Philosophers were the original food gurus. Surprised? Yet food is so fundamental, it would be surprising indeed if the great philosophers had not had their say on it. And if these days no one really knows or (let’s be honest) cares what that was, it is more because they all had very different views. But I've a particular interest in what the great philosophers said (and did) with food, and I think we can still pick up a few tricks from them. So here’s my Top Ten of the Philosophy of Food, in descending order of food wisdom!
No. 10 is philosophy’s greatest rule-breaker, David Hume, who insisted on a hands-off approach and tucked in to an unvarying menu of beef and cabbage. For special occasions he recommends a laborious and rather awful process of boiling a sheep’s head in order to produce a foul-smelling broth.
No. 9 is Friedrich Nietzsche who imposed on himself at one time a strictly restricted diet of boiled beef. Nietzsche, was a sucker for diet fads – a fascinating story which also tells us something about more recent food fashions.
No. 8 is Plato’s pupil, Aristotle. Aristotle thought great Men ate roast ox and so on, and tipped the whole of Western culture towards a 'meat and no veg.' diet.
No. 7 is the American environmental philosopher, David Thoreau. Thoreau adored green beans… and cultivated, not so much an allotment, but a small bean farm, of two and a half acres.
No. 6 is philosophy’s greatest rule-maker, Immanuel Kant, also had very strict views about diet, and in particular the dangers of coffee. Since he considered the oil of coffee beans to be unhealthy, lunch always finished with weak tea instead.
No. 5 is Pythagoras with his vegetarian dishes. The most famous philosophy book of them all, Plato’s Republic, two and half thousand years ago, contains an inspirational call to ‘eat like a Pythagorean’. That is, to give up eating meat (as its production is bad for the environment) and to eat plenty of nuts and fruits instead.
No. 4 is the English philosopher John Locke. Locke became, almost by accident, one of the most influential political philosophers of all time, inspiring both the American and the French revolutions. And so his views on food should be of interest. It turns out that his 'sensible' eating advice is to eat... Brown Bread.
No. 3 is Plato himself, who recommends a world in which we will all feast upon: ‘noble cakes’, bread rolls really, made from barley meal and wheat flour, sweet, juicy olives, and salty cheese, ‘for relish’.
No. 2 is the Swiss-French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who makes a characteristically romanticized bid to reconnect people with nature. Nuts and fruits would have been central to such a strategy, as they were long ago for the Pythagoreans. Rousseau also makes a beautiful food philosophy out of a simple cheese platter.
But my No. 1 is Diogenes, who never drank wine, saying water was far more delicious – and much cheaper!
Martin Cohen is a writer and journalist specialising in philosophy. His new book I Think Therefore I Eat is published by Turner in November, 2018.
You can share your ideas on food with him at @thereforeIeat
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