Out of the Cave, Thinking of Food

Shawn Mintek

The true philosopher, the one who has somehow escaped from the cave, is very strange--not just statistically unusual, an outlier, whom we'd maybe call lucky, but also an outsider, and "outrageous", "unlike any other man, past or present" (as Alcibiades describes Socrates). The Republic doesn't say much about the prisoner set free, except that when he rejoins us in the ordinary world, he'll seem a fool, that is, if he rejoins us. He is one who is unaffected by what most of us are so attached to and who is attentive to the realities most of us never notice. He has true knowledge.

But the cave is not a physical place, and escaping the cave into the realm of the sun is not having Disneyland all to yourself, nor is it being marooned by the pirates on a barren island. Escaping the cave is a state of mind, a consciousness, an orientation.

As a trope, a rhetorical device to help see things more clearly now, we can ask how one would see things then, out of the cave. What might one do outside the cave, living as a true philosopher? Contemplate beauty, or the Good itself? Make plans for going back down to aid those prisoners ignorant of their own imprisonment? Or become a Bodhisattva, forgoing Nirvana to remain back in the world as long so there are creatures to be saved from suffering?

Well, whatever one does, one must eat to continue. So: what do true philosophers eat? How do true philosophers think about food?

Let's ask one! But who?

Perhaps Socrates. He could be our exemplar: impervious to sensual temptations, not bothered by cold or lack of sleep, not impressed by status or majority opinion, unaffected by intoxicants. But Socrates usually claims to know nothing. And when he does discuss cookery, with Gorgias, he calls it a knack and not a matter of expertise or knowledge. So his example, otherwise inspiring, does not bring much about food to the table.

Perhaps the Buddha would make a better example of one out of the cave. But details are murky; the story of his last meal, for example, suggests, contrary to type, that he was not averse to vanity and delicacy in his food, and even leaves open the question whether he was vegetarian--was it mushrooms or pork that poisoned him?

Who else? Pythagoras and his beans? Or Marcus Aurelius, perhaps our best example of a philosopher-king? His stoic meditations are reflective and serene, but his activities in the empire seem to have precluded much philosophical development.

Another example might be Paul Erdos--have you heard of him?--who lived for abstract, eternal objects and who appreciated Beauty itself--he was the "man who loved only numbers." But as one biographer notes, "One might ... ask how Erdos interacted with others who had to, from time to time, surface in order to deal with trifling details like 'food' ... The answer is principally, 'He didn't.'"[1]

Of course trying to find true philosophers and then watch them eat or discuss food, in order to understand these things more clearly, is silly. One might just as well try to raise one's batting average by aping the clothes-tugging and stretches of Ichiro Suzuki, or take steroids to hit more home runs. Anecdotes rarely contain enough even to feed the moral imagination, much less to brew up a philosophical theory about food.

A second approach would be to sample and compare what religions have to say about diet and nutrition. Wittgenstein made quite a stew using philosophical anthropology, and a local respected philosophy professor routinely served up readings in Levi-Strauss--no doubt there is some philosophical meat to be found in the multitude and diversity of religious rules and rituals about food and eating; but trying to select the view that would be the one of the true philosopher seems akin to letting the loudest voice among the prisoners tell us the how to interpret the shadows on the wall.

Another unhelpful approach would be to look to current science for knowledge about the right way to think about food. The true philosopher who decides to return to the cave to improve the state presumably will want a peppering of scientific understanding. But even the most current scientific views must be taken with a grain of salt. 130 years ago a writer commented, "So perfectly ignorant are people generally of the laws of nature, that they give their pigs the food which their children need to develop muscle and brain, and give their children what their pigs need to develop fat."[2] In 2011 a nutritionist remarked, "People know less about nutrition than any other subject."[3] Moreover, although science has its rational and philosophical aspects, it is an essentially empirical activity--it cannot, for example, by itself tell us what is to count as good food.

Time to try a different course, to consider first what we might philosophically say about food and then see if that cooks up well with what the true philosopher would say, out of the cave.

For example, one way to connect philosophy and gastronomy could be titled, "the morality of the food supply." The connection arises in Plato's concerns for the warriors of the Republic, who must be properly fed "for the greatest contest of all"[4], that is, for war, with meals that are simple and easy to prepare, but also elegant and that reinforce a unity of virtues that ties courage and austerity together. Nowadays we wonder if the food supply is finite, as global climate change and other demands on production and distribution raise practical realities of scarcity. The food tolerated by an urban civilization is linked to a business with financial disincentives to provide food that is organic, local, pure, or nutritious, an industry that exacerbates obesity, diabetes, and heart conditions, and a culture that promotes a diet for the working class that can only be produced by a capitalist ruling class that feasts on other fare. Concerns such as these are political, even international, in scope, and raise issues of justice and equity. But they are not so strange as to be the sole provenance of philosophers out of the cave. Any thinker can consider these issues, even in the murky world of illusions and half-truths we normally inhabit. Considerations of animal rights also seem relevant to a philosophical look at food. When we worry about the family dog being left alone too long, or when we think about the rain forests and then see a connection between lowing cattle and fast-food burgers, we can find philosophic reasons to change our diet. Thoreau comments, "No humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature, which holds its life by the same tenure that he does. The hare in its extremities cries like a child."[5] But one need not be a true philosopher to become a vegetarian, or to stop wearing leather shoes, or to oppose animal experimentation, or to support habitat preservation. And the guilt that sometimes sparks such activities is too easily assuaged. Benjamin Franklin became a vegetarian and gave it up (more than once, apparently), and commented, "So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do."[6] A true philosopher's commitments would be more solid, and his or her logical acuity--assessing the validity or invalidity of reasons against or for eating meat--would be less runny.

Perhaps the true philosopher would take on more abstruse ways of considering food, such as the recent concoction known as "the aesthetics of taste." It considers, for example, whether senses usually accorded secondary status, particularly taste and smell, can claim objectivity equal to the distal senses of seeing and hearing. Thinking of the way dogs linger at hydrant, and get excited at the scent of something new, can broaden one's understanding of epistemic resources. One writer[7] suggests that smells and tastes should be judged not more "subjective" than sight or hearing, but rather more "intimate." Moreover, if we chew on the idea that smells and tastes are bearers of meaning--not a crazy notion, given cravings for so-called "comfort foods", as baked macaroni and cheese symbolizes grandma--then perhaps we are approaching the strange perspective of a true philosopher: not that we eat our words, but that we physically ingest semantic meanings. But these aesthetic discussions often are more about what one should say--for example, whether or to what extent food can be artistic--than about the ultimate reality lit by the sun outside the cave.

Another philosophical approach to food and eating bubbles up with considerations of the social construction of personal identity and the essential concomitance of one's own existence with that of others, communing. In this regard one might make poetic remarks about eating, talking, and kissing--all use the mouth. One might also note how the trust needed to function as a human being begins with being fed--as babies--and is maintained (for many) by eating foods prepared by others and by partaking in ritual meals at weddings, funerals, religious and civic occasions and holiday retreats. Such a multi-personed perspective, seeing one's self in a nexus of selves, is strange and hard to maintain; and while it might not seem that of the solitary thinker outside of the cave, if the true philosopher is to put his or her mind to the alleviation of others' suffering and the promotion of others' happiness, then perhaps this view of interpersonal identity and community is part of how he or she thinks about food.

But there is another option, stranger still, for the musings of a true philosopher about food. And that is to consider the paradox of eating: to live we eat, and to eat we kill. One writer comments, "There is death in the act of eating--both the destruction of that which is eaten and the impermanent pleasures that foreshadow the ultimate death of the diner."[8] She also points out, "It is one of the chief roles of etiquette to keep the lid on the violence which the meal being eaten presupposes."[9] Consider also those still-life paintings, with the bowl of fruit flanked by a skull on the table. It must be strange, to see oneself as a fleeting spark in a longer-lasting fire. Thoreau remarks, "The perch swallows the grub-worm, the pickerel swallows the perch, the fisherman swallows the pickerel, and so all the chinks in the scale of being are filled."[10] Is this some sort of self-less understanding of life? I don't know. Here the strangeness seems a grappling with a mystic consciousness.

If this orientation is part of the true philosopher's understanding of food and eating, grappling with a mystic consciousness, what can we ordinary mortals glean from it? Advice to stay mindful? Once more, from Thoreau, who found in the moral imagination occasional intimations of a higher consciousness: "It is hard to provide and cook so simple and clean a diet as will not offend the imagination; but this, I think is to be fed when we feed the body; they should both sit down at the same table."[11]