Digestive logic

Notes on the inflows and outflows of gastrological materialism, from ancient Athens to Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. By Alistair Ian Blyth

Tank _autumn 2016_60Illustration from Thomas Murner, Nebulo Nebulonum (The Rascal of Rascals), trans. Johann Flittner, 1620

You are what you eat. The dictum is axiomatic to any philosophy of materialist humanism or humanist materialism. If man is the measure of all things, food is, in a fundamental sense, the measure of man. For Hippocrates, the “father of medicine”, the physician is a physiologist, who must possess a knowledge of not only man’s physis, but also the physis of man’s diet and how to harness it through tekhnē anthrōpinē (human art).

In an early-19th century physiology of eating, French lawyer, politician and theorist Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin includes a version of the saying “you are what you eat” among the aphorisms that serve as prolegomena to his work, Physiologie du goût (The Phsyiology of Taste), and set it on what he calls an eternal scientific footing: “Tell me what you eat, I will tell you what you are.” Manger (to eat) is to be human; the verb proper to animals is repaître (feed); and to be fully human is to have a conscious, self-reflexive knowledge of how best and most pleasurably to eat: “Les animaux se repaissent; l’homme mange; l’homme d’esprit seul sait manger” (Animals feed; man eats; the man of spirit alone knows how to eat). Ultimately, according to Brillat-Savarin, the very future and progress of civilised human societies depend not only on food but on the ways in which it is eaten: “The fate of nations hangs on the manner in which they nourish themselves.” 

A gastronomic philosophy is necessarily anthropocentric and privileges culinary invention above all other kinds of knowledge: “The discovery of a new dish does more for the welfare of humankind than the discovery of a star.” A rich and varied meal of multiple courses is in a sense the very image of what it is to be human, and any limitation or curtailment of the natural progression of those courses can be compared with a mutilation or disfigurement: “A dessert without cheese is a beautiful woman who lacks an eye.” This striking asseveration of cheese’s centrality to what makes us human cannot help but remind us of the critique of the limitations of Aristotelianism to be found in Bartolomeo Bolla’s De Casei Stupendis Laudibus (1606): “Aristotle’s philosophy is imperfect, because it contains nothing about the species, i.e. kinds, of cheeses.” 

Brillat-Savarin’s physiological treatise draws on a materialist-humanist tradition that dates back to Hippocrates and Epicurus. Food is a determining part of a somatic complex, which influences man’s inner life, his humour, temperament, moral fibre, imagination, oneiric activity. Like Hippocrates, who dedicates the fourth book of his De Regimine (On Diet) to dreams, Brillat-Savarin in his “meditations on transcendent gastronomy” includes chapters on the influence of diet on sleep and dreams. To the meditations that make up the Physiologie du goût is appended the copiously annotated La Gastronomie, poême en quatre chants by Joseph Berchoux, the first canto of which treats the culinary history of antiquity and the origins of gastronomic philosophy. Berchoux cites as an important ancient precursor Archestratus of Gela, poet and cook, author of the Gastrology, a work that Stoic philosopher Chrysippus claimed to be at the heart of the Epicurean philosophy of physis. Although the work has been lost, numerous passages from the Gastrology are quoted in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae (Prandial Sophists), along with other samples of ancient culinary metaphysics. For example, in a speech from a play by comic poet Damoxenus, a cook boasts of being a disciple of Epicurus, and declares that physis is the arkhegonon (primal source) of every art.  

Similarly, in a dialogue from a play by comic poet Athenion, a physiologōn (physiologising) mageiros (cook) pontificates to a barbarian on the gastronomic origins of civilised human society: “mageirikē tekhnē [the art of cookery]… released us from a bestial and lawless life and led us from hē allēlophagia [cannibalism – literally, the eating of one another] to order”. Cookery was a foundational act of civilising eusebeia (piety): a proto-cook arose from the promiscuous, self-consuming human mass and discovered how to roast the meat of slaughtered animals. Roast mutton was discovered to be hēdion (more pleasant) than human flesh, with the result that men no longer emasōnto (chewed on each other). Therefore, (gastronomic) pleasure precedes reverence towards the gods, law, society, civilisation. The roasting of the meat of the first sacrificial animal is the universally redemptive arkhē (principle) on which the art of cookery is based and from which it develops, proceeding to the subsequent and vital discovery of salt and then more complex seasonings. Ever inventing new hēdusmata (seasonings – from the verb hēdunō “to season”, literally “to make pleasant”), the aim of cooks is to advance their art for its own sake. We might observe that herein lies the essence of Epicurean philosophy: sensual pleasure is the highest good and an end in itself, but it must derive from tekhnē (sophisticated art), in other words, the pleasurable use of the mental faculties in the service of the pleasant life. 

Over the course of time, Athenion’s kitchen philosopher continues, other cooks discovered paunch stuffed with forcemeat (gastrion ōnthuleumenon – presumably a kind of ancient haggis) and succulent boiled kid dressed with finely trimmed meat, smoked fish, greens, grape syrup, honey and spelt. It was thanks to such culinary hēdonas (pleasures) that humans forged a social compact, agreeing to refrain from eating nekros (human carrion, literally a corpse, but always with reference to a dead human); they consented to suzēn (live together); populations formed; civilised polities developed. Of course, the underlying joke in the passage from Athenion is that the philosophising cook sorely tries the patience of his less cerebral interlocutor, who is hungry and wishes to eat rather than to have to sit through a disquisition on culinary anthropology. Disquisition on food and eating is no substitute for eating food.  

In a gastrological philosophy, the ingestion and digestion of food becomes a morally charged act at the individual level; it forms the moral basis of man’s character. According to Brillat-Savarin: “Of all the bodily processes it is digestion that has the greatest influence on the moral condition of the individual.” The civilised human race may, he argues, be divided into three broad categories: les réguliers, les resserrés and les relâchés (the regular, the constipated and the lax). To illustrate this claim, he equates the three digestive modes with three modes of poetic discourse: 

In order to make myself understood, I shall take an example from the vast field of literature. I believe that men of letters for the most part owe their preferred choice of genre to their stomach. From this point of view, the comic poets are to be found among the regular, the tragic poets among the constipated, and the elegiac and pastoral poets among the lax: whence it follows that the most lachrymose poet is separated from the most comic poet only by a degree of digestive coction. 

In Plato’s Gorgias we find a metaphysical treatment of what Brillat-Savarin centuries later describes as the physical and moral condition of digestive laxity. Callicles, who advocates maximal pleasure as the greatest good, argues that the hēdeōs (pleasant) life is that which has the greatest inflow, to which Socrates counters that the outflow must then also be great, and the outlets for that outflow must be correspondingly large. Such a life, says Socrates, would be like that of the kharadrios, a bird which, according to the scholia to Plato, ate while simultaneously defecating. The bird in question (the species cannot be identified precisely, but was perhaps the plover or curlew) is inordinately greedy, and to live the life of a kharadrios was proverbial for a life of gluttony. The intake of pleasure, of which the ingestion of food is both a metaphor and a material example, is divorced from the good, which is immaterial and transcends the senses; it is inimical to the true hygiene of the soul, which, as Socrates is at pains to emphasise, is a temporary prisoner in the physical body. Sensual pleasure can never ultimately satisfy, it constantly flows through us and away, like food through the digestive tract of the kharadrios or Brillat-Savarin’s lyrical poet, or like water through the leaky jars that the souls punished in Hades must endlessly fill.


Tank _autumn 2016_61Illustration from Thomas Murner, Nebulo Nebulonum (The Rascal of Rascals), trans. Johann Flittner, 1620

Shortly after the passage in which Socrates compares the leaky pleasure seeker to the kharadrios, he cites dithyrambic poet Cinesias as an example of one who makes unhealthy innovations in music and poetry, pandering to the crowd’s hunger for pleasure. Cinesias, who, if we go by the lampoons of the numerous comic poets who ridiculed him, but also by the serious accounts of Plato and Plutarch, might be said to have been the worst lyric poet of antiquity, corresponds with Brillat-Savarin’s definition of the relâché type, both literally and metaphorically: he was loose both in his morals and in the bowels. Aristophanes makes allusion to some notorious incident in which Cinesias soiled himself in public. Another example of Cinesias’ impiety was that he defiled shrines with food offerings to Hecate by defecating on them, singing his execrable dithyrhambic choruses as he did so. In keeping with his lax constitution, Cinesias was said to be emaciated, a symptom of both physical and moral corruption. Just as the corrupted body is unable to retain food, in Hades the impious soul is like a sieve, unable to retain knowledge. In a surviving fragment of the Gerytades, a lost play by Aristophanes, Cinesias is a member of a delegation of cadaverous poets who are sent down to Hades, and whose emaciation puts them at risk of being swept away by the river of diarrhoea that eternally flows through the netherworld. Although it is impossible to reconstruct the plot of the play, it is noteworthy that many of the fragments involve eating, feasting, gluttony, and different kinds of food (pea soup, lentil soup, mackerel, pig trotters, crab, onion, stale bread). In one surviving fragment, food is also employed as a metaphor for discourse: the work of a certain tragedian named Sthenelus is said to be edible only if dipped in salt and vinegar; in other words, it is dry and insipid, and therefore appropriate fare for Brillat-Savarin’s resserré type.  

Cinesias’ laxness was, for Athenian society, also the symptom of one particular physical manifestation of the state of immorality and impiousness: euruprōktia, the condition of the euruprōktos (literally “wide-arse”, a comic term of abuse), i.e. pathic. Much to the outrage of the hedonistic but socially conservative, anti-democratic Callicles, Socrates cites the cinaedus (a pejorative term for a pathic) as an embodiment of the wretchedness of a life of insatiable pleasure. There is an obvious allusion here to his earlier mention of the large orifices needed to carry away the outflows of the kharadrios lifestyle, a life of simultaneous ingestion and excretion.  

In the dispute between the conservative Better Argument and sophistic Worse Argument in Aristophanes’ Clouds, the Better Argument claims that euruprōktia will result from the Worse Argument’s advocacy of the pleasures that make life worth living (boys, women, gaming, food, drink, laughter) and which are necessities of physis (nature). To this, the Worse Argument then argues that euruprōktia is a universal, democratic condition, which encompasses every social category – advocates, politicians, tragedians – whereupon, the Better Argument, seeing that even the great majority of the spectators watching the play are indeed euruprōktoi, deserts to their side. 

It should be noted, however, that when the Better Argument refers to euruprōktia, the condition here does not physically result from debauchery itself but rather from the peculiar punishment meted out to debauchery in ancient Athens. A curious historical instance of the use of food as a means of corporal punishment, rhaphanidōsis (from rhaphanidōthēnai “to be radished”, from rhaphanis “radish”), involved the thrusting of a radish up the fundament of the miscreant, usually an adulterer.  

In the dog days of 1552, Jodocus Willich (1501-1552), the author of the one of the first modern treatises on gastronomy, the posthumously published Ars Magirica (1563), presented before the University of Frankfurt a series of 32 seriocomic physiological problemata on flatulence, which culminated with the question of the nexus between euruprōktia, rhaphanidōsis and flatulence: “Cur facilius adulteri comprehensi, et ut ita dicam, raphanizati pederent?” (Why do adulterers, caught in the act and, if I may put it like this, having been radished, fart more readily?) The answer – “An quia per radiculam via est patefacta crepitui ventris” (Because the path for the flatulence has been laid open by the radish) – recalls the enlarged holes through which the excess inflow of pleasure finds its outlet, according to Socrates. Both excess pleasure and the punishment of illicit pleasure bring about an increase in the outflow.  

A similar early modern seriocomic treatise on flatulence, De Peditu: eiusque speciebus, crepitu et visio: Discursus Methodicus, In Theses digestus (Methodical Discourse on Farting and its Species, Crackle and Stench [i.e. the loud and the silent], Digested into Theses), concludes that were one properly to examine the distinguishing signs of the various kinds of fart (these include the “apodictic” radish-onion-and-cheese-induced farts), one would be able to compile an Ars Gastrologica. The gastrological moral is that for every inflow there is also necessarily an outflow, and no philosophic physiology can neglect the obverse of ingestion. §