Pages 157-9 of Patrick Coleman’s Anger, Gratitude, and the Enlightenment Writer provide the best summary I’ve come across of what happens to gratitude in the early modern period and Enlightenment.
There’s a political dimension: Because of the rise of nation-states and new definitions of sovereignty, and because of religious division and conflict, “distinguishing the exact scope and form of different kinds of obligation became a matter of pressing concern.” In France, the “development of polite sociability in the salons and other unofficial sites of social exchange in seventeenth-century France reflected a desire to disentangle gratitude from the domain of political obligation.”
There is an epistemological dimension:
In contrast to earlier Augustinian and quasi-Augustinian notions that knowledge was a gift, Descartes sought the basis for knowledge within himself. There’s no room for gratitude since “Descartes himself has done the epistemological work. Gratitude has no place in a conception of knowledge based on clear and distinct ideas. Certainty comes from method, not mercy.” More, because knowledge is thought to arise from within, the more knowledge one acquires, the less dependent he becomes on outside sources.
There is a political theory dimension: Hobbes and later thinkers “sought to develop an idea of obligation that, however absolute, was based on a conception of the human being as an individual unto himself.” French philosophes extended this with an all-pervasive emphasis on the rule of impersonal law – in nature as well as in society. This may chill us, but Coleman points out that “we need to appreciate how this discourse could hold an emotional appeal for those who felt the oppression of arbitrary human will.”
Alongside this decentering of gratitude, there was the somewhat contrary emphasis on polite sociability. It was hoped that “the extension of the flexible rules of politeness to social life [provided] an alternative to the rigidity of law.” Sociability, however, “could also be experienced as unduly personalizing obligation in domains better governed by abstract rights.” Rights eliminated “the burden of gratitude,” and also eliminated the “burden of being a benefactor.” But this created tensions: “Would a society in which gratitude has no role to play really be a place in which human sensibility, and the expressive potential associated with it, could develop to its fullest extent?”
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Wednesday, September 19, 2012 at 1:06 pm
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