Among the many and diverse errors of those who live reckless and thoughtless lives, almost nothing that I can mention, excellent Liberalis, is more disgraceful than the fact the we do not know how either to give or to receive benefits…Nor is it surprising that among all our many and great vices, none is so common as ingratitude. – Seneca, On Benefits
Lucius Anneas Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD) is among the Stoic authors I hold most dear. I love to read him over and over and particularly enjoy alternating immersion in his world of elegant style and pithy bon mots, with that of the gruff and earthy no-nonsense Epictetus in his Discourses, and the somber profundities of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Seneca’s extant philosophical writings consist mostly of a series of what are termed “Moral Essays,” in the Harvard’s Loeb Library edition, as well as his 124 Letters to his friend Lucilius. Seneca wrote on a vast number of interesting and important topics and here I’ll zoom in on his most noble musings on gratitude.
Seneca’s work De Beneficiis (On Benefits) is the longest of his moral essays, with 525 pages of text in Loeb’s Latin & English edition. Therein, he looks at the nature of and perfection of both giving and receiving, of the virtues of generosity and of gratitude. His Letter 81, “On Benefits,” summarizes the gist of his writing on gratitude in under a dozen pages.
Among the things for which I’m most grateful to Seneca is the way he so freely and frequently borrows from the sayings of other thinkers of other philosophical schools whenever he thought they spoke important truths about leading a virtuous life. I’ve also been a student of St. Thomas Aquinas for many years, and he was also famous for embracing truth wherever it might be found. He would write in his famous little Letter of Saint Thomas to Brother John on how to study: “Do not place value on who says what, but rather, commit to your memory whatever true things are said.” (Though Thomas, like Seneca, was also very good about giving credit where credit was due, citing the sources for the truths he passed on to others.)
So, getting down to business, the little essay that follows is an excerpt from Unearthing Your Ten Talents, a book I wrote about Thomas Aquinas’s approach to ten virtues (the classical intellectual virtues of science, understanding, and wisdom; the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance; and the Christian theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.) It is within his treatment of the virtue of justice, of “giving each person their rightful due,” that St. Thomas expounds on the related virtue of gratitude that helps perfect the virtue of justice.
It is also here, among a few other places in his Summa Theologica, that he freely and frequently makes use of the wisdom of Seneca. In the second part of the second part of the Summa Theologica, Questions 106 and 107, (ST, II-II, Qs.106 & 107) Thomas includes ten articles addressing various aspects of the virtue of gratitude and the vice of ingratitude.
A quick perusing by eyeball yields at least 23 direct citations from Seneca along with their locations within his On Benefits. Indeed, he cites Seneca far more often than he does “The Philosopher” Aristotle on this topic. I’ve included some of these citations below. For readers who might like to track some of them down, the Summa Theologica is free and easily searchable online and it will provide the sources. (I am thankful to find that Seneca’s Letters and his On Benefits are also freely accessible online – though I cannot imagine not owning hard copies!)
Anyway, what follows is my excerpt from my Unearthing Your Ten Talents summarizing what Aquinas had to say about gratitude – and how thankful he was to Seneca for paving the way! I think there are still lessons in there of use to all of us today.
Thanks for the Gratitude
The individual with the talent for justice seeks to repay debts, debts to God through the virtue of religion, debts to parents and country through piety, debts to those excelling in dignity through observance, and debts to benefactors, to those who grant particular and private favors or benefits, through the virtue of thankfulness or gratiarum actio – gratitude. St. Thomas tells us that Cicero rightly placed gratitude as one of the virtues annexed to justice.
It was another ancient Roman philosopher, Lucius Anneas Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD), who literally wrote the book on gratitude (De Beneficiis – On Benefits). St. Thomas shares liberally from Seneca’s sliver-tongued words of counsel when analyzing this virtue. I can barely do it justice here, but I’ll try to show a little gratitude for what these great men have shared on this subject by introducing some highlights and praying that you will seek out more, both in the Summa and in the writings of Seneca.
“Give thanks in all circumstances” counsels St. Paul (1 Thess. 5:18). Let us consider the ways to give these thanks. First of all, note that we are to give thanks “in all circumstances.” Are you ever tempted to disregard a favor from someone?“Well, she was just nice because she wanted something.” “His wife told him he should do it.” “He didn’t really want to do it for me, but he felt pressure from the boss, his co-workers, or friends.” “He just gave them to me because he didn’t want them himself. (Why, everybody knows he can’t stand black jelly beans!)” “He gave me the money. So what? He’s rich and it was nothing to him.” “Sure he put in a good word to get me that promotion, but he just wanted to show his clout.” (Again I’m reminded of Aristotle’s comment on virtue and how there are so many ways to miss the bull’s eye.)
Let’s hear Seneca on this one:
It is the height of malevolence to refuse to recognize a kindness, unless the giver has been the loser thereby.
And St. Thomas chimes in with his trademark profundity of wisdom and kindness:
It is the mark of a happy disposition to see good rather than evil. Wherefore, if someone has conferred a favor not as he ought have conferred it, the recipient should not for that reason withhold his thanks.
How then, do we show our gratitude to our benefactors in all circumstances? Seneca says “Do you wish to repay a favor? Receive it graciously.” Even if we are benefited by someone so rich or powerful that we can never repay him in kind, we can still repay by our attitude, our facial expression, our words, and our deeds, or as Seneca notes with “good advice, frequent fellowship, affable and pleasant conversation without flattery.”
Further, the grateful “outpourings of one’s heart” should be heard, not only within the benefactors’ earshot, but within the hearing of others, repaying the benefactor with well earned honor. Aristotle has noted after all, that honor is virtue’s reward. The benefactor who receives some well-earned esteem may then be all the more inspired to seek new ways to continue to benefit others.
When benefits are to be repaid, we should do so promptly and gladly, but we should not be in such a hurry to repay that we inconvenience the giver, or make him feel we have been made uncomfortable by the very favor he conferred. And what then is the height of ingratitude? It is not to fail to repay the favor, because we may not always be able to repay, though we would dearly like to. The height of ingratitude is to forget the favor or ignore the debt through negligence.
Surely we’ve all sinned through ingratitude at one time or another. But how should the person who displays the virtue of gratitude treat the person who does not? We learn from the gospel of Luke, “the beloved physician,” that Jesus told us “lend, expect nothing in return.” (Luke 6:35). Quite fittingly, St. Thomas advises us that:
he that bestows a favor must not at once act the part of a punisher of ingratitude, but rather that of a kindly physician, by healing the ingratitude with repeated favors.
To conclude in the words of old Seneca himself:
Is a man ungrateful for one benefit? Perhaps he will not be so for a second. Has he forgotten two benefits? Perhaps a third will recall to memory the others that have dropped from his mind…. In the presence of multiplied benefits the ingrate will not dare to lift his eyes: wherever he turns, fleeing his memory of them, there let him see you – encircle him with your benefits.
 John W. Basore, trans., Seneca, Moral Essays, vol. iii, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001 ), 8. (Seneca addressed this work to Aebutius Liberalis of Lyons, not to be confused with Lucilius, the close friend to whom Seneca addressed his Letters, Natural Questions, and On Providence.)
 The only thing not present in the original is the concluding quotation from Seneca.
 Ibid, 13.
Kevin Vost, Psy.D, is the author of eighteen books, including Unearthing Your Ten Talents: A Thomistic Approach to Spiritual Growth through the Virtues and the Gifts (Sophia Institute Press, 2009) and The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living (Angelico Press, 2016).