Oliver Sacks—the neurologist and science writer best known and who died this year at age 82—left a last legacy in the four short, autobiographical essays reflecting on the final stage of his life. The first essay, “Mercury,” was written on the occasion of his 80th birthday. The other essays, (“My Own Life,” “My Periodic Table,” and “Sabbath”) were published after the diagnosis of terminal cancer. All were first published in the New York Times, and they have been republished together under the title Gratitude.
Gratitude is not an obvious title for any collection of autobiographical essays. And, turning to these essays, one finds that the final essay, “Sabbath,” doesn’t mention gratefulness or gratitude at all; “My Periodic Table” mentions gratefulness only in passing.
And yet the title seems wholly fitting, as they both convey his gratitude for his life, and they sketch an account of gratitude as a virtue.
Gratitude was not always understood as a virtue. Aristotle’s catalogue of virtues not only does not include gratitude, he counts as virtues qualities that seem hostile to gratitude, such as the virtue of a “proper pride” in one’s accomplishments, honor, and wealth. If pride is the right attitude towards these things, it is hard to see gratitude being a virtue. Aristotle especially praised the “magnificent man” who lavishes his wealth on his household, his friends, and civic enterprises. The magnificent man prides himself on providing more than anyone else, and thereby excludes himself from any occasion for being grateful to others.
But gratitude came to be seen as a virtue in the ancient world. Cicero wrote “gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but also the parent of all the others.” And, the Old and New Testaments are replete with calls for thanksgiving, such as Paul’s charge to live “abounding in thanksgiving” (Colossians 2:7).
Sacks himself, who once described himself as “an old Jewish atheist” borrowed the title “My Own Life” from the autobiographical essay written by another avowed atheist suddenly facing death, the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume. Following Hume, Sacks wrote that the knowledge he was soon to die did not leave him in despair:
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return … Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
Here Sacks described gratitude as a feeling, but in “Mercury” he writes about the “mode of gratitude.” And, in these parts of his last essays, Sacks suggested an account of how gratitude is not merely a feeling but a virtue. Sacks described how his gratitude for his work has opened him up to the world, and especially now meaningful work with neurology patients enabled him to get past a “near-suicidal” period. Gratitude for what he had been given, but as much or more for what he had been able to give in return, turned out to the basis Sacks’ active, vital relationships with others and for a life filled with meaning.
May we look ahead to the New Year in a mode of gratitude, and looking to deepen and enrich our ties to others.