“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
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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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