“We can ask whether and to what extent our customs about eating are informed by insights into our nature. We can even ask whether and to what extent our customs about eating contribute to the perfection of our nature.”
Leon Kass, The Hungry Soul
Saying ‘goodbye’ to students on the last day of classes holds a rich poignancy. Yesterday, among a number of notable exchanges with my students, one exemplifies why teaching offers reasons for hope in darkening times. At the conclusion of our study of human nature, a young lady approached me and said, “Dr. Cuddeback, I want to live according to the truth we have studied. What do you suggest that I do?”
What a question! It almost takes my breath away. Surely, I know that hearts tend to be moved by the things that we study. But seeing it in the flesh is so real, so powerful. And ‘being moved’ by what we study is in reality quite complex—an amazing combination of gift and of active reception and response to the gift. ‘Being moved’ might in some sense just ‘happen’ to us; but also we must choose to be moved, and then to act accordingly.
You would think I would be more ready for this question: isn’t it after all what the teacher most anticipates? I swallowed; and I suggested two things.
Start by asking God. He has put this question in your heart. He will provide an answer, if you ask.
Second, look at how you eat. There, ask the question that Leon Kass poses in the quotation above.
This will perhaps seem strange. I make no claim it is the best or most fitting answer to my student’s question. But you must begin somewhere. And we had ended our course with Leon Kass’s great book, a central assertion of which is that in how we eat, we can embody and cultivate our deepest convictions about what it is to be human.
Being intentional about how we eat, examining and making fitting resolutions: this is an obvious concrete path to living the truth more fully. And human life is always essentially about living the truth.
In view of this, I have chosen three questions every person can ask about how he eats. For parents, or any in authority over a community that eats together, this immediately takes on great significance given our solemn responsibility to oversee and form how our family or community eats every day. Yet no less is it the challenge of the ‘household of one’ to make eating a veritable, daily enactment of who you are and who you want to be.
Here I simply offer three questions and suggest lines of thinking about them.
Question one: Does WHAT we eat reflect basic truths of human nature and the human difference?
Eating is a moral act. As in any moral act the ‘object’ is significant, and the first object in eating is the very thing being consumed. Some things are fit to be eaten, others are not. We do well to begin here. What should I eat, and what should I not eat? There are many facets to this issue. Here I simply suggest this: while we have much to be grateful for in the abundance of food available to us, we also must realize that what is presented to us for consumption is largely the product of a food industry in which the principles of production often do not include a moral compass.
In other words, at least sometimes, we might be ‘sold’ something that is not fit to be eaten. For instance, animals, and even plants, can be grown in ways that do not respect the natural order. Further, food should nourish the body, not simply tickle the taste buds while undermining, often subtly, the health of the body. These are real issues, some aspects of which can be beyond our control. But their complexity does not absolve us from doing what we reasonably can to eat good things.
The next two questions concern more HOW we eat.
Question Two: Do our manners in eating express and cultivate virtue?
Kass writes, “Moreover, the principles of self-command and consideration for others shown in ‘small manners’ are of a piece with virtue and justice. Indeed civility may very well be the heart of the ethics of everyday life.”
Manners are perhaps the primary avenue in which we begin to direct and form children, and the epicenter of daily manners is mealtime. From their earliest days children at table begin to learn and enact basic virtuous dispositions: respect, justice, generosity, and temperance. This is not to mention how manners likewise cultivate other human goods, such as higher culture, and friendship.
And this is so for adults too. Virtues are formed, honed, and perfected by practice. Mealtimes are an obvious, consistent context for such daily practice. Here is where the rubber meets the road: where all of us—again, even those living alone—can discover in ‘manners/etiquette’ the bodily expressions and thus practice of the most profound interior dispositions.
Question Three: Do our practices at table cultivate real presence, especially through rich conversation?
Kass writes, “It is shared speech, even more than shared food, that makes a community of diners.” Is there anything we do in our home that is more expressive of how we share one life together? At the table we discover that we belong; that life is always shared life—we are never alone; that we begin by listening, and that others have something to say; that we too have something to say, and others will listen—because they love us.
Kass goes so far as to suggest that a person begins to become fit for true friendship by what happens at the table. I think Aristotle would concur. Friendship is most lived in rich conversation. And there is so very much that goes into making a person capable and disposed to such conversation, such presence. We can be intentional about making our meals at table prepare us for and sometimes embody true friendship.
Herein, I think, is the greatest gift and fruit of human eating. We can discover and prepare ourselves for relating to other persons in ways both ordinary and extraordinary. We discover that the ordinary can be extraordinary, and that human life is a kind of feast: a feast that is foreshadowed and rightly begun in our eating at table. And what we discover and practice at table—though it changes in various ways throughout our life—will never really pass away, but rather pass over into something that includes all that richness, and even more.
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