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The Gift


Reflection on gifts and their paradoxes goes back to the Bible, where humans are reminded that everything they have is a gift from God, for which they must be grateful and which should inspire them to give to others. Yet the Scriptures also condemn gifts, as those to judges, which corrupt or harm. Greek literary texts describe a wide range of gift practices, from the honorable gifts among warriors to the strategic hospitality to foreigners, but also warn of ambiguities, as in the saying "the gifts of enemies are not gifts."

Aristotle's (384–322 B.C.E.) Nichomachean Ethics embedded gifts and benefits in his discussion of the virtue of liberality, the forms of friendship, and the varieties of just distribution. Here, too, there were good gifts and bad: the liberal person gave "to the right people the right amounts and at the right time," the prodigal person bestowed gifts on flatterers and other wrong people, and received from bad sources as well. Aristotle saw giving-and-taking and buying-and-selling as versions of the exchange and reciprocity that held society together, but giving-and-taking was his preferred model. Humans "give a prominent place to the temple of the Graces—to promote the requital of services; for this is characteristic of grace—we should serve in return one who has shown grace to us, and should another time take the initiative in showing it" (bk. 4, ch. 1, pp. 1120a 25–26; bk. 5, ch. 5, pp. 1133a1–5). Giving-and-taking had a utilitarian element to it, but it also drew on feelings of gratitude.

Gratitude is a central theme of Seneca's (4 B.C.E.–65 C.E.) On Benefits, the other great gift-text of classical times. Gratitude was a "natural" response to a gift, benefit, or kindness, and this would generate further generosity in the recipient. The ungrateful person was detestable. Seneca explored all the fine points of giving and receiving, including between persons of unequal status. Of return on the gift, there should ideally be no expectation by the donor: "to bestow a favor in hope to receive another is a contemptible and base usury" (bk. 1, chap. 6, p. 6). Even more than Aristotle, Seneca contrasted the rules for gifts with the rules for sales and loans, especially in regard to the time for rewarding a benefit: the person who "requited a kindness with too much haste hath not the mind of a grateful man, but of a debtor" (bk. 4, chap. 40, p. 178).

Biblical, classical, and patristic texts nourished the Christian writing on gifts during the medieval period, even while thinkers responded to new socioeconomic relations and political and religious institutions. Gift subjects flowed into diverse channels: writings on the church as an object of charitable donation and an instrument for dispensing charity; on the Mass as a heartfelt sacrifice to God; on the virtue of charity and the vice of avarice; on various kinds of poverty and the meaning of alms; on the importance of hospitality, both ecclesiastical and feudal. Similarly, in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, giving-and-taking themes clustered around diverse subjects: the liberality of the nobleman and noble-woman and the ordering of their obligations; the gifts of kings and queens, and whom they should reward; charitable donations to the poor, and how they should be organized; gifts of parents to children, and how they should be decided. At the same time, gifts were quarreled about and denounced as wrongful. The gifts that were omnipresent in the quest for favor in the political life of early modern polities were condemned as "corruption," especially when they went to judges, and the word bribe became part of parlance in English. Sermons warned against alms to the "undeserving poor" among the beggars and vagabonds, now identified more sharply than ever before. Meanwhile, the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries offered alternate concepts of the meaning of sacrifice and of how gratitude for God's gifts should express itself in human behavior.

Disparate though this writing was, it was still linked by the common belief in the necessity for gratitude: the world was a gift from God, for which one should be grateful and be moved to generosity. The three Graces were often depicted in emblem books, with the message of reciprocity repeated.

The notion of a single realm of gift, as something to generalize about beyond the movement of gifts in diverse places and forms, emerged only after the idea of the economy or of the political economy. By the mid-eighteenth century, as colonial markets and European markets expanded and fields of social thought sought "scientific" systematization, tracts on trade had names such as Tableau Oeconomique or Inquiry into the Principles of Political Oeconomy. Gifts had little role in these texts, not because gifts had ceased to exist, but because the new theories left little room for them. Whatever he had said about sympathy in his early Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith's (1723–1790) Wealth of Nations (1776) is based on persons seeking their own advantage as they sell and buy goods on the market. Harmony came from the pursuit of self-interest, not through the alliance of gift-giving generating more gifts. Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) allowed a prudently limited benevolence in his calculus of morals, as in the pleasure of giving a friend something for nothing, but a person could enjoy the same pleasure from a gain through exchange.

Interestingly enough, when Karl Marx (1818–1883) came to criticize political economy, he too left little space for gift relations. Linen, silk, paper, watches, and other useful things become "commodities" when they are put into exchange under the capitalist mode of production. The human labor that went into preparing them and gives them their true value is hidden in capitalist exchange. Instead the things themselves are assigned value: commodities are "fetishized," that is, the social relations of labor are transmuted into relations between things exchanged on the market. Marx made no analysis of what happened to things and the perception of things when they passed as gifts. His countermodels were patriarchal peasant production, where things stayed within the family (he did not discuss their internal distribution), and the performance of services and payments in kind under the "personal dependence" of feudal society. Charity and other gift forms were presumably among the "idyllic" relations and illusions torn up by the "naked self-interest" of capitalism. Even his image of a future society, where the means of production were held in common, stressed "free individuals" and "free development for each" rather than patterns of sharing.

Other critics of political economy, especially in late nineteenth-century Germany, found in gift-giving an alternate approach. By the time the French sociologist Marcel Mauss (1872–1950) began his great work on the gift, he could draw on historical studies such as Richard Meyer's Zur Geschichte des Schenkens (1898, On the History of Gift-Giving) and on anthropological studies, notably Bronislaw Malinowski's (1884–1942) description of the circular exchange among the Trobriand Islanders and Franz Boas's (1858–1942) account of the potlatch among the Kwakiutl on America's Northwest coast. When it appeared in 1925 Mauss called his book Essai sur le Don (Essay on the Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies). With his phrase the gift, Mauss committed himself to the search for a common pattern or mode of behavior, under which one could group the diverse forms of gifts, including sacrifice. Exchange and contract in "archaic societies," he explained, are carried on in the form of gifts: "In theory [the gifts] are voluntary, in reality given and returned obligatorily"; "apparently free and disinterested, [they are] nevertheless constrained and self-interested" (p. 3). Every gift produces a return gift in a chain of events that brings about many things: goods are exchanged and redistributed in societies that do not have separate commercial markets; peace is maintained and sometimes alliance and friendship; and status is confirmed or competed for in rival display. Mauss asked what beliefs impelled people in these societies to keep the gift moving: to give presents, to receive presents, to reciprocate presents. His answer drew upon the hau or "spirit of things" of the Maori people, an idea of embeddedment rather different from Marx's fetishization of commodities. In the former, the given object carries with it something of the giver, stressing the personal bond created through gifts; in the latter, the displaced symbolism conceals the personal relation of work and oppression in capitalism.

In his historical treatment of the gift economy, Mauss was something of an evolutionist. As markets and formal contracts advanced and legal systems distinguished between persons and things, so the total gift economy contracted. Still, as an independent socialist, he saw evidence for the gift ethos in his own day and hoped it would expand.

In the years since Mauss's book appeared, anthropologists, economists, historians, and philosophers have reflected on his argument and the gift more generally. Discussion has circled around two subjects: the relation of gifts to markets and the character of reciprocity. In his Great Transformation of 1944 and subsequent essays in the next twenty years, the economist Karl Polanyi (1886–1964) argued that until capitalist markets and the profit motive took hold in the eighteenth century, goods and services moved by gifts or redistribution. Personal relations and obligations took precedence, and money exchange, while present, was limited by regulation and convention. Once in place, the capitalist mode simply swept away competing forms of exchange and mentalities. But he did not see this as an inevitable historical stage, and hoped that post-colonial societies might take a different path.

If some writers continued to hold to the older evolutionary scheme, an important strand of current research and interpretation in both anthropology and history has discarded it altogether. Instead, gift forms and commercial market forms are seen as permanent and significant parts of the social landscape, albeit in shifting relations to each other. So anthropologist Maurice Godelier (b. 1934) has maintained even for Western societies, while Nicholas Thomas has described objects in Oceanic societies as "entangled" in both gift and market meanings, and Serge Latouche has shown how exchange in African communities operates "between the gift and the market." Historical studies have described crossovers between gift practices and commercial practices in both early modern and modern periods in Europe, and have identified some growth in gift forms, especially in the political and international sphere, even while market mentalities expanded. These views have required a reexamination of what transactions can be called gifts, and, as Serge Latouche has urged, the rejection of a simple homo donator (Man the Giver), as narrowly conceived as a homo oecomicus (Economic Man).

Studies on the cultural possibilities in gift reciprocity have addressed such challenges and have led to images more complex than Mauss's gift/return-gift, with its psychology of "in theory, voluntary, in reality, obligatory." The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins (b. 1930) suggested a "spectrum of reciprocities," with "generalized reciprocity" at one end, involving free and unstinting giving with little thought of return, and "negative reciprocity" at the other, as in trying to get something for nothing. Annette Weiner (1933–1997), going back to Malinowski's Trobriand Islands and especially to their women, broadened the time span in gift relations from a circular model to one lasting over the life cycle and across the generations.

Historical studies have drawn upon these patterns, but have also added new ways of thinking about gift exchange. At one end of the scale, medieval and early modern Christian discourse sometimes constructed human gifts to God in terms of reciprocity, other times in gratuitous terms. At the other end of the scale, concern about the bad gift, the gift that "corrupts," has a long history, expressed already in the Bible. "Bribes" were a recognized danger of gift systems in medieval and early modern political life, and provide a helpful perspective on contemporary political "corruption."

Writing of gift economies after World War II, Georges Bataille (1897–1962) noted both the grand excess in nature and human life, which must be expended "in gift-giving … without reciprocation" (pp. 37–38) and the use of gifts on the international scale to compel loyalty in the Cold War. Jacques Derrida (b. 1930) has dismissed the true gift and gratuitousness as logically impossible, but most commentators welcome the paradoxes and ambiguities in gift relations, and find them relevant to an age of globalization and its discontents.

Natalie Zemon Davis

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Gastrula to Glow discharge