The capital vice of gluttony: notes on a conversation

Here are my notes from the Calvin Seven Deadly Sins seminar, day 10, containing thoughts from Rebecca De Young of Calvin College, Robert Kruschwitz of Baylor, and the participants. The topic is gluttony, Rebecca got us going with a slideshow and commentary. This is an opportune time to say: buy Rebecca’s book Glittering Vices, on the traditional seven capital vices (“deadly sins”). It is wonderful and edifying. It will help you in your Christian walk:


Bob: book on Fasting. He’ll use it in a moment in talking about Aquinas.

Rebecca: slideshow: “Death by Chocolate? Aquinas on the Vice of Gluttony” (talk given at Calvin, Feb 2009)

We have reduced our notion of gluttony to being overweight, eating in excess. Some basis for this. Gluttony the word has this broader connotation of excess, surplus. “Greedy for knowledge” is to want too much of it—we use it in this extended sense. Lust, luxuria, can also be used this way. Too much of anything. Not just sex.

So in this talk, wanted to convince people that for Aquinas, wanted to broaden the notion, but also to show food and the body as basic goods of nature. “inordinate desire to consume more than that which one requires.” But CSL, Screwtape, shows a case in which a glutton eats less than usual.

It’s easy to read the desert fathers as body-haters and food-haters. There are quotes in Cassian that make it look as though food is a necessary evil. “even eat what is necessary for nature itself . . . with an anxious heart.” Really?

Eating: “get it over with as quickly as possible . . .”

You know it’s gluttony when . . . (ST)

“ . . . you knowingly exceed the measure . . .”

“Gluttony does not regard the substance of food, but the desire for food not being regulated by right reason.”

“Gluttony denotes not just any desire of eating or drinking, but an inordinate desire” ST 2.148

For Aquinas, virtue is the mean between extremes, and Gluttony is a vice of excess, but insensitivity is a vice of deficiency.

ST 2  Don’t overdo it . . . in either direction

He quotes Greg on this DM 6. “weakens us for the performance of the good.” “so while pursuing the enemy, we slay the citizen we love.”

Five forms (Greg) too delicately, richly, greedily, hastily, much. F.R.E.S.H.: fastidiously, ravenously, excessively, sumptuously, hastily. (Note Cassian pretty much says we SHOULD eat hastily! But this means eating before the appointed hour, as for Cassian and for Gregory. If you’re a sneaky snacker, that’s what they’re talking about with hastily.)

Too fastidiously doesn’t mean you’re just a finicky eater. It’s that CSL problem. He wants to say, in Screwtape, the demons want us to think we’re not gluttonous because we eat too much, but we can eat tiny amounts and be gluttonous. So describes a woman: All I want is tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of toast, really crisp. Sending it back to kitchen. Twice. Determination to get exactly the pleasure I want. Meeting my exact pleasure at the maximum. What’s behind this? He says: All this woman wants is an egg properly boiled or slice of bread properly toasted. She never finds any servant or friend who does it properly. She has an insatiable demand for pleasures of the palate, imagined from the past “When you could get good servants.” Rebecca: I’ve seen this in people who have been involved in long term nursing care: the meal is the only pleasurable part of the day: all needs for all human goods are piled in that moment. Then it’s an insatiable demand. Food can’t fulfill all that for you.

Sumptuously: in our culture we don’t see this as gluttonous, because our whole diet is gluttonous: rich in fatty foods: cream sauces, cheesecake, beefsteak. We don’t recognize that which foods we crave are part of our longing for a filling food. Being filled, feeling satisfied is part of what we crave. So proteins, fats . . . If you go with bread and vegetable diet, it’s hard to stay full, satisfied for long.

“consummation is consumption”—we miss this. We think of things just in terms of how it tastes. William Ian Miller: if you could just taste what you want and spit it out, that would make it easy to diet. Kyla: what about the “foodie” movement. Food porn. BUT a lot of that movement links to what Wendell Berry talks about: some healthy aspects of that. Food is given excessive attention. Rebvecca: here’s a place where vainglory and the foodie movement . . . in certain circles you can’t serve certain foods: wrong cut of meat, wrong wine, served with wrong sauces. With academics especially, who are in the know . . .  So when I invite people over to my house, it’s a potential cringe moment for me. CSL talks about that in the same chapter: knowing the right restaurant to go to, the right thing to order, is caught up in this. Some of this is aesthetic. Aquinas: curiosa: we add adornments to food, its preparation, that ramps up desire. Preparation, presentation raise the stakes in the pleasure game. But there are lots of other things going in there too.

It’s one thing to try to buy locally grown, organic food, not to do factory farmed beef: that’s straight ethical concerns.  But when you know the best market to get fresh strawberries, and nobody else knows about it . . . That’s like the foody “food porn” in the NYT. Kyla: one part of me says “these are God’s gift—you SHOULD pay attention to how great strawberries, because they ARE great.” But something bugs me about the NYT stuff.

Jonathan: would eating thoughtlessly fit in under eating too greedily or ravenously: not appreciating food enough? Bob will share on that. Jay: St. Paul seems to condemn when we eat heedlessly—of the company in which we happen to be. That could just be . .. you’re eating the Eucharistic feast and people show up with no food. Or you eat meat offered to idols when sensitive souls are present. That could be just a lack of introspection. Might be occasioned by excessive desire for pleasure, but in cases might not be.

Bob: I use the Berry piece. Use the last paragraph, and ask how that matches up with Aquinas: Berry says “we don’t get enough pleasure the way we eat.” This makes Rebecca’s point: Aquinas overly focused on temperance focused on sensory pleasures. But there are also the pleasures of companionship, knowing where your food comes from, the history and culture of various foods . . . so it strikes me: if you think of the pleasures narrowly, you get one account of gluttony. If you expand the pleasures to include intellectual, relational pleasures involving food, then you get a richer account of gluttony. So I want to be careful to say that’s insensitivity—of the palate, as Aquinas means it. But it’s part of the larger, richer account.

Rebecca: for Aris. And Aq. Pleasurable, useful, moral. He doesn’t think (Aq) of the second or third categories. Those are pieces missing from his account. Rebecca’s happy saying that stuff’s not gluttony, though it does relate to food.

Aquinas is pro-body, pro-sense. His epistemology relies on senses taking forms from outside world, internalizing them. You can’t do intellectual work if your senses are dulled. “Dullness of sense is an offspring vice” hits that value. Body must be rightly tuned to take in information about the outside world. If your desires, senses are “off,” then you can’t do that well. So eating IS caught up with your intellectual life. Daniel fasted x days and had a vision. We’re “out to lunch” (lol) on those things in our culture.

We get caught up with calorie counting. Augustine: how much we eat isn’t the main issue, (in ST 2-2.141.6 sed contra) keep in view your station, vocation, etc. when keeping in view. You can’t prescribe everyone to cut portion sizes in half, etc. “How readily or uncomplainingly one does without food when bound by duty or necessity to abstain.” A good test. Has food come to dominate a larger portion of your attention than it should.

MRE: military analogy is good. Not tasting bad. Spices, etc. added. Food must fit into the mission, which is primary. Has its own chemical heater. Sometimes they have the little diagram: food -> energy -> performance. Food as useful good.

Do we look at our eating in context of our kingdom mission? Interesting for churches to ask. Bribing kids with junk food. Etc.

Anti-Christian caricature (Francine _____, Gluttony): you can eat, have sex, as long as you don’t enjoy it.

What about the goodness of food:

As something over which we have mastery or control? *(huge issue, especially for women)

As something we can provide (readily) for ourselves?

As something we can use to shape ourselves according to a certain image or use to win social approval? Gendered eating: salad, diet coke—if you chose that, then that’s the proper feminine thing. 12-oz steak, the proper masculine thing.

Also signals things about hospitality: who’s included, accommodated, depending on what you lay out in the spread.

Stop your cravings, ramp up your resolve, find meaningful motivation: ramp up control of your desires. Junk food all around you, culture devoted to pleasure, and you must fit into that dress! Good luck.

Foster: “Fasting reveals the things that control us.” I described my own experience in the chapter: had built whole life around eating, for pleasure, as a “prop,” substitute for rest, social support, community . . . a stop-gap measure. Also the frequency with which I expected to eat. Realized how much of our life revolves around food. Didn’t mention in book: 90% of the eating I was doing was alone. It was only possible for me to maintain an efficient lifestyle if I ate alone. Eating with others inconvenient, took up time. Fasting can reveal those priorities.

Why doesn’t Aquinas point beyond food in gluttony to food as identity marker, food in Eucharistic understanding. You are what you eat. MRE an example of this. If y ou’re a marine, that’s what y ou eat: shows what you can tolerate, your identity, your vocation. It is a quasi-religious vocation for marines. Community of identity. My students are familiar with that, but less familiar with their Christian identity informing what, how, when they eat. But look at Bible: almost all eating attuned to this (manna, Eucharist, feeding of 5,000) .

And again, communal vs. solitary meals.

Glenn: Augustine’s recommendation (missed) suggests a certain forgetfulness about my own desires being the center. If I’m at the birthday party to have the biggest piece off cake. How unhappy am I if I get there too late to get any cake.

Glenn: conviction over past couple of days; Come to note more the routine role food plays in forming my day. I can think of many times going to that kind of event and saying to myself: I do want the biggest piece of pie, then suppress that . . . almost a false humility to take a smaller one. (Rebecca: got to start somewhere!)  Spiritually minded people like Augustine, Cassian, could come to the point of not investing food. . . . one thing to invest it in odd moments, but the routine quality of eating: it’s a seismic event under everything else.

Reb: She counterculturally fasts during BOTH Lent and Advent. She went to Christmas parties for the next four or five weeks, wouldn’t eat there. But that helped me focus on the people, not all the special food. Found it incredibly freeing. Decided ahead of time—did the people thing; not the food thing. Much more enjoyable thing.

Glenn: my kids have for 15 years sponsored Christmas parties. If you came to my party, didn’t eat my food, it would be bad.

She passes around the eating-habit skit instructions to demonstrates the five kinds of gluttony—people had to guess which of the five.

Bob: This chapter on gluttony is the longest of the chapters. Chapter 5. Transitions from the first four from the life of the monk, space, clothing, etc. to the vices. Pivotal move where what he’s trying to do is both intro the second half of the book (eight thoughts) but also to show why this thought is sinful in desert monastic things.

5.1 is the most important statement in Cassian, about what the project is. Tells Pope Castor why he’s writing this book. What is he trying to accomplish: First, “investigate their intricate, hidden, obscure natures.” A kind of recovery project. But then “adequately lay bare their cuases.” I take it he’s talking a out the demons. But also social constructions: how you’re supposed to do hospitality, etc. Guys being dragged off to another welcoming party because someone else has shown up in the desert. Finally “the cures and remedies for them.” Aquinas is deficient in both 2 and 3. Probably says less than he should about why in our culture we are particularly tempted by these vices.

On 118 he talks of monk as “prudent bee”—storing up spiritual honey from various others. Lay it up in the vessel of his heart. There are no perfect people in the desert. Different from Aristotle’s stated version of imitation, attach yourself to a single wise person. No, there are no such people. But you can find a person who has a given virtue down . . . Beautiful vision: Christ has not yet been made All in All, but we can nonetheless fashion himj partly in all. Appealing to Paul’s image of body of X, and we are members. So if you want picture of what X is like in our culture, appropriate virtues for a variety of folks.

This is in some tension with 5.11: unity of the virtues discussion. Can be reconciled, Bob thinks. See p. 123, end of 5.11.1: “whoever is seen to have failed in some of the virtues obviously possessing none of them perfectly.” The word perfectly has to do a lot of work here. So how does this work with the buzzing bee? He just thinks no one has the virtues perfectly. Don’t expect perfect exemplar of all the virtues.

The translation odd here “gormandizing” “concupiscence of the gullet” is the phrase used. Or sometimes “of the belly” “of the palate”—sometimes he says “desires of the belly” or “of the palate.” That connects to Aquinas’s emphasis on taste. Brings out the question, says R: what if I’m a gourmet and just do have better taste and notice the difference if it’s not there.

Offers haunting story—most haunting in all of this tradition, perhaps. He’s woken up two nights convinced he knows what this is about, tried to write it down. But first odd detour starting 5.23: amazing hospitality that he and Germanus have witnessed themselves in the desert. I ate with Billy Graham, he gave me toast, built me a house. . . . But think, he says, of the amazing hospitality of those practicing these stationary fasts (at least Wed and Fri, but sometimes other days as well). Cassian on the side of moderation here. 23 – 26: what is difference between those who extravagantly need a lot of food and those who throw a party when you show up. But the 27 – 39 – seems bizarre but each relates to food in some way, Bob thinks. Guy who had uvula cut out, couldn’t say Semitic words properly . . . things like that going on. Then at 5:40/1, he just says: “looks like I’ve gotten off track! Let us return to our plan and introduce into this work a remarkable deed.” He doesn’t tell extreme fasting stories like the apothegmata Patrum, amazing fasters. But then he tells the story of the two boys who are sent to deliver figs from community to more distant monks. Community wants to give it to guys out in the boonies, dangerous trek . . . For one thing, how do you know the story happened? Something is going on in this story. The community receives it, sees it as a gift not for their own possession, but as a gift to these other guys out in this community. Send them off with boys, the boys don’t make it. When they find their bodies dead of starvation, exposure to storm, the figs were still there. They were boys, but they were “grown men in their intelligence”—in how they understood food. This makes me think: what is Cassian’s point here? He does have one more tagline from Macarius telling us to be prudent . . . but this story haunts me—as close as Cassan comes to the Eucharist: we’ve been given food . . . now the good in view is: do we see it as a possession, or something we’ve been gifted with . . . the boys were no doubt tempted to eat the food, but what they did in a way was give themselves to the gift. This might throw light on the other stories about guys building Cassian houses, etc.

This is a translation to the rest of the book, wants to show folks why gluttony is central. But doesn’t want anyone to think that gluttony is above love. Keeps drawing you into discretion. You don’t have to go to anyone else to tell you what to do. You want to be the kind of person who now sees what love requires.

Rebecca: Brings in Glenn’s point: for them, fasting a way of life; right ordering of self with regard to food—a daily thing: every day we eat! It’s a habitual thing. That’s the first place to get things right, the daily routine, the non-spectacular thing.

Scot McKnight’s book Fasting, last few pages. New Thomas Nelson series. Handout. From Bob. Fasting in Scripture always a response to grief. When you’ve just heard a close friend, relative has died, you just don’t want to eat. A natural response. To fully absorb and take seriously a serious moment gets our mind off of eating. Fasting is an intentional step Christians take (Jewish folks too) when they h ave come face to face with a grievous national, personal sin, absence of peace and justice in the world, etc. You don’t find a “discipline of fasting” in scripture, beyond Jesus and people having 2-day fast. Paul mentions they shifted fast days as an identity marker. You get A: sacred moment -> B: fasting, but then a dotted line to C: results. There’s no trick or magic that if you fast really really hard you’ll see God. I think you’ll find this in the desert tradition. This book has helped me to find this in the desert tradition. I’m afraid Aquinas goes in the direction of: If you fast, you should see X result.

Fasting a response to grief. Gluttony, stuffing our faces, is a way of ignoring the wider ways, that should stop us in our tracks.

Rebecca: Aquinas says fasting is a precept of the natural law. HUH? Hard to know . . . would this have obtained in the pre-Fall garden? We have a natural tendency for concupiscence to take over. Our response, to this sinful condition, is to fast regularly. Kallistos Ware says one of the benefits of fasting, at least in E.O. tradition, is that it’s connected with prayer and almsgiving. You’re constantly aware of your own need. By not filling it with food, you are prompted to look at Him who can fill you. But also almsgiving also natural result: you stand in sym-pathetic solidarity with those who are in need. Not just about bridling my own concupiscence.

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