Aristotle identified man’s eating habits as one of the cornerstones of civilization—one of two activities that highlighted the nature of man’s exquisiteness (and barbarousness). The importance of eating to the human condition should be self-evident to everyone. But what is the big deal about eating as it emanates from religion, the ancient philosophers, and the traditional way of life?
Eating, traditionally, has been a social, ritualistic, and communal experience. From the religious supper to family meal, the sense of community and sociality runs through the vein of cultured eating habits. In the communal meal individuals are brought together in unity. From atomization to social cohesion. The chaos of self-centered lives brought together into a harmony where convergence to order is manifested out of the chaos and disharmony that surrounds us.
Fifty years ago, let alone one-hundred years ago, it would have been unfathomable for a family not to have a set time for the family meal. Today, it is common for families that have not experienced divorce to have lost the importance of the family meal as each isolated and individuated member eats on their own schedule and based on the roars of their own appetites. This reflects our increasing atomization even in places where—superficially—a unit supposedly still dominates which gives the illusion of cohesion and unity.
The prevalence of family meals is hard to gauge. But even if families still report eating meals together somewhat frequently how many such meals “together” are engaged? And if only slightly more than 50% of families report family meals five days a week, that only 50% of families report regularly eating together is still a sad reflection of the times we live in. From these 50% how many of these meals are orderly, social, and time-consuming instead of disorderly, atomized, and speedy; the emphasis on quick consumption to return to the “busy” and disjointed lives we live. If all are “present” but not engaged can this be counted as a true family meal in the traditional sense? How many people eat quickly, are distracted by their phones, or simply want to move on to the next thing that awaits them?
Modern eating habits suffer not from a lack of manners, per se, though this is certainly true, but from a culture of consumerism and atomization where the mission is to eat as quickly and a-socially as possible to move on to the next desire of the body. A social event is always something intimate and time-consuming, two things that modern “society” wishes to move away from. Society invokes the idea of intimacy. Society comes from the Latin word socius which meant friend. A friend is someone that you know, someone that you spend time with, someone that has an intimate role in your life.
The importance of friendship was known to the ancient philosophers. Aristotle noted in Ethics that friendship was self-giving. Friends loved each other for their own sake and always sought the best for one another. St. Augustine argued that friendship was one of the necessities of temporal life, and that friendship was grounded in trust between parties—and to betray that trust was one of the most abominable “sins” one could commit (hence why the betrayal of trust from friends, benefactors, and family is punished so harshly in Dante’s Inferno).
Instead of making time for friends and family we waste our time on ourselves. How often does one return home from work and immediately seek a meal to assuage their desires rather than wait for the family meal which requires waiting for others? Moreover, the nature of impulsive and momentary eating highlights the enslavement of the self to the passions. One has not mastered their desires if their desires must be satiated as they force themselves upon the person. By lacking self-control and giving into their impulsive and momentary desire the self expresses what matters: Only the self. Assuaging personal desire without concern of others is a subtle but tragic embodiment of the incurvatus in se. For in that moment nothing else in the world matters but oneself and the self’s desires.
Moderns are told that “time is money.” More perniciously, time is associated with our fleeting desires. An hour spent on the family meal is an hour wasted one could have “enjoyed” playing video games, spent time on social media to offer a hollow rant on the political zeitgeist to secure hundreds or thousands of “likes” from faceless people whom one has never met. Hours spent having breakfast, lunch, or dinner with friends are hours wasted where one could have “enjoyed” solitary isolation feeding whatever desire is moving the body to its next fleeting task.
Eating together, as a social event, is meant to be time-consuming because it is meant to be an intimate experience where friendship—true friendship—is experienced, rekindled, and love stands at the center of the dinner table. It is, in its own way, a call to sacrifice. (Especially through the ritual of fasting.) To sacrifice one’s own time for another. To sacrifice one’s own impetuous desires to spend time with others. The role of sacrifice involved in social eating is why prayers were traditionally said before and after meals that recognized the role of sacrifice. One wished to express the sacrifice of the hands that prepared the meal. And sacrifice is the ultimate expression of love in the Christian tradition.
The expression of thanksgiving before and after the meal embodies more than the self. It acknowledges the sacrifice that others made to prepare the meal—their gift to others. The least one could do in returning this sentiment is to express thanks to those who labored in love to bring about the meal that unites multiple people together. The thanksgiving after the meal also acknowledges the other even after being personally satiated by food and good company.
Aristotle was right that man’s eating habits were one of the hallmarks of his exquisiteness. Civilization comes from the Latin word civitas, city, and the city is ordered to something greater than the self. All civilizations are ordered to something. Culture comes from this ordering because culture, cultus, means care and praise. What a people are ordered to is what they care about, and what they care about is what they will come to praise. Their labor produces a reflection of what they truly care about.
A civilization ordered to the self and the desires of the self is a culture that is hollow, nihilistic, and destructive. It treats others as instruments to their own self-centered ends. It utilizes the soul and subjectivity of a human for self-gratitude and pleasure. It places the self at the center of the universe with no need to sacrifice for others and, therefore, no need to love others. As such, there is no time given to others. All time is given to oneself.
Christianity understood the centrality of the meal and the love and sacrifice that ran through the ordering and life-giving symbolism of the meal. For who gave the greatest sacrifice in offering himself up as the meal to heal and bring life to the world than Christ? The meal—the Eucharist—is the central focus of the Christian liturgy. It is intimate. It is personal. It is sacrificial. Moreover, the meal calls order out of chaos. It draws the isolated, disparate, chaotic, and alienated self to the Table that brings order, love, and life into the world.
The Christian meal is also filial in nature. The Christian belongs to a temporal family but also to the eternal and Divine Family that transcends space and time. Christians gather as one family under the Table of sacrifice and love where desire is truly assuaged; order, peace, and contentment are also finally found at the Table of the Supper of the Lord. The loving sacrifice of Christ is the greatest gift of self to the world and the draw to this meal reorients the heart from the self to others, order, sociality, and love.
Modern society, itself a corrupt parody of what true society is, has no role for sacrifice and harm. This flight from harm, which contingently leads to the end of sacrifice, is what unites the liberal philosophers from Hobbes and Locke to Mill and Rawls. As such modern society will come to reflect what it cares about and praises. And what modern society cares about, and praises, is the isolated and atomized self cut-off from the world of relationships and intimacy.
If love demands sacrifice, and sacrifice means a gift of self to another, modern philosophy seeks to destroy love because sacrifice leads to harm and sacrifice places another—rather than oneself—at the center of life. Therefore, the modern world needs to shun Christ; it has no place for him as the sacrificial incarnate Son of God. (Where Christ persists, he is transformed into a mouthpiece of the latest liberal zeitgeist.) This is also why the modern world needs to eat alone; it has no place for others, the sacrifices involved in preparing and bringing about the communal meal, and no place for giving thanks to others because this would supplant the self’s ego as the main summit of what one cares about and praises.
The rise of the consumeristic society that feeds the appetites of disordered selves coincides with cheap, mass produced, fast food. The triumph of McDonalds is not the triumph of corporate capitalism but the triumph of the liberated individual whose only concern in life is feeding his own desires. It is the triumph of liberalism in its truest form and expression.
As our world becomes depersonalized, isolated, and atomized, our eating habits—our eating culture—reflects this new reality: the loss of sociality; the loss of relationships; the decline of the family. The meal that calls us to order, gives life to those who partake in it, and brings people together in intimate relationships, places others, thanksgiving, and friendship at the center of the world. The family meal, and the Christian Eucharist, remain the source of the true transformation—the summit of reorientation—of culture back to the permeant things and the building block of civilization.
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Editor’s Note: The featured painting is “Automat” (1927) by Edward Hopper (1882-1967).