Food For Thought

As men – even before they became thinkers (primum vivere, deinde philosophari) – philosophers had their favourite dishes and often proved to be great advocates of good food. Their attention to food emerges from their biographies and in their own world, with recurring culinary metaphors and astonishing detail in the wine and food sectors. The word ‘diet’ itself derives from the Greek diaita or ‘way of life’.

Plato definitely preferred the eternal and changeless world of Ideas to this world, and this is why food, cooking and the appetite that directs the process of eating were considered too closely connected to the body to be of any philosophical interest. Plato established this trend in Phaedo, in which he stated that food distracts us from higher things. In the seventh letter he criticizes the Syracusians, accusing them of eating three times a day. He subsequently takes this further still in the Symposium dialogue, which describes a banquet where no one eats anything. Or rather, Socrates intervenes halfway through dinner and the real story begins when the diners’ appetites are already satisfied, leaving nothing to do but drink heavily, sing praises to the gods and discuss philosophy.

An echo of Plato’s influence has remained in popular culture: in John Huston’s 1951 film The African Queen, Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn), disgusted by the weaknesses of the flesh displayed by Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), reproaches him with a philosophically convincing argument: ‘Nature, Mr Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above’.

But Plato’s intangible world of ideas (Iperuranio) did not take into consideration the irresistible sweetness of dried figs. Diogenes Laertius, the king of ancient philosophical gossip, tells us that the Greek thinker had a weakness for them and ate them while teaching.

In his fresco The School of Athens, the painter Raphael created a simplified but effective image by placing Plato and Aristotle at the centre of the scene, with Plato on the left pointing to the sky and Aristotle on the right pointing to the ground. This difference in viewpoint is also evident in the importance the two philosophers attribute to food. Aristotle believed it was only possible to think once one’s primary needs had been satisfied: philosophy begins with a full stomach, in other words. It also seems that he had rather sophisticated dietary habits, since he is traditionally reported as owning a well-stocked collection of pots and pans. Aristotle was not so much troubled by the vice of gluttony as by the proximity of greed and loquaciousness and the transformation of one vice into the other, according to which the philosopher’s greed for food became gluttony for words, the unstoppable loquaciousness of the chatterbox.

It is well known that the Pythagoreans theorized about the practice of vegetarianism. These philosophers believed that souls could be reincarnated in animals and that eating meat was tantamount to cannibalism. Their master Pythagoras also severely forbade his disciples to eat fava beans because he believed they contained the souls of the dead waiting to be reincarnated. Legend has it that on one occasion, pursued by enemies, he allowed himself to be captured rather than trample a field of fava beans in order to escape.

Epicurus is renowned for his gluttony, as if throughout his life he had done nothing but stuff himself with food and drink. Today we still refer to those who freely pursue the fulfillment of pleasure as ‘epicureans’ or ‘hedonists’ (the word derives from the Greek edoné, or ‘pleasure’, and indicates the Epicurean doctrine).

This image of Epicurus owes a great deal to misunderstandings and, above all, to the derogatory work of the Fathers of the Church, probably due to his extremely ‘heretical’ theology. Epicurus believed in the mortality of the soul and the total disinterest of the gods towards the fate of humans. To clarify Epicurus’ real thinking, here is a quotation from the famous letter to Meneceus:

When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or wilful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of merrymaking, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest disturbances take possession of the soul.

In his letters Epicurus himself claims to be content with water and simply baked bread and he writes, ‘Send me a little cheese that I might dine lavishly’. This from the man who established the pursuit of pleasure for its own end as a doctrine. His only weakness was cheese cooked in a pan – a kind of fondue ahead of its time.

The life of Diogenes of Sinope, the most famous and integralist of cynics, is rich in anecdotes. The basic principles of his cynical philosophy were to limit one’s needs as much as possible, live simply and despise wealth, fame and noble birth. ‘It is the privilege of the gods to want nothing, and of godlike men to want little,’ the philosopher used to say. Consequently, Diogenes rejected sumptuous tables and lavish Pantagruelian banquets, and opted for more frugal meals. The cynics were the inventors of ‘fast-food’ or rather, food served in the street, since they preached the necessity of consuming foods in the streets and squares without too much ceremony and preparation.

Diogenes Laertius recounts how the cynic was eating dried figs when he bumped into Plato and invited him to taste them; when Plato took the figs and ate them, Diogenes remarked: ‘I said to take a few, not to eat them all!’. Once again the supreme Plato falls prey to his weakness for dried figs. Diogenes also maintained that it was not unholy to eat human flesh. But it is a little known fact that the philosopher once emulated a boy who, having broken his plate, placed his lentils in the hollow of a piece of bread, throwing away his own bowl and adopting this method of eating. Perhaps Diogenes was the inventor of the modern sandwich?

The stoical Zeno of Citium, according to Appollonius of Tyana, was tall and thin with sturdy legs, flabby and weak, and nearly always refused invitations to banquets. He did, however, love green figs and elected them as the food of philosophers. Carneades, whom Manzoni’s Don Abbondio wondered about in The Betrothed, actually forgot to eat because he devoted too much time to studying. His survival was guaranteed however by a slave who spoon-fed him regularly.

Seneca, the exponent of Roman stoicism, was opposed to luxury (though he did not take this to the same extremes as Diogenes) and liked unfussy, simple but authentic cuisine. As he wrote in De tranquillitate animi: ‘I like food that does not require the preparation and supervision of multitudes of servants, is not ordered days in advance nor is served by many hands; but food that is readily available and simple, with nothing sophisticated or elaborate about it, that can be found wherever one may go, does not weigh heavily on the purse nor the body, so as not to leave the body by the same route along which it entered’.

Porphyry, like the Pythagoreans, sustained the vegetarian cause: in his treatise On Abstinence from Killing Animals he explained that animals cannot be exploited by men and considered as an available means of satisfying their needs. He recommended abstinence also in an ascetic-religious context: a diet based on fruit and vegetables, more sober and frugal than a meat-based diet and healthier too, better suits religious men who seek assimilation with the divine through detachment from the passions and pleasures of the flesh. ‘Meat does not contribute to good health, but is in fact an obstacle to it. Health is preserved through the means by which one obtains strength, and this occurs through a light, meat-free diet. […] Indeed, a philosopher has no need of strength nor of increasing the body’s stamina if he intends to turn his mind to contemplation and not to action and excess’.

Poles apart from the Symposium is the banquet of Tramalchio in Petronius Arbiter’s Satyricon, set in the opulent imperial Rome of the 1st century AD. While in Plato’s dialogue (and in the Greek practice of the symposium in general) the main dish of the banquet was poetry, lyricism or ravenous philosophical disquisition, in the dinner episode of the Satyricon the key moment of the meal is anything but lofty and metaphorical. This is not a casual comparison, since Petronius’ vulgar and materialistic dinner party assumes the tone of a parody of the banquet in Symposium, ideally metaphysical and ferociously refuting the unrestrained luxury and poor taste of Caput mundi. Petronius offers his readers a version of Marco Ferreri’s La grande bouffe set in antiquity.

Real gastronomical monsters are served at Trimalchio’s banquet: a gigantic dish depicting the twelve constellations, with dishes over each sign of the zodiac – chickpeas like small ram’s heads, testicles and kidneys, African figs (again), lobster, cheese pies and honey desserts, even an owl and a sow’s vulva; then a boar surrounded by sucking pigs and dates, a huge pig taking up the entire table, and a sweet with priapean effigies made from pastry. And then a monstrous goose, surrounded by fish and birds of all kinds and a huge cockerel.

This immeasurable quantity of courses, way beyond the requirements of the diners, is deliberately hyperbolic: its aim is to astonish, in a delirium of magnitude which transforms the dinner into a real and spectacular performance. Some dishes are actually paradoxical, like the chicken with peacocks’ eggs inside (a sophisticated feat of gastronomical engineering – or did the Romans already know about GMOs?). The food served is an ecstasy of abundance and luxury, in an unbridled sequence of courses which lead to disgust, nausea and bulimia.

But things are about to change: here we are on the threshold of the Christian era during which we will discover the perverse pleasure of fasting.

Luca Bernardini, a journalist, works at the Slow Food Press Office

Adapted by Ailsa Woods

  • Did you learn something new from this page?
  • yesno