Wise Expertise (Epicurus, Hume, and Dewey) - The Wisdom of Taste, the Taste of Wisdom

Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) - Nicola Perullo 2016

Wise Expertise (Epicurus, Hume, and Dewey)
The Wisdom of Taste, the Taste of Wisdom

The dispute about the true meaning of Epicurus’s thought and of Epicureanism is well known and very old. It began immediately after the philosopher’s death and erupted precisely around the question of food. According to many interpreters, Epicurus did not profess any militancy for gastronomic delights; actually, since his writings even contain elements of disapproval of excesses and greed, he would serve as an example of a suspicious attitude toward perceptible enjoyment. One of the best-known readings in this direction is the one proposed by Karl Marx, who wrote his PhD dissertation on the different materialistic systems of Epicurus and Democritus. According to Marx, the philosophy of Epicurus does not derive—as the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus held—from the Gastronomy of the Sicilian poet Archestratus of Gela (in Greek, this lost book, cited by Athenaus, was also called Hedypatheia, “Life of Luxury”), but rather from the freedom of individual self-consciousness (Marx 2000). Marx’s position is highly significant, because it expresses a materialistic thought that erases the vulgar and “low” enjoyment of food from its horizon. How can this interpretation be reconciled with the attribution to Epicurus of the aphorism given by Athenaeus in the Deipnosophistae already cited—“The origin and root of all good is the pleasure of the stomach; and all excessive efforts of wisdom have reference to the stomach”—which seems to promote a decidedly radical thought in favor of the gustatory pleasures? According to other authors (Symons 2007), and also in ordinary language, the adjective Epicurean is in fact an eponym of militancy in favor of the pleasure of conviviality and perceptible enjoyment. In the history of gastronomy, for example, in Escoffier and in Grimod de la Reynière, the name of Epicurus was associated with important dinners and refined culinary events.

I will now promote an interpretation of Epicurus (which is not strictly philological) as a key to encouraging gustatory wisdom following the proposal of a wise approach in the terms stated above. Let’s take his most famous and popular piece of work, his “Letter to Menoeceus,” where he summarizes his ethical doctrines. There are two passages where Epicurus explicitly refers to food. The first:

The wise man does not deprecate life nor does he fear the cessation of life. The thought of life is no offence to him, nor is the cessation of life regarded as an evil. And even as men choose of food not merely and simply the larger portion, but the more pleasant, so the wise seek to enjoy the time which is most pleasant and not merely that which is longest. (Epicurus 1925, 651—53, my emphasis)

The second:

Plain fare gives as much pleasure as a costly diet, . . . while bread and water confer the highest possible pleasure when they are brought to hungry lips. To habituate one’s self, therefore, to simple and inexpensive diet supplies all that is needful for health, and enables a man to meet the necessary requirements of life without shrinking, and it places us in a better condition when we approach at intervals a costly fare and renders us fearless of fortune.

When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or wilful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of revelry, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul. (655—57, my emphasis)

The first passage says that the sage chooses foods based on their quality, not on their quantity. This attitude evidently considers the taste of foods and their intrinsic characteristics. But the second piece provides a necessary addition: simple flavors can give the same pleasure (isen edonèn) as the most refined ones, which is to say that it is not the banquets in themselves and costly foods such as good fish that make a happy life. Attention to quality does not contradict the awareness of the ecology in which gustatory relationships happen. Epicurus professes neither the need for culinary refinement at all times, nor the denial of the pleasures of food, nor ideological austerity. For to claim that simple flavors can provide the same pleasure as the most refined ones, or that banquets and parties do not deliver happiness in themselves, without denying at the same time the chance to experience delicious and sumptuous cooking, means to express neither absolute preferences nor a priori hierarchies. It means putting perception back into its environment, that is, having the ability to retain changes of experience. Right afterward, in fact, the philosopher goes on to say that “the origin (arché) and maximum good (mèghiston agathòv) of all these things” are that practical ability, that knowing how to live and how to behave that the Greeks identified with wisdom, as expressed in the concept of phronesis.

It is then possible to translate phronesis into the concrete articulations of a specific taste expertise, according to the aforementioned indications given by philosophers like Hume and Dewey in describing the role of the critic and expert. Far from adopting a rigid and exclusive attitude, the expert was the one who proved able to interpret and understand different situations. Hume stressed the need for common sense and Dewey, in turn, insisted on the ability of connecting gustatory perception to its source, the food eaten, its characteristics and production methods. Epicurus, as well as Montaigne, added sensitivity to the different contexts in which the relationship with food takes place. Let me say explicitly that I do not take the wisdom of taste to be identical with expertise. Wisdom is a transversal attitude, which also contemplates the other modes of dealing with food, pleasure, and indifference. Nonetheless, a wise approach can be modulated in the specific articulations of dressed taste, hence also in expertise, and in the cultivation of gastronomy as an art of living. Here is a brief summary of four areas of potentiality of taste as expertise, as cultivated endocorporeal knowledge, starting with the wise approach to the experience of food.

— Wise taste capacity is the instrument with which to implement one’s own “art of living”: a practice of the self, an active care of the self (Foucault, 1990, 1992). This practice is an exercise that can discipline and transform the body, just like sport, thus increasing multisensory awareness. In fact, the relationship with food has immediate physical (weight, size, shape, and well-being) and mental (inebriation, joy, and fulfillment) effects and contributes to the reflection upon the relationship between moderation and excess.

— Wise taste capacity implements perceptual sensitivity toward little variations and nuances: minimal differences in qualitative characteristics of the objects enjoyed, but above all, minimal differences in the contexts of experience and the connections in which the qualities of the objects emerge. In this respect, taste expertise brings into play different degrees of ability in relation to different goals and objectives. These different devices that are activated in specific situations are the flexibility of taste expertise.

— Wise taste capacity is not acquiescent to extant cultural codes, but expresses critical potential. It promotes the ability to make independent choices and resist imposed models. In his work “Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” Immanuel Kant described what he calls “emergence from . . . immaturity,” and among other things he also mentioned food. He stated that one should not passively eat what others tell us to eat, even if they are doctors and nutritionists. The final judge is one’s self, seen as the unity of mind and body: confidence in our senses must guide our food choices. As was already stated by the Salernitan School of Medicine, every single man should be his own best doctor. Moreover, one must always use personal proclivities as a filter in the framework of negotiation and interaction. Taste lives in the intersubjective dimension, and here, besides sharing, tensions and disagreements are possible.

— Wise taste capacity allows for exploring the connection between consumption and production in the food chain. It therefore allows a critical look at production issues, the environment, nature, and the economy. The aesthetics of taste as a relationship has to do with all this because it develops from an evolutionary and ecological vision, where the relationships between different perceptions are constructed via the ability to perceive new associations of meaning.