Connection, attachment, homeliness—all of it belongs to being human and takes root even in those who do not dwell in an idyllic and exuberantly harmonic Arcadian pastoral.
„Indeed, a living human being needs some kind of a solid, truly tangible grip on life. That grip is apparently a home.”
Contemporary culture seems to lack the concept of home. At first, this might strike as rather surprising, for direct observation appears to confirm the opposite: contemporary humans have unprecedentedly diverse means for designing their individual ways of life and spaces of living. But rapid urbanisation and surging property development have not necessarily brought the serenity that was hoped for: contemporary times pontificate about constant flux, change and growth. The direction and broader signifance of this flux have been widely disputed. There is no great cult of progress—distant utopias remain rather unconvincing. Yet, this merely serves to highlight the main feature of our times: life amidst constant, incessant motion, development and innovation. Staying put could lead to a fatal falling-behind and loss of competitive advantages. Even the physical walls of a home cannot disconnect us from the constant flux. Zygmunt Bauman, theorist of liquid modernity, has characterised our era as one where workplace and public life have expanded to the space between domestic walls, given that the internet and social media keep us constantly on duty.1 Domestic walls are not able to stop or suppress the world in flux. We do not necessarily go to 9-to-5 jobs and seem to be in control of our own time. But the flow of work does not stop. The employer has moved into our home; the boundaries between home and the rest of the world have become porous. This situation has unfortunate repercussions beyond the lives of individual human beings. The full swing of global economy is affecting the nature in unprecedented ways, leaving ever deeper marks on the geology and natural resources of our planet. Threats of global warming have become a daily alarm in the last couple of decades. Humankind has expanded to almost every corner of the Earth; very few places remain beyond our reach. It seems as if the human being know no bounds.
The global economic network and internet have opened up a virtual space that seems to fulfill an old dream of the Romantics, described by the young German writer and poet Novalis as a philosophical yearning “to be at home everywhere”.2 The Romantics were not merely tender-hearted dreamers. Besides poetry, for example, Novalis also had an interest in geology. The science of rock and mining, together with poetics or cosmology, was supposed to enrich one’s knoweldge, stimulate the imagination and cultivate an understanding of the spiritual depths of humanity. The desire to “be at home everywhere” was motivated by the ambition to surpass common human constraints, recognise our place in the wholeness of nature and thus understand the true possibilities of human life. 200 years later, this dream appears to be coming true, albeit in an oddly twisted way: virtual reality seems to grant us the whole world without requiring us to move a single inch. Yet, we also have a lot of means for genuine travelling: the logistics of contemporary airports is a small wonder in itself. Thousands of planes taking off, flying and landing simoultaneously—travel and locomotion have never been that easy. Wandering around the world is not merely a virtual phenomenon, but can be practiced for real. Which Romantic, thinking of the whole world as his home, could have dreamt of anything like that? Of such a complete appropriation of the world?
Yet, there is no talk of reaching home. Instead, it is as if humans are wandering further and further out, and home has been left far behind. Human activities have set off many processes with rather unpredictable and wholly uncontrollable consequences and long-term effects. This includes the effects of economic activities on large-scale natural processes, but also the development of information technology and applications of artificial intelligence. The Earth has been fully appropriated, but the human being acts as a lost child. This, however, does not necessarily mean that we should adopt a radically exclusionary attitude toward our contemporary time and indiscriminately rail against all of its manifestations. It is true that certain forms of life, traditionally connected with agriculture and rurality, have been irreversibly lost. Urban living environment has pushed the human being into a novel situation, in which there are few historical examples to follow. In the beginning of the 20th century, this was observed by the sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel, who described the transformations of human mentality induced by the birth of modern cities in his essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life”. A slow-going, heart- and feeling-oriented provincial world—that old homely world—is replaced by a fast-paced and nervous urban space, oversaturated with all kinds of stimuli. Instead of the heart and feelings, intellectuality begins to reign supreme, followed by a spread of indifference and commercial matter-of-factness. The latter serve as a sort of protective armor to help with the transition from the countryside to town, affecting one’s receptivity towards the environment: “instead of reacting with his heart, he [the metropolitan individuality] reacts with his intellect in essential matters /—/ thus, the role of reacting to surrounding occurrences has been delegated to the least sensitive psychic organ that stands the farthest from the depths of personality.”3 But Simmel mostly just registers these changes in a sociologically neutral way. He does not rush to give a conclusive assessment.
The city renders the relationship between humans and nature problematic. In the novel “Rohtaed” (“The Herb Garden”), the last book of his so-called Tallinn trilogy, Karl Ristikivi portrays his protagonist Juulius Kilimit, a schoolteacher and resident of Tallinn, on a visit to his birthplace far away from the city. Ristikivi depicts this journey as a truly pastoral experience. Sounds of mowers and cowbells emanate from pastures and meadows. Arriving at the seaside, Juulius suddenly feels a grand and revitalising connection between the endless expanse of the sea, overarching sky and surrounding meadows. The protagonist realises that even though Tallinn is also situated on the coast, he has never really noticed the sea while there. Only now, standing on a shore far away from the city, he is truly able to perceive it. Being a schoolmaster in Tallinn, Juulius is occasionally reminded of the old myth about Arcadia—a vision, described by the Roman poet Virgil, of an idyllic countryside full of songs and music, carefree herdsmen, and, alongside the latter, woodland creatures and mythical deities, all in a friendly co-existence. Within a Latin poem, this distant mythical Arcadia is nothing more than a fragile fantasy and never the reality. Yet, the journey back to the countryside now proves to be a genuine Arcadia-experience for the protagonist: “Yes, it was some kind of a primaeval, all-encomassing and all-pervasive Life, he found, and every disharmony was nevertheless underwritten by a certain great harmony that had so far shown itself only in Golden Age Arcadia.”4 Ristikivi does not present this episode as a mere romantic mirage where an old myth is briefly resurrected. It is also a momentary release from modernity, a reunion with nature in its living presence.
The ethics of classical antiquity with its related conception of humanity had drawn many of its noble ideas from the example of nature, which was itself seen as an animate and cyclical whole. Marcus Aurelius confirms this in his confessions to himself: “That, whatsoever is that comes after, doth always very naturally, and as it were familiarly, follow upon that which was before /—/ There is then to be seen in the things of the world, not a bare succession, but an admirable correspondence and affinity.”5 Aurelius describes the universal bond between all beings by using the Greek adjective oikeîos (homely), originating from oîkos, i.e., a house, residence or dwelling. This word lies at the root of many concepts like “economy” and “ecology”, or theological terms like “ecumenism”. The Stoics also used the term oikeiôsis,designating affinity or attachment, even reconciliation. According to Stoicism, everything is bound by a principle of universal reason (logos) that is expressed in nature and should be built into ethics. Thus, a human being belongs both to nature and to fellow human beings. The whole of humanity forms a universal „citizenry”, and the world is “as it were a city.”6 Nature provides us with a template for fair and ethical relations by reminding us of the inevitability of birth and death, and the transient impermanence of everything that exists. The human world adheres fundamentally to the same irrefutable principles. Converting these principles of nature into fair and ethical relationships in human society leads to cosmopolitan consciousness—a cosmopolitan is, figuratively, a citizen of the great global polity who refrains from distinguishing between human beings based on their ethnicity, origin or status.7 A cosmopolitan of classical antiquity stands in a „homely” relationship with everyone else. Most importantly, however, his ethical attitude is based on the idea of wholeness drawn from the example of nature. In this sense, he differs from the modern, urban cosmopolitan who resides in the metropolis analysed by Georg Simmel—the modern cosmopolitan is torn apart from nature and forced to overemphasise his intellectuality at the expense of his more profound affective life, in order to withstand the abundance of impressions and relationships brought on by a big city. In contrast, the Stoic global citizen strives to reproduce the example of nature in himself by bringing everything together in a “homely”, tranquil and reconciliatory way. This cosmopolitan is literally “at home in the world” by achieving a certain peace of mind and mastering something that would today be described as a set of useful self-help skills (the Stoics thus being sort of proto-practitioners of mindfulness): the cosmopolitan is able to bring himself to calm and nurture himself by turning his attention to the whole. Envisaging the world as an immense metropolis was supposed to show the true scale of human life. It helped to alleviate spiritual suffering by putting it into a universal perspective, thus making it smaller and less significant than it initially seemed.
And yet, this kind of „homely” world had been lost by the time of the Romantics. The Greek term oikeiôsis was no longer a proper description of nature nor a suitable principle for designing the social space. It had been replaced by the language of mathematics, which was expected to reveal all the secrets of the Universe to the human mind. Nature became a cosmic, infinitely large mechanism, still regimented by its own principles, but now also characterised by a certain overall homogeneity and uniformity. It no longer contained the sphere of aether or fixed stars, as it had in Aristotelian cosmology. Thus began the naturalisation of nature and banishment of the supernatural and mythological. Consequently, nature no longer provided a clear blueprint for ethical thought. Among the most prominent early modern philosophers, Spinoza still tried to reconcile his ethics with this new conception of nature, thereby preserving the legacy of the Stoics, but this remained an isolated attempt. Spinoza presented his doctrine in the form of geometrically ordered series of propositions—a structure meant to demonstrate that human passions, emotions and cognition follow certain fixed and necessary laws, similar to the mathematically describable laws of nature. The inner life was to be analysable in terms of rational regularities, akin to the ones studied in modern natural science. This kind of ethics presupposed a mathematically modelled and mechanically deterministic Universe. Thinking of nature as a living and animate whole had become a thing of the past. The Romantics reacted precisely to this situation with a nostalgic homesickness. They revived the longing for a golden past, whether it be embodied in the biblical Garden of Eden or mythical Arcadia. The progress-oriented mindset inspired by the scientific method did exactly the opposite: it directed its gaze into an imaginary or distant future, in order to catch a glimpse of some utopia where every single problem has been solved. We encounter such utopias already in Tomasso Campanella’s „The City of the Sun” and Francis Bacon’s „New Atlantis”, but also in the post-Enlightenment period, e.g., in Karl Marx’s vision of communism. Yet, none of these authors manage to domesticate the present moment—they all feel alienated by it, thus striving to rectify it or escape from it.
And thus we have reached the strange situation known as contemporary modernity. We are surrounded by many contradictory voices: on the hand, we are nostalgic, yearn for peace and order, seek for paradigms of beauty and being from the times past. On the other hand, we have the most sincere faith in progress—a progress that strives to overcome everything that has been, announces the death of obsolete idols and invests in the redeeming promise of technology and science. Ethics, humanity and truth have become matters of opinion; the line between acceptable and unacceptable is drawn slightly differently by each person. All of this is reinforced by the media, social networks and internet. The fact that contemporary culture has taken this form has been explained and criticised in numerous ways. The source of all the woes has been identified in the intrinsic malignancy of capitalism, recession of religion and Christianity, irrationality of the unconscious or innate egoism of the human being that rules out a fully moral and harmonic life. Each of these criticisms might contain a kernel of truth. Yet, a particularly suggestive last-century proposal comes from Martin Heidegger—he emphasises that one important factor in the development of the current situation has been the radical change in our relationship with nature, compared to the previous eras of human history. Nature now serves as a resource and capital to feed our civilisation, instead of being an ethical paradigm or ground of social justice. This is where the true homelessness of the contemporary human being lies—for us, nature is primarily an object of alienation and distrust. At best, it serves as an instrument of recreation and relaxation. But we still lack the most important—we are not really “at home” in nature; it has grown apart, become a detached magnitude, announcing itself increasingly in the form of a constant threat of irreversibly warming climate.
What kind of Arcadia, then, could one still dream of and strive for today? Humanities have sought inspiration from countless possibilities. Complete solutions are unlikely to be forthcoming, but we can nevertheless point to some promising paths. Anthropologists have proposed ways to return to premodern forms of life, finding the latter among various indigenous cultures. For instance, French anthropologist Philippe Descola has tried to close the gap between culture and nature by introducing indigenous forms of life that involve a tight entwinement of humans and nature. Examples include animistic and totemistic communities. In the former, humans attribute a spiritual essence also to those parts of nature that are unlike themselves. In the latter, humans see in themselves and their fellow human beings some kind of an embodiment of a totem animal. According to Descola, these adaptations of indigenous peoples might provide an alternative to our contemporary cultural “homelessness”. A rather different route is proposed by aforementioned Heidegger, who does not look to ethnology or anthropology for guidance, but tries to shed light on the concept of home and human life by digging up long-forgotten meanings from primaeval layers of language. In his essay “Building, Dwelling, Thinking”, he goes after the origin of the German word Wohnen (to dwell, to reside) and finds that humans should first and foremost think of themselves as mortal beings residing on Earth.8 Having a home entails peace and satisfaction, but also protection and boundaries. For Heidegger, this bears a positive significance: having a home means first and foremost taking care of something, keeping something in order. Yet, this can only happen once we have established a safe and protected dwelling. Home is necessary for getting to know one’s boundaries in a safe and protected manner, for growing and maturing into a free human being. Home is not simply a shelter or place to sleep, but a precondition for the development of human potential. The latter is a delicate and demanding process. It is important that the human being would feel oneself as a part of the terrain and overarching sky. Home is a place where the so-called world-as-fourfold is manifest—there, the human being experiences oneself in a unique convergence of earth and sky, mortal and divine perspectives. Thus, in Heidegger’s analysis, primaeval layers of language do not speak of dwelling and having a home in merely a passive sense, according to which it should offer protection from cold and wind; instead, a home is one of the main ways of being human—a space for growing, getting to know one’s boundaries and participating in the so-called world-as-fourfold. Even though Heidegger often seems to prefer a rustic or pastoral, provincial and traditional way of life, away from the hustle and bustle of the big city, in that particular essay he leaves all options open. And even though he hopes to find through language an alternative to the expansionistic and, in his view, ultimately aimless lifestyle associated with modern culture, he does not follow the Romantics all the way and refrains from idealising some sort of lost rural life of the past—on the contrary, we have yet to find and learn,how to properly have a home here on Earth. The question of dwelling remains in a deeper sense still unanswered. Language with its many layers can lead and illuminate the way, but does not provide any conclusive answers.
Surprisingly, something similar has been expressed by Estonian folklorist, journalism researcher and writer Juhan Peegel in his fragmentary novel “Ma langesin esimesel sõjasuvel” (“I Fell in the First Summer of War”), where he depicts soldiers abroad feeling a great need for some sort of connection with home, in order to get a more general grip on life. A reminder of home, small keepsake or symbol, suddenly becomes a vital necessity. A bond with home helps to survive and preserve one’s humanity even in a truly inhumane environment: „Indeed, a living human being needs some kind of a solid, truly tangible grip on life. That grip is apparently a home. A home is not merely a place that protects one from bad weather, not merely a place where one can eat and sleep, but consists in thousands of tremendously important—perhaps even more important than shelter, food and rest—seemingly trivial little grips.”9 These „little grips” on life in this description by Juhan Peegel remind us that the Stoic oikeiôsis – connection, attachment, homeliness – belongs to being human and takes root even in those who do not dwell in an idyllic and exuberantly harmonic Arcadian pastoral. The connections that keep us bound to life can be much more personal and obscure. And yet, they are there, even while apparently lacking a general understanding or clear conception of the significance of home in the contemporary world. These little grips help us to stay on the path and keep searching for the substance, meaning and face of a home where we would truly want to dwell.
The essay is based on the author’s lecture „Home” at Radio Night University (2018).
JOONAS HELLERMA is the presenter of weekly cultural talk show “Plekktrumm” and an editor at Estonian Public Broadcasting.
HEADER: Imat Suumann. Untitled, 2018.
PUBLISHED in Maja’s 2019 spring edition (No 96).
See Bauman, Zygmunt. 2017 “Retrotopia”. Polity Press
The citation in the web: https://www.aphorismen.de/zitat/69926 (visited 04.03.2019)
Simmel, Georg. 1995 „Die Großstädte und das Geistesleben”, in: Gesamtausgabe 7. Aufsätze und Abhandlungen 1901-2008, pp. 117. Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main
Ristikivi, Karl. 2008 „Rohtaed”, pp. 368. Pegasus, Tallinn
Aurelius, Marcus 2005 “The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius”, pp. 38, Cosimo Inc., New York
Aurelius, Marcus 2005 “The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius”, pp. 29, Cosimo Inc., New York
Another Stoic who promoted the idea of a “world-city” was Epictectus, who claimed in his „Discourses” that all of us belong to a great global polity, populated both by gods and humans (see Epictetus 2014 „Discourses, Fragments, Handbook”, pp. 80ff. (II Book 2.26). Oxford University Press, USA
Heidegger, Martin. 2000 „Bauen, Wohnen, Denken”, in: Vortäge und Aufsätze, Gesamtausgabe 7, pp. 145ff. Vittorio Klostermann, Frankfurt Am Main
Peegel, Juhan. 1983 „Ma langesin esimesel sõjasuvel”, in: „Tuli koduaknal. Valitud teosed”, pp. 288-289. Tallinn, Eesti Raamat