Tuesday, June 18, 2024

The "free" gift

For our purposes, it is especially important to trace the emergence of the “pure” gift — the notion of the gift as ideally “free” from obligation, and unreciprocated, given without a return. As we have seen, in antiquity it was taken for granted that gifts are accompanied by obligations and should elicit some form of return; even philosophers who disavowed a material return (Aristotle) or scorned utilitas (Seneca) considered gifts/benefactions to be necessarily embedded in reciprocal relations. They did not share the modern idealization of the unilateral gift, which has such a powerful hold on contemporary notions of “altruism,” especially in religious discourse. Given the tendency of this ideology to color our reading of the ancient evidence, it is important to trace its origins. Once we understand the “pure” gift as a cultural product, we can resist the modern tendency to take it as a natural or necessary configuration of the paradigmatic gift.—J. M. G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift, 52

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