Eating and the Perfection of Our Nature

Another old post.

Bear in mind that you should conduct yourself in life as at a feast. – Epictetus (55AD-135AD)

We are not infrequently reminded of the reality of our animal nature, of how much we share in common with the rest of the animal kingdom. Like all other creatures we eat, sleep, defecate, and have sex. Within this stress on commonality, however, it is easy to forget just how dissimilar we are from the animals in the way that we negotiate our ‘animal nature’. In fact, paying attention to the manner in which we perform our most animalistic of actions is one of the best ways to arrive at insights into human nature.

For instance, on the matter of defecation, Slavoj Žižek – who rather likes dealing with the scatological – observes:

[T]he immediate appearance of the Inner is formless shit. The small child who gives his shit as a present is in a way giving the immediate equivalent of his Inner Self. Freud’s well-known identification of excrement as the primordial form of gift, of an innermost object that the small child gives to its parents, is thus not as naive as it may appear: the often-overlooked point is that this piece of myself offered to the Other radically oscillates between the Sublime and – not the Ridiculous, but, precisely – the excremental. This is the reason why, for Lacan, one of the features which distinguishes man from animals is that, with humans, the disposal of shit becomes a problem: not because it has a bad smell, but because it came out from our innermost selves. We are ashamed of shit because, in it, we expose/externalize our innermost intimacy. Animals do not have a problem with it because they do not have an “interior” like humans.

Žižek and numerous other philosophers have made similar points about human sexuality, which is shot through with the distinctness of human personhood. Even our most ‘animal’ of sexual urges are thoroughly human, to the extent that no animal could attain to them. Lacking the self-reflexivity of selfhood that human beings enjoy, animals do not experience the sexual desire, arousal, and fulfillment that human being can. On account of human personhood the body functions quite differently for us as it does for animals. As Roger Scruton remarks, ‘Although I am identical with my body, my experience of embodiment must be sharply distinguished from my experience of the body.’ For human beings sexual intercourse is an interpersonal act, which is one of the main reasons why paedophilia is such a serious perversion, as the child has not yet attained to the level of self-knowledge and intentionality necessary to engage in the human act of sexual intercourse.

One of the most interesting ways in which we differ from the animals, however, is to be found in the way that we eat. There are a number of ways in which we can approach this subject. One good starting point is with the work of Richard Wrangham, which argues that it was cooking rather than hunting and meat-eating that served to set us apart from the primates. In Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, Wrangham claims that human beings ‘are adapted to eating cooked food in the same essential way as cows are adapted to eating grass, or fleas to sucking blood.’

We can get away with our tiny mouths because, unlike apes, we do not have to spend six hours a day chewing. Our teeth are not made for ripping antelope flesh. We are built to eat food softened by fire, which can be bolted down relatively quickly, leaving us to get on with other activities. “Humans do not eat cooked food because we have the right kind of teeth and guts; rather, we have small teeth and short guts as a result of adapting to a cooked diet.” The single most important fact in the transition from ape to human being was not the meat-eating habit but the discovery of fire. The fact that we are cooks is more important than the fact that we are carnivores.

The practice of cooking and preparing food has acted as a profound culture-shaping activity, affecting the relationships between the sexes (often leading to women being trapped in a subservient role, while freeing up the time of the males), forming larger networks of cooperation and the division of labour (just think of the broader culture that needs to be present to make a loaf of bread), and prompting us to think of our relationship to the world differently, as those who transform, rather than merely appropriate the resources of nature.

The differences between men and animals do not end with the cooking of food. Leon Kass, in a wonderful work, The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature, draws attention to several of these. As in the case of all other animals, hunger drives us out into the world to acquire material for nourishment, in order to preserve our forms and identities. The satisfaction of hunger involves partaking in various forms of engagement with our world, from seeing and hearing, to pursuing, attacking, cutting, preparing, cooking, biting, tasting, chewing, and swallowing. As higher animals our hunger for biological sustenance is intertwined with all sorts of further desires. Kass writes:

With the rise of intelligence and especially with its extraordinary development in the upright animal, the hungry soul seeks satisfaction in activities animated also by wonder, ambition, curiosity, and awe. We human beings delight in beauty and order, act and action, sociability and friendship, insight and understanding, song and worship. And, as self-conscious beings, we especially crave self-understanding and knowledge of our place in the larger whole.

All these appetites of the hungry soul can in fact be partly satisfied at the table, provided that we approach it in the proper spirit. The meal taken at table is the cultural form that enables us to respond simultaneously to all the natural features of our world: inner need, natural plenitude, freedom and reason, human community, and the mysterious source of it all. In humanized eating, we can nourish our souls even while we feed our bodies.

In many respects, one could argue that the meal table is the birthplace of culture. It is the place where the primary lessons of politeness are learned. Table manners help to form our understanding of selfhood, of culture, human fellowship, the art of conversation, and social etiquette. Norbert Elias’ observations on table manners in the Middle Ages are an interesting example of this:

People who ate together in the way customary in the Middle Ages, taking meat with their fingers from the same dish, wine from the same goblet, soup from the same pot or the same plate…– such people stood in a different relationship to one another than we do. And this involves not only the level of clear, rational consciousness; their emotional life also had a different structure and character. Their affects were conditioned to forms of relationship and conduct which, by today’s standard of conditioning, are embarrassing or at least unattractive. What was lacking in this courtois world, or at least had not been developed to the same degree, was the invisible wall of affects which seems now to rise between one human body and another, repelling and separating, the wall which is often perceptible today at the mere approach of something that has been in contact with the mouth or hands of somebody else, and which manifests itself as embarrassment at the mere sight of many bodily functions of others, and often at their mere mention, or as a feeling of shame when one’s own functions are exposed to the gaze of others, and by no means only then.

Eating together is a practice through which some of humanity’s noblest virtues can be formed and honed. Kass writes:

For those who understand both the meaning of eating and their own hungry soul, necessity becomes the mother of the specifically human virtues: freedom, sympathy, moderation, beautification, taste, liberality, tact, grace, wit, gratitude, and, finally, reverence.

One of the deepest malaises of contemporary culture is seen in the manner in which materialistic outlooks on life discourage us from truly humanizing our most animal of actions. In the process the heights of human nature are no longer striven for and we are brutalized in certain respects. For instance, a loss of modesty and of the sense of the obscene goes with a loss of the human sense of interiority. Perhaps this danger of forfeiting the riches of human nature is especially present in the case of eating.

The Russian Orthodox writer on liturgy, Alexander Schmemann makes the startling claim that in his assertion that ‘man is what he eats’ the materialistic philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach was unknowingly expressing ‘the most religious idea of man.’ Materialistic perspectives on the world, just as idealistic perspectives before them, sunder the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘material’, man’s ‘soul’ from his ‘body’. Attending to the humanized act of eating, however, is profoundly illuminating, puncturing the idea that there is any division between the soul and the body.

Man has a hunger for life. However, this hunger for life is an undifferentiated hunger, knowing no clear separation between spiritual and physical dimensions. Practicing a proper approach to the meal table is a way of nourishing life on all levels. Once this integrated approach to the satisfaction of the human hunger for life is abandoned, though, and hunger is met with nothing but biological sustenance, our souls emaciate. Knowing of no other way to address our deeper hunger, we can have an ever more fraught relationship with biological food – gorging, wolfing, purging, starving.

Leon Kass writes again:

We face serious dangers from our increasingly utilitarian, functional, or “economic” attitudes toward food. True, fast food, TV dinners, and eating on the run save time, meet our need for “fuel,” and provide close to instant gratification. But for these very reasons, they diminish opportunities for conversation, communion, and aesthetic discernment; they thus shortchange the other hungers of the soul. Disposable utensils and paper plates save labor at the price of refinement, and also symbolically deny memory and permanence their rightful places at the table. Meals eaten before the television set turn eating into feeding. Wolfing down food dishonors both the human effort to prepare it and the lives of those plants and animals sacrificed on our behalf. Not surprisingly, incivility, insensitivity, and ingratitude learned at the family table can infect all other aspects of one’s life.

In the manducatio impiorum of materialism, the deficiency lies not in the world, but in us. Our deep hunger for life can be met at the meal table, but we first need to learn how to eat in a human manner. Those who never eat for anything but biological sustenance should not be surprised to find that they have malnourished souls.

As we engage in more humanized eating, these bad habits are less likely to emerge. Integrating more of our human appetite into our eating experience can improve our eating habits immensely. People who learn how to savour their food, how to appreciate beauty in food, who devote more time to its preparation, will be more likely to have healthy eating practices.

One of my favourite films is Babette’s Feast, which depicts an encounter with the numinous, in a shared meal. Within the film the character of the General describes a French cook who could transform a dinner into a love affair that made no distinction between bodily and spiritual appetite. In contrast to Chocolat, in which the piety of the townsfolk is presented as being in opposition to the liberating power of indulging in chocolate, Babette’s Feast’s message is far more profound. The message is not that of hedonism vs. mean-spiritedness, but of the danger of the spiritual and the physical, of heaven and earth, parting ways. In Babette’s Feast the meal is not solely about the sensual delights of tasty food, but is about the power of grace and forgiveness to transform the everyday and about the marriage of the physical and the spiritual (the rift between the two can also be seen in the contrast between the austere piety of the villagers and the decadent decaying world from which Babette flees).

Prior to Babette’s arrival, delight in the grace of God’s physical gifts – of food, neighbours, love, and music – was sacrificed on account of an ascetic religious commitment. However, when this piety has its eyes opened to the grace of God in his physical gifts, something profound can happen, a deeper savouring of the world than is possible for the hedonist or sensualist (‘the stars have come nearer tonight…’). All of the characters in the film feel their loss or lack of something. The world of the ascetic villagers is incomplete, but so is the rich and successful world of the general, in which he can enjoy many sensual pleasures (as he declares prior to the feast, ‘vanity of vanities, all is vanity’). Many people see the film as an attack upon puritanical attitudes, but it is far deeper than that, and also attacks the separation of the world of the hedonist from spiritual depth (a good lesson for many Chocolat fans, I suspect). The meal provides the marriage between the spiritual and the physical in which the rift between the two worlds is overcome.

I could proceed to comment on the way in which the film exposes the gift character of the cooked meal, but I will leave that as a thought for you to ponder.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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6 Responses to Eating and the Perfection of Our Nature

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  3. Tracey says:

    I got half way through this post and thought to myself, ‘ah, I can see why this is one of the unpopular ones’ and was about to stop reading it. But I’ve read a few of your posts now so I figured it was worth reading to the end. I’m glad I did; I think these thoughts might just have an impact on the way I eat from now on, and help me do it more to the glory of God.

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