Hospitality in The Odyssey

Restrictionists frequently try to marginalize the arguments of open borders by claiming that, as Steve Camarota put it in our TV debate, “all societies, all sovereign states throughout all history have always had the idea that they can regulate who comes into their society,” or more generally, by treating state sovereignty as a universal norm of human life and migration restrictions as an essential element of sovereignty. In fact, passport controls were the exception rather than the rule until the early 20th century, and as far as I have been able to judge the evidence (but more research would be useful), there is little by way of analogous institutions in former times. What there is evidence for is a norm of hospitality across many cultures.

In particular, hospitality is perhaps the foremost moral theme of The Odyssey, one of the two great epics of ancient Greece. It was written (according to tradition) by Homer, who was also the author of the other great Greek epic, The Iliad. The Odyssey and the Iliad were to the Greeks a little like the Bible to the Jews: major source books of ethics, theology, and history; central reference points for the culture; definers of the Greek identity. The great difference in character between the Greek epics and the Bible expresses very well the great difference in character between the Greeks and the Jews. I previously wrote about the immigration policy encoded in the Mosaic law of the Old Testament. Having formed my open borders views, and even written a book about it, long before I studied the Old Testament teachings on the treatment of the foreigner, I was amazed at the extent to which the Bible confirmed my views, if indeed it does not go even farther than I had dared to go in insisting that strangers be welcomed and well-treated. In its own, quite different way, yet hardly less emphatically, the Odyssey, too, gives open borders supporters all they could ask for.

Odysseus, the hero and namesake of the Odyssey, is a Greek king from the heroic age, who participated in the great war that ended in the destruction of Troy. That war originated in the pollution of hospitality by Paris, the Trojan prince who was a guest of Spartan king Menelaus and seduced his wife Helen. Hospitality is a two-way street. Guests as well as hosts have obligations. On his return voyage, however, Odysseus runs into all sorts of troubles and disasters that keep him from getting home. The epic begins about twenty years after the fall of Troy, by which time Odysseus’s house has been overrun by men– “the suitors”– who are wasting his goods and seeking to marry his wife. The suitors, those unwelcome guests, are the villains of the epic, who in the climax of the story are slaughtered by the returning Odysseus. Again, hospitality is a two-way street, but it would be a stretch to compare the suitors to illegal immigrants, for it is not their mere presence in the household, but their theft of Odysseus’s goods and their hopes of marrying Odysseus’s wife that seem to make them the villains. Worse, at one point they plot to murder Odysseus’s son. Moreover, when Odysseus returns in the guise of a wandering beggar, they treat him with great inhospitality. Thus they deserve their fate.

Meanwhile, Odysseus is a love-slave on the island of the goddess, Calypso, but in spite of her divine embraces, yearns to return home. At last, the gods grant him to sail to the country of a people called the Phaecians, where they know, but Odysseus does not, that he will be well-treated and given passage back to his home country of Ithaca. After a rough sea voyage he is wrecked on the Phaecian coast, where he says (this is in Book VI):

“Alas,” said he to himself, “what kind of people have I come amongst? Are they cruel, savage, and uncivilized, or hospitable and humane? I seem to hear the voices of young women, and they sound like those of the nymphs that haunt mountain tops, or springs of rivers and meadows of green grass. At any rate I am among a race of men and women. Let me try if I cannot manage to get a look at them.”

Note the dichotomy Odysseus makes here. A people may be (a) cruel, savage, and uncivilized, or (b) hospitable and humane. Hospitality, humane treatment of guests, is the first, defining feature of civilized peoples. Of course, it might only be uppermost in Odysseus’s mind because he will soon be obliged to seek their hospitality. Still, the identification of hospitality with civilization shows the importance of this norm.

Shortly afterwards, Odysseus (known to the Latins as Ulysses) finds himself in the court of King Alcinous of the Phaecians, where (in Book VII) he presents himself as a suppliant:

So here Ulysses stood for a while and looked about him, but when he had looked long enough he crossed the threshold and went within the precincts of the house… Every one was speechless with surprise at seeing a man there, but Ulysses began at once with his petition.

“Queen Arete,” he exclaimed, “daughter of great Rhexenor, in my distress I humbly pray you, as also your husband and these your guests (whom may heaven prosper with long life and happiness, and may they leave their possessions to their children, and all the honours conferred upon them by the state) to help me home to my own country as soon as possible; for I have been long in trouble and away from my friends.”

Then he sat down on the hearth among the ashes and they all held their peace, till presently the old hero Echeneus, who was an excellent speaker and an elder among the Phaeacians, plainly and in all honesty addressed them thus: “Alcinous,” said he, “it is not creditable to you that a stranger should be seen sitting among the ashes of your hearth; every one is waiting to hear what you are about to say; tell him, then, to rise and take a seat on a stool inlaid with silver, and bid your servants mix some wine and water that we may make a drink-offering to Jove the lord of thunder, who takes all well-disposed suppliants under his protection; and let the housekeeper give him some supper, of whatever there may be in the house.”

When Alcinous heard this he took Ulysses by the hand, raised him from the hearth, and bade him take the seat of Laodamas, who had been sitting beside him, and was his favourite son. A maid servant then brought him water in a beautiful golden ewer and poured it into a silver basin for him to wash his hands, and she drew a clean table beside him; an upper servant brought him bread and offered him many good things of what there was in the house, and Ulysses ate and drank. Then Alcinous said to one of the servants, “Pontonous, mix a cup of wine and hand it round that we may make drink-offerings to Jove the lord of thunder, who is the protector of all well-disposed suppliants.”

In this passage, it is clear that King Alcinous has some authority to decide who will be received in his hall, though it does not follow that he gets to decide who is present on the territory of his kingdom. But the king is not exactly at liberty to exercise this authority simply as he happens to prefer. Echeneus, who is characterized as an “old hero,” suggesting an exemplar of virtue, declares that it is “not creditable” to treat “a stranger” otherwise than to welcome him by giving him an honorable seat. Moreover, there is a theological justification for this: “Jove [Zeus] takes all well-disposed suppliants under his protection.” Here there is a striking parallel with the Old Testament, where it is written that God “defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:18). Clearly, Echeneus is not making this up, but rather expressing the conventional wisdom, “speaking plainly and in all honesty,” and the king quickly echoes him, saying that “Jove [Zeus] the lord of thunder… is the protector of all well-disposed suppliants.”

By contrast with the Phaecians, Odysseus had previously met the race of the Cyclops, whose chief iniquity seems to be that they did not practice the norm of hospitality. As Odysseus narrates in Book IX:

“We sailed hence, always in much distress, till we came to the land of the lawless and inhuman Cyclopes. Now the Cyclopes neither plant nor plough, but trust in providence, and live on such wheat, barley, and grapes as grow wild without any kind of tillage, and their wild grapes yield them wine as the sun and the rain may grow them. They have no laws nor assemblies of the people, but live in caves on the tops of high mountains; each is lord and master in his family, and they take no account of their neighbours…

“I told my men to draw the ship ashore, and stay where they were, all but the twelve best among them, who were to go along with myself… We soon reached his [the Cyclops’] cave, but he was out shepherding, so we went inside and took stock of all that we could see. His cheese-racks were loaded with cheeses, and he had more lambs and kids than his pens could hold… as for his dairy, all the vessels, bowls, and milk pails into which he milked, were swimming with whey… When, however, we saw him my poor men found him ill to deal with.

“We lit a fire… then sat waiting till the Cyclops should come in with his sheep. When he came, he brought in with him a huge load of dry firewood to light the fire for his supper, and this he flung with such a noise on to the floor of his cave that we hid ourselves for fear at the far end of the cavern. Meanwhile he drove all the ewes inside, as well as the she-goats that he was going to milk, leaving the males, both rams and he-goats, outside in the yards. Then he rolled a huge stone to the mouth of the cave- so huge that two and twenty strong four-wheeled waggons would not be enough to draw it from its place against the doorway… When he had got through with all his work, he lit the fire, and then caught sight of us, whereon he said:

“‘Strangers, who are you? Where do sail from? Are you traders, or do you sail the as rovers, with your hands against every man, and every man’s hand against you?’

“We were frightened out of our senses by his loud voice and monstrous form, but I managed to say, ‘We are Achaeans on our way home from Troy, but by the will of Jove, and stress of weather, we have been driven far out of our course. We are the people of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, who has won infinite renown throughout the whole world, by sacking so great a city and killing so many people. We therefore humbly pray you to show us some hospitality, and otherwise make us such presents as visitors may reasonably expect. May your excellency fear the wrath of heaven, for we are your suppliants, and Jove takes all respectable travellers under his protection, for he is the avenger of all suppliants and foreigners in distress.’

“To this he gave me but a pitiless answer, ‘Stranger,’ said he, ‘you are a fool, or else you know nothing of this country. Talk to me, indeed, about fearing the gods or shunning their anger? We Cyclopes do not care about Jove or any of your blessed gods, for we are ever so much stronger than they…'”

Here again, Odysseus calls the Cyclops “lawless and inhuman.” The basis for this characterization is chiefly their ill-treatment of guests. Of course, Odysseus and his comrades have not been invited by the Cyclops. In fact, he simply finds them already in his house. Not only that, they’ve eaten some of his cheese before he arrives! Nonetheless, Odysseus immediately appeals to the Cyclops, not only to leave them unharmed, but to “show us some hospitality” and even (!) “such presents as visitors may reasonably expect.” Because of what is taken to be common knowledge about the attitudes of the gods towards hospitality, Odysseus even dares to threaten: “may your excellency fear the wrath of heaven.” And again, as the Phaeacians said: “Jove takes all respectable travelers under his protection, for he is the avenger of all suppliants and foreigners in distress.” Nor does the Cyclops deny this. If he does not fear the gods, that is because he thinks he is stronger than they, not because he doubts that Jove is the avenger of all suppliants and foreigners in distress.

In the days that follow, the Cyclops goes on to eat Odysseus’s men, two each night, until Odysseus hatches a plot, not to kill him, which would only leave them trapped behind the great stone which only the Cyclops is strong enough to move, but to blind him, after which the men escape by binding themselves to the underside of the Cyclops’ sheep as (despite his blindness) he leads them out to pasture in the morning. The reader is meant to feel satisfaction that the detestable Cyclops, who eats guests in his own house, got his well-deserved comeuppance.

While the question of hospitality arises in the adventures of the Lestrygonians and on the island of Circe, let’s fast-forward to the time when, in the second half of the Odyssey, Odysseus finally arrives in Ithaca. Since the goddess Athena/Minerva warns him that his house has been taken over by the suitors, Odysseus disguises himself, and this theme of the king-in-disguise pervades the second half of the Odyssey, as Odysseus tests all the members of his household. A Christian reader can’t help but be struck by the parallels between Odysseus, returning in secret, and the character that Our Lord’s parables uses as a metaphor for God. Thus, in Matthew 24:45-51, Jesus says:

“Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his  master made ruler over his household, to give them food in due season? Blessed is that servant whom his master, when he comes, will find so doing. Assuredly, I say to you that he will make him ruler over all his goods.

“But if that evil servant says in his heart, ‘My master is delaying his coming,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants, and to eat and drink with the drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he is not looking for him and at an hour that he is not aware of, and will cut him in two and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Or again:

“When the Son of Man comes in His glory… all the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left.

“Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me… Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.

“Then the King will say to those on His left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels, for I was hungry and you gave Me no food, I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me… Inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it unto Me.” (Matthew 25:31-45)

Odysseus is both of these characters. He is the master returning like a thief in the night; and he is the king in disguise, by the treatment, good or ill, of whom his servants are judged. In particular, the virtue of one of Odysseus’s servants, “Eumaeus, loyal swineherd,” is proven not only by his loyalty to his long absent master, but equally by his hospitality to the disguised Odysseus, whom he takes to be merely a wandering beggar. After rescuing Odysseus from his dogs, the swineherd addresses him thus:

“Old man, the dogs were likely to have made short work of you, and then you would have got me into trouble. The gods have given me quite enough worries without that, for I have lost the best of masters [i.e., Odysseus], and am in continual grief on his account. I have to attend swine for other people to eat, while he, if he yet lives to see the light of day, is starving in some distant land. But come inside, and when you have had your fill of bread and wine, tell me where you come from, and all about your misfortunes.”

Once again, we hear the theme that the gods are the protectors of travelers: Eumaeus would have “got… into trouble [with] the gods” if his dogs had attacked and killed a wayfarer. After he provides for Odysseus and is thanked, Eumaeus says:

“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.”

Odysseus gives a fictional account of himself as a Cretan nobleman fallen on hard times, but in the course of his adventures he mentions Odysseus, whom– hoping to comfort Eumaeus– he promises will soon return. Eumaeus, however, disbelieves this, and says:

“It is not for any such reason [i.e., in return for good news] that I shall treat you kindly, but only out of respect for Jove the god of hospitality, as fearing him and pitying you.”

To try to make Eumaeus believe him, the disguised Odysseus even proposes a kind of bet, whereby, should Odysseus return, he will get a reward, and if not, “set your men on to me, and tell them to throw me from yonder precipice, as a warning to tramps not to go about the country telling lies.” But Eumaeus will not contemplate violating the laws of hospitality in this way:

“And a pretty figure I should cut then,” replied Eumaeus, both now and hereafter, if I were to kill you after receiving you into my hut and showing you hospitality. I should have to say my prayers in good earnest if I did…”

Shortly after this, Odysseus proposes returning to his own house as a servant, but Eumaeus warns him against it, because the insolent suitors won’t accept him as a servant, let alone treating him well as a guest. He tells him instead to wait for the return of Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, who is one of the good guys and faithfully practices the law of hospitality. This proves true shortly afterwards, when Odysseus, still disguised, goes down to the city with Eumaeus, and is greeted thus by Melanthius, a disloyal servant who has become one of the suitors’ entourage (Book XVII):

“There you go,” cried he, “and a precious pair you are. See how heaven brings birds of the same feather to one another. Where, pray, master swineherd, are you taking this poor miserable object? It would make any one sick to see such a creature at table. A fellow like this never won a prize for anything in his life, but will go about rubbing his shoulders against every man’s door post, and begging, not for swords and cauldrons like a man, but only for a few scraps not worth begging for. If you would give him to me for a hand on my station, he might do to clean out the folds, or bring a bit of sweet feed to the kids, and he could fatten his thighs as much as he pleased on whey; but he has taken to bad ways and will not go about any kind of work; he will do nothing but beg victuals all the town over, to feed his insatiable belly. I say, therefore and it shall surely be- if he goes near Ulysses’ house he will get his head broken by the stools they will fling at him, till they turn him out.”

When Odysseus, with Eumaeus as sponsor, does beg from the suitors, he gets this answer from their leader, Antinous:

On this Antinous began to abuse the swineherd. “You precious idiot,” he cried, “what have you brought this man to town for? Have we not tramps and beggars enough already to pester us as we sit at meat? Do you think it a small thing that such people gather here to waste your master’s property and must you needs bring this man as well?”

The other suitors give Odysseus something, but Antinous refuses, and even strikes Odysseus when he asks again. This alarms one of the suitors, who says:

The other suitors were much displeased at this, and one of the young men said, “Antinous, you did ill in striking that poor wretch of a tramp: it will be worse for you if he should turn out to be some god- and we know the gods go about disguised in all sorts of ways as people from foreign countries, and travel about the world to see who do amiss and who righteously.”

Here the parallel with Matthew 25:31-45 is very close. Later, when Odysseus starts a battle to rid his house of the suitors, Antinous is the first one slain. Still, Odysseus lingers around the house in disguise, though sometimes he tries to stay out of sight of the suitors.

The next day, a local beggar, Irus, picks a fight with Odysseus, whom he sees as a rival. Antinous and the suitors see this as an opportunity for entertainment, and they goad Irus and Odysseus into a fight, offering the best of some goats that are being cooked to the winner, while they will drive the loser out of the house. Odysseus wins the fight handily, but Penelope, when she hears about it, not knowing that the beggar is Odysseus (who, being a great fighter, had little to fear from the contest) scolds Telemachus for allowing such ill-treatment of guests to occur in a house of which he is still nominally the master, even if he is not in de facto control:

“Telemachus,” said she, addressing her son, “I fear you are no longer so discreet and well conducted as you used to be. When you were younger you had a greater sense of propriety; now, however, that you are grown up, though a stranger to look at you would take you for the son of a well-to-do father as far as size and good looks go, your conduct is by no means what it should be. What is all this disturbance that has been going on, and how came you to allow a stranger to be so disgracefully ill-treated? What would have happened if he had suffered serious injury while a suppliant in our house? Surely this would have been very discreditable to you.”

I could go on and on, but the point is clear. The suitors are slain, and that they deserve this is shown, not only by the fact that they waste Odysseus’s goods and plot to marry his wife, but also by their mistreatment of guests. The moral of the story is, as the triumphant Odysseus says to the herald Medon when, amidst the slaughter of the suitors, he takes pity on him at Telemachus’s urging, “that you may know in future, and tell other people, how greatly better good deeds prosper than evil ones.” But in what do these good deeds consist? Above all, in hospitality, not just to invited guests but to all well-disposed suppliants, and in piety, which is another side of the same coin, since God is the protector and avenger of the same.

How does contemporary America, along with the other democracies of the wealthy West, measure up, by the ethical standard of The Odyssey? Are we “cruel, savage, and uncivilized” or “hospitable and humane?” How do we treat suppliants and travelers? Privately, not too badly, perhaps. Publicly, far worse, though even the US government is not quite as bad as the Cyclops. The worst it does is to separate people from their families by force. The Odyssey is, among other things, an eloquent tribute to the pain of being forcibly separated from home, and to the lengths to which a person will go to be reunited with his family. According to research by the Pew Hispanic Center, a million people have been put in the position of Odysseus, Penelope, and Telemachus, separated by force from family members. And billions of potential guests have been warned that they will not receive a good welcome if they come here. If we are not quite as bad as the Lestrygonians and the Cyclops, we are closer to them than to the Phaeatians, or Telemachus.

Open borders supporters are not a newfangled sect questioning timeless verities. On the contrary, we are on the side of the ancient law of hospitality, to which we urge humankind to return.

One last point: hospitality is an application of my meta-ethical theory of (a) universal altruism plus (b) division of labor. (Apologies to BK and philosophers for the slightly improper use of the word “meta-ethical.”) One ought to practice hospitality because (a) one typically can, one has the power, it is easy to be of great service to someone when they are abroad and you are at home, and (b) everyone treating guests well is a pretty good way to ensure that everyone is well treated. It may be expedient to redefine the obligations of hospitality somewhat over time as the conditions of travel change, but it is as much a vice to disdain and drive away travelers today, as it was in the time of Odysseus.

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

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