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Philosophy Shorts

Philosophers on Cheese

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 is about these unfamiliar themes; about the things philosophers also write about.

Grated cheese has been around longer than you might think. Plato mentioned it in passing in The Republic, and even returned to the subject in his later work The Laws. He reflected on the rumour that too much cheese gives you nightmares and expressed concerns about its effects. “You might condemn cheese out of hand when you have heard someone praise its merits as a food, without stopping to ask about its effects” (Laws, 698).

St Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, could have said, “Give me cheese, but not yet”, but he didn’t. His fifth century City of God, was a masterpiece of theology and philosophy but also contains this warning about dairy products: “[Italian] landladies of inns, imbued with these wicked arts, were said to be in the habit of giving to such travellers … a piece of cheese by which they were changed on the spot into beasts of burden, and carried whatever was necessary, and were restored to their own form when the work was done.” (De Civitate Dei Book XVIII, 18)

Mary Wollstonecraft shared the concerns about cheese, though arguably on more empirical grounds. The pioneer of women’s rights reported from her travels in Sweden “that cheese… was the bane of this country” (Wollstonecraft Letters – In Works VI).

Such warnings were not heeded by everyone. Kant loved the stuff so much that he reportedly died of an overabundance of cheese sandwiches. When the dialectic philosopher G.W.F Hegel travelled in Switzerland as a young man, he noted with wonder that you were given cheese for free – but that you had to supply your own bread. These were not the only major German philosophers to enjoy cheese. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) was a universal genius, but his greatest contribution to metaphysics was the idea of monads, basic substances without extension but with perceptions and appetites. How did he explain their role? By invoking cheese. “I don’t say that bodies which are commonly called inanimate, have perceptions and appetition, rather they have something of that sort in them, as worms in cheese” (Leibniz letter to Johann Bernoulli, 17th December 1698). It’s hard to say whether this really clarifies his position.

Jarlsberg, Camembert, Edam, you name it; in the end it’s all a matter of taste. John Locke (1632-1690) pointed out that “The mind has a different relish, as well as the palate, and you will as fruitlessly endeavour to… satisfy all men’s hunger with cheese, which though very agreeable to some [is] to others extremely nauseous and offensive” (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 56).

Clearly cheese is a weighty subject. In 1962 French President Charles de Gaulle complained: “How can anyone govern a nation that has two-hundred and forty six different kinds of cheese?’ Good question, and one that citizens should bear in mind in a country like Britain, which has over 700 variétés de fromage. If De Gaulle was right, we should be descending into anarchy.

© Prof. Matt Qvortrup 2024

Matt Qvortrup’s book Great Minds on Small Things is published by Duckworth.

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