The Gift of Thanks

“Naked are the Graces,” goes the Roman proverb, and that’s how the Romans thought giving (sex especially) was meant to be: guileless, free, and very bare. The deeper lesson of the Graces, though, may be the circle in which they danced-the way giving kept them close. The customs of gratitude choreograph our lives together, argues Margaret Visser in The Gift of Thanks, and the ways they unite us are nearly as varied as the clothing we have worn (or removed) in the world’s long history of gifts.

For Visser, the quickest way to the heart of thanks is through its etymology. The merci of French is a cousin to merchant and commerce; lift up appreciation and find the Latin pretium, or price, underneath. Price and gratitude are linked in how they commend the giver through the value of the gift. Take, for instance, certain Inuit tribes that expected hunters to give away a big catch. Here the luck of the one is the luck of the many; no one is thanked. But those who give to such a group cinch their belonging to it, and therein lies a circle of gratitude, for next time it will be their turn to receive. That is the kind of cycle that Visser finds across continents and centuries.

Money outmoded elaborate gratitude in most modern business, but in earlier times a gift was often like a sale, and shirking gratitude was closer to theft. (Perhaps the Graces are naked, wrote Erasmus, because the ungrateful have stripped them bare.) Ancient Persians put their ingrates on trial as criminal types, fearing that since they lacked a sense of duty and shame, they might next betray their gods, city, or family. After all, aren’t ungrateful children what started that landslide of savagery in King Lear? The stakes are clearest when gratitude is denied. Thanks means nothing to a sales clerk unless you forget to say it.

Visser’s title invokes at least two distinguished commentaries on gifting — Marcel Mauss’s The Gift (1923) and Lewis Hyde’s The Gift (1985) — but her overlap with these books, as with the many writings she plunders, is more appreciative than indebted. Like the models of her study, Visser has given plenty back.