By Mary Eberstadt
It would be quite satisfying to begin our reflection on today’s deadly sin, gluttony, by invoking it to explain the ongoing global economic mess. In fact, Googling the terms “gluttony” and “financial crisis” shows that thousands of people have been making just that connection since the recession started.
And why not, given how this capital vice has come to be construed? Isn’t gluttony just some atavistic subset of greed? Doesn’t it figuratively describe the financial and other marketplaces lately — that is, the process of taking in more than you need or is good for you?
The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is no — which is exactly why the modern temptation to sugarcoat gluttony demands resistance. Gluttony is almost always used metaphorically today, when, in fact, it is perhaps the most literal of all the Deadlies, beginning with the word itself (from the Latin gluttire, to gulp down or swallow). Perhaps the lengths to which we go to tart up our gluttony, that is, to dress it figuratively rather than literally, tells us something meaningful: This capital vice, in our age of plenty, may be both the most ubiquitous of all the Deadlies — and the one to which many of us wrongly believe ourselves immune.
So let’s take gluttony here literally instead, to see what results. A little more than a year ago, in a movement others are joining, California became the first state to require chain restaurants to post calorie counts. The reason why is obvious. Many things will someday pass away, but the fat we moderns have will apparently always be with us.
And not just Americans, either. The same day as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s announcement, a continent and an ocean away, Glasgow University, in Scotland, announced the beginning of one of the largest studies of child obesity ever conducted in Europe, which will last five years and examine the “diet and lifestyle” of more than 17,000 children from 10 countries. Similar news items demonstrate gluttony’s ubiquity. Obesity, unlike so many stocks right now, remains a growth industry.
A pitiful, if amusing, feature of our “nonjudgmental” times is that throughout the enormous literature on the phenomenon, many authorities in the field of obesity assure us that the G-word has nothing to do with our plight. We should dismiss those “century-old preconceptions about the penalties of gluttony and sloth,” writes Gary Taube in his popular book “Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health” (Anchor, $16.95). “If you’re fat, it’s not your fault,” says Dr. Barry “The Zone” Sears.
Nothing could be further from the truth. This is one deadly sin with a public face — and backside — that’s hard to miss. We all know that eating and drinking have something to do with our personal enlargement, for a simple reason: the more we eat or gulp, the bigger we get. And when we don’t, we don’t.
Disputes about which dietary culprits are most in need of public flogging — dairy, meat, refined sugars and flours, trans fat — may be fascinating, even relevant to public health; but they miss the moral point.
If you’ve read this far and still feel comfortable — meaning that you are among the minority of adults who are not overweight or obese — please read on. If you’ve been reading and feel uncomfortable, read on too, for the comfortable are about to get their comeuppance. Many people who are not fat stop thinking about gluttony right there — shaking their unjowled heads at their more self-indulgent brethren. And this is where the comfortable themselves go wrong.
Both St. Gregory the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, laid down rules about what constituted gluttony. Only one was what we commonly associate with the sin — eating or drinking too much. The other four concerned the loss of self-control over food and drink, or different ways of putting things rather than people first: eating too soon, too expensively, too eagerly and too daintily. In other words, one can be a glutton not only by excess, but also by spending too much time and savor in either doing so or not doing so — including, to update the examples, priding oneself on one’s “virtue” in only eating from “healthy” or “correct” sources. How many shoppers at Whole Foods or other gastronomically correct stores feel entitled to gorge in the evening because their daytime buys have all been of the “healthy” variety?
And here’s one more spiritual step that many of us, whether comfortable or uncomfortable, should take. Gluttony in an age of cheap food means that Christians should be entertaining other unwanted ideas, too — like the possibility that our plenty imposes obligations on us that our ancestors didn’t have.
For example, being proper “stewards of the earth” today — when our nutritional needs are easily fulfilled without animal flesh — means that we should rethink not only how much we eat, but also what. Matthew Scully, in his 2003 book “Dominion” (St. Martin’s Griffin, $16.99), makes just that call with his subtitle: “The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals and the Call to Mercy.” Vegans call this absence of animal products a “cruelty-free” diet; just because they’re making the claim doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. Why shouldn’t a meditation on gluttony in our own day and age lead us to ask whether vegetarianism is right?
All of which is to say that however we take our gluttony — with a shovel or a mother of pearl spoon, in a 64-ounce supersized cup or (one personal favorite) in Sancerre by the case — odds are that today, we’re all taking it somewhere.
Contrary to what those of us who are surrounded by it have come to believe, gluttony can be, and is, many insidious things. A metaphor is probably the least illuminating of them.
Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, contributing writer to First Things and author of “The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism,” forthcoming from Ignatius Press. This column was adapted from a series that originally appeared on The Catholic Thing (www.thecatholicthing.org).
“The vice of gluttony tempts us in five ways. Sometimes it forestalls the hour of need; sometimes it seeks costly meats; sometimes it requires the food to be daintily cooked; sometimes it exceeds the measure of refreshment by taking too much; sometimes we sin by the very heat of an immoderate appetite.”
— St. Gregory the Great
“Consort not with winebibbers, nor with those who eat meat to excess; for the drunkard and the glutton come to poverty, and torpor clothes a man in rags.”
— Proverbs 23:20-21
“To kindle and blow the fire of lechery, that is annexed unto gluttony.”
— Sir Geoffrey Chaucer in “The Pardoner’s Tale”
“An overfed belly will not study willingly.”
— Medieval maxim
— Excessive joy
— Unseemly joy
— Dullness of mind as regards the understanding
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