Philosophy of food


EpicurusWriting in the fourth century BC, Epicurus was the Greek philosopher of pleasure. He said the 'root of every good is the pleasure of the stomach. Even wisdom and culture must be referred to this.'

Rumours swiftly spread about Epicurus' gastronomic hedonism. In one tale, Epicurus had to vomit twice each day to accommodate the amounts of food he consumed and wished to consume still. If this is correct, Epicurus may well be the first bulimic in the history of western philosophy.

But Epicurus was no glut, just a pleasure-seeker, and fortunately 'binge and purge' was not the kind of pleasure he had in mind. At the end of a meal, Epicurus says, '[p]lain dishes offer the same pleasure as a luxurious table, when the pain that comes from want is taken away'.

I'm a student of Greek philosophy and I'm distressed to read these words. I like Epicurus, and his philosophy. But I don't like plain dishes.

Unlike Epicurus, I'm a glut. I eat too much and too quickly, and I know it. What pleases me are vast quantities of food that's heavily spiced and, some would say, over-seasoned.

I eat this way because that's how I was raised to eat: by parents who taught me from an early age that generous portions are the only portions one should serve, to oneself and especially to one's guests. Quantity matters. This is how they ate growing up when there was never enough food to go around.

Today, my dinner table, like my parents', is laden with the foods of childhood. I've come to eat, by choice, what they, by necessity, were forced to when growing up poor in 1950s Taiwan.

This I understand. What I don't understand is the remark my Dad will often make after he's eaten way too much — the remark that 'everything tasted better back then, when he was young'.

That was, until I read Epicurus.

Epicurus makes clear that food is pleasurable to the extent that it satiates a need. This reiterates what he says more generally about pleasure being the absence of pain. Pleasure exists where pain does not, and vice versa. Given this, Epicurus may be best understood as having advocated the absence of suffering and not the active pursuit of pleasure. Once suffering is alleviated then pleasure will naturally ensue.

However, the pleasure we experience in any given circumstance depends, in large part, on what it is that we actually suffer from. There cannot be any greater or lesser pleasure in Epicurus' estimation, than that which specifically alleviates the suffering in question.

This is why Epicurus said what he did about plain dishes offering 'the same pleasure as a luxurious table, when the pain that comes from want is taken away' — the want in this instance being bodily hunger and the need for nutritional sustenance.

We must, to reduce this to its simplest, know what we actually suffer from, what the root cause of our want is, and not to confuse, conflate or mask it with something else. Failing that, eat all you want and you'll likely remain interned by hunger, afflicted by pain.

Dad's voracity and longing for the foods of childhood has nothing to do with bodily hunger, and everything to do with remembrance: of his childhood and of his parents. Through eating the foods of his youth, he is able to relive the emotion he must have felt when, as a boy, he devoured delicate candies or steamed pork buns he knew his father was too poor to buy but bought for him nonetheless.

Even the sweetest candies and the best steam buns, of which he buys and consumes many, can't fill a void so deep.

The actual foods of his childhood are neither the source of his pain nor the guarantor of his pleasure. His ultimate pain and pleasure, as Epicurus might advise, lay elsewhere.

Still, whenever I can, I like to sit together with Dad, eating the snacks he buys and the dishes he lovingly prepares. This is a pleasure I can't deny him. Nor me.

Mark ChouMark Chou recently completed his PhD in political science and international relations at the University of Queensland, Australia. He has previously published in the Griffith Review, New Matilda, truthout, and ABC Unleashed.

Topic tags: Mark Chou, Epicurus, Mark Chou



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An interesting article, thanks Mark. I thought particularly your summary of Epicurus' idea - "We must......know what we actually suffer from, what the root cause of our want is, and not to confuse, conflate or mask it with something else. Failing'll likely remain interned by hunger, afflicted by pain" not only appears to be at the heart of some of the teachings of some great spiritual figures but also something perhaps many of us might be able to relate to in our personal experience.

Stephen Kellett | 27 October 2010  

I had a very different childhood from that of Mark's father, but I too regret that food does not taste as good as it used to. Even seafood like flounder and scallops tastes like any old fish.

Our sense of taste (apart from salt, sweet and so on) resides in the nose, and the sad fact is that as we age we gradually lose it. Like Mark's father, I miss the old days.

Michael Grounds | 27 October 2010  

Gluttony: Eating to excess (personified as one of the deadly sins)

Why promote gluttony when we know it to be a sin, an offence against God. What has happened to fasting, prayer, humility and obedience and carrying our own crosses?

Our life on earth is short and we will indeed be judged by how we use our free will. There are two stark choices: Either the 'narrow road' and do God's Will and go to heaven, or the'wide road' and deny God's will which leads to perdition.

Gluttony, not only in food but in all excesses, is against God's will and a grave Sin.

Trent | 27 October 2010  

Dt. Chou's excursion into the romance of food brings back memories of my childhood that is not that dissimilar to his. I grew up in a household where the preparation and eating of food were both pleasurable and memorable. Is it any wonder that we Chinese greet each other by asking whether we've eaten.

To this day I still remember our cook's signature dish, the Hainanese-influenced abalone soup spiced with ginger and bay leaf (although I'd like to think that the added ingredients were her (the cook's) own interpretation). My father always presided over our family dinners. He was the one who'd picked the juiciest chicken breast for mother's plate or the tenderest of all pig's cheeks for the rest of us. And the dishing out of gurami fish is a celebration of haute cuisie in itself.

Thank you Dr. Chou for reminding us that food is not only to be consumed but to enjoy and romance with.

Alex Njoo | 27 October 2010  

Beautiful - keep on sitting with your Dad - you are just as healing as the food.

spiritedcrone | 30 October 2010  

My uncle who passed away recent became increasingly obsessed by the foods of his childhood in Malaysia when he fell ill.
It was also to do with memories of his childhood and mother and siblings.

He lived in Denmark where good quality authentic Malaysian and Chinese food is almost impossible to come by and I think this heightened his obsession and longing.

Keep eating with your dad Mark and enjoying the foods that he makes!

Catherina Toh | 31 October 2010  

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