Living in gratitude: Insights from Aristotle, G.K. Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis

It was my third time paging through WYA’s Certified Training Program (CTP).  For the first time, though, Chapter One’s opening quote by Aristotle resounded a great insight into realizing our human dignity in the humdrum of everyday life. He says:   

We must not listen to those who advise us ‘being men to think human thoughts, and being mortal to think mortal thoughts,’ but must put on immortality as much as possible and strain every nerve to live according to that best part of us, which, being small in bulk, yet much more in its power and honour surpasses all else.”

At first reading this epitaph left me puzzled, how do I put on immortality, let alone what does it look like?

This question led me to a quote by G.K. Chesterton, “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”

G.K. Chesterton likewise makes a shift to higher things but tells us what “putting on immortality” looks like: gratitude.

Now returning to the CTP for the third time, it finally clicked. Aristotle is pointing out a relationship between our human dignity, “the best of us” as he says, and gratitude. Moreover, this relationship teaches us that gratitude is more than mere thanks but uniquely tied to the idea of giving oneself.

By linking human dignity with gratitude, a new question emerges, how are thoughts of thanks the means by which man puts on “immortality”? Or to rephrase this question from a different angle, what does it take to be grateful?

Forming a grateful disposition is the fruit of a lifelong endeavor according to Aristotelian virtue ethics. We do not automatically reach this by merely saying ‘thanks,’ but the challenge lies latent “to strain every nerve to live according to the best part of us.” Now as we can all testify, “the best part of us” is not our natural inclination. As mentioned in a previous article, such striving to forsake immediate gratification is unpleasant initially but becomes easier over time as we train our desires. This lifelong effort, “to live as men with chests” as WYA members would recognize the words of C.S. Lewis, ultimately forms a person’s character or disposition. The habit of choosing virtuous actions over and over again is an activity which Aristotle calls happiness.

Finally we can see the relationship between “immortality,” the transcendent nature of our human dignity, and gratitude in terms of self-gift.

Speaking in terms of duration, a spirit of thanks uniquely keeps a person in the present moment, or a single instance of time that is neither past or future. You immediately respond with “thank you” to someone’s good deed in the present. When a thankful attitude fuses into character, “immortality” is experienced by authentically living in the here and now.

Although oft-unnoticed by me, this quote by Aristotle sets the tone for the entire CTP readings. If you feel baffled or perplexed by what human dignity looks like in your daily encounters, look for a grateful spirit first in yourself and evaluate how you are treating those around you; be present. By its nature, gratitude seeks someone to be grateful to and as C.S. Lewis once said, “All is gift.”

By Lillian Quinones, a North America B3 extern based in the WYA Brussels office