Hospitality to the Stranger
In Part III of Real Presences, where Steiner's academic coherence drops to its lowest point and his artistic virtue rises to its peak, he speaks of the ability of art to help us perceive our estrangement to ourselves,
"Serious painting, music, literature or sculpture make palpable to us, as do no other means of communication, the unassuaged, unhoused instability and estrangement of our condition. We are, at key instants, strangers to ourselves, errant at the gates of our own psyche. We knock blindly at the doors of turbulence, of creativity, of inhibition within the terra incognita of our own selves. What is more unsettling: we can be, in ways almost unendurable to reason, strangers to those whom we would know best, by whom we would be best known and unmasked." (Steiner, p. 139)
When I read the above paragraph I taste a flavor of hopefulness. The seed of this hopefulness begins when phrases like "unhoused instability and estrangement" pluck a chilling string that resonates deeply with all that is most sensitive within me. The seed gains strength of root when it is watered by the "more unsettling" truth that we are strangers to what should be most familiar to us. In my reading this sings with the imperative of a call that invites us to face what is most unsettling and alien in the most intimate way. The great hope of art, and all humanity, is that what is most unsettling within us may join freely in a hospitable common space with what is most beautiful within us unto the enrichment of our lives. When beauty and horror have the power to walk together in peaceful and expressive confidence, humanity embraces its greatest potential to thrive.
It is the touch of the palpability of our estrangement that artistic experience provides, as by no other means, which must be brought to closer examination. The fertile ground for the bringing forth of the palpability of our estrangement in both art and all willful living is centered in the living hospitality we have to our own thriving. It is in our journey of self discovery that we face our estrangement to ourselves and all that is alien in the world. This is to take the principle beyond our encounters with art per se and allow it to touch the horizons of all our living. At this point, we must realize that the estrangement that Steiner wrote of is a constant reality in the various scopes of our living.
It is not just at key instants that we are strangers to ourselves. There is more than mere moments of significance in which we lack self understanding. That we are ignorant of our full potential and blind to the amazing diversity and creative power within us is a fundamental part of the human condition. That most of us stumble forward through life not really knowing the full depth of what and who we are is part of the fabric of our being and the nature of our constant reality. This is why I believe that the journey of human life is very aptly described as a journey of self discovery. It is not art in itself that makes palpable our estrangement to our condition. Art is very good at inviting us to a new experience. However, it is our willingness to touch the common ground with the other through providing a welcoming hospitality in our recognition and reception of art that both makes our estrangement palpable and opens the door to new possibilities of choice, commitment and communion with the other.
In our open and hospitable reception of art, we must allow ourselves to first be open to our own minds. Here, in the immanence of our own minds, the other comes to life. This is the environment of palpability that gives nascent nurture to our experiences of art and life. The constancy of our estrangement to ourselves cannot leave us content to clarify the presence of mystery only in the presence of art. If art excels at making palpable our estrangement then we must extend the art of our own living to make this clarification a matter of habit. Here, in the practice of living an examined life, we embrace our estrangement with or without art. We prepare ourselves for better experiences of art because the practice of living the examined life opens us to the world in new ways as our willful living shares in the character of artistic creation.
The age old truth is that the other is always within us. The first warmth of courtesy and the first rite of recognition in our encounter with the other in art arises as art (and life) first invites us to welcome and recognize our own diversity. The first explorations of tact in our experience of giving our attention to and connecting with the real presence of the other in art all manifest within our own minds. The prerequisite for a quality experience of art is that we first open ourselves to be touched by and to touch the other that is our own mind in order to accept and embrace the invitation of art to participate in an experience of something new. We cannot offer recognition and hospitality to "the other" in the outside world if we are unable or unwilling to offer the courtesy of recognition and the hospitality of reception to the other within ourselves. Too often the receiver of art focuses on the created art object or performance act as if they seek to peer into the unmasked soul of the artist without realizing that art also invites us to allow ourselves to be unmasked.
Humanity often finds its most tragic heart when we find ourselves wasting most of our thriving energy trying eliminate the real presence of the other within our own minds. We often do this because of the perception of ensuing conflict or discomfort. From a Socratic perspective, it is a terrible tragedy when a human being becomes afraid of her own power to recognize and face the differences, questions and challenges that live in her own mind. It is at the heart of the Socratic Method to cultivate the full realization of the power to recognize, face and challenge ourselves. The fertility of this challenge depends on our ability to give our hospitable attentions to the others that live within our own minds. Within each of us exists enough extraordinary diversity of perspectives, capabilities, and ways of being that we are truly a stranger unto ourselves. It is of the most fundamental importance to living well that we become able to extend hospitality to the stranger within because we are instinctually driven to discover ourselves.
The examined life must be a life of self-discovery. It is to bring the question of our being and the discovery of our being into the front focus of our attention. The failure to open ourselves unto ourselves cuts us off from self-discovery, which is not a separate exploration from the discovery of the universe. This denies us access to most of the meaning and value of the arts and of life. Our capacity for significant depth in our knowing of art dies of starvation in the absence of knowing ourselves. The ability to offer hospitality to the stranger within is a song of fertile communion, who's melody sings of the diverse fullness of our being, who's tempo is the heartbeat of the examined life, and who's revelation of real presence brings forth rich depths of meaning in human existence. We will never optimize our potential to build a better future for our species until most individuals can relate in a peaceful and productive manner to the extraordinary diversity within their own minds.
I have never seen people more inspired or enthralled by any object of the arts than they are with their own offspring. The beauty of life, with its power to touch the curtain of our innermost sanctuary and also light up the furthest reaches of our horizons, is rarely more powerful in the perception of the human spirit than when we hold onto the amazing other in the form of our new baby. We are born as masterworks of art upon which the most primary attentions must be lavished. We do not just talk about food in front of the baby, we must feed the baby. We should not just talk about the good principles we believe people should embrace in their living, we must enact and live these principles before our children. The most fundamental truths of life are not theoretical, they are lived.
Yet our ears and minds are stuffed with secondary and tertiary talk from the day we are born. Religion, philosophy, politics and social norms, all have something to say about who we are and how we should live. Imagine that a person's grandmother gives a talk telling her who she must be. The grandmother's talk is based on her interpretation of a great uncle's saying, which was an interpretation of a cleric's sermon, which was an interpretation of a particular religious tradition's understanding, which was an interpretation of that religion's founder's unique, primary experience of life. These things are not useless. If we eliminated all secondary talk, each new human being would have to reinvent the whole of civilization from scratch. Impossible! The human capacity for secondary and tertiary talk is the citadel of the preservation of the history of humanity. However, it is a person's unique, primary and potentially fertile vision of who she may become in the art of her own living that is the future of humanity. For humanity to advance, we must not merely be drowned in a sea of the secondary.
All that we hear and are told to believe about who and what we are is no substitute for our own first hand discovery of ourselves. We must not allow our self-understandings to merely be the borrowings we obtain from other people's talk. We are born both the masterwork of art and the master artist. The performance medium of our deepest and most meaningful artistic expression is the human life we choose to live. The quality of the art we create can be expressed as a measure of the attentiveness we give to carrying out those choices. When we reduce the art of our own living to simply memorizing the talk of others, we hide the full depth of our own estrangement as we deceive ourselves into believing that we are the masks we wear. As we express the art of our living, the habit of Socratic self examination makes palpable our deepest estrangements on a daily basis. As we strengthen ourselves through self examination, we become able to live and breath deeply in the context of any estrangement that art invites us to examine. The practice of Socratic self examination, which makes us not only comfortable but eager to embrace our own estrangements, also helps us embrace art for all it is worth.
The art of living an examined life is the art of cultivating extraordinary attentiveness to the real presences that our minds unfold to us during a lifelong journey of self-discovery and self-improvement. Cultivating a human being in this art is to develop the human character needed to become skillful at living tactfully within the common grounds and shared spaces where our best intelligence and creativity may find life. A line from the beginning of this essay bears repeating. "It is the function of education to facilitate the development of human character. This development leads people to the enthusiasm of heart, the quality of mind, and the virtue of character to persist in a never ending quest to establish their willful living with knowledge and understanding." In order to fulfill this vital function, we must give more focused work to cultivating our student's human character so they become able to give extraordinary and persistent attentiveness to the task of creating hospitality to the stranger within themselves. Our own personal strength to offer hospitality to the strangers within us is the primary precipitating factor in our ability to walk upon the common grounds and share the common spaces that we need to work together to build a future that is worth living.
The human enthusiasm for self discovery is what makes education possible. To cultivate this enthusiasm, we must work to make sure students know how amazing they are in so many ways. Melete said, "We are not just a meat-suit. We are made from the stars and all that went into stars." One human mind is more complex and fertile than all the computers in the world put together. We are masterworks of art capable of wondrous things and able to rise far beyond our imaginations. The cultivation of every human being's self-interest is extremely important. We should not think of human relatedness in terms of some oppositional dialectic between self interest and hospitality to the other. Self interest is the foundation of all potentials for hospitality in living an examined life. This is because a journey of self-discovery will have no powers of fertility if you do not believe there is anything worth discovering. The living presence of our own hospitality to our own being, as expressed in living a life of self examination, empowers the human enthusiasm for self-discovery to take root and grow.
It is important to point out that we are born already being what we need to be when it comes to the most fundamental human character traits. We are born self interested. We are instinctually oriented to be courteous to ourselves. It is our born nature to be gracious in our welcoming of all that wants to thrive within us. It is our natural character to seek to touch the common grounds we share with the other. We are naturally inclined to discover ourselves and the others we meet. It is when our natural instinct to walk joyfully upon the common ground that we share with the other is broken that we lose our way. It is when we learn to fear our capacity thrive in the midst of our own diversity that we lose the vital and life affirming shared spaces needed within to fully embrace our potentials for discovery, meaning and beauty in life.
The beginning of education is not best conceived in terms of development. The first principle of education is preservation. The preservation of people's natural born capacity for self interest must come before the measurement of this or that ability. This is the first principle of all education and human development. We desire to learn because we are interested in our own being. When a person believes in the magnificence of their own being and is passionate to embrace the great purpose of growing and becoming as best they can, their strengthened enthusiasm liberates their work energies to learn and develop.
As those work energies are liberated, we must show them how to give attentive hospitality to the strangers within them. Teaching people to make hospitable peace with and productive use of their own cognitive diversity is at the heart of empowering them to live well. Teaching students to free themselves from excessive attachment to their own cognitive preferences for their favorite theory, belief, feeling, habit, way of being, etc., helps cultivate the fluidity of mind needed to navigate their own extraordinary cognitive diversity.
One of the great lessons of Socrates is his peacefully willful facing of both great beauty and great destruction. A journey of self discovery that cannot integrate the beauty and horror of it all collapses under its own weight. What is most unsettling in our hearts and minds must always be invited to dance with what is most beautiful within us. Flowing in the give and take of our own diversity of mind, and the diversities of our environment, helps us to create new associations and new meanings. Cultivating a person's capacity to willfully embrace hospitably created common grounds and shared spaces amidst the disturbing differences that the others they meet in life bring to them, empowers them to lead an examined life. This hospitality to our own being makes the difference between mere existence and living as an art.
Many people can relate to the desire to be affected by beauty. No matter what our predilections in aesthetics and no matter what are the imagined sources and grounds for the beauties we seek, we want beauty to have a say in our lives. Our own hospitality to our own being is the center stage of our dance with art and life. Steiner wrote of the power of art to affect us in terms of a chemical bonding that occurs during the intimate visitation of art. (Steiner, P. 179) In such bonding, we are affected by art in a manner that transcends the temporality of this or that particular experience. In this bonding the power of art to transform us reaches its fullness. The physics of such bonds in our relationships to art and life depend upon the existence of our own hospitality to our own being. An enthusiastic welcoming of the diversity of our own being, which has become a matter of our natural character, is the state of mind that makes us able to be open to the intimate visitations of art and life. No recognition of our estrangement is possible, no envisioning of reaching out for beauty can survive, without extraordinary hospitality to the diversity of our own being. In our welcoming of the real presence of ourselves, we bring forth the palpability our own estrangement and create the foundation on which all others may become a real presence to us.
In the Socratic living of a life of self examination, which demands that we are hospitable to the strangers within our own being, we embrace our estrangement to ourselves because we have sunk our roots deep into the earth of a homecoming unto ourselves. The examined life brings communion with the strangers within because we willfully extend ourselves in an act of welcome to all that remains unexplored within us. The examined life transforms the unsettling terra incognita of our own being into a celebration of communion. This transformation exercises what is most needed in the tempering of our own character so that we may provide the best of our attentiveness to art and life. It gives us the experience, courage and exercised fluidity of mind to bring all of our comforted beauties and all of our unsettling horrors into life affirming communion. When Socratic self examination, which includes the possible destruction of our most cherished ideas, beliefs and values, becomes a joy in our quest for understanding, we create a welcoming place to encounter our own estrangements in the most life affirming way. In our living out of this joy, the human will to beauty is given new freedoms to embrace a world full of others with greater depth, thoughtfulness and rapture. This is the heart of wisdom, not that we are wise but that our willfulness has become pliant to knowledge. Like grass in the wind, to bend without breaking as we are radically transformed by new understanding is the most fertile power of our best self. The exercise of Socratic self examination tempers our character to empower the pliancy of our willful living to knowledge.
The presence of self interest is the foundation of all education. The real presence created by our own hospitality to the strangers within our own being is the beginning of all Socratic education and the first principle of living the examined life. It is the gateway of entrance to meaningful living and a meaningful experience of art. It is our own welcoming and encouraging hospitality to the strangers within our own being that makes possible the extraordinary project of embracing the art of our own living. In order to live an examined life, we must learn to receive our own real presence with the same depth of respect and sense of sacredness as we would want to give to the greatest work of art in all of human history.
In Part II, I extend Steiner's criticism of the academic study of the arts to the malaise of public discourse in the United States in order to examine the theme of "Hospitality to the Stranger in Dialogue." The same posture of human character required in our relatedness to art and ourselves must also live in our relationships with one another. This is necessary because to raise the question of our being in the art of our living is best done with those who have a different point of view.