Reading Cicero on Thanksgiving

By Jim Tonkowich Published on November 26, 2020

It seems at best cliché to mention that 2020 has been an exceedingly nasty year: COVID, riots, arson, tyrannical governors, forest fires, news media failure and contentious, not-quite-decided elections. Most of us hope that once 2020 is over, it will be over.

Except, of course, it won’t. New problems always arise to replace the old worn out ones. That’s life in a fallen world.

The solution is not fewer, less serious problems — something not possible. The solution is greater, more serious gratitude.

Greater, More Serious Gratitude

The Roman statesman and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero said,

In truth … while I wish to be adorned with every virtue, yet there is nothing which I can esteem more highly than being and appearing grateful. For this one virtue is not only the greatest, but is also the parent of all the other virtues.

The ancients understood that virtuous living is what makes us happy. Thus, said Cicero, gratitude is the gateway to all happiness.

But don’t take Cicero’s word for it:

St. John Chrysostom: Happiness can only be achieved by looking inward and learning to enjoy whatever life has and this requires transforming greed into gratitude.

G.K. Chesterton: I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.

R.C. Sproul: The essence of theology is grace; the essence of Christian ethics is gratitude. 

We Owe Debts We Can Never Repay

Why gratitude? Because as Cicero knew we owe debts we can never repay.

What is filial affection, but a grateful inclination towards one’s parents? Who are good citizens, who are they who deserve well of their country both in war and at home but they who recollect the kindness which they have received from their country? Who are pious men who are men attentive to religious obligations, but they who with proper honors and with a grateful memory acquit themselves to the immortal gods of the gratitude which they owe to them?

For Cicero, gratitude was the heart of pietas the premier Roman virtue and source of happiness. Pietas is the honor and thanks we owe to parents, to nation and to God.

Our parents — even if they were bad parents — gave us what G.K. Chesterton called “the birthday present of birth.” Without them, we have nothing. If life is at all worth living, we at least have our parents to thank for providing life. And let’s be honest, most of us have far more than simply life for which we should be grateful to our parents and family.

Our nation — even with all its imperfections and flaws — has given us peace, prosperity, roads, schools, hospitals and the freedom to live, in large measure, as we choose — including the freedom to live out our Christian faith. Even those who hate America can, at bare minimum, be grateful for the liberty to yell and scream and blog about what a wicked Hell-hole of a country it is without fear of secret police and gulags.

But isn’t our country in a final decline?

I have no idea and, let me add, neither do you. God’s plan for America is unknown.

It Begins With Gratitude

What is known is that you can’t — probably because you won’t — fix something you do not receive with gratitude. You can destroy it easily enough, but you can’t make it better. And as Christians, we are called to fix — or, a better word — heal the world. (See Hebrews 12:12-13). That begins with gratitude.

Our God has given us all things including our parents, families, friends, life in this nation in this time of history and salvation in Christ. God’s goodness to us means, in the words of St. Ambrose, “No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks.”

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The great modern tragedy and danger is a lack of pietas and the attending lack of gratitude. We are discontented with and disconnected from parents and family. We can’t or we won’t see the goodness of America despite her defects. And actual atheism plus what has been called “practical atheism” seem to dominate the culture.

Bottom line: we are an ungrateful people, which does not bode well for the future.

Our nation urgently needs the witness of happy souls for whom pietas and gratitude have become second nature.

As We Gather For Thanksgiving …

As we gather with friends and family on Thanksgiving Day, let me commend the rest of my quotation from Cicero:

What pleasure can there be in life, if friendships be taken away? And, moreover, what friendship can exist between ungrateful people?

Which is to say that gratitude can lubricate the family friction that can ruin our holidays and the political friction that can ruin our lives. It’s certainly worth a try, don’t you think?

Why quote Cicero rather than St. Paul: “Give thanks in all circumstances” (1Thessalonians 5:18)?

Because no one needs a special word from God to understand our debt to parents, nation and God. No one needs special revelation to understand the duty to be grateful and the profound happiness gratitude brings to our lives and the lives of those around us.

Take an old pagan’s wisdom and put it to use: give thanks.


Dr. James Tonkowich, a senior contributor to The Stream, is a freelance writer, speaker and commentator on spirituality, religion and public life. He is the author of The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today and Pears, Grapes, and Dates: A Good Life After Mid-Life. Jim serves as Director of Distance Learning at Wyoming Catholic College and is host of the college’s weekly podcast, “The After Dinner Scholar.”

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