“The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is
as a foreign land. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his.”
This quote by 12th century mystic, Hugh of Saint Victor (The Didascalicon) has puzzled me for a long time. The first two thoughts are quite clear and in line with how we would normally think about the dynamics between, on the one hand the known and familiar, and on the other hand the alien and the unknown. This polarity seems to be a kind of foundational structure for how we orient ourselves within our environment and other people. The quote seems to point out a progression: at first, we learn to know and care for that which is closest and most familiar to us, and in extension we can stretch ourselves to become familiar even with places, cultures, persons or beings that are less similar to us, less in line with what we consider to be our own. This line of thought seems to be a part of the superstructure in much of our moral thinking. We are encouraged to develop our sensibilities in order to find a familiarity even with that which is distant to us.
But then there is the third sentence: “He is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land”. It seems to go beyond the common assumption that we have to find familiar aspects in that which is unfamiliar, in order to come to know and care about it.
While listening to the WTF podcast with comedian Mark Maron*, I was struck by something that was said. It seemed to resonate with Saint Victor’s third sentence, in the sense that a certain disconnection from a firm form of belonging, may perhaps cater to moral sensitivity.
Actor and HBTQ activist Harvey Fierstein goes on a tirade about a certain tendency in current discourse.
Fierstein: “Is it a lie—and I’ve come to believe it is—that we teach children brotherhood, that we teach this idea that we are all the same? And we should accept each other, all for being the same, that we are all really just human beings and it’s all fine. That has never caused peace in this world. What about the idea that no one is the same. We are all magnificently different, we are all such individuals, a little of this, a little of that, and I will accept you for all of your differences and your uniqueness, please accept me for my uniqueness, let’s stop trying to get ourselves into clumps, cause, as soon as you put people into clumps, then there is a clump you are against. It’s your clump against somebody else’s clump.
But if you have no clump, then you can’t war with anybody, I think it’s a much smarter idea than the brotherhood idea.”
21th of April, 2022
*Episode 1322: http://www.wtfpod.com/podcast/episode-1322-harvey-fierstein