We are not simply what we eat

Socrates was wrong to say that all vice was the result of ignorance, and that all virtue can be instilled through education. But it's probably equally wrong to say that virtue cannot be taught at all. After all, good philosophers can be great teachers of virtue. If you would like to see evidence that substantiates this claim, I recommend Leon Kass's book The Hungry Soul. Kass is a masterful observer of those distinctly human things. Through his observations, we see clearly that the most distinctive human characteristic is the capacity for moral and spiritual greatness. By asking some simple questions about hunger, Kass demonstrates that even our physical nature is inclined towards greatness.

Over the next few days I will post a few highlights from Kass's overall argument so I don't forget them.

Here he is on one of my favorite subjects, wine:
Wine represents and encourages this elevated life beyond necessity and calculating rationality. Its very existence depends on surplus; one does not ferment the grapes or grain needed for survival. At a meal, too, it is a sign of freedom and grace, and also their cause. Offered to guests it betokens easy generosity, demonstrating that one clearly has more than the necessities for oneself. Indeed – to reconnect this discussion of the human food more explicitly to the humanizing custom of hospitality – drinking wine with someone goes beyond breaking bread. For wine permits and encourages us to let down our guard, to be at ease and in intimate communion with one another; the offer of wine expresses trust in and desire for such intimacy. For only with certain kinds of people, those who already are or we hope will become our friends, do we let wine dissolve our prudent caution. If basic hospitality, as was said, is an assertion against the dog-eat-dog character of the world, sharing a bottle of wine lifts us to the next step: the assertion of the friend-loves-friend possibility of the world, of human intimacy founded on more than common neediness.

But wine in excess does not elevate, liberate, or gladden: It makes men wild. Or perhaps one should say that it lets loose powerful animalistic forces latent in the soul; forces that wash out our ability to make distinctions; that work to overthrow our customs and restraints; that conduce to violence; that seek, as it were, to dissolve all form an formality into the primordial watery chaos. These wild and dangerous powers the Greeks attributed to the god Dionysus (Bacchus to the Romans), the god responsible for bringing wine to mankind. Though the Dionysiac is the enemy of civilization, civilized and upright man’s failure to recognize and placate the powers of Dionysus could lead to his ruin. Festivals that require ritualized drinking in large amounts – the Bacchanalia of the Greeks, Purim among the Jews – are an attempt to give the Dionysiac its due, but only by bringing it under strict regulation.

Wine, like the other human foods we have discussed, thus partakes of the moral ambiguity of the human. Like man himself it can enhance and it can destroy his humanity. Like the temptation to brutality connected with meat eating; like the temptation to domination and pride implicit in the institution of property, linked with bread and agriculture; like the temptation to excessive pursuit of the tasty at the expense of the healthful, implicit in the craving of salt and spices – so too the temptation to violent chaos is present in the gladdening fruit of the vine. Thus merely ruling out the eating of human flesh, though certainly just, is not enough to bring human eating under the aegis of virtue. How we eat, more than what we eat, will be decisive.