Hospes or hostis

Our freedom to choose is, at its most basic level, an existential choice. We are never on our own, not even when we are lonely, alone or acting on our own. We carry the others in and with us, we are drops in the same ocean, distinct yet thrown together.

The freedom to be is the freedom to make choices about our relationship with others. And the most fundamental choice is that between amity and enmity, hospitality and hostility, or, as the Latin has it, between hospes and hostis.

This Latin fork in the road reminds us that hospitality (from the Latin word hospes for guest or stranger) and hostility (from hostis for enemy) are closer than we think. The stranger is an opportunity, an ocean of possibilities, the choice between the person you take in or the one you keep away.

The ambiguity of the stranger as either guest or enemy is as deep as the language that expresses it. The words hospes and hostis both derive from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European noun gʰóstis which encapsulates this sociologically dramatic choice. The presence of this stranger is a challenge to self, an urgency which requires an existential choice, to open or to isolate oneself. The stranger is both guest and enemy, but never both at once. More importantly, it makes a constant claim on who we are, relentlessly forcing us to reassess ourselves in relation to others and to each other.

We might feel that the imperative of the gʰóstis is more pressing now than ever given the current migrant crisis and a polarisation of communities over openness and rejection. But human cultures have always had to deal with this issue and to find renewed ways of addressing the ambiguity of the stranger at every point in history.

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