Saturday, February 6, 2016

On Musonius and Food, Part 1

This essay is more of a breakdown of the lecture Musonius gave about food. As a fat Stoic, food is of keen interest to me, more than any other subject. This essay focuses on part A. In it, I try to just both sum up and expand on what Musonius is talking about. 


The first thing that strikes me about Musonius and food is his seeming anger about it. I mean, here's just a few quick quotes:

“He often talked in a very forceful manner about food...”

“We thought that this lecture about food was rather unlike the lectures Musonius customarily gave.”

Now, I can't say for certain, but something tells me Musonius wasn't one to just go off on a tangent. Yet shortly after the first quote, it's suggested that he didn't bother with his normal topics and instead spoke about food.

But it's the second quote that hits me most. Why was this lecture so unlike the others? This is a man who felt the need to tell men that they shouldn't shave their beards or cut their hair. Him telling people what to do doesn't seem to be the problem. No, I'm willing to bet what make it so unlike his other lectures is that he was actually angry about it.

So, my question is, why?


Of course, there's no way of knowing why. Maybe he was a porker before becoming a Stoic and carried a hatred for food when he did because it controlled his life. Maybe he was sickened by the way the Romans ate. Or maybe I'm over-thinking this part. All I know is that this lecture stiffened my spine. And provides one of the few “practical” applications of Stoicism.


He starts his lecture in a logical way. Choose cheaper foods over more expensive ones (I kid you not, there is a $5k hamburger out there). Choose foods that are easy to get over hard to get. And, lastly, choose foods that are good for humans over foods that aren't.

Simple, isn't it?


Well, not quite. See, Musonius felt there were only so many foods that were suitable for human consumption. Foods that didn't need to be cooked were the best. Fruits, cheese, honeycombs, things like that. Some cooked foods were a-okay, too. Bread, certain veggies, things of that nature.


Perhaps you noticed that there wasn't any meat listed up there. That's because Musonius didn't think meat was human food. Sure, you can use animal byproducts like milk and eggs. But don't you dare eat that animal.

However, the argument Musonius puts out is, well, weak in today's world. He argues that meat makes people stupid and that the smoke from cooking it darkens one's soul. He also goes on to say that, because humans are closely related to the gods, we should eat like they do. The gods eat vapors from the earth and water, because yeah, sure. Whatever. But we should eat foods that are “light and pure” and meat just isn't that.

As you can see, talk of soul and gods falls flat in a secular age. As for if meat makes you stupid, there's been suggestions that the eating of meat does the brain a whole host of good.

It does get me wondering, though, how Musonius would argue this in a more modern age. Odds are, he would choose the religious route, which may convince some. I couldn't think of any good secular reasons, at least none that would make me give up meat all the way.


Now, when it comes to the pull food has in our lives, Musonius says we're worse than “brute animals.” This, perhaps, is both the most convincing and funniest. Convincing, because he says that while animals may wildly go after food, they aren't too picky about it. Humans, on the other hand, can be just as wild, yet act very fussy about it. The need to pretty up our food and come up with “tricks to...better amuse our palate” points to our absurd behavior towards food.

I can give you an example of this. Ever hear of the orange roughy? It's it type of fish that many people seem to like and can get a little pricey. Yet for the longest time, you couldn't find it anywhere as food, nor would anyone want to eat it. Why? Because before its name change, it was known as the slimehead. It was a marketing trick to make our brains think we're eating something tasty.

The reason I find this section so funny as well is because he talks about the dangers of – get ready for it – cookbooks. But it makes sense when you think about. This is a man who's idea about cooking is little more than boiling some veggies and baking some bread. Recipes, and the cookbooks they come in, are unnecessary.


Actually, wait, maybe this section is funnier. Picky eaters who eat rich foods are, he says, like pregnant women. Why? Because they eat weird combinations of food. According to him, both pregnant women and picky eaters can't tolerate regular food. Of course, I think Musonius is being a little harsh on pregnant women.

Now, this part is a little confusing for me. He speaks of people's appetites needing to be sharpen by unmixed wines, vinegar, and tart sauces. Appetite, in this case, isn't just being hungry. It's one's willingness to eat even if hungry. And I'm also assuming he's saying people need various sauces and shit to make the food more appealing and, thus, increase their willingness to eat.

So, in short, he's saying picky eaters that need to spice up their food in order to eat it, even if they are hungry, are strange for just not eating the food for the way it is. At least, that's what I'm getting out of it.

In any case, he tells of a story of a Spartan and a picky eater. Mr. Picky refuses to eat a expensive, fat, and tender bird because he didn't have an appetite. Now, it's obvious this guy was there to eat, so he was hungry. But it wasn't good enough for him. The Spartan, though, sneered at the man and said, “I could eat both a vulture and a buzzard.” To Mr. Picky, food needed to be just right. To the Spartan, food was just right.


To finish off Part A, Musonius talks about Stoicism's founder, Zeno. In another story, he tells us that when Zeno fell ill, his doctor ordered him to eat young doves. Zeno refused, noting how slaves weren't treated in such a manner, yet somehow managed to get better. To quote, “A good man won't expect to be coddled, any more than a slave does.”

He also says that Zeno avoided gourmet foods because, like a drug, all you need is a taste to get hooked. (I can almost see a Stoic anti-drug message, but for food. “This is your brain. This is your brain on gourmet food.”)

That's it for Part A. Part B will either be sometime later this week or next week. There will be a part 3, in which I talk about some things I infer from all this, as well as a more modern Stoic approach towards food.

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