Theater of Cruelty

About appreciating life

The philosophy of gratitude Author
Forfatter: Espen Gamlund
Forlag: Dreyers forlag
PHILOSOPHY / In this book, cosmic gratitude is related to the attitude of humility. Because we live in the age of the demanded, the scorned, the translated, the misunderstood, the violated and the oppressed.


When my father died death, I thanked him sincerely for everything he had been to me. I'm not sure if he heard me from where he was lying, but it was good. I had never formulated such a thank you before; one tends to take parental care for granted. When he breathed his last, I went out into the hallway at St. Olav hospital in Trondheim. It was early December. Through the corridor came a Lucia choir. The beautiful song filled the morning with warmth and care. As the tears rolled, I felt an immense gratitude for life.

I came to think of this as I flipped through the book The philosophy of gratitude by Espen Gamlund. The philosopher Gamlund has written several books in the past, about morality and death. The current book is a sympathetic project, all the while 'gratitude' is not the most debated topic of our time. On the contrary, perhaps: We live in the age of demands, of the despised, of the translated, of the misunderstood, of the violated and of the oppressed. In other words, there are many reasons why themes other than gratitude are at the center.

Gratitude on the agenda

Dreyer's publishing house is therefore to be commended for publishing such a small publication, on 185 pages of text. is perhaps for those most interested, as this is, according to the author himself, the first non-fiction book that debates the topic on a philosophical basis. Then it might get a little dry. But we have to put up with that, in my opinion. And Gamlund is a professional philosopher, not an influencer. The book therefore deserves attention, and Gamlund makes a good case for why the theme gratitude should be on the agenda.

To know the value of a gift, the value of a sacrificial act, or the value of a good thought.

We have duties as parents towards our children. Their gratitude should not be understood in such a way that they should go around feeling eternal gratitude towards us all the time. But they must learn to know the value of a gift, the value of a sacrificial act, or the value of a good thought, as something that is a symbol and to be valued in itself, and not just as a relational matter, where it is up to the recipient to give something similar back.

Gamlund problematizes the modern the wedding gift lists, where the bride and groom set up an overview of what they want, preferably money. This confuses a bit of the good feeling that arises when we give and receive gifts. This becomes more like a barter transaction. It also says something about the reification and depersonalization of the society in which we live.


Gratitude is of moral importance, writes Gamlund. It 'builds' society. But we don't always manage to understand everything we have to appreciate. It is a paradox that many people in poor countries often score relatively high on happinessthe scale. It may have something to do with the fact that those who say they are happy are the most religious. They have, in a way, won the lucky draw in life through their faith. No matter what happens, they find a meaning in it, as it is God, Allah or Yahweh who runs the show. And God is interested in saving us and giving us a good afterlife. In other words, religion has an important role to play in people's sense of gratitude.

Gamlund problematizes the modern wedding gift lists.

But only free people are able to feel true gratitude towards others, says the Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Gamlund has a sense for that, and that goes without saying. But how free are religious people, we can ask. Each individual almost has to deal with it himself. But many feel free enough to feel genuine gratitude.

True gratitude is nevertheless difficult to feel if we become too dependent on others. In several chapters, Gamlund discusses gifts and relationships that are addictive in themselves, and which thereby confuse a true relationship of gratitude.

Ingratitude and morality

Espen Gamlund

Throughout the Middle Ages, ingratitude was described almost as a mortal sin. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant called ingratitude for 'devilish vices', and the British philosopher David Hume compares ungrateful people to parents who do not love their children. Gamlund operates with two forms of gratitude, the interpersonal and the cosmic. The first is when we receive something or experience a positive action vis-à-vis ourselves, and then we feel grateful to the person or those who have been responsible for the action. The second form spans a much larger canvas, which Gamlund calls the cosmic. It is life itself, it is God, it is nature. Here we are perhaps just as much talking about a view of life that is characterized by a form of activeness appreciation, more than gratitude. The cosmic gratitude is related to the attitude of humility. It is positive, as it contributes to an increased degree of solidarity with others, writes Gamlund.

It would be reprehensible to express gratitude for something that is wrong and morally reprehensible, writes Gamlund. We must always distinguish between right and wrong. I sympathize with the Palestinians' struggle for a free Palestine, and livable conditions on the Gaza Strip. But if there are Palestinians or others who might have felt gratitude towards Hamas' terrorist acts on Israeli territory, then it will be wrong.

There are many important social and moral societal dimensions to being grateful. We had it like this for a long time in this country. In the old social democracy which grew strongly from 1935 onwards until the end of the 1960s, Norway had many spokespeople who were grateful for what this system of government had brought about in terms of opportunities and rights for the vast majority of the people. At the same time, you should still be politically prepared – you should do your duty and demand your right. Gratitude should not passivate.

Gratitude and altruism

We also have several ritualized gatherings where we thank existence and the community for what we have, such as the Christian Thanksgiving. We also find this in the other monotheistic religions. In the Eastern cultural circle, in Buddhism, for example, there is an extensive emphasis on gratitude almost as a spinal reflex, regardless of whether you have little. In addition, there is an extra dimension, where ideally one should also be grateful for the trials we are exposed to. This is where west and east separate from each other. Tibet's spiritual leader, Dalai Lama, goes a long way when he says he is happy that China has put him to great tests by forcing him to flee his beloved fatherland.

An active relationship with nature can also give feelings of gratitude and belonging.

Some of us do not need to apply to religious communities to feel a greater general gratitude. An active relationship with nature, of which we are a part, can also give feelings of gratitude and belonging. At least that's how it works for me.

In animals we can find many examples of a form of mutual altruism that can be related to gratitude, and it is evolutionarily a mutual benefit to 'behave'. Compared to humans, dogs can express explicit gratitude. Everyone who has had a dog knows that. In our human societies are altruistic behavior also an advantage, and it builds up a feeling of gratitude, and we get increased trust as a result.

Gratitude is perhaps a difficult feeling to grade, and it is a less strong one than jealousy, infatuation and anger. It is also relatively fast diminishing, that is, it does not last very long.

Our children understand this

After twelve chapters that deal with different aspects of the term, the conclusion is simple: We must train ourselves to know more about feelings of gratitude. It will do us good. It contributes to a better society, more trust, more satisfaction, better health and more happiness. The latter two claims are supported by research. Gamlund also states that it is absolutely crucial that we ensure that our children understand this, and that they feel gratitude from an early age. The challenge is that today they receive so many stimuli that they risk missing such feelings. They are overstimulated, and we are so materially well off that we 'overload' each other with different types of gifts.

I'm glad I got to thank my father for life and everything he meant to me. And I completely agree with Gamund that we shouldn't be shy about teaching our children to actively say 'thank you', but of course without making them become parrots who just repeat something they've heard, without putting any intention behind it.

We must cultivate a moral feeling towards those who show us goodwill, that is the feeling of gratitude. Espen Gamlund's book helps us on the way to such an insight.

Andrew P. Kroglund
Andrew P. Kroglund
Kroglund is a critic and writer. Also Secretary General of BKA (Grandparents' Climate Action).

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