmas and immediately handed the card to the gift-giver as we opened our gift. This would look more like a chore than a true act of thankfulness. There is no hard and fast rule for when it is best to give thanks, and I’m sure it will be different for every gift recipient. The important thing is that Aquinas teaches us that we are to pay thanks back to our gift-givers when it is convenient for them, not when it is most convenient for us.
Should we be thankful for the gift alone?
Aquinas responds that our thanks should not just be for the gift itself, but also for the intention of the gift-giver. The thoughtfulness, joy, and love that go into giving gifts are more important than the gift itself. It really is the thought that counts. Our repayment for such gifts, then, should focus mostly on the thought and love behind the action of giving than exactly what the gift is. In Luke 21:1-4, it can be seen that Jesus taught the same. When the poor widow put two coins (a measly sum in comparison to other patrons) into the offering at the treasury, Jesus said that the widow “put in more than all of them” (Luke 21:3) because she gave all she had while the others gave out of their surplus wealth. The point is that the thought counts much more than the item, or the quantity, given. Hence, our thanks should extend beyond what we unwrap this Christmas and into the thought and generosity of the gift-giver.
Should our repayment of the gift be greater than the gift we received?
Again the answer is yes. This is both challenging and confusing. Aquinas concludes his section on gratitude by stating that “gratitude always inclines, as far as possible, to pay back something more.” This requires getting away from our attitude of selfishness, which is very difficult to do. It is not enough just to repay, we must repay even more than what we have been given.
This also begs the question of when repayment ends. After all, if I repay my gift-giver more than he has given me, he would be required to do the same, and so on for infinity! Luckily, Aquinas addresses this very question. He says that “the debt of gratitude flows from charity, where the more it is paid, the more it is due” and that “it is not unreasonable if the obligation of gratitude has no limit.” Imagine that! The idea of creating debt by giving thanks seems undesirable. However, this debt is different from legal or monetary debt and Aquinas insists that it is related to charity and might in fact have no limit. Remember, Aquinas isn't saying a $100 gift should be repaid with a $200 gift. Rather, the meaning and generosity behind the repayment should attempt to exceed that of the original gift.
Many things can be learned from Aquinas’ discussion of gratitude. Firstly, we constantly owe thanks to God and others, not just those who give us private gifts on Christmas. Secondly, we owe gratitude and thanks to each of our gift-givers, no matter how joyfully the gift is given. Thirdly, our repayment to our gift-givers should come at a time convenient to the gift-givers, not at a time that is convenient for us or immediately upon the reception of our gift. Fourthly, our thanks should be not only for the actual gift but primarily for the love and graciousness of the gift-giver. Lastly, our repayment of the gift should flow from our genuine gratitude and be even greater than the gift we have received.
I pray that Aquinas’ teaching on gratitude can help us be truly gracious this Christmas season as we receive the gifts that are given to us. Merry Christmas!
All uncited quotes have been taken from the article on gratitude in the Summa Theologica.