Mario Perniola

Complimentary. Ancient and new forms of hospitality


About a year ago in Brighton, England, I happened to be in a place that had seemed to me very welcoming and friendly, if only for its splendid couches vintage Chesterfield and for a late 18th century atmosphere. I ordered a mild ale and I buried myself in a reading of the “London Review of Books”. After an hour I asked the waiter for the bill and he told me a word that I did not understand. When I asked again, the scene repeated itself.  This time the answer was clearer and I understood the word: “Complimentary”, which in this context meant “free”, free of charge, and it was an excellent manifestation of hospitality. I realized, then, that it was a gay club and I was glad that they thought I was a potential client.  In fact, although I am not gay, I don’t like to appear to be a macho man.

        This word “complimentary” seemed to me interesting because it opens a very wide semantic-conceptual horizon related to the idea of hospitality that refers to some issues that I will briefly summarize here: 1. Complimentary as expressing praise, approval, admiration. 2. Complimentary as expressing a compliment that isn’t really sincere, or proceeding from genuine feelings. 3. Complimentary as free, or free of charge. To these we can add two other conceptual fields etymologically related. Complimentary belongs to the same linguistic family as “complementary”. Both words derive from the Latin compleo, to fill, to fill to the brim.  They have different meanings but are pronounced the same way.  These two meanings of complimentary have important philosophical implications. 4. Complementary in the sense of forming a complement or addition, so as to complete a whole, a unity. 5. Finally, complete can also mean finished, full, i.e. achieved, realized.

        The highest form of hospitality is admiration. In his Passions of the Soul, Descartes regards it as the first and most simple passion with respect to all the others. It is philosophical passion because it originates from the appreciation of everything that is rare, exceptional and extraordinary. It accompanies the other passions and increases their strength. It is the form of feeling that conditions learning and knowledge. In contemporary philosophy George Santayana has attributed a great importance to appreciation: in aesthetic experience it is a force that generates wonder and admiration.

         The compliment can be understood as convention, as ritual, as an act of circumstance. Even in this sense it seems to me to have a very positive social aspect.  A self-righteous tradition may regard it, as flattery, excessive and insincere praise, especially, given one’s own interests, a sort of adulation. Depending on the culture, it takes on different aspects. In Europe the compliment is part of the culture of good manners: it is called courtesy, a polite speech or action required by convention.  Its origins are in the Italian court culture of the Renaissance. It was taken to an extreme formalism by the French courts in the 17th and 18th centuries.  In Japan and in other Asian countries it takes on the aspect of deference, a form of respect owed to everyone but differently applied according to his or her social status. In Brazil it appears as cordiality (from the Medieval Latin cordialis, from Latin cor, hearth).  It is characterized by an ethics of affectivity and emotion, present in the search for an intimate relationship, the use of diminutives, the omission of the family name, and by a general lifestyle characterized by friendly kindness towards others. Its model is the country life and Arcadia, while courtesy is connected to the life of the city, to the model of the Papal court and the courtier.  In other words, Brazilian cordiality is not a manifestation of spontaneity and not even a return to nature of the Rousseau type but a ritual of Mannerist origin inspired by Arcadian models. Its prototype is the “manuelino style” of Portuguese origin, characterized by lavish decorations of flower and vegetable patterns. 

         Hospitality as gratuity is connected to the idea of gift, which was amply dealt with in the 20th century. On this topic one can distinguish two trends: the philosophical and the anthropological.  At issue here is the notion of reciprocity.  However, it was strongly discredited by some French philosophers for whom the true gift is a gift without reciprocity.  In their view any reciprocity would fall within the logic of commercial exchange and economic interest. This very moral position is in clear opposition to the anthropological and sociological approach to the notion of gift that regards reciprocity as an essential aspect of the institution of gift. The philosophical position completely disregards the social bond and the ceremonial meaning on which the gift is based. The institution of the gift has a performative character: it constitutes the most profound manifestation of reciprocal acceptance and alliance.

        Let us look now at its homophone (according to English pronunciation): complementary.  What is the connection between hospitality and complementarity? Their relation appears clear when we look at the origin of the notion of hospitality in ancient Greece. It is a sort of “ritualized friendship” because the ritual of hospitality creates and expresses a reciprocal relationship between guest and host.  The relation was materialized in the symbolic, a ring broken in two, of which one kept half.

        Finally, hospitality is not only a feeling or a good intention, but in ancient Greece it implies the existence of agreements that entail precise obligations and, therefore, the performing of services that also extend to the descendants.  The verb “to complete” means “to finish making or doing”.       


Complimentary as admiration

        My text will examine briefly these five traditional meanings of the word “complimentary”.  Each time it will ask whether these words are still valid to understand our present society or if they can be considered part of our heritage to be guarded jealously and transmitted to future generations.

        Beside Descartes and Santayana, it is important to remember Kant’s distinction between Bewunderung (admiration) e Verwunderung (astonishment) (Critique of Judgement § 62). The former is amazement that does not cease once the novelty is gone, while the latter fades as soon as it understands an unusual object.  Only admiration is connected to philosophy and culture; astonishment is a sort of superficial feeling of surprise.

        This distinction is very important because it concerns the very essence of philosophy. For Plato and Aristotle the origin of philosophy is in thaumazein, i.e. in a strange wonder very different from simple curiosity.

        On the notion of admiration exists a very wide literature, which departs somewhat from Kant’s distinction. The question becomes embarrassing the moment the mass media intervene. Baudelaire was aware of it when he wrote: “Because the beautiful is always astonishing, it would be absurd to suppose that what is astonishing is always beautiful.” (“Parce que le beau est toujours étonnant, il serait absurde de supposer que ce qui est étonnant est toujours beau”). (Baudelaire, 691).

        In fact, the effectiveness of advertisement is based precisely on the ability to astonish but this astonishment wears out in a momentary effect and it is not at all comparable to the admiration provoked by philosophy, literature and art.

        Therefore, the problem is how literature, art and philosophy can maintain their powers of astonishing when they are competing with advertising?

        We cannot understand the artistic and literary avant-garde if we approach it in aesthetic terms, that is, referred to the notion of the beautiful. Rather, it ought to be considered in polemological terms as elaborations of strategies that combat the forms of social superiority imposed by mass media. The notion of admiration, therefore, turns out to be completely undermined. Today all those who admire in the old sense of the word are very few with respect to the mass of passive consumers. 

        This shift is self-evident in the two so-called “historical avant-gardes” of the 20th c. Surrealism and Situationism. In the former the place of admiration is taken by the Marvellous; in the latter the two main figures of the movement  (Debord e Vaneigem) are transformed in icons of the world remonstrance against neo-liberalism.

        The Surrealist Marvellous is something in-between admiration and astonishment. It is manifested in the arts and in literature, which however, count not for their formal and stylistic characteristics but as windows over Surreality. In the Second Surrealist Manifesto Breton describes the Marvellous as reproducing artificially this ideal moment when man, in the grip of a particular emotion, is suddenly seized by something “stronger than himself” which projects him, in self-defence, into immortality. If he were lucid, awake, he would be terrified as he wriggled out of this tight situation. The whole point for him is not to be free of it, for him to go on talking the entire time this mysterious ringing lasts: it is, in fact, the point at which he ceases to belong to himself that he belongs to us.

        In the other avant-garde movement, the Situationist International, there is a further modification. The fans take up the place of the admirers. These are people enthusiastically devoted to something, without providing, however, a real creative contribution. The etymology of the word fan is controversial in significant ways: for some it derives from fancy and, therefore, it opens a conceptual field close to what Lacan calls the imaginary; this term has connotations of illusion and fascination, but also of illusion, lure and deception.  For others it is the short form of fanatic and thus it means "marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion". It comes from the Medieval Latin fanaticus, meaning "insanely but divinely inspired". In my view the first etymology is the most appropriate: the society of the spectacle is completely secularized. After all, it has always been the case that “many shake the thyrsus but few are bacchants.”  Thus, the problematic of admiration has been completely transformed: the spiritual teachers have become icons; the admirers have become fans.


 Complimentary as ritual behaviour

        The compliment is characterised differently depending on the culture: courtesy in Europe, deference in Japan, cordiality in Brazil, but the common trait of these different forms is its conventionality. It does not imply an actual and authentic emotional involvement. It is a ritual without meaning, whose task is to create ritualized people. Nonetheless, it is essential to consolidate social ties between people. 

        The work of the American sociologist Erwin Goffman is entirely focused on the strategic interaction between institutions and communities of any kind (from poker players to members of sports societies, from sports journalism to neighbourhood events). He presupposes that in any social group are in use codes, rules, or even non-formalized customs that render it similar to a theatre where everyone recites his own part. In fact, his best well-known work is entitled, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. The original element of his approach is the idea that in all types of interactions there is an aesthetic aspect, which is not merely formal but implies very important practical consequences, and even decisive ones, for one’s destiny. Therefore he attributes to the term action a very particular meaning by defining it as an activity which is susceptible of practical consequences and which is undertaken as an end in itself. The interesting aspect is the permanence within this theory of dimensions that belong to aesthetic culture such as honour, challenge, ceremonial order, chivalry, reputation, and even virtues such as self-control, composure, exercising mastery over oneself, peacefulness.

        In another work, Interaction Ritual, Goffmann attributes   fundamental role to face-to-face relations. The notion of face to face is pivotal. The contact with others is always something binding because it entails a problem of “face”. This is not something visual: it is something widespread in the flux of events that take place during the meeting and becomes manifest only when the assessment of these events is expressed. The fundamental principle of the ritual order is not justice but the preservation of face. The ceremonial code is that of evaluation and interaction. The bearing is the element of the ceremonial behaviour of the individual, which is typically manifested by means of attitude, such as the manner of dressing or moving. It serves the purpose of communicating to those who are in his presence that he is a person who possesses certain desirable or undesirable qualities.

        The counter-culture movements of the 60th and 70th refused to accept the ceremonial language of the social group to whom they belong. But this turn did not go beyond the logic of ritual: it has created only another type of ritual. Ritualization is the condition of socialization.  Those who reject it are destined to isolation.

        Nonetheless all traditional forms of compliment (courtesy, deference, cordiality) that constitute the social codes of interaction of any culture run the risk of being eroded by a new form of hospitable approach that can be expressed in one word: friendly. This new code is strictly connected to the hegemony that technology has taken on in modern contemporary society. The user-friendly formula, i.e. easy to use, connects not by chance friendship to usability. The user-friendly formula marks the profound degradation of friendship, which is connected exclusively to an instrumental dimension. The spreading of the term is probably due to ergonomics, i.e. the study of people's efficiency in their working environment. It implies effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction of the consumer. 

        The issue of the relation between friendship and utility goes back to ancient philosophy: Aristotle distinguished between friendship based on virtue and on utility. An entire philosophical trend, Utilitarianism (Jeremy Bentham e John Stuart Mill), established a hedonistic type of morality directed at increasing happiness and diminishing suffering. What is significant, however, is the shift from the idea of utility to usability. Utility is still something very wide and vague: the notion is even employed by Spinoza when he writes that: ”Reason makes no demands contrary to nature, it demands, that every man should love himself, should seek that which is useful to him” (Ethics, Part Iv, prop. 18). Reason and virtue are compatible with utility understood as everything that can be of use to the preservation of man, fulfils his needs and satisfies his interests. 

        Usability is something completely different. Happiness, virtue and reason do not count. What counts is instrumentality, the fact of serving as an instrument to an end. Hospitality becomes exploitation. The logic to which all behaviours are subjected to, therefore, is that of being middle with respect to a definite end. Consumer society requires friendly behaviour. The consumer must be satisfied. Friendliness has no longer anything to do with friendship, and not even with courtesy, deference or cordiality.  Even social interaction based on the notion of  “face”, theorized by Goffman, is obsolete because the worker can no longer interact freely but is forced to follow a standardized code of behaviour. This is true of his relation with the public as well as with his employer. In other words everything becomes “friendly” but nothing is any longer “hospitable”.

 Complimentary as free

        Let’s examine now the third meaning of the word “complimentary”, i.e. gratis, free. As I indicated earlier, the notion of gift is at the centre of a great debate within philosophy and anthropology. Philosophy supports the idea of unreciprocated gift (Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Lévinas, Michel Henry, Luc Marion), while anthropology   (Marcel Mauss, David Gouldner, Bronis?aw Malinowski, Marshall David Sahlins, Claude Lefort, Vincent Descombes) supports, instead, the necessity in the exchange of gifts. Marcel Hénaff deals with this issue in The Price of Truth: Gift, Money, and Philosophy (Hénaff, 2010) and in Le don des philosophes. Repenser la reciprocité (Hénaff 2012). According to him, it is necessary to rethink reciprocity: he stresses that gift-giving involves an obligation to reciprocate. Therefore, his position is closer to the anthropological position than to the philosophical one. I share his point of view. To deny reciprocity implies humiliating who receives the gift. The problem must not be considered from a moralistic point of view (hyper moral):  we should grant those who receive the gift the possibility to give something back, even though we are not dealing here with barter. In other words, we must go beyond the opposition egoism-altruism and salvage the dignity of the beneficiary, which is instead annulled by an overwhelming generosity.

        My view is that also in this case the discussion does not reflect adequately the present situation, but it is determined by traditional problematic. The philosophical position reintroduces an old question: the opposition between self-love and love for others.  The anthropological position implies the existence of organic societies, that is, communities formed by individuals that share the same ideas and the same codes of behaviour. Now, on the one hand, the traditional notion of individual is destabilized, on the other hand, the organic communities are strongly threatened by the processes of globalization.

        What has taken the place of the gift? From the individual point of view,  “volunteering”.  The origin of this word goes back to the 17th c. and has been used mainly in the military sense.  In the charitable sense it developed since the 60’s in conjunction with the so-called Non-profit-sector or Third Sector, to remedy the shortfalls of the state and the market. To recall the title of a famous lecture of Ivan Illich we could say: “To hell with good intentions”.  From society’s point of view, it is necessary to take into account the development of so-called charities or charitable organizations. We are touching upon a very controversial issue because some of these organizations are accused of being an instrument of Western colonialism or Islamic terrorism. In this case we are dealing with poisoned gifts comparable to the Trojan horse that made it possible to the Greeks to conquer Troy by deceit: the Greeks constructed a huge wooden horse and hid inside a select force of men. The Greeks pretended to sail away, and the Trojans pulled the horse into their city as a victory trophy. The Greeks entered and destroyed the city of Troy, decisively ending the war. The Latin poet Virgil in his poem the Aeneid (II, 49) in referring to this event wrote the famous phrase: “Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes”, you guessed it, "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts".

        There are still two aspects of the problematic of the gift that deserve mention. The first concerns its total negation. As the French writer Louis Ferdinand Céline wrote:  “Nothing is free in this base world.  One must expiate for everything, good as well as evil, sooner or later we pay. The good, to be sure, is more expensive.” (Céline, 1937). This sentence is the result of a deep pessimism that denies the very possibility of hospitality and also destroys the confidence that a gift can be reciprocated.

        The American anthropologist Annette B. Weiner in her book Inalienable Possessions (1992) has made a very original suggestion. According to her, there are many objects that the Trobriand Islanders view as culturally imbued with a spiritual sense of the gift giver. Thus, when they are transferred in physical form from one individual to another the objects conserve a meaningful bond associated with the giver. The subtitle of her book, the paradox of keeping-while-giving, is also very suggestive. Weiner’s analysis is entirely focussed on anthropological material; nonetheless, it seems to me that also works of art possess a character of inalienable possession. It is not accidental that Weiner before becoming an anthropologist had studied art.

Complementary in the sense of forming a complement

        Between complimentary and complementary there is only a vowel difference. In the English pronunciation the two terms are homophonic, that is, they sound the same. This phonic peculiarity conceals an even more profound connection that goes back to the institution of hospitality in ancient Greece. This was based on the súmbolon, a word from which we derive the modern term symbol. The súmbolon was a material object, broken in two parts adherent to one another. Therefore they were complementary and constituted the material token of the relationship that bound the host and the guest. This relation also extended to their descendants who recognized themselves as united by a reciprocal obligation of assistance based on the possession of half the súmbolon. Homer in the Iliad (VI, 121-235) tells the story of Diomedes and Glaucus who are fighting against one another, one in the Greek army and the other in the Trojan army.  Before they start fighting they discover that a hospitality bond related their ancestors, which is stronger than the bond to their armies.  Therefore they exchange arms and boast of being ancient hosts. They dismount from their horses, they hold each other by the hand, and decide to exchange gifts. At this point, however, something strange happens: the gifts are not really equivalent: Glaucus gives Diomedes golden weapons and hundred oxen while Diomedes gives him weapons in bronze and only nine oxen. 

        What is the meaning of this unequal exchange? According to Homer the reason is that Zeus deprived Glaucus of his reason. But there is another possible interpretation: the display of what anthropologists call potlatch, i.e. an excessive prodigality to humiliate one’s rivals with excessive gifts. This way Glaucus asserts his superiority by outdoing Diomedes with a greater gift. Glaucus’ potlatch is a way of continuing the war by other means. This interpretation is supported by the discussions of Emile Benveniste on the gift in Indo-European institutions (Le Vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes): even in the Indo-European world we find many examples of prestigious expenditures similar to the potlatch of American Indians: these derive from the Greek term dapto (to devour), from which we get dapane (consumption, expense) and the name daps (banquet, dinner).

         Benveniste also discovered the connection between hospitality and conflict: this is inscribed in the semantic affinity between the Latin words hospes (host) e hostis (enemy). In fact in ancient Latin hostis does not mean at all “enemy” but stranger, to whom one recognizes rights equal to those of a Roman citizen on the basis of reciprocity.  In other words, hostis, is the host with whom one is in a relation of reciprocity. This shows how complex and ambivalent is the notion of hospitality in the Indo-European cultural tradition.  Complementary is not oneness, but contains within itself an expression of conflict.  

        What is left at present of this great cultural tradition? What is today the súmbolon? What word we employ to refer to sign of recognition that implies an exchange between people that is stranger to one another? We use voucher that the Cambridge International Dictionary of English defines as: “a paper that is a record of money paid or one that can be used to pay for particular goods or services or that allows you to pay for particular goods”.  Voucher comes from the Latin advocare and, therefore, its origins are not mythical but juridical.

Complementary as achievement

        Finally, I would like to look briefly at a strange peculiarity of the Greek language and of the languages that come from Latin. The Greek term xénos and the Latin hospes refer both to the one who gives hospitality, the host, and to the one who is given hospitality, the guest. The same peculiarity can be found in Italian, French, and Spanish. This comes from the existence of the pact of hospitality that renders interchangeable the giving and the taking, receiving and being received. Furthermore, one of the meanings of complete is precisely that of: “mutually supplying each other's lack”.

        At the heart of this mode of thinking is the idea of man expressed most clearly by Aristotle (Politics, 1253a): “man is by nature a political animal. And he, who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either a bad man or above humanity. Only animals and gods can do without the help that comes from friendship. There is a complementarity between giving and receiving. The guest in ancient Greece is different from the enemy whose name is Echthros (??????). Hospitality implies the existence of a relation of reciprocal trust that is both active and passive. 

        What is left in the contemporary world of the aristocratic virtue of trust and loyalty? A first demythologization took place from the Renaissance onward thanks to a wide and complex discussion on the relation between passions and interests (for example in Machiavelli and Guicciardini, in the so-called “French moralists”, in Gracián, Adam Smith and many others). But with the computer technology, there is a further transformation, because we are no longer dealing with individuals whom we know more or less personally. In the social networks of Internet even the identity of the participants is missing.

        We are confronted with a real deconstruction and de-structuring of subjective action as it had been envisioned by modernity, in favour of a device that annuls the real personalities of the individuals.

        The term agency, which is untranslatable in other languages, expresses well this condition. Whoever gains access to a social network becomes the operator of an agency, of an organization established to provide a particular service, typically one that involves organizing transactions between two or more parties.

        To conclude, the traditional notion of hospitality, in its many expressions and national peculiarities, is completely destabilized by technology. We no longer have admiration or acknowledgement, but fanaticism or fancy; no longer courtesy but user friendliness, no longer gift economy but charity, no longer tokens of mutual friendship but vouchers, no longer host and guest but agency.

        Today the words of hospitality are fan, user-friendly, charity, voucher and agency. However, nothing prevents us to get out of the technological despotism and be open to new horizons for the true idea of hospitality.


Aristotle, 1998, Politics, Indianapolis, Hackett.

Baudelaire, C., 2013, Oeuvres Complètes, Paris, Arvensa Editions.

Breton, A., 1969, Manifestoes of Surrealism, Ann Arbour (MI) University of      Michingan Press.

Céline, L.-F., 1937 The Life and Work of Semmelweis, Boston, Brown and Company.

Descartes, R., 1989, Passions of the Soul [1649], Cambridge (MA), Hackett       Publishing Company.

Goffman. E., 1973 The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Woodstock-New     York : Overlook Press, 1973

Goffman, 1967,  Interaction Ritual, Chicago, Aldine.

Hénaff, M. The Price of Truth: Gift, Money, and Philosophy, Stanford,        Stanford University Press, 2010

Hénaff, Le don des philosophes. Repenser la reciprocité, Paris, Seuil, 2012.

Homer, 1984, Iliad, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Kant, I. 1952  Critique of Judgement,  Oxford, Oxford University Press,1952.

Santayana, G., 2012, The Sense of Beauty: Being the Outlines of Aesthetic        Theory [1896], Mineola (N.Y) Dover Publ.

Spinoza, B., 2000, Ethics, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Weiner, A. B, 1992, Inalienable Possessions: the Paradox of Keeping-while-       Giving, Berkeley, University of California Press.




N. 31
Aprile 2016