Kharis & “Do ut des”

Category: Ritual Expertise > Offerings

1 Introduction

Many websites that outline the meaning of sacrifice in Greek and Roman ritual rely on the Greek word χάρις (kharis), which they translate as as ‘reciprocity’, and on the Latin phrase dō ut dēs, meaning ‘I give so that you may give’. These may be legitimate modern theological ideas in their own right, but what they are not is ancient.

After I show this in sections 2 and 3, I explain what the Stoic theory of kharis (beneficium in Latin), as outlined by Seneca, says about our relationship to the gods (section 4). Although of course Seneca’s work cannot be regarded as the definite view on the subject, it is in its main points fairly non-sectarian, and does not rely on particular philosophical technicalities. It is also the only monograph on kharis (in Latin, beneficia) that survives from antiquity, so it is only proper to pay special attention to it.

2 Do ut des?

The phrase dō ut dēs, to my knowledge, appears only in one ancient text, an excerpt from the Questions of the Roman jurist Paulus, which has been preserved as part of the emperor Justinian’s codification of Roman law (Digestae 9.5). Paulus here distinguishes four kinds of transactions involving goods or services:

  • dō ut dēs: “I give (some goods to you) on the understanding that you give (other goods to me)”.
  • dō ut faciēs: “I give on the understanding that you do (some service for me)”.
  • faciō ut dēs: “I do on the understanding that you give”.
  • faciō ut faciēs: “I do on the understanding that you do”.

Now, interactions with the gods are clearly not limited to the first type, and in fact it would often be difficult to apply the typology at all (permanent dedications are surely ‘given’, but is sacrifice ‘done’ – as the phrase sacrum facere, i.e., ‘to make sacred, to sacrifice’, suggests – or ‘given’?). But it really suffices to observe that not only was this typology not applied to worship at all in antiquity, it was not even a very prominent legal concept. By all appearances it is an ad hoc invention of one 2nd–3rd century CE jurist with the exclusive purpose of analyzing contracts.

In consequence, even if Paulus’ terms chance to apply to the theory behind Greco-Roman worship, it would be much preferable to use an ordinary English word like ‘reciprocity’ rather than the pseudo-authentic dō ut dēs. But whether reciprocity is the right prism through which to view offerings to begin with is very much an open question.

3 Is Kharis reciprocity?

[Content Notice: slavery]
The example which leads Paulus to the typology seen in section 2 is that of two fathers, each of them owning the other’s son as a slave, coming to the agreement to manumit them so they can return to their families. This is a good example of a reciprocal arrangement, in which two parties owe each other an equal duty for their mutual benefit. Is this the sort of relationship that kharis refers to? Or, if we take away the equality (since there is no equality between gods and humans), does kharis at least refer to mutuality?

The answer is twofold: it can refer to mutual exchange, but it more often, and more importantly, does not.

The Platonic Definitions, for instance, give two meanings:

  • kharis is a freely given favor (euergesia ekousios), and
  • “the return of a good done at one’s opportunity.”

(Platonic Definitions 413e6–7)

According to another text, “kharis is used in three senses:

  • “doing someone a good service (hypourgia ōphelimou) for its own sake;
  • “repaying the good (ameipsis ōphelimou);
  • “and remembering such a service (mnēmē hypourgia).”

(Arius Didymus, cited in Stobaeus, Anthology 2.7.23)

In other words, kharis can be variously translated as ‘favor’ and ‘kindness’, ‘reward’ and ‘gratefulness’, and while the mercenary sense in which one “owes a favor” or “calls in a favor” is not absent from the Greek, this reciprocity is by no means the center of the concept. The fact that kharis is ‘freely given’ and can be either repaid or merely remembered is decisive. In a word, I would say that kharis is ‘grace’, which always exceeds mercantile reciprocity.

4 The Stoic theory of kharis (beneficium) and the gods

The great preceptor of the Stoic school, “Chrysippus, exhorts us to this most noble contest, to outdo favours (beneficia) with favors, and to keep this in reverence, so as not to let our lack of gratefulness be a sacrilege – since the Charites are the daughters of Jupiter – and not to injure these beautiful maidens” (Seneca, On Benefits 1.4.4). Seneca, for his part, has little time for such appeals to the representations of the Kharites (lat. Gratiae, hence ‘Graces’) in mythological poetry, which he regards as arbitrary poetic fictions (ibid. 1.3).

He does not excise the gods from his discussion along with the myths, however. On the contrary, he considers the relationship (coniunctio) with one’s household gods (Penates) as being similarly close as those with spouses or children (ibid. 1.11.4), and he repeatedly appeals to the gods as models for us to emulate. Early in the first of the seven books of On Benefits, for instance, he says that we must not be dissuaded by ungrateful recipients of our kindness, since “the immortal gods themselves are not dissuaded from their profuse and unceasing beneficence by the sacrilegious or by those who neglect the gods. They act according to their nature and help all things, even those who put a bad name on their gifts (mūnera). Let us follow them as our guides, as far as human weakness allows! Someone who thought about being repaid when they made a gift () deserves to be cheated” (ibid. 1.1.9).

The reason that human and divine grace can be compared, despite the chasm of difference between us, is that the gift itself is not the point of gift-giving. A service or present is “a benevolent action which both gives joy, and in giving derives joy, undertaken of one’s own determination and with an inclination to perform the action. For this reason, it does not refer to what is done (faciō) or given (), but in what spirit (mēns), because a beneficium does not consist in that which is done or given, but in the mind (animus) of the person who is giving or doing it” (ibid. 1.6.1).

“The beneficium itself is not what can be counted or handed over – just as the worship of the gods (deōrum honor) does not lie in the sacrificial animals (victimae), however fat they are or shining with gold, but in the upright (or ‘correct’, recta) and pious will of the worshippers (voluntās venerantium). For this reason, good people can be worshipful (religiōsī) with nothing but spelt and gruel, while bad people cannot escape their impiety even if they bespatter the altars with great amounts of blood” (ibid. 1.6.3).

5 What kharis do we receive from the gods?


2.29.6-31.2 and 4.3.2-9.3 and 6.20-23 (gratefulness to the gods)
4.25 and 7.31 (why do the gods bestow benefits; emulate)
4.28.1-3 (gods give good things even to the bad)

6 How can we meaningfully show kharis to the gods?

Not all philosophers root the reason for worship in gratefulness. Epicurus thinks that, just as one should not fear the gods (a view that Seneca shares), one cannot expect them to concern themselves with our humble affairs either. They are worshipped, instead, “because of their extraordinary majesty and matchless nature” (Seneca, On Benefits 4.19.4). The Stoic philosopher belittles this, but has few arguments against it.

But let us not dwell on the debate here. We can presume, for our present purposes, that the gods do show us kharis and our worship too is a form of kharis (returning theirs, to the extent possible). This raises a problem, however: if all things come from the gods and belong to them, how is it possible to add anything to their wealth, or provide any service for them?

Seneca has a simple solution: “Everything in the possession of his children belongs to the father. But everyone knows that even a son can give a gift to his father. All things belong to the gods. And yet we have placed gifts on their altars and thrown them our coins. What is mine does not cease to be mine just because what is mine is yours. For the same thing can be mine and also yours” (ibid. 7.4.6, from the Griffin & Inwood translation).

Again, the key is will or intention, not monetary value: “One need not always weigh number against number, but sometimes one can have the value of two; therefore, an eager and heartfelt willingness to repay stands in for the thing itself. And if intention (animus) without means (rēs) would not suffice to return a favor (grātia), then nobody can be grateful (grātus) to the gods, to whom our willingness (voluntās) alone is offered” (ibid. 7.15.4, back to my translation).

The Cynic philosopher Bion of Borysthenes, Seneca tells us, constructed a paradox from this idea, that all things already belong to the gods: either anyone who takes anything is committing sacrilege – or else not even temple-robbers are sacrilegious, since they are only moving the gods’ property from one place that belongs to them to another that does as well (ibid. 7.1–2).

Seneca objects that, while “everything certainly belongs to the gods, still not everything is dedicated to the gods; sacrilege can be observed only in regard to the things which pious observance (religio) has assigned to a deity. Thus, the whole cosmos is a temple of the immortal gods, indeed the only one which is worthy of them in size and splendor; yet profane things are separated from sacred things, and in the little corner on which the name of sanctuary (fanum) has been bestowed, one cannot do all things that are permissible under the sky and in view of the stars. Now, certainly a sacrilegious person is unable to do an injury to a god, since their divinity has placed them beyond reach, but the person is punished because they acted as if against the god. Our and his opinion make him subject to punishment” (ibid. 7.7.3; meaning punishment according to Roman civil law).

So, in short, the whole cosmos is sacred and all things belong to the gods. But by human convention and as a symbolic expression of thanks, some of the places on the Earth are especially dedicated to the gods, and some of the things in the cosmos are placed in these temples and sanctuaries as dedications.

7 How can we presume to make requests of the gods?

Seneca (speaking as a wealthy man who never had to wonder where is next meal would come from) warns sharply against asking for a favor, because in this way, one will not receive a favor at all, but purchase whatever one asks for by an indefinite obligation: “nothing is dearer than what is bought by entreaties” (ibid. 2.1.4). By this logic, we should hardly dare to pray to the gods to help us, but Seneca has no objections to prayer, although he thinks it should not be flaunted: “Humans would make fewer vows (vōta) if they had to make them publicly; for we prefer to pray silenty and within ourselves even to the gods, who it is very noble for us to supplicate” (ibid.).

It is even appropriate, he says with reference to the prayer of Chryses to Apollon in the first book of the Iliad, for us to remind the gods of the piety we have shown them when we pray, although when “we make requests of the gods, whose notice nothing escapes, our vows do not persuade them, but only remind them” (ibid. 5.25.4).

Nor do prayers have to be perfectly moral, since anyone (for instance) who prays for success in business is praying for others to stand in need of them (ibid. 6.38.1–4); such “prayers (vōta) are as well-known as they are unpunished. Indeed, let anyone search, turn inwards to the depth of their heart and see what they have wished in secret – how many prayers are there which they are ashamed to admit to themselves! How few which we could make before a witness!” (ibid. 6.38.5). The philosopher hardly sees this as ideal, but has no illusions about the possibility of training everyone to make only philosophical prayers.

[6.24-30.4: revise prayer section]