James Boswell, in his 1785 memoir Tour to the Hebrides, makes the following psychological observation:
It often happens that we are forced to accept what we wish to avoid. Avarice, for example, defeats itself; and the miser who in futility clings to every penny finds himself compelled to part with greater sums than he might otherwise have spent. The health fanatic who obsesses about every morsel of food that goes into his mouth, or cup that is pressed to his lips, finds himself harassed by ailments and bodily infirmity, while the moderate enjoyer of pleasure scarcely has a need to visit the physician. The athlete fixated on avoiding injury brings it down upon himself.
The world is a much smaller place than we are aware. Things we do, actions we take, can have far-reaching effects that come back to us in ways we can never imagine. While events, places, and the flowing rush of time are shifting and transitory, the power of virtue is such that it transcends time and place. I was reminded of this recently after reading the Second World War memoirs of Col. Hans von Luck, a German commander who fought in all the major theaters of the European war.
Abu Talib Ibn Zabada was born in Baghdad in 1128 and lived his early life there, although his biographer Ibn Khallikan says his family was based in Wasit. He is described as a poet, jurisprudent, and administrator of exceptional talent and wit; his letters were said to be singularly refined. “His epistles,” says Ibn Khallikan, “are remarkable for the graces of their style, the elegance of their thoughts, the beauty of their ornaments and the delicacy of their allusions. In drawing up dispatches, he paid more attention to the ideas than to the cadence; his letters are elegant, his thoughts just, his poetry good and his merits are so conspicuous that they need not be described.”
In our lives we often encounter people whose behavior seems to make no rational sense. I am referring to people who do things that seem to be against their own self-interest: those who say one thing, but do something else. We ourselves can fall into this trap on occasion. It is almost as if there exists some morbid consciousness in all of us, a voice calling out for us to exactly what we should not do.
Philo of Alexandria, in his essay on agriculture (De Agricultura), points out that there is a difference between an ordinary tiller of the ground, and an actual farmer; and that there is also a clear difference between a shepherd and someone who just tends to sheep. In the same way, he tells us, there is a great difference between a rider of a horse and a true horseman.
In taking the measure of a man’s cultural refinement, we must examine the degree to which he is practiced in the art of hospitality. And when I say art, I mean this in a literal sense. Arts are not inborn; they must be studied and honed with constant use. A culture that teaches its members how to treat guests is a confident one; it is a culture that has, to some degree at least, liberated itself from the oppressions of acquisitiveness and greed, and has embraced some aspects of the communitarian ethic. It is also a culture that understands the value of reciprocity: the idea that a good turn done for one today, may mean a good turn done for oneself tomorrow.