On Gluttony

In 2017, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues, exploring them one per season through the year. Practicing virtue was an exercise in saying yes. But as I gradually realized, in order to do this, I also needed to decide where I should say ‘no’. And so, by the end of the year, I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept in leading us towards the good life. Sin is a precious concept, acknowledging that not all our instincts and appetites are good. There are things we do, whether as individuals or collectively, that we should resist and condemn. But what this is may not always be transparent, and therefore, we must cultivate discernment. So, this year, from the first of January till Easter, I will consider the seven deadly sins – Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy – as an inherited typology supporting the practice of prudence, and share my reflections on this blog every thirteen days, in the form of a free-flowing meditation. 

‘Little belly, rejoice, rejoice – every cent I make is for you.’ According to family lore, this is what my great-grandfather used to chant before each meal. Being of French-Italian descent, one would expect gluttony to be particularly challenging for me: from the earliest age, I was trained to believe that food is at the centre of civilised life.

I have noted on several occasions that food plays a role in my own psychological balance. Two days without a good meal, and I will start feeling sad and grumpy. The sensual pleasure of a well-balanced dish enjoyed on a regular basis is a way for me to offset the many frustrations of the day. To that extent, food – good food preferably – is a drug that I depend on to keep my own balance.

As with all drugs, addiction is a risk. Stress, frustration, or even boredom, call for a quick solution. This I find in the form of a chocolate, pizza, cake – or a very large bowl of lettuce with cracked walnuts and shaved parmesan that I prepare, for no reason, in the middle of the afternoon. There is a huge, complex project to work on, where so much is unknown. Munching my way through chips and a burger gives me the sense of control that is missing in other areas of my life, even if only temporarily. When I eat, I’m in charge.

Gluttony, Lust, and greed all have to do with excessive appetite. They are the vices of our time, fed by advertisement, capitalism, and our hedonistic ideology. But what exactly distinguishes them? Is it purely their object – food, sex, money? Or do those three sins differ in a more subtle manner? This is what I would like to reflect on in this post.

I have not been warned against gluttony to the same extent that I have been about sloth, wrath, or envy. Indeed, our entire social system is built on gluttony. Food is available everywhere, and cheap. We subsidise farmers – irrespective of their impact on our environment – so that we can eat in abundance.

Gluttony goes beyond the sensual enjoyment of drink and food. It establishes the purpose of the natural world ss ingestion by humans. Gluttony, quite literally, may result in our species eating the planet to destruction – with all fish- and meat-lovers to the front.

Waste is the necessary by-produce of gluttony. Let the sin go loose, and the world will literally turn to shit. Gluttony destroys its object in order to nurture the self – and to that extent, may be seen as an extension of pride. Gluttony seeks balance and fulfilment through consumption rather than activity – and to that extent, may be seen as an extension of sloth.

Gluttony goes beyond the mindless consumption of food to those extensions of our selves – gas-guzzling SUVs and big houses and the fuel we burn for heating, cooling and decorating them. More broadly, the cities we build, where suburbs encroach further and further into the non-human world, because we want to live close to nature, may be framed as a form of gluttony.

Gluttony comes with an expectation that there will always be more. Resisting it, therefore, is also respecting the right for others to leave. Resisting gluttony preserves our future freedom: parts of the world are untouched. I don’t have to transform the entire world into my own substance. It is OK that food remains uneaten – or even, that food may never be produced.

Resisting gluttony creates internal space: physically, by lowering the pressure on our internal organs, and spiritually, by giving up on our limitless appetite for ingesting the whole world, and keeping time for other activities. What if, then, gluttony was nothing but the fear of freedom, replacing the space of possibility with endless food consumption – and therefore, also, the best ally of tyranny?

 

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