We Are Not Cyclopes

Commentaries - Hospitality is the Foundation of our Civilisation

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 19/08/2015

Immigrazione 02 ridThe duty of hospitality is the main wall of western civilization, and the ABC of good of humanity. In the ancient Greek world a stranger was the bearer of a divine presence. There are many myths in which the gods take the form of passing strangers. The Odyssey is also a great lesson on the value of hospitality (Nausicaa, Circe...) and the severity of its desecration (Polyphemus the Cyclops, Antinous). In ancient times, hospitality was regulated by real sacred rites, as an expression of the reciprocity of gifts. From the first gesture of welcome to the moment of the guest's departure, complete with a "parting gift" the host had several duties which he had to perform in a discrete and above all, grateful way.

Hospitality is a connection, it is a relationship (and how nice it is that in Italian there is a single word, "ospite" for the one who hosts and the one that is hosted). The strangers who were welcomed in other people's homes were not asked about their name or identity, because it was enough to meet a stranger in a state of need for the grammar of hospitality to be activated. Reciprocity in relationships of hosting was at the foundations of alliances between people and communities that made up the basic grammar of peaceful coexistence among peoples.

The Trojan War, the legendary icon of all wars, was born from a breach of hospitality (by Paris). Ancient Roman civilization also recognized the sanctity of hospitality, which was also legally regulated. Then there is the Bible, which is a continuous song about the absolute value of hospitality and welcoming of strangers, who, not infrequently, are called "angels". The first great sin of Sodom was denying hospitality to two men who were the guests of Abraham and Sarah by the oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18-19), and one of the most gruesome episodes of the Bible is a desecration of hospitality - the murderous rape committed by the Benjamites of Gibeah (the Book of Judges, 19). Christianity gathered these traditions about hospitality, and interpreted it as a variation of the commandment of agape and a direct expression of the predilection of Jesus for those who count as the last ones in society and for the poor: "I was a stranger and you welcomed me" (Matthew 25,35).

In those ancient cultures, where the "law of retaliation" was still in force, where almost no human rights were recognized that have been conquered and proclaimed by the West in recent centuries, hospitality was chosen as the cornerstone of civilization – the one from which ours flourished. In a world that was much more insecure, needy and violent than ours, those ancient people understood that the obligation of hospitality is essential in order to emerge from barbarism. The barbaric and uncivilized peoples are those who do not know and do not recognize their guests. Polyphemus is the perfect image of anti-social and inhuman behaviour because he devours his guests instead of welcoming them. Hospitality is the first civil word because wherever there is no practice of hospitality, there is practice of war, and shalom, that is, peace and well-being are blocked.

We cease to be civil, human and intelligent when we break the age-old practice of hospitality. And if hospitality is the first step to enter the territory of civilization, its negation becomes automatically the first step to go back to the world of the Cyclopes, where only physical strength and size reign.

The wise peoples have always understood that hospitality is good for everyone, even if its costs regard everyone, individually. Because of this we have to protect it and talk well about it, if we want it to survive in times of high costs. Reciprocity of hospitality is not a contract, because there is no equivalence between giving and receiving, and especially because my being a welcoming person today generates no guarantee of finding hospitality when I need it tomorrow. There is no insurance policy for the future welcoming of those who give a warm welcome to someone today. Because of this, hospitality is a common good, and therefore it is fragile. Like all common goods it is destroyed unless it is supported by a larger collective intelligence of individual interests. But like all public goods, once it is destroyed, the good is gone and won't be available to anybody and will be almost impossible to rebuild.

Modern Europe is born from the weave of Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman humanism, both founded on hospitality. But the Benjamite and Poliphemic spirit has also survived in the West, and was dominant for long periods - these were always dark. It is the spirit that sees guests only as threats or prey. Today this dark, uncivilized and non-intelligent spirit is surfacing again, and so the valuable exercise of the discernment of spirits is to be performed very urgently. For example by not believing those who tell us that Polyphemus devoured the companions of Odysseus because there would have been too many people on board and the ship could sink during their return to Ithaca, or the Benjamites wanted to meet the guests of Lot only to check their documents. The recognition of the value and of right of hospitality should come before every policy and technique of managing it and making it sustainable.

Hospitality is a spirit, it is a good spirit. When it is missing, one can see it, feel it. Spirits should be known, recognized and called by name, and the bad ones should simply be thrown away.

In the house of humans, if there is no place for the other, then there is no place for me either. For it is written: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Letter to the Hebrews).

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