The Philosophy of Eating


I read an amazing little book while I was in Florida called Philosophy For Life and Other Dangerous Situations: Ancient Philosophy for Modern Problems. I’ve read a bit on Socrates and Plato, but embarrassingly this book was the first time I paid any attention to Epicurus.

These days, we use the term “Epicurean” to describe luxury and decadence, especially related to food. And Epicurus did indeed think that pleasure was all that mattered and that the goal of life was to be happy. But his definition of pleasure is pretty much the complete opposite of how it is perceived today. He believed that pleasure came from enjoying SIMPLE pleasures, mostly philosophical and intellectual conversation among good friends. He wasn’t into orgies (of sex or food) or anything like it. He is purported to have owned only two outfits and to live on bread, olives, and sometimes cheese. He believed that most people think that these three things will bring happiness but in fact are dead-ends of happiness:

  • wealth or professional status
  • romantic love
  • luxury goods

While he knew that the desire for luxurious ( in modern times it’s more of a game of super-tasting or hyper-palatable) food was natural, he felt that pursuing this desire was likely to lead one farther away from happiness than closer to it. And it’s this idea that has stuck with me, leading to many conversations with myself about the ethics and philosophy of our modern food culture. And frankly about my own relationship with food.

Epicurus was the first practitioner of Positive Psychology, it seems. The ideas he had are now mirrored in the idea of the hedonic treadmill in the social sciences. Seeking happiness through these physical pleasures is a never-ending exercise in futility. The more we seek out fine foods, the more fine foods we desire. We may experience a brief increase in happiness from the best tasting cheesecake we have ever had, but that does nothing for us in the long run. Surely we don’t stop seeking out an even BETTER cheesecake? The pleasure from the best cheesecake doesn’t last but instead leads us to seek out MORE. It’s the never-ending hedonic treadmill.

The same is true for luxury goods. The more you have, the more you want. And the more you have, the more you fear losing it. A happy life cannot come out of that kind of stress and worry, which is why Epicurus lived simply. The good life and true happiness come from CALM, which is achieved by not being attached to status, to your possessions, or to the quest for higher and higher levels of physical arousal or pleasure.

So think about this in the context of our relationship with food. It’s considered refined and sophisticated to be a foodie or into molecular gastronomy but is that really any different from being addicted to fast food or packaged goods that are scientifically designed to be hyper-palatable? Both are concerned with the pleasures that come from food and seek out more and more pleasurable experiences. Perhaps both of them are problematic relationships to food. Maybe approaching food from a minimalist, simplistic point of view is best. What SIMPLE foods are wonderful all on their own? I can think of so many! A steak cooked with nothing but salt and pepper. A fresh strawberry. Dark chocolate. A carrot just pulled from the ground. And of course bacon! These are the simplest of pleasures and cannot be improved upon, so why aren’t they enough? I think we each need to ask that question of ourselves.

The Capsule Kitchen Challenge has inspired these thoughts as well as Epicurus. Anything that I desire outside of my list of 33 foods is perhaps best left ignored if my goal is happiness, not transient hedonic pleasure. I also recently spent a day absorbed in stories of folks who follow a zero carb diet, most of whom exist solely on beef, with perhaps some dairy and eggs. They are all happy as can be without the endless food choices the rest of us cling to. Perhaps, as Epicurus would suggest, they are happier.

A diet of nothing but steak isn’t for me, but a simple diet of simple foods certainly is, as it is a simply extension of my desire for a simpler, less cluttered life. Epicurus and the Capsule Kitchen Challenge opened my eyes to my own attachment to novelty and “new” when it comes to food, and it’s been a great lesson for me as I work on simplifying my life and reducing mental and physical clutter.