Book Review: The Art of Gratitude by Jeremy David Engels

Book Review: The Art of Gratitude by Jeremy David Engels

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.

I read The Art of Gratitude fully expecting it to be a light-hearted read. I was ready to read about how documenting my life in a gratitude journal will awaken me to all the myriad ways that my life was great, filling me with joy – It wasn’t to be.

This book totally blew my mind and exploded everything I thought I knew about the nebulous concept of gratitude!

The Art of Gratitude is intellectually rigorous, challenging and fascinating. Instead of a new agey spiritual and vague approach to ‘being grateful’, this book traces the history and origins of gratitude in all of its shady forms.

This trendy, vacuous concept of gratitude in its pseudo-spiritual form, disguises a far more intense, nefarious meaning that was originally conceived of by the ancient Greeks and Romans and early Christians. With Aristotle’s idea of Charis, Cicero and Seneca’s gratia and later, the early Christian philosophy St Thomas Aquinas’ concept of gratitudo.  

In this book, Engels explores how these ideas formed the very basis of modern democracy and so too the foundations of all power structures. In other words, gratitude is a very serious power play employed since time immemorial.

Back in ancient times, Aristotle believed that the burden of a debt was with the benefactor. That gifts created subordination by the giver to the gift receiver. And that power always centred on the giver, with the receiver unable to ever fully repay a debt. Indebtedness would continue on forever in other words.

Cicero and Seneca recognised the mollifying and quietening power of gratitude on the general public. Just like bread and circuses for distraction and mindless entertainment, employing rhetoric of gratia or gratitude had a calming and chilling effect on the masses. Gratitude for the basics for survival, instilled in the Roman poor, a feeling of indebtedness to the Roman elite, which quelled discontent, resentment and rebellion.

Later, St Thomas Aquinas, a Christian mystic, saw Christianity as an ethic for overcoming poverty (a great thing). He believed that people should be helped to overcome their material debts on earth, but that the biggest debt one could owe was to God for being alive.

These same ancient philosophical ideas have echoed throughout the ages with the language and rhetoric employed by politicians, banks, lenders and other elites (and all other sooth-sayers and scammers). The chief purpose of gratitude is to chill-down people’s ire and rebellion against the status quo and to stop people making noisy demands on their rulers.

This remarkable book by Engels traces how this seemingly innocuous idea of gratitude could be co-opted by neoliberal political powers in order to turn all everyday encounters and relationships into transactional exchanges, where people owe each other, where nothing is sacred and where everything has a monetary value and is a part of a treadmill of competitive capitalism.

The antidote and solution according to Engels comes from the Eastern yogic philosophy. No, not the silly kind practiced by Gwyneth Paltrow.

Santosha: an ancient Yogic concept of thankfulness  

Santosha invites us to reject the language of debt.

“Yogic gratitude [sentosha] is not a feeling of indebtedness to another person, to a divinity or to a state. Instead yogic gratitude is a feeling of thankfulness for the support we receive in order to live. There is a world of difference between indebtedness and thankfulness, to be thankful is to realise we are not alone and that in fact we can only exist as individuals within a common world.”  

Sentosha draws our attention to the support on which our lives depend. It is also a provocation

Sentosha is learning to feel gratitude for what matters and learning to relinquish that which does not matter.

Sentosha means recognising that we don’t have all we need to thrive and grow, and being prepared to fight for those basic needs.

Indebtedness is a rhetoric of hierarchy and power. Thankfulness [Sentosha] is a democratic rhetoric that even things out.  

I found this book really intense and yet absolutely interesting, uplifting and intellectually invigorating. I am really surprised this is not a best-seller although it neatly shrugs off various conventional genres. This is no self-help or spiritual book, it sits alone as a genre all of its own.

If you like spiritual or philosophical books with a lot of intellectual heft to them, but that are still very accessible if you are not an academic, then you will really enjoy this book. 5*/5

Published by Content Catnip

Content Catnip is a quirky internet wunderkammer written by an Intergalactic Space Māori named Content Catnip. Join me as I meander through the quirky and curious aspects of history, indigenous spirituality, the natural world, animals, art, storytelling, books, philosophy, travel, Māori culture and loads more.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Art of Gratitude by Jeremy David Engels

    1. I really liked your post Terry with the Kurtzgesagt and TED videos, very insightful. I hope you can find a copy of this book online, I found it in my local library but it’s also available to buy on Book Depository. Would be interested to know your thoughts on it when you have finished it 🙂


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