Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Stoics Weigh in on Hospitality...Take a page from Marcus Aurelius' Meditations (Hospitality Congeniality)

  As common as it is frustrating, hosts often deal with rude guests and thereafter, beg sages (or advice columnists) for permission to, if not return the rudeness, at least to put said offensive guest in her place. Rereading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations recently, I discovered a variety of advice, sometimes conflicting, for this hospitality dilemma.
First and foremost, returning rudeness is verboten as Aurelius warns, “[w]hatever any one does or says, I must be good, just as if the gold, or the emerald, or the purple were always saying this, Whatever any one does or says, I must be emerald and keep my color” (63).  Let's not get sidetracked with his color wheel illustration: be good because it's true to your nature (everyone's nature, he believes).  Additionally, Aurelius requires us to find the good in others, that is, he contends, the god in everyone. On the surface, then, it appears that hosts are Stoically stuck suffering insults. However, being good, even for this Roman General affords us some wiggle room.

Before we proceed with how Stoic hosts can either improve or tolerate rude guests, we must first examine the possibility that the offense is justified. On the heals of the offense, Stoics require us to stop and consider if the guest’s advice or criticism is warranted. A bit of soul searching is in order. Are you avoiding that guest who bores you? Did you ignored known dietary restrictions? Are you stealing the spotlight? Have you privileged your gourmet meals over your guests’ enjoyment? Are you a nervous wreck and hiding out in the kitchen? Aurelius guides us: “Judge every word and deed which are according to nature to be fit for the; and be not diverted by the blame which follows from any people, nor by their words, but if a thing is good to be done or said, do not consider it unworthy of thee” (40). Is it not impressive that a Roman emperor and general chides himself during his morning meditation that “[i]f any man is able to convince me and show me that I do not think or act right, I will gladly change; for I seek the truth by which no man was ever injured. But he is injured who abides in his error and ignorance” (54). Therefore, if accused, stop, reflect, and if you determine that the injury or criticism is warranted, then, correct yourself. Never mind the intentions of the criticizer.

Of course, there is that chance that you are not wrong, that you are an ever vigilant host. In those cases, the Stoics have more advice, advice that I think you'll like.  In search of it, we investigate Meditations further…”To be vexed at anything which happens is a separation of ourselves from nature…” In essence, being irritated (as mucha as irritating) destroys our sense of harmony with the natural order, our peace. How exactly, though, should we avoid being irritated by the guest who, for example, arrives late with an uninvited companion and proceeds to monopolize the dinner conversation while criticizing your menu selection and recipe executions? For Aurelius, who may at first seem extraordinarily tolerant, it’s really a matter of developing a sense of superiority. I imagine that you're attracted to that host-guest positioning because after all, you are  the one who did all the work.  Savor this bit of his Stoicism: “When a man has done thee any wrong, immediately consider with what opinion about good or evil he has done wrong” (65). If I understand him correctly, when injured, evaluate the ethics of the injurer. Maybe I'm confused.  Thankfully, Aurelius is clearer when he writes, “When another blames thee or hates thee, or when men say about thee anything injurious, approach their poor soul, penetrate within, and see what kind of men they are” (89). I think he's saying that if they’re good men, examine their offense; but if they’re not, don’t waste your time and energy. My favorite Aurelius advice pointedly addresses this point: “I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others” (116). Aurelius challenges those of us who think we’re special (meaning, most Americans) to question why we relinquish our self-confidence in the face of any criticism. Think about it: how many guests’ insults could we dismiss by determining them to be schmucks?  More delicately, Aurelius asks the injured to determine if the injurer has redemption possibilities: ” “If thou are able, correct by teaching those who do wrong…” (87). If not redeemable, this Roman general won’t spend any time trying to educate the uneducatable although he acknowledges our social nature: “Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them” (83) for “indulgence is given to thee for this purpose” (87). For Aurelius, if you’re dealing with the etiquette- ignorant guest, don’t waste your breath, just let it go.

So the guest-offender aside, how do you, as hospitable host, “let it go”? The quick Stoic answer is a question: what would you gain from being annoyed? “Do not waste the remainder of thy life in thought about others, when thou dost not refer thy thoughts to some object of common utility” (23). Is there some point, some use to your frustration? Probably not. Or think of it this way: if you retaliate you’ve just let someone else’s lack of character determine yours. Afterall, “[h]e who does wrong does wrong against himself. He who acts unjustly acts unjustly to himself, because he makes himself bad” (83). Rather, say to yourself, “…it is in my power to let no badness be in this soul, nor desire, nor any perturbation at all…” (77). Practice that line many times so that when you’re fuming in the kitchen after your dinner guest starts meal texting. Well, if that advice doesn’t resonate with you, rest assured that you can acheiv a rested mind, a tranquil mind, one devoid of frustration and bitterness.  All it takes is a “good ordering of the mind” (29). Probably Hamlet said it better but Aurelius still says it well: evil in general (and offense in particular) are only and always mental constructs. “Take away thy opinion, and then there is taken away the complaint, ‘I have been harmed.’…and the harm is taken away” (31). Easier said than done, you might be thinking. It’s admirable but impractical as it’s a bit too optimistic for human nature, you might conclude. To you, Aurelius has two words: “Right reason.” Get your mind in order: “When thou hast been compelled by circumstances to be disturbed in a manner, quickly return to thyself and to do not continue out of tune longer than the compulsion lasts; for thou wilt have more mastery over the harmony by continually recurring to it” (51). It’s not surprising that this Roman emperor daily cautions himself to rise above petty complaints: “It is in thy power to live free from all compulsion in the greatest tranquility of mind, even if all the world cry out against thee as much as they choose, and even if wild beasts tear in pieces the members of this kneaded matter which has grown around thee” (71). Wild beasts at your table should and can be dismissed—although if not from your table, at least from your mind. So the next time a guest acts inhospitably, retreat and repose.
Think Stoic thoughts that instruct you how to react properly, guaranteeing not only the welfare of your guests (including the offender) but also your own happiness. In short, master your mind in order to control your sense of contentment.

But for Stoics, it goes beyond intention. One must act properly. And for late Roman Stoics, that means duty. “I do my duty: other things trouble me not; for they are either things without life, or things without reason, or things that have rambled and know not the way” (54). Your duty as a host is to act hospitably, plain and simple.

Aurelius, Marcus. Trans. George Long. Meditations. Buffalo: Great Books in Philosophy, 1991.

[I had a great flow chart developed for this post but can't figure out how to load it. Any help would be much appreciated!]

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"One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well." - from A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf