Honor the unknown

Ulysses was pleased at being made thus welcome, and said “May Jove, sir, and the rest of the gods grant you your heart’s desire in return for the kind way in which you have received me.”

To this you answered, O swineherd Eumaeus, “Stranger, though a still poorer man should come here, it would not be right for me to insult him, for all strangers and beggars are from Jove.”
-The Odyssey, Book XIV

Imagine being stranded in any modern city. There is a chill in the air and nightfall is approaching fast. It is a city foreign to you. You have no acquaintances to call upon and no money to rent a room with. People are quickly emptying the streets and heading homewards. You can try to stop people to ask for their help or advice but most will simply move on and ignore you. What other option is there available to you but to find a sturdy park bench and hope you do not freeze to death in your sleep?

Every city is filled with thousands upon thousands of well heated rooms. Many of those are unoccupied, yet they are closed to you. You might as well be asking them to jump off a bridge with you. Most denizens of the modern city know what kind of person is not able to get shelter for himself. He is sure to be dangerous and insane if no one else will put up with him. The gated communities, doormen, and complex electronic security systems can be found at almost every well-to-do residence in the city; they exist simply to keep you, and others like you, out.

Hospitality seems to be a foreign concept in modernity. It was once one of the highest virtues. It stood side by side in the minds of the ancients with high morals such as truth, justice, and courage. Paganism in every corner of the world valued hospitality as a cardinal virtue. They are central themes in they’re most important and enduring art. Many parts of Homer’s epics, the sagas of the Norse, and the song of the Bhagavan make little sense without first understanding how they viewed the importance of hospitality.

At the core of the virtue is respect. It is readily apparent that the guest should be thankful and respect the host. He is providing the guest with shelter and warmth. Without his kindness, the guest would be deprived of basic comforts. He is imposing on another for the sake of himself.

Hospitality has another side to it. It also includes the respect the host shows the guest. The ancients knew this and saw it as equally as important. They often thought of this concept through the lense of paganism. In the terms of the gods, the hospitality of mortals often played a central part in myth. Odin and Zeus are the perpetual wanderers and traveled in disguise in many myths. The ancient perspective saw travelers as a possible an incarnation of one of their deities. If they turned them away, they could be risking the wrath of the gods. A wanderer could still be a dangerous mortal. He could still be maniac that could harm you, but the ancients understood that he could bring great fortune.

Modernity has no such respect for guests. It sees no use for anything out of the ordinary. No one, modern or ancient, can truly tell the character of a guest. The stranger always brings with him the unknown. A guest, especially the foreign, is often an inconvenience and unwanted. It is not easy to provide for another, even for a short while.

The difference between modern and ancient society lies in how they each address the unknown. Ancient societies rose to the occasion. They met the inconvenience with good nature and optimism. Most of modern society simply lacks the courage and endurance to deal with hospitality properly. Any time modernity is confronted with responsibility of any kind, it deals with it in the same way- an annoyed sigh and a vacant shrug.

People often bemoan modern society as being too distant and impersonal. Modernity increasingly deals with people from behind a computer screen or speaker phone. Barriers against the outside world are put up in the form locked doors and gated communities. Real connections between people are few and far between. Perhaps the first step to making the modern world a more livable place is to relearn the ancient value of hospitality.

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One response to “Honor the unknown

  1. It is a rare treat to be shown the hospitality of old in today’s world. When I visited Norway two summers ago, I was sleeping in my car and bathing in lakes to save money. I stopped for a drink in a place called Fredrikstad, and the people I spoke with there asked me where I was from, where I was staying etc. When I eventually admitted I was sleeping in my car, the girl’s immediate reaction was, “You must come stay with us!” They invited me into their home, a complete stranger from another country. They took me fishing the next day, told me about all kinds of things to see around the area, and actually convinced me to stay four days longer than I’d planned! It changed my life forever, to know there are people like that out there, and that they will appear before you in your time of need.

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