A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

A Review of The Art of Gratitude

The Art of Gratitude by Jeremy Engels, SUNY P, 2018, 236 pgs.

Paul Lynch, Saint Louis University

(Published November 7, 2018)

In The Art of Gratitude, Jeremy David Engels pursues two timely and important projects. The first is a genealogy of the very idea of gratitude, particularly as it has been packaged and sold in 21st century America. Gratitude, Engels writes, has been purveyed as the solution to all of life’s ills, personal, professional, and—most troublingly—political. Yet our notion of gratitude has been shaped by neoliberal ideology, along with what Engels construes as an antidemocratic strand of Western philosophy. These twin influences twist an otherwise powerful spiritual ideal into a response of political quiescence and cultural resignation.

Engles’s second project is to articulate an alternative. Here, he draws on yoga and its ideal of santosha, which offers a more critically reflective posture toward being thankful. “In yoga,” Engels writes, “gratitude is more than an emotion. Gratitude is a provocation to ponder our passions and hence our worldview” (131). Santosha suggests an idea of thankfulness distinct from Western culture’s idea of indebtedness. Indebtedness, Engels argues, tends to keep people—especially the poor and marginalized—forever dependent.  

Taken together, these projects offer a timely intervention, particularly in the fields of rhetoric and writing studies. Scholars in these fields have begun to investigate spiritual and religious traditions as sources for invention, reflection, and public action. In our literature, words like “mindfulness” and “meditation” are beginning to make more frequent appearance, while posthuman inquiry is opening the way toward practices that have historically gone under the category of “spirituality.” The Art of Gratitude thus offers a kairotic caution and encouragement for these inquiries. One of the book’s central strengths is its coupling of creation and critique. Not satisfied simply to pick apart the commercial literature on gratitude, Engels’s ultimate goal is to offer a more productive idea of gratitude. The book’s hopefulness, particularly its enduring faith in democracy, is its most compelling feature. Meanwhile, the book’s most tantalizing claim is that rhetoric is “a foundational practice of the care of the self that can help citizens to achieve greater control over our emotional lives and, consequently, prepare us for political life” (28). For Engels, the pursuit of gratitude does not simply provide balm for a busy life; rather, it is a key available means of cultivating and extending democratic virtue.  

Gratitude, Engels argues in the first chapter, is a kind of political emotion. As such, it can be pursued for different political ends, either a resignation to prevailing conditions or a commitment to remake those conditions. Like previous rhetorical interventions—I’m thinking here of Sharon Crowley’s Toward a Civil Discourse—Engels sees rhetoric as means of engaging and cultivating the emotions and affect of civic life. Emotions are not distortions to be somehow rectified through reason, nor are they mere personal experiences to relegate to the private sphere. Emotions actually enable public life, for good or ill. Throughout Western history, Engels recounts, philosophers have returned to gratitude as a positive way to shape shared public experience.  

In the second, third and fourth chapters, Engels pursues his project of critique, calling into question the ideologies and assumptions lurking behind our contemporary gratitude craze. As Engels recounts, those seeking to practice an “attitude of gratitude” can find a seemingly endless number of titles for guidance. Of special interest for scholars in writing studies is the dizzying array of gratitude journals, designed for the purchaser to tally and track all for which one might be grateful. A brief foray into Amazon.com confirms Engels’s survey of this apparently lucrative corner of commercial publishing. If it’s a written program of gratitude you’re looking for, you can find it, along with a variety of notebooks almost too beautiful to mark.

Yet almost all of these programs, Engels insists, are marred by a malign combination of neoliberal ideology and semi-Christian political theology. Together, these influences produce an attitude of debt, in which the grateful person forever thinks himself subject to obligations that can never be repaid. In his genealogy—which begins with Aristotle, Cicero and Seneca, continues through Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and culminates in Hobbes—Engels argues that the “gratitude of debt” was promulgated, often intentionally, for the purposes of social control. If the indebted, particularly the poor, were constantly encouraged to be grateful, they would be less likely to resist their condition or to imagine other social arrangements. The strength of this section of the book is its explanation of how such an ancient and venerable idea as gratitude could be so easily vulnerable to neoliberal hollowing. Essentially, the gratitude of ancient client-based indebtedness was casuistically stretched onto an American, consumer indebtedness.

In the book’s fifth and final chapter, Engels offers the spiritual attitudes of yoga. This is not the commercially packaged yoga of beautiful people in glossy magazines, but rather a fully realized way of living that embraces the here and now. To practice the ideal of yoga and its particular kind of thankfulness, or santosha, is not simply to sit motionless, but to “sit on our mats ready warriors for the democratic common good” (120). In some of the book’s most interesting pages, Engels offers a lexicon of key yogic ideas from the original Sanskrit, occasionally linking them to key rhetorical concepts. For example, Engels understands vasana, or “habit energies,” as similar to the of doxa, or common opinion. Yet the book does not pursue this incipient contrastive rhetoric for very long, somewhat, I think, to the detriment of the overall argument. Without these connections, we lose the sense of how rhetoric itself can be construed as form of “care of the self.” Yet Engels fully succeeds in offering a more robust understanding of yoga as a philosophy and spiritual practice (rather than as a way to tone your limbs). Engels also connects yoga’s conceptual vocabulary to passages found in Emerson, James, and Whitman, thus demonstrating that yoga’s spiritual attitudes can deepen and enlarge democratic commitments. Though a reader might expect here a more precise engagement with rhetoric at this point, the book nevertheless offers a rich store of possibilities for further invention.

This book makes other important contributions to current scholarly discussion. These include not only discussions of mindfulness, meditation, and other spiritual exercises, but also discussions of subjectivity. Regarding the former, Engels firmly links spiritual practice to public activity, thus resisting the reduction of spirituality to a private hobby or consumer choice. This link has also been made by scholars of writing: see Gesa Kirsch’s “From Introspection to Action: Connecting Spirituality and Civic Engagement” as just one example. Nevertheless, the more research we have linking the spiritual and the civic the better. The spiritual needs to be rescued from the idols of consumerism and individualism, and Engels has offered a model of how to proceed.

Regarding subjectivity, Engels points the way to a renewed engagement with the question of the individual. Spiritual practices presuppose ideas of authentic personhood seemingly at odds with disciplinary notions of subjectivity as distributed, networked, unstable. As Engels notes, Foucault’s late investigations into spiritual exercises opened him to the charge that he had betrayed his prior skepticism about the subject. Engels ably counters these charges. Nevertheless, as Engels suggests, the fields of rhetoric and writing studies will have to confront the individual anew if we are to continue researching the spiritual. Engels’s definition of the individual as a “lived art” points the way toward an inquiry that might negotiate these challenging questions.

Some questions. As I’ve suggested, Engels’s claim that rhetoric is practice of the care of the self is the book’s most compelling claim, but the book does not fully pursue it. I don’t mean to suggest that Engels owes his readers a techne of spirituality, complete with canons and species. But while Engels forthrightly challenges Foucualt’s dismissal of rhetoric as inimical to ancient spiritual practice, he does not fully indicate how rhetoric itself might underwrite or inform such practice. Meanwhile, Engels is particularly hard on Cicero, whom he depicts as a purveyor of a permanent and politically disabling indebtedness. Key to Engels’s analysis is Cicero’s influential De Officiis, or “On Duties.” Engels cites this work as the ground zero of the Western gratitude of debt. Certainly, Cicero was not a small-d democrat. But can Engels’s version of Cicero and his De Officiis be squared with a passage like this:

But since…we are not born for ourselves alone, but our country claims a share of our being, and our friends a share…and as men, too, are born for the sake of men, that they may be able mutually to help one another; in this direction we ought to follow Nature as our guide, to contribute to the general good by an interchange of acts of kindness, by giving and receiving, and thus by our skill, our industry, and our talents to cement human society more closely together…. (1.7.22)

Engels is very skeptical of an “interchange” of “giving by receiving,” which he sees as polite ways of keeping the plebs in their place. This kind of indebtedness may remind us of our interdependence, Engels insists, but its “fragile camaraderie” cannot help us recognize our deeper interconnectedness (143). But is that the only way to understand this passage and its historical influence? The idea that “we are not born for ourselves alone” suggests an ontology more profound than indebtedness.

These small questions and reservations should not distract us from recognizing The Art of Gratitude as an important book that has appeared at a propitious moment. The realms of spiritual exercise and experience are only now beginning to be explored in the fields of rhetoric and writing studies. These are promising avenues of research, and they should be pursued with vigor. Jeremy Engels has offered a model for this pursuit. Even more importantly, he has offered an eloquent apologia for the spirituality of democratic life.

Works Cited

Cicero. De Officiis. Translated by Walter Miller. Cambridge: Harvard UP. 1913. 

Crowley, Sharon. Toward a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2006.

Kirsch, Gesa. “From Introspection to Action: Connecting Spirituality and Civic Engagement” CCC 60.4 (2009): W1-W15.