Jay David Konstan
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On the Margins of Love: Gratitude, Loyalty, and Altruism in the Classical World – and Beyond
Is it possible to bestow a gift, in the sense of an altruistic act, without demand or expectation of return (by which a gift becomes an economic exchange)? Is gratitude a promissory note, the commitment to repay a gift when the opportunity arises? To what extent is loyalty required of friends – are we bound to do wrong on behalf of friends? These questions concerning altruism, gratitude, and friendship take us to the heart of the classical ethical code, and the answers tend to be subsumed under a single social concept: reciprocity. Thus, gifts are not really possible, since they are always conditional upon reciprocation, even if the agents conceal this from themselves (what Marcel Mauss called “méconnaissance”). Friendship is quasi-contractual, and depends upon the mutual exchange of services. Altruism is out of the question. Yet this is not the way that ancient philosophers and writers thought of things. Aristotle insists that both affection and favors consist in doing things for another’s sake and not one’s own, and all Greeks knew the difference between a gift and a sale or loan. My project is to rehabilitate, on the basis of classical Greek and Roman texts, the idea of generosity and friendship as intrinsically unselfish, as opposed to being implicitly based on reciprocity, and to argue for the relevance of the classical view to considerations of social life today.
David Konstan is Professor of Classics at New York University. His undergraduate degree is in mathematics and his doctorate in Greek and Latin. He has been awarded fellowships by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He has been visiting professor at the American University in Cairo and at various universities in South America and Europe. He is a past president of the American Philological Association, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and Honorary Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.