‘Gratitude’ derives from the Latin gratia, which, depending on the context, translates either as ‘grace’, ‘graciousness’, or ‘gratefulness’. Gratitude never came easily to us men, and is a diminishing virtue in modern times. In our consumerist society, we tend to focus on what we lack, or on what other people have that we do not, whereas gratitude is the feeling of appreciation for what we already have. More than that, it is the recognition that the good in our life can come from something that is outside us and outside our control—be it other people, nature, or a higher power—and that owes little or nothing to us. Gratitude is not a technique or a stratagem, but a complex and refined moral disposition. It has poetically been defined as ‘the memory of the heart’ (Jean Massieu) and ‘the moral memory of mankind’ (Georg Simmel).
It is easy enough, both for the debtor and the benefactor, to mistake indebtedness for gratitude. Indebtedness is a much more contained and restricted obligation, or perceived obligation, on the part of the debtor to recompense or otherwise compensate the benefactor, not because recompense is a pleasure, but because obligation is a pain.