“He ate just enough food to make eating a pleasure, and he was so ready for his food that he found appetite the best sauce.”
“He resisted without difficulty the common temptation to exceed the limit of satiety; and he advised those who could not do likewise to avoid [anything] that encouraged them to eat and drink what they did not need: for these were the ruin of stomachs, brains, and souls.”
Xenophon speaking of Socrates in the Memorabilia
We hear quite a bit about what to eat because of how it tastes, or what foods to eat or not because of their effects upon our health. We hear very little about the human importance of tempering our desire for food.
But the wise have always seen eating as a central avenue of exercising, or not, our very humanity.
Non-human animals are generally governed by the dictates of their bellies. Their eating is not immediately contextualized by the drama of moral self-possession, and of personal relationships. At the same time they are not especially in search of gustatory pleasures; their main concern is whether they are getting the nourishment they need.
Human eating has the potential for deeper pleasures and deeper nourishment. It is likewise prone to a degeneracy that, much worse than just causing ill-health, can debilitate human life at its core.
Socrates seems to have discovered a paradoxical truth. The true pleasures of food only come to those who practice restraint. Real restraint, daily.
Human persons are animals; but we are more than animals. Restraint and mastery of bodily appetites are constitutive elements of truly human life. If humanized, our animality reaches its true fulfillment. If animalized, our humanity suffers degradation.
And how we eat is a main stage for this drama. It is being enacted every day of our lives. Sometimes we might need to be reminded: the restraint that protects and enlivens our humanity is in our power, every time we open our mouths, or not.
Xenophon (430-354 B.C.) was a soldier, historian, and philosopher of Athens. Like Plato he wrote dialogues featuring Socrates as a great teacher. Among these dialogues are Oeconomicus, translated as The Estate Manager, in which he shares insight into the structure and principles of the ancient household, and also Memorabilia, in which he shares recollections of the life of Socrates.
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In the words of G.K. Chesterton, “We should thank God for beer and burgundy, by not drinking too much of them.”
I’m really looking forward to Dr. Cuddleback’s videos. Though short, they’re so rich in content. I learn so much from them, and feel prepared to educate my young teen! God bless you Dr C.
Maria, Thanks so much for this encouraging comment. All the best to you and your family!
This is an inspiring encouragement in my ongoing Weight Watchers battle. It elevates the value of the struggle to the sublime, even beyond the goodness of growing in the virtue of temperance. I would love to see a truly Catholic weight (well, really, eating habits) management program that is this rich. Can you imagine going to a Weight Watchers meeting and hearing a talk like this?! I’d love it!
Mary, Thank you very much. You are so right that there are several levels of advantages in our seeking self-discipline. And the great news is… we can always start again. All the best!
I must say, as a classics major long ago, your attention to Xenophon is most wonderful, as he has long (and understandably) lagged a couple of parasangs behind Plato et al. of his contemporaries!
Oh yes. I still need to learn just how long a parasang is after all…
Your article in November´s First Things, Reclaiming the Household, was absolutely brilliant. (Copies arrive late here in Andalucia.)
Thank you Sylvia. Andalucia, wow. Maybe I should have come and hand-delivered it!
I think the title of this post is just great. At first a little strange sounding but, after your reflection, profound.
Thanks Mary Theresa! You might recall the book The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfection of Human Nature, a real gem by Leon Kass. He develops this theme wonderfully.