Today’s theme is hospitality. My family and I were on a cross-country (and back again) road trip for 5 weeks, and we have been the beneficiaries of numerous families hosting us as if we were favored nobility. We have been given red-carpet treatment from one coast to the other by friends and family, and it is very easy indeed for me to say that America is not short on hospitality. About half the time we camped, and we received due measure of cold, and damp, and other difficulties. The other half, we arrived at homes we had never visited before, like havens in a storm (sometimes literally), with a fine warm meal, a good snifter of whiskey or top-flight wine, and music played for us fit for singing or dancing or both – in either case music to warm the soul. Jeff C. knows that I am not exaggerating in this description – he and his most accomplished wife and family provided one of our best visits.
Hospitality is perhaps a bit of an odd duck of a quality. It is highly praised, even revered, in older cultures. In some places it is treated as a sacred duty. From just a little reading, it appears that in many pre-modern cultures hospitality is considered closely tied to divinity. The Bible shows a stellar example of this ancient attitude, in Abraham being visited by God as three men, where Abraham immediately orders up food and drink for them and serves them himself.
Yet in spite of this ancient reverence, hospitality is today poorly represented in lists of the virtues – it is almost forgotten in formal discussion about virtue. It seems almost like a formulary orphan, and I don’t know why that should be. In any discussion of the particular virtues, you gradually move from the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, etc) that are very broad down to virtues of minutiae (like gratitude). Surely, at this more detailed level, hospitality rates its own distinct mention. It may come under generosity, for example, but it calls for a distinct application of generosity: one uses ones OWN home and food, and apply those in a personal effort to make the visitor feel welcome, as if “at home.” MacIntyre suggests that it is a premier virtue with respect to the human condition of dependence, just as diligence, endurance, and wisdom are virtues that bear on the well-functioning of the independent rational being. Many people, though, consider hospitality not as a virtue (in the sense of definite obligation) but rather a nice attitude that one may choose to take on when it pleases them, but not when it is inconvenient – something above and beyond actual duties. I don’t think that Abraham (and the God visiting him) would agree with this attitude.
In a weird way, hospitality in us is a way of paying off “in arrears” the good gifts granted to us – debts that we all bear. Each one of us comes to be by an act of parents who decide to welcome into their home someone who is (before conception) an absolute stranger, someone who cannot begin to have an actual claim on them unless they so dispose that. We are then made to feel “at home” by being brought home and raised for years in a home, during a time when we can no more benefit those parents in any tangible way than most guests do.
As with some other virtues, hospitality has a correlative virtue: gratitude. It is distinctly appropriate for the guest to “repay” his host in the coin of gratitude. And so I thank Jeff and all the other families who played host to us, from the bottom of my heart, and hope that I will have a chance to play host to many of these families (as well as to many other families and individuals). If any of you have stories of especially noted acts of hospitality, I welcome your input here.