The Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero held that “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others”. What does this mean and why does he say that gratitude is the ‘parent’?
The notion of ‘virtue’ is that of being of moral excellence or great character. In other words, gratitude is not just an episode but a disposition.
To have gratitude as a virtue is no small feat. We need to be living gratitude and therefore not just feeling grateful as a means of making ourselves feel better or happier. This means that gratitude would be our way of being as we interact with others. In many of our interactions we would be focusing on how best to express gratitude towards others. To do this well, other virtues must also be present. This is how I interpret the statement by Cicero.
This is also why I believe that when we practise what I call ‘deep gratitude’ we are automatically practising other virtues. It may also be a reason why the topic of gratitude – although on the surface seeming quite simple – has not only become such a popular topic for scientific investigation in fields such as social and positive psychology, but also something that moral philosophers and ethicists have explored for centuries.
I believe there are six pillars upon which gratitude rests, and without which we can neither develop it as a virtue or as part of our character, nor really express gratitude so that it has a powerful transformative force in our own lives and society as a whole. I will be exploring each of these in detail in future blog posts. For this blog, I offer a conceptual exploration.
These six pillars are: relatedness, sincerity, empathy, self-regard, integrity, and humility.
To be able to move from the sense of gratitude as an emotion to gratitude as an action – or deep gratitude – requires a commitment to putting priority on the relationships in our lives. This virtue is often the one that is most under threat in the midst of our busyness and distractions.
A common challenge is expressing gratitude in ways that are authentic to us and meaningful to the other person. Otherwise our gratitude risks being transactional, where we are wanting something in return or are being self-serving. It may also be tokenistic or ritualistic, with little real meaning behind it. Sincerity comes from an absence of pretence, deceit, or hypocrisy.
Even if we have found the authentic place within from which we sincerely express gratitude, we need to be able to put ourselves in the shoes of the person we wish to express gratitude to, and understand all of the cultural and social nuances of gratitude in their context.
One of the most contentious areas of considering gratitude as a virtue is the thought of being able to express it to those who have harmed us, or in inequitable or unjust situations that are crying out for our concern and action. If we are not able to express gratitude in those situations, does that mean that we do not possess the virtue of gratitude? To deepen our gratitude does not mean we can feel gratitude at all times and towards all people.However, we should never forget gratitude to self in these kinds of situations. Self-regard, or what we might also call self-love, helps us to establish a clearer position on how we wish to be treated by others. It also helps us to express gratitude for the good points we may be able to still see in those we feel have harmed us.
A common meaning given to integrity is ‘wholeness’, or to be honest and true to who we are. This implies that we are choosing to be grateful and taking responsibility for our state of being in the sense that we are not making it dependent upon another. I believe there is a strong reflective component to integrity. Did we do what we committed to do in our expressions of gratitude and how could we have improved on it? Such questions are vital if we are to see our character as a work in progress and to ward off any perfectionist tendencies that could cause us to feel we have failed if we do not express gratitude in the way we had hoped to.
Without the pillar of humility, deep gratitude would be impossible. To acknowledge that we have received from another and must therefore find a way of giving back in ways that are meaningful to them – the true meaning of gratitude – requires that we are first open to receive and to recognise that we are indebted to so many. Where others have wronged us it takes great humility to maintain relatedness with them through gratitude.
For me personally, to possess the virtue of gratitude requires a lifetime of vigilance and is always a work in progress.
All the best with deepening your virtue of gratitude,