A Theme Of Border Crossing And Its Effects In Ancient Literature
In today’s volatile world, groups of people are constantly transcending borders. Individuals cross physical boundaries every day, whether it be temporarily travelling for work or leisure purposes or permanently relocating to escape socioeconomic and political issues at home. Individuals are also able to cross the boundaries of social classes through economic and political advancement. Transcending borders, both literally and figuratively, are commonly occurring aspects of life. Yet many of these crossings are considered problematic and are surrounded by a constant conflict between political agendas and moral responsibilities. However, these issues are not just characteristic of modern migration. Through the analysis of ancient literature, it can be seen that border crossing and its effects have been recurring themes throughout the development of societies. For example, Homer’s The Odyssey expresses the issues with crossing physical boundaries, as cultures clash and views on hospitality are not uniformly shared. Additionally, the story of Sinbad from Arabian Nights shows how transcending the boundaries of social class was possible in spite of stratified hierarchies. Lastly, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales exhibits how internationalism allows for tolerance and self-critique.
Complications can arise from crossing physical boundaries when there are different cultural viewpoints present between two groups. In Homer’s The Odyssey the Greek concept of hospitality, “xenia, ” is exemplified in both negative and positive situations. A particularly controversial moment was the interaction between Odysseus and his crew and the Cyclops Polyphemus. When Odysseus and his crew entered Polyphemus’ cave, they expected to receive good hospitality, as failing to be hospitable in Greek society was looked down upon in the eyes of the gods. However, the Greeks were misconstrued, as due to their narrow view of the world, they failed to realize that their cultural viewpoints would not be shared with those outside of their1society. Though the Greeks expressed good xenia because they feared angering the gods, they did not acknowledge that not everyone shared their same fear of the gods, as indicated by Polyphemus when he said, “My people/ think nothing of that Zeus with his big scepter/ I do the bidding/ of my own heart”. And so, Polyphemus ate some members of the crew and trapped them until Odysseus was able to escape successfully. When discussing who is at fault in this situation, many will say it is the fault of the Greeks, as they did not respect differences in cultural perspectives. I agree with this belief to an extent, only because Odysseus and his crew were depicted as prideful, arrogant men who felt entitled to hospitality. However, in the real world, I believe there needs to be mutual respect between the migrant and the host. Yes, it was wrong for Odysseus to assume that the cyclops would show hospitality, yet if this situation was transcribed to a modern day migration from one country to another, I would hope that the hosts would show more compassion and generosity towards those who are crossing the border.
For example, today the migration of South American immigrants to the United States is a topic of contention amongst policy makers. Many believe that because these immigrants are moving illegally, they should not be allowed to stay, and must endure the turmoil of being separated from their families and living in crowded detention centers. This view is similar to that of those who believe Odysseus was in the wrong when he entered Polyphemus’ cave. However, I believe that illegal immigrants should be shown a certain level of hospitality, because human empathy trumps all foreign policy and cultural viewpoints. Most times, immigrants do not risk this dangerous journey unless it is their only option, as leaving behind the society, culture, and people they know is hardly an easy task. In order to empathize with them, one must understand that migrating is often a survival instinct. Though American culture differs from Latin American culture, just as Greek culture differed from that of the cyclops, good xenia should still be expressed to those crossing the border, as they are most likely doing so because they have no other choice.
Crossing physical borders can also change one’s position in society. For example, in1001 Arabian Nights, Sinbad the Sailor’s expeditions as a merchant allowed him to acquire a large amount of wealth, which, in turn, advanced his social status. During the period of the Islamic caliphates, societies possessed stratified social hierarchies, meaning it was difficult to move between classes. Sinbad however, was able to do so, and represented a new, more contemporary upper class member, as although he had risen in status, he still maintained personal relations with lower class members. This was exemplified by his interactions with the poorer Sinbad, an unusual action for a member of the upper class. However it was a necessary inclusion in the story because it expressed the idea that one’s success is ultimately a result of their own hard work (Irwin and Lyons). This same idea can be applied to modern societies today.
In the United States, the economic class system is not as rigid as that of previous civilizations, theoretically. Economic policy is rooted in the idea that everyone has the ability to increase wealth and power if they work hard enough. This principle of one’s work ethic being the sole determinant of their success is the same idea present in the story of Sinbad. However, I believe that easy mobility between the classes is unrealistic in practice. Many people work hard their entire lives, yet are not able to break past the boundaries of poverty due to disadvantages that are ingrained in the structure of our society. Take education, for example. Generally, children that attend private schools tend to have better opportunities for higher education and later have more successful careers that allow them to procure wealth. However, private schools are costly, and so typically children from impoverished families are unable to attain this advantage. There are also discrepancies in the quality of public schools relative to the average income of the areas in which they are located. Low income areas tend to have less funding which in turn leads to a lower quality of education, therefore placing students at an early disadvantage which later impedes them in future successes. Education is just one of many disadvantages that prevent people from crossing the borders of their social classes regardless of how hard they work, and so I disagree with the moral of Sinbad’s story, which is that one can cross class borders solely through their own efforts.
Lastly, crossing physical borders allows for cultural diffusion to occur, which in turn leads to advancements in society. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer showcases the benefits of travelling and broadening your world view. Chaucer was the son of a merchant, and so he was able to partake in internationalism. Through his travels, he learned of the “frame story” tradition from Islamic culture, which he then utilized in this famed novel. His interactions with other cultures also allowed him to develop a tolerant, non-judgemental mindset towards people who lived their lives differently from his, and it also propelled him to criticize his own society.
For example, Chaucer used characters from different occupations to exercise a social commentary on the various classes present in medieval society (Chaucer). I believe that internationalism is something the modern world can benefit from. Often times, we are quick to judge non-Western traditions and unintentionally develop xenophobic attitudes towards people from different cultures because we haven’t been exposed to their ways of life. If more people in power learned from Chaucer’s experiences, we as a society could progress by eliminating4irrational fears of foreigners while also self-reflecting on our own society in order to instill progressive changes.
Crossing borders has been characteristic of the human race since the earliest civilizations. Though most aspects of life have changed or advanced over the course of thousands of years, the underlying benefits and issues of transcending boundaries have remained constant, as indicated by literature from different eras. Today we face a society governed by its borders, a society in which the borders are more than just physical boundaries, but are actually expressions of political power and economic inequality. In order to resolve issues, we must broaden our worldviews to provoke a change.
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