“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”
—Cicero, Pro Plancio, 54 B.C.
Whenever I act out of anger or fear, I make mistakes—sometimes serious mistakes. Whenever I embrace gratitude as a guiding principle, I find joy and reward. Maybe the same can be said not just for individuals but for groups and political movements, too. The only thing produced by anger and fear in the present is more fuel for anger and fear in the future.
Countless historians, politicians, and political philosophers have attempted to define the central meaning of conservatism. But the one consistent and universal component of those attempts at definition comes down to one word: gratitude. “To my mind, conservatism is gratitude. Conservatives tend to begin from gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it,” wrote Yuval Levin. And whenever conservatives become distracted by fear and anger, they lose sight of their inherent strength.
Gratitude differentiates liberalism from conservatism. At the root of conservative identity lies a gratitude for the blessings and legacy of the past. Prior to formulating any policy position or political message, the conservative must first recognize a deep gratitude for the fruits of the past. Those fruits are what present conservatives seek to nourish. Consequently, the vision of conservatives must focus on what is valuable from the past and what can be done to extend the successes of the past into the future.
Contrary to the message of modern liberalism, conservatism does not seek to discredit or reject the past; nor does it see within the past only oppression or injustice. What fundamentally characterizes conservatism is gratitude for the freedoms bestowed by and the richness of Western civilization. For the prosperity of a free market economy. For the stability and humanity of family and community.
This gratitude means neither a passive acceptance of the status quo nor an embrace of everything from the past. To the contrary, a true gratitude carries a present responsibility to improve upon the past, as Yuval Levin notes, and to continue paving the road to a free and prosperous future for people who may have been excluded in the past. It recognizes the mistakes and inadequacies of the past while treasuring its triumphs.
The importance of gratitude to the conservative message can be gleaned from the writings of many political theorists. Edmund Burke, for instance, focused his conservatism on an appreciation of and gratitude for the social values and institutions of the past. However, the true meaning of gratitude must be experienced. That is how I learned gratitude, from the experience of my parents. They lived lives of gratitude, which they so often tried to teach me, but I was a reluctant student. I knew thankfulness, but I did not know gratitude. I appreciated individual benefits, like a birthday gift or a raise at work or some award. But my thankfulness was always just a response for some particular benefit. Consequently, my thankfulness was always contingent—I had to get the gift or reward before being thankful. On the other hand, my parents’ gratitude formed a consistent bedrock in their lives, regardless of day-to-day events. “Gratitude, in most men, is only a strong and secret hope of greater favors,” wrote La Rochefoucauld.
I thought it was naive to be grateful for a day even before you knew what that day would bring. But my mother told me that was the whole point of gratitude. If your gratitude depended on what happened to you that day, then your gratitude didn’t mean much.
When their children became teenagers, my parents put up a St. Anthony statue in their room. Most other parents, preparing for the worst at that age, increased the insurance coverage on their cars or started to more closely monitor their children’s activities or set up parental counseling sessions. But my parents put up a statute to the patron saint of recovering lost things. It was their way of being reminded of all the things they had not lost but had in fact been given throughout their children’s lives.
Gratitude was also a steadying force in our family’s life. When a large corporate competitor located a new plant just miles away from my father’s business, he didn’t panic or try to sell out. He did one thing: he tried to show gratitude to every customer who came into the office. Three years later, the large company shut down its plant.
My parents taught me that a life of gratitude differed from the habit of saying “thank you” for individual benefits. Gratitude paves the way for virtues we often think of as unattainable: virtues like courage and service and faith. Gratitude opens our eyes to the blessings of the past, even when present difficulties exert a blinding effect to those blessings. Gratitude allows us to be thankful even during times of adversity.
Gratitude defined my parents’ lives, but through their example I can also see all the ways in which gratitude defines conservatism—or should. Unfortunately, anger often characterizes our polarized political environment. Anger toward the Washington swamp and the biased media, although justified, can cloud the basic message of conservatism—that human flourishing demands liberty. Indeed, gratitude may be the only stabilizing force in our present world of conflict. Only gratitude can unite a diverse society, and only gratitude can provide a clear barometer to the future. Without gratitude, there can be no antidote to anger and resentment and conflict. Without gratitude for the rich inheritance received from our forebears, there’s nothing to build upon. In short, without gratitude, there’s no hope for a peaceful, unified future.