Thursday, December 18, 2014

Georg Simmel: Faithfulness and Gratitude

Faithfulness, writes Georg Simmel in The Sociology of Georg Simmel translated and edited by Kurt H. Wolff, is the glue that binds society together. Not self-interest, coercion, duty, or love could keep society together without an intermixture of faithfulness. And yet you can never tell the effect of faithfulness because "its practical effect always consists in replacing some other feeling."

Back to start: The Unknown Sociologist.

But what is faithfulness? What is "faithful love?" Simmel defines it this way:
Faithfulness might be called the inertia of the soul. It keeps the soul on the path on which it started, even after the original occasion that led it onto it no longer exists.
To Simmel faithfulness is an affective factor, "a specific psychic state, which is directed towards the continuation of the relationship as such, independently of any particular affective or volitional elements that sustain the content of this relation." I understand this to mean that we are not talking about an affective quality called "faithful love." We are talking about two affective qualities: faithfulness and love. One might say, perhaps, that while the original feeling that started a relationship starts to dissipate the feeling of faithfulness towards the relationship develops.

As an example of encouraging faithfulness, Simmel cites a 19th century French program of temporary assistance to unmarried mothers that would agree to keep their babies and not give them up to orphanages. It was found that once the mother had kept the baby for any length of time she would not later give it up.

[F]aithfulness... has the significance that, by virtue of it, for once the personal, fluctuating inner life actually adopts the character of the fixed, stable form of a relation.
 Then there is gratitude, which is no less important than faithfulness, and even more hidden. Only its "external insignificance... has apparently concealed the circumstance that the life and the cohesion of society would be unforeseeably changed without this phenomenon." It is a supplement of the legal forms of exchange, giving and receiving, into a realm beyond what can be enforced by legal coercion.

This is particularly important in the modern economy because of its objectification of giving and receiving into the exchange of commodities. Simmel echoes Marx, but without the moral music:
Exchange is the objectification of human interaction... This objectification, this growth of the relationship into self-contained, movable things, becomes so complete that, in the fully developed economy, personal interaction recedes altogether into the background, while goods gain a life of their own.
Gratitude moves in the reverse direction, personalizing what is experienced as objective. It is the "moral memory of mankind"; it connects today with "what has gone before... [It] effects the return of a benefit where there is no external necessity for it." Again: "gratitude actually consists, not in the return of a gift, but in the consciousness that it cannot be returned", that a relation goes beyond any "finite return gift or other activity."  And we can understand why this is so. The first gift "has a voluntary character than no return gift can have." What indeed can be given in return but gratitude?

The obligation that colors giving explains whey many people (i.e., men) do not like to receive gifts. They understand that gifts bind people to each other, and they wish, as independent individuals, to be free of such bonds.

In Simmel's view, gratitude is even more powerful as a social glue than faithfulness. There are many relationships that can do without faithfulness, but gratitude is forever.
This atmosphere of obligation belongs among those "microscopic," but infinitely tough, threads which tie one element of society to another, and thus eventually all of them together in a stable collective life.
Next: The Negatives of Collective Behavior

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