One of the most difficult lessons for men of good will to learn is that there is no way to be all things to all people. In society, at the office, in the parish, within the charitable/philanthropic spheres, etc., stretching yourself too thin and losing sight of the goal is a guaranteed recipe for disaster. Nowhere is this more readily apparent than when playing host. Yet hosting an event can be, if handled correctly, not only a great deal of fun for yourself and your guests, but more importantly a wonderful opportunity to edify those around you.
There are seemingly endless social minefields to traverse when throwing a party, before even getting to the logistics, that can distract from the point of hosting one. Take the guest list: if you invite Jane because you want her to meet Susan, then you must also invite Jane’s fiancee Tom. And the problem is that Tom and Harry do not get along, but you are compelled to invite Harry because he and Dick invited you to their New Year’s Party this year, and you owe them both a return invitation. And if you invite Harry and Tom but not their girlfriends, then they might not come. And you know that Susan is going to call you at the last minute and ask if she can bring her sisters, because they really won’t take up much room and they would so love to see you (and she is always doing this sort of thing.)
In just under two months I will be hosting my 6th annual “Festa Catalana” at the manse. For the past several years, the party has been held around the “Nit de Sant Joan” (“Night of St. John”) marking the birth of St. John the Baptist, commemorated on June 24th in Barcelona and throughout Catalonia with all-night parties and fireworks. This is my chance to have a group of old friends and new acquaintances over and serve them Catalan food and drink, celebrating the Catalan part of my heritage and allowing people whom I like but who might not otherwise meet to get to know each other.
Unfortunately, the event has proven to be a victim of its own success, for while it has grown, the house has not. From a chatty, sit-down dinner for 8 out in the garden back in 2006, it has expanded exponentially to the point where last year the many dozens of people in summer cocktail attire were jammed cheek-by-jowl both outside and on multiple floors inside on a stiflingly hot and humid evening. Indeed, one of the ladies in attendance fainted from the heat and had to be revived, much to my concern and chagrin.
Since I am still in the same tall and skinny house, this year’s guest list is going to have to be rather severely curtailed, in order to get the event down to an enjoyable, manageable size. This means that there is no way I am going to be able to avoid potentially hurting the feelings of a number of people whom I like, some of whom began asking me way back in February if I was holding the festa again this summer. Yet the thing must be done: otherwise, the goal of bringing good people together for good conversation and fellowship will be lost.
That is all very well, you may ask yourself, but why does any of this matter? The answer comes from this blog’s patron, Count Castiglione himself. He maintained that the courtier must not only educate himself and develop his talents, but also do his part to encourage the building up of polite society, because of the good deeds which flow from it.
For Castiglione, the man who is fortunate enough to move in society has a responsibility to show others that good manners, education, an appreciation of the arts, and so on, are virtues to be cultivated; from such flowers the fruits of good deeds will grow. “Therefore I think that just as music, festivals, games, and other pleasant accomplishments are, as it were, the flower,” he writes, “in like manner to lead or help one’s prince towards what is right, and to frighten him from what is wrong, are the true fruits of Courtiership.” It is therefore through celebrating and encouraging good behavior that the work of the courtier is truly accomplished.
By so doing, in Castiglione’s thinking the courtier serves as a defense against the tendency of fallen human nature to selfishness, violence, greed, and the other vices. “This is because among the many faults which we see today in many of our princes, the greatest are ignorance and self-esteem,” Castiglione remarks – no doubt to the surprise of self-esteem gurus such as Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra. “And the root of these two evils is none other than falsehood: which vice is deservedly hateful to God and to men. For the ignorant mind deceives itself and lies inwardly to itself.”
For Castiglione, throwing a party should of course be a pleasant experience for the host, but also a responsibility he takes seriously. A social event should bring good people together to allow the possibility of good, perhaps long-lasting results – acts of charity, exposure to cultural interests or to literature and music previously unfamiliar, and so on. Castiglione certainly enjoyed having a good time, and encouraged his followers to do so as well, but to do so within a self-imposed sense of restraint within which the focus always remains on striving to do good.
No doubt a party which ends in a conga line of revelers wearing lampshades on their heads can be a very memorable one, so far as memories of it are preserved ahead of the intake of spirits. Yet if that is all that comes out of an event, the host has lost an important opportunity to build up his immediate society, rather than allowing it to sink to a baser level. In no way do I mean to I suggest, gentle reader, that your cocktail party be a dour, sombre occasion dedicated to the discussion of Kierkegaard and the reform of the Roman Missal. Instead, consider the opportunity of hosting such an event to be more than the meeting of a mutual appreciation society, and instead the chance to allow ladies and gentlemen of good will to get to know one another and perhaps come up with ways to benefit and improve the society in which all of you live.