Stoicism, Gratitude and Thanksgiving
What Stoicism teaches us about being grateful and giving thanks
Gratitude is one of the defining characteristics of the ideal Stoic Sage. We know this because one obscure source, Pseudo-Andronicus, provides a classification of Stoic virtues in which “gratitude” (eucharistia) is classed as a species of “justice” (dikaiosune) and defined as “the knowledge of to whom and when one should provide thanks and how and for what.” We can also tell that this was an important virtue in early Stoicism because, although it’s lost today, Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoic school, wrote an entire book titled On Gratitude (Peri Charistos), dedicated to the subject.
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In this article, I’m going to explain some little-known reasons for the importance of gratitude in Stoicism. I’ll also describe a psychological strategy for cultivating gratitude found in Epictetus, which I’ll compare to the “Glad Game” found in a popular early 20th century children’s book, called Pollyanna.
The Charites were associated with “gracious”, or charitable, behaviour, both the giving and receiving of gifts, and of gratitude or thanks.
The Greek word for gratitude, charis, is related to “joy” (chara) — gratitude means rejoicing in, or at least appreciating, what we have received. Charis can also mean “grace”, however, as in the Three Graces or Charites. According to legend, it was actually Socrates, during his early career as a sculptor, who made the statue of them that once stood at the entrance to the Athenian Acropolis. The Charites were associated with “gracious”, or charitable, behaviour, both the giving and receiving of gifts, and of gratitude or thanks.
Another Stoic philosopher, Cornutus, wrote in his Compendium of Greek Theology:
They [the Charites] are presented naked to make another point, which is that even those who have no possessions are able to provide help with some things, to do many useful favours; and that one does not have to be really wealthy in order to be a benefactor – as it is said: “in the gifts of a friend, it’s the thought that counts.” And some think that their nakedness indicates that one must be at ease and unencumbered in order to do favours.
He claims that according to one legend, the Graces or Charites are three in number because the first symbolizes the person doing a favour, the second the person repaying it, and there is a third “because it is good when someone who has been repaid does another favour, so that there is no end to it.”
Since one should do good deeds cheerfully, and since favours make their beneficiaries cheerful, first, the ‘Graces’ [Charites] were named in common from joy [chara]…
They were also renowned for dancing in a circle, which Cornutus thinks carried a similar meaning concerning the harmonious nature of bestowing favours reciprocally on one another, receiving them with gratitude, and repaying them in kind.
Seneca mentions that Chrysippus, the second head of the Stoa, had also written about the Charites, although mainly about their relation with other myths. Like Cornutus, Seneca, in On Benefits, is more concerned with the moral symbolism of the Charites:
Some writers think that there is one who bestows a benefit, one who receives it, and a third who returns it; others say that they represent the three sorts of benefactors, those who bestow, those who repay, and those who both receive and repay them. But take whichever you please to be true; what will this knowledge profit us? What is the meaning of this dance of sisters in a circle, hand in hand? It means that the course of a benefit is from hand to hand, back to the giver; that the beauty of the whole chain is lost if a single link fails, and that it is fairest when it proceeds in unbroken regular order. In the dance there is one, esteemed beyond the others, who represents the givers of benefits. Their faces are cheerful, as those of men who give or receive benefits are wont to be. They are young, because the memory of benefits ought not to grow old. They are virgins, because benefits are pure and untainted, and held holy by all; in benefits there should be no strict or binding conditions, therefore the Graces wear loose flowing tunics, which are transparent, because benefits love to be seen.
An ancient cult was dedicated to the Charites, who were also associated with the Eleusinian Mysteries. It seems likely that their followers may have tried to follow the simple ethical teachings, which the Charites personified for them. In addition to gratefully receiving, and repaying, benefits from others, the Greeks and Romans naturally extended this to include being grateful to the gods. In the Christian era, charis therefore came to refer to the Grace of God, through which all good things were thought to be provided. It is also the source of the Christian term for Eucharist or Holy Communion, although in Greek eucharistia literally means “Thanksgiving”.
Gratitude in Epictetus
Epictetus says that one of his Stoic heroes would write letters of praise to himself, eulogizing misfortunes that befell him, and reframing them as opportunities.
And he [Paconius Agrippinus] was such a man (Epictetus said) that he would write in praise of anything disagreeable that befell him; if it was a fever, he would write of a fever; if he was disgraced, he would write of disgrace; if he were banished, of banishment. — Fragment, 56
For instance, Agrippinus reframed being sent into exile as an opportunity to enjoy a pleasant journey through the Italian countryside.
And on one occasion (he mentioned) when he was going to dine, a messenger brought him news that Nero commanded him to go into banishment; on which Agrippinus said, Well then we will dine at Aricia [a nice spot on the road to the port at Brundisium, where the ship would leave for the place of exile]. — Handbook, 56
“Consolation” was, in fact, one of the favours traditionally associated with the Charites. We can speculate that the letters that Agrippinus wrote to himself eulogizing misfortune, by finding reasons to be grateful, may have resembled, at least in some ways, the more common "letters of consolation" that Stoic philosophers typically wrote to their friends.
Gratitude in Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius talks about gratitude many times in the Meditations, in relation to accepting and welcoming one’s external fate, which today we call amor fati. There’s one passage to which I’d especially like to draw attention, though.
Do not think of things that are absent as though they were already at hand, but pick out the [the best] from those that you presently have, and with these before you, reflect on how greatly you would have wished for them if they were not already here. At the same time, however, take good care that you do not fall into the habit of overvaluing them because you are so pleased to have them, so that you would be upset if you no longer had them at some future time. — Meditations, 7.27
This is a very nuanced psychological strategy. Marcus notes that humans tend to fantasize about having things they desire by imagining absent things as if they were present but realizes that it is more therapeutic to turn this on its head by imagining present things being absent. When we make a conscious effort to imagine not having the things we value most in life, instead of craving, we may experience gratitude. He warns that this technique should be used cautiously, in order to avoid cultivating too much attachment to the things for which we’re grateful.
Pollyanna’s Glad Game
Finally, I’d like to redeem something, which has developed a bad reputation. Today, the term “Pollyannaism” has come to mean irrational and sometimes unhealthy positive thinking. The term comes from the character of a young girl called Pollyanna in the popular 1913 chidlren’s novel of the same name, written by Eleanor H. Porter.
Near the start of the story, Pollyanna describes “the Glad Game”, which features prominently throughout subsequent chapters, to a household servant called Nancy.
“Yes; the 'just being glad' game.”
“Whatever in the world are you talkin' about?”
“Why, it's a game. Father told it to me, and it's lovely,” rejoined Pollyanna.
“We've played it always, ever since I was a little, little girl. I told the Ladies' Aid, and they played it—some of them.”
“What is it? I ain't much on games, though.”
Pollyanna laughed again, but she sighed, too; and in the gathering twilight her face looked thin and wistful. “Why, we began it on some crutches that came in a missionary barrel.”
“Yes. You see I'd wanted a doll, and father had written them so; but when the barrel came the lady wrote that there hadn't any dolls come in, but the little crutches had. So she sent 'em along as they might come in handy for some child, sometime. And that's when we began it.”
“Well, I must say I can't see any game about that, about that,” declared Nancy, almost irritably.
“Oh, yes; the game was to just find something about everything to be glad about—no matter what 'twas,” rejoined Pollyanna, earnestly. “And we began right then—on the crutches.”
“Well, goodness me! I can't see anythin' ter be glad about—gettin' a pair of crutches when you wanted a doll!”
Pollyanna clapped her hands. “There is—there is,” she crowed. “But I couldn't see it, either, Nancy, at first,” she added, with quick honesty. “Father had to tell it to me.”
“Well, then, suppose YOU tell ME,” almost snapped Nancy.
“Goosey! Why, just be glad because you don't—NEED—'EM!” exulted Pollyanna, triumphantly. “You see it's just as easy—when you know how!”
“Well, of all the queer doin's!” breathed Nancy, regarding Pollyanna with almost fearful eyes.
“Oh, but it isn't queer—it's lovely,” maintained Pollyanna enthusiastically. “And we've played it ever since. And the harder 'tis, the more fun 'tis to get 'em out.”
It seems to me that Pollyanna resembles a Stoic. To be precise, her “Glad Game” actually sounds not unlike the eulogies Paconius Agrippinus wrote to misfortune, described by Epictetus. It’s important to note that Pollyanna was not denying the facts, and neither was Agrippinus. They’re not indulging in “positive thinking” that’s unrealistic, such as wistful fantasies. On the contrary, Pollyanna accepts the reality that she’s received crutches rather than a doll, and Agrippinus accepted that he’d been banished to exile by Nero. They both make a conscious effort, though, to search for positive aspects of their situations, for which they might experience gratitude, give thanks, or as Pollyanna puts it, be glad.
Although the virtue of gratitude was central to the ancient Stoic ideal, it’s often ignored by self-help authors today. Cleanthes wrote a whole book about it, but nobody has written a modern self-help book about Stoicism and Gratitude. It’s a simple but powerful psychological strategy, though, a potential antidote to toxic emotions like severe anger and depression. Perhaps you can’t even hope to become a Stoic Sage without practising gratitude, and genuine thanksgiving!