The Pleasures of the Table and Living a Good Life

food and friendsEpicurus, the Roman philosopher who lent his name to the pursuit of the pleasures of food, was not merely a philosopher who also loved food. He thought food was the key to the good life.

“The beginning and root of all good is the pleasure of the stomach; even wisdom and culture must be referred to this”. (Epicurus, Fragments)

That is a rather striking sentence coming from a philosopher—we tend to be a less than hedonistic tribe. Epicurus seems to have thought that everything worth valuing in human life, especially wisdom, is ultimately traceable to food. This view is unique in the annals of philosophy, and is not widely held among ordinary folk either, aside from the tribe affectionately known as “foodies”.

In one sense, of course, the connection between food and a good life is obvious. Without nutrition we could not survive to pursue other goods. But Epicurus did not focus on nutrition only. It was the pleasure of food (and modest amounts of wine) and its role in social exchange that seems to have prompted his encomia to the delights of the table. Unfortunately, the only surviving writings we have are fragments so his reasoning cannot be reliably elaborated.

So what is uniquely virtuous about a life centered around food. No doubt the pleasures of the table are satisfying and they grease the wheels of social commerce. But the same could be said of lots of other human activities—sports, music, art, religion, sex and romance, etc. What is so distinctive about food and wine?

Of all the pleasures we pursue, food is the one that is constant in its satisfaction since we must eat several times during a day. These satisfactions are temporary—we get hungry soon after being satiated. But that impermanence is a good thing, since the pangs of hunger are a reason to once again seek pleasure. There are very few other activities in life in which the imperative to seek satisfaction and thus to experience pleasure is so constant. (Sex may be in second place—but not three times a day!)

Thus, food is a unique and singularly anchoring sort of pleasure. Because the attractions of food are so persistent (not to mention the difficulties in securing and preparing it), they shape our lives in a variety of ways and have implications for all aspects of life, especially social life. Eating is a center around which our social lives revolve, and feeding ourselves and others well (and for many people drinking well) is an essential part of socializing well. The pangs of hunger are not only a reason to seek pleasure; they are a reason to seek friendship.

The pleasure of food and wine is not an afterthought—a bonus over and above the nutrition that food supplies. It is both a symbol of love and friendship and the substance of them as well. Ignoring the pleasures of the table is a kind of disrespect—a deliberate disregard for the offer of friendship. The practice of feeding others well is a kind of excellence that reverberates throughout the rest of life.

This is the wisdom to which Epicurus alludes and foodies embody. It is as plausible a conception of the good as any other.

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