Xenia, civility, manners, and hospitality in Homer's Odyssey

Reflecting on our duty to the stranger and the "other," an invitation to discuss the future of the humanities, announcing the next book giveaway + more!

Gracious Reader,

Thank you for being part of the Civic Renaissance Community! If this is your first issue, find more about this project and what to expect here.

So that you know where were are going this week, here is an overview:

  • Reflection on civility, manners, and hospitality in Homer’s Odyssey

  • Word of the Week: “Xenia” (ξενία), which means “guest-friendship” and refers to an idealized vision of hospitality in Ancient Greece

  • What is the future of the humanities? An invitation

  • Introducing this week’s book give-away!

  • Congratulations to Scott Beauchamp, winner of February’s book contest

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Civility, manners, and hospitality in The Odyssey

I just finished Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s The Odyssey, the nearly 3000-year-old Greek epic poem that for millennia has been the cornerstone of the liberal arts and classical education. Wilson’s is also the first translation into English ever completed by a woman, a huge achievement worth celebrating—especially on International Women’s Day, which we celebrated just yesterday.

(Side note: I’m challenging myself, an utter technophobe, to become proficient in “Instagram Reels”—Tik Tok-esque short videos that are all the rage with kids these days. Part of the purpose of Civic Renaissance is to show people why books and great ideas matters so see below for one of my recent attempts, which offers today’s youth five reasons why Homer matters today. What do you think? It can only get better from here…)

First, a note on this translation. This was my first time reading The Odyssey.

I’ve long been amused by the definition of a Great Book as one that everyone wishes they had read, but no one wants to read. I had always wanted to read The Odyssey, and was familiar with many of its characters, quotes and its plot through the many courses I’ve enjoyed on the classical world.

My friend Anya, who runs Classical Wisdom (more on CW later!), finally convinced me to do it. She told me, importantly, that it was an accessible translation, one that could be read in a just a sitting or two. This shocked me. All I could think about was how challenging I found it to get through The Iliad when I read it a few years ago. (I can’t recall which translation I attempted…)

I took Anya at her word, bought Wilson’s translation, and once I picked it up I could scarecely put it down. I loved reading about “rosy-fingered Dawn,” the “wine-dark sea,” and words and thoughts that “flew” between characters. I found beautiful language and vivid imagery on every page—and yes, it was remarkably accessible. It was empowering to not only understand, but to actually enjoy this work that has been the read by so many for so long.

If you are someone who has always wanted to read The Odyssey but felt too intimidated to try or too discouraged by a past attempt at an inaccessible translation, I’d encourage you to try Wilson’s work.

I love how Wilson explained why she insisted on using clear language in her translation:

"Displays of rhetoric and linguistic force are a good way to seem important and invite a particular kind of admiration, but they tend to silence dissent and discourse deeper modes of engagement."

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Her aim was to create version of The Odyssey that could speak to a new generation of readers. For that, I am thankful. Indeed, that very much echoes the purpose of the Civic Renaissance community: to show people why ideas and the wisdom of the past can speak to us and improve our lives today.

Now, on to Xenia, civility, manners, and hospitality in The Odyssey.

As many of you know, I am writing a book on civility, forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press. Imagine my happy surprise when, while reading The Odyssey, I realized that manners and civility are the primary theme of the entire work!

A short backstory of The Odyssey for readers who might not be familiar: the twenty-four-book narrative follows the journey of Odysseus, King of the Greek city Ithaca, as he returns home from the Trojan War, where the Greeks destroyed the city of Troy (the story of the war is partially told in The Odyssey’s counterpart, Homer’s Iliad.)

The Odyssey’s driving theme is Xenia: each book is a case study in the duties of welcoming strangers into one’s life and one’s home, as the story follows Odysseus as he journeys home to Ithaca and encounters various people of different places and cultures.

Notably, Xenia means both stranger and friend, embodying the cliche that a “stranger is just a friend we haven’t met yet.”

I’ve been reflecting on what Xenia means for us today, in a moment where we are all-too-familiar with xenophobia—fear of the other, the different, the stranger (a word derived, of course, from Xenia).

The easiest, most universal thing in the world is to show benevolence to those to whom we are related, to people we like, to people like us, to people who can do things for us in return.

Xenia is all about the decency with which we treat the “other”—the person who is neither our kin, nor our neighbor, nor our friend, who is not like us, and who very likely will never be able to do anything for us in return.

The Greek ideal of Xenia calls upon us to treat such “others” with the same decency we accord to those closest to us. We might describe this high standard of conduct as requiring kindness: literally, treating strangers and visitors with the benevolence with which we would treat our kin.

This is also how I define civility: according the irreducible respect we owe to everyone by virtue of our shared humanity.

When Odysseus, finally home to Ithaca after nearly two decades away from home, reunites with his slave Eumaeus, we see Xenia—and civility—in action. Because Odysseus is in disguise as an elderly and poor beggar, Eumaeus does not recognize him as his old master. Still, Eumaeus invites him into his home, feeds him, offers him clothes, and shares an evening with his hard-on-his-luck guest.

“One must honor guests and foreigners and strangers, even those much poorer than oneself,” Eumaeus says. “Zeus watches over beggars and guests and strangers. What I have to give is small, but I will give it gladly.”

Eumaeus has next to nothing, yet shares what little he has with someone whom he considers even more needy than he.

This is beautiful. And The Odyssey celebrates this is the sort of kindness to the stranger time and time again.

The Odyssey repeatedly describes respect and a welcoming posture toward newcomers as the stuff of good manners and civility—and civilization. Barbarism, meanwhile, consists of hostility and cruelty to the stranger and those in need.

Individuals who violate these ideals of Xenia and civility—such as the suitors who aim to marry Odysseus’s wife Penelope while he is away, and who are cruel to Odysseus while he is disguised as an old beggar—are condemned to suffer.

This theme reminds me of the distinction Adam Smith makes between justice and beneficence. Justice is the minimum we owe to others, and refers to our negative duties to “do no harm.” It’s the stuff that allows a community or people group to survive. Beneficence are the “above and beyond” things we do for others — the “second mile ethic” called for in the Christian Gospels, the radical hospitality The Odyssey celebrates time and time again.

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I’ve been reflecting on how the dichotomy of justice and beneficence relate to Xenia, civility, and hospitality. I’ve been trying to devise a framework for how to think about our obligations to one another as human beings—the bare minimum being justice, not actively harming others, the above-and-beyond being beautiful acts of generosity, such as sharing your last bit of food and wine with a complete stranger. Both obligations derive from the need to respect the humanity and dignity of the other—which again, is how I conceive and define civility.

So maybe civility is on a spectrum, with the minimum of justice—what is necessary to see a society survive—on one end, and beneficence—what is necessary to see a society flourish—on the other.

What do you think Xenia’s high standard of hospitality means for us today? How do these themes—Xenia, civility, hospitality, justice, and beneficence—relate to one another? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please send me a note directly at ah@alexandraohudson.com

There is much more to say on Xenia, civility, hospitality, and manners in The Odyssey. Would you like to continue the discussion through receiving more content like this in your inbox? Write to me and let me know! ah@alexandraohudson.com

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The future of the humanities

Today, it often seems as if the humanities are undervalued and under attack. Colleges across the country are closing their humanities departments as student elect to enroll in other more so-called “practical” programs—STEM, business, accounting, etc. As a culture, we've lost an appreciation for the mode of education that has nourished the hearts and minds of men and women for thousands of years.

The study of the humanities has gone by many different names—the classics, the liberal arts—but its ethos and purpose has been remarkably consistent: offering students a well-rounded education in philosophy, history, literature, and more to give them chance to ask the big questions about life and human existence, and to develop the character and self control necessary to be truly free.

With the humanities and classics desperately in need of a popular revival, Civic Renaissance and Classical Wisdom—an online platform dedicated to bringing ancient wisdom to modern minds—have teamed up to host a public conversation about the future of these disciplines. We'll be discussing questions related to the future of the humanities with Dr. Eric Adler, whose recent book The Battle of the Classics, just published by Oxford University Press, explores just these questions. For more information, and to register, click here.

I hope you'll consider joining us!

This week’s book give away!

You could have a chance to win a copy of Eric Adler’s The Battle of the Classics!

There are two ways to enter:

  1. Share this on social media—and tag me so I know! (I’m @LexiOHudson on Twitter)

  2. Become a subscriber!

And the winner is….

Congratulations to Civic Renaissance reader Scott Beauchamp, in Bath, ME, for winning last month’s book giveaway: the defining work on Edmund Burke and manners authored by Greg Collins!

If you enjoy content such as this, consider becoming a patron of Civic Renaissance by becoming a paying subscriber.

Civic Renaissance is a newsletter and community dedicated to ennobling our public discourse with the wisdom of the past, curated by award-winning writer Alexandra Hudson, whose forthcoming book on civility will be published by St. Martin’s Press. Read more about Civic Renaissance here!