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Philosophy Shorts

Philosophers on Food

by Matt Qvortrup

‘More songs about Buildings and Food’ was the title of a 1978 album by the rock band Talking Heads. It was about all the things rock stars normally don’t sing about. Pop songs are usually about variations on the theme of love; tracks like Rose Royce’s 1976 hit ‘Car Wash’ are the exception.

Philosophers, likewise, tend to have a narrow focus on epistemology, metaphysics and trifles like the meaning of life. But occasionally great minds stray from their turf and write about other matters, for example buildings (Martin Heidegger), food (Hobbes), tomato juice (Robert Nozick), and the weather (Lucretius and Aristotle). This series of Shorts will be about these unfamiliar themes; about the things philosophers also write about.

“They fill their bellies like the beasts,” Plato had Socrates remark disapprovingly in the Republic. Truth be told, neither of these two gentlemen, if statues of them are anything to go by, were in a position to preach. Maybe Plato was just getting peckish as he was writing about his ideal society. He was not the last great mind to write about food and overeating.

The Christian philosophers rather liked their food. Christ himself had been open about his appetite: “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘look, a glutton’” (Luke 7:34). It hardly seem surprising that St Augustine, in his remarks on food, concluded that “Whenever a man takes more meat and drink than is necessary, he should know that this is one of the lesser sins.”

St Thomas Aquinas quoted these words with approval. But then again, the friar-cum-philosopher definitely liked his food. Aquinas was reportedly so obese that he needed a specially designed writing desk. Predictably, he was rather relaxed about the issue of too much food consumption. He admitted that “gluttony is immoderation in food”, but immediately added that “man cannot avoid this (Summa Theologica 148), and concluded that “gluttony is not a sin.”

The political philosopher Thomas Hobbes shared nothing with Aquinas except his first name. They differed on ethics, but also about their attitude to food. Hobbes used the noun ‘food’ 29 times in Leviathan. He did not do so approvingly. Sounding rather like a 21st Century fitness coach Hobbes – an avid tennis-player – argued that too much eating makes you a poor philosopher: “The appetite of food takes away the care of knowing causes.” Gluttony, he said, would even make you dumb, as those who “study nothing but their food …are content to believe any absurdity”. (Leviathan, p.432).

Søren Kierkegaard was a man of wealth and refined taste and had but scorn for those who scoffed down their food. In Either-Or he wrote that “Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy – to be someone who is brisk about their food and work.” The Danish existentialist was silent about what food he consumed. Ludwig Wittgenstein was rather more direct. He abhorred extravagant meals. “Let me be quite clear”, he told his friend Maurice Drury after a feast in the latter’s house, “while we are here we are not going to live in this style. We will have a plate of porridge for breakfast, vegetables from the garden for lunch, and a boiled egg in the evening” (Wittgenstein quoted in Christopher Lawrence and Steven Shapin, Science incarnate: Historical embodiments of natural knowledge. 1998, p.22.).

These might not be the philosophers’ deepest insights, and it is not entirely clear if they provide food for thought.

© Prof. Matt Qvortrup 2020

Matt Qvortrup is Professor of Political Science at Coventry University.

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