The Great Conversation:
By Travis Copeland
As we gather to celebrate Thanksgiving, we enter a tradition far broader and older than any one nation or holiday.
Hospitality is an often overlooked theme in the great conversation, and good hospitality is always a beautiful display of true virtue. Through the great books, readers encounter communities of old friends, acquaintances, or total strangers sitting together, inhabiting the same dwelling space, and partaking in a meal, while they draw out the most personal and intimate things through dialogue. Accompanying hospitality is the sensory experience of the world, specifically taste.
However, hospitality can extend beyond food into a welcoming spirit, or even romance, displayed around a home or meal. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh is shown hospitality by Utnapishtim (the ark-building Noah figure in the work), and although they do not eat at a table together, Utnapishtim shows conversational honor and hospitality to Gilgamesh in his quest for immortality. Hospitality’s form begins at the table but it can extend into a spirit of welcome and charity woven into ordinary interactions. As part of the great conversation, hospitality pulls in the other great themes and virtues. It serves as a place of culmination. It is the meeting of morals and character around the most basic of human experiences, and around the most basic daily human actions, eating.
Although not mentioned in Adler’s list of just over a hundred classical virtues, great ideas, and themes, hospitality is a key theme in the great conversation. Adler left it out, perhaps, because other virtues take up the specifics of hospitality: charity, for example, looks a great deal like hospitality. However, hospitality’s connection to food links it to basic human needs and highlights, more specifically than charity, the essential importance of community. Hospitality serves as a kind of umbrella, which groups under its cover numerous other ideas. Honor, temperance, charity, appearance versus reality, happiness, even courage—all are worked out in settings of hospitality. Poor examples and honorable ones sprout repeatedly in the classic works and force a reflection on the essence and actions of good hospitality, encouraging the reader to ask questions like: what makes hospitality worth practicing, inherently valuable, and how can it be degraded?
The great conversation considers the importance of good hospitality and the woeful effects of bad hospitality on individuals and societies. Even more, they demonstrate that depictions of good, honorable hospitality come from people of virtue, who wish to show “honor to whom honor is due.” Recovering this theme in all its beauty and goodness would serve every student of classical education, offering a place of renewal, fortitude, and delight, and while the ordinariness and frequency of it allows it to be forgotten, study of it in good literature can bear virtuous-fruit and delight.
Alongside Gilgamesh, Virgil and Homer are notable early poets in the great tradition that highlight the value of hospitality. Just as the Gospel of Luke has been described as Jesus going from meal-to-meal, so too the Odyssey could be described as Odysseus going from one event of hospitality to another; while many are poor examples of good hospitality, they still insist that the reader reflect on hospitality’s role in Odysseus’ travels and in their own life, considering deeply the place of virtue at the table in the great books. Virgil, being an avid reader of Homer, writes hospitality into the Æneid. Dido, queen of Carthage, welcomes and falls in love with Æneas. However, Æneas shows the opposite quality, by providing the sword for her to kill herself, and leaving as a poor returner of her romantic hospitality. For Virgil, the roots of Roman and Carthage’s war began with poor hospitality.
From the classical world, the thread of hospitality in the great conversation grows. Virgil hosts Dante in the Inferno and Purgatorio, and the Lilliputians show disdain and contempt for Lemuel Gulliver’s arrival on their island. But among the many works that display hospitality, no two others explore the theme of hospitality more than William Shakespeare and J. R. R. Tolkien. The table in MacBeth is a place of confession, when MacBeth recounts his fear over his murderous killing to his wife. In King Lear, Lear is thrown out of his daughter’s homes into the great, vile storm, showing their familial hate for the king their father. And while Shakespeare uses human wickedness and hospitality to propel his narrative, Tolkien uses it to offer the reader and his characters rest in the good company of virtuous people with good food. The company of Hobbits, who take off “flying from deadly peril to deadly peril” are hosted by the warm and courageous spirits of Tom Bombadil, Farmer Maggot, and owner of the Prancing Pony, Barliman Butterbur. Tolkien elevates and praises hospitality’s beauty.
Virtue cultivates good hospitality, and good hospitality cultivates virtue. The authors of the great conversation recognize the role that food, community, fellowship, and the table play in mankind‘s history and everyday life. We, who pursue goodness and love the great books, must also remember and pursue hospitality with them. As we enter great literature’s homes and dining rooms, our own tables and habitations will come alive anew, and we will find that truth, goodness, and beauty begin to make their presences at the many tables of our lives.
Travis Copeland holds a BA in history and humanities, and is studying for an MA in history; he teaches history and Latin at Covenant Classical in Charlotte, NC. When not writing and teaching, Travis aspires to a hobbit lifestyle of poetry, gardening, baking, and conversation with good company around good food.
If you enjoyed this piece, take a look at some of our other content here at the Journal, like these author profiles of Æsop and Claudius Ptolemy, these “Great Conversation” pieces on prudence and the soul, or these reviews of Dorothy Sayers’ mystery novel Gaudy Night and Zena Hitz’s argument for humanist education, Lost In Thought.