Taking Stock/summer 2008

An Essay by Lawrence S. Cunningham

Although I confess to a mild predilection for watching sports on television, there are certain events that cause me immediately to reach for the remote because of their sheer capacity to bore. I would rather look at old magazines in a dentist’s office than watch—this is a selective list—poker, bowling or golf on television. In my random cruising around the channels, however, a new phenomenon has caught my eye that is beyond boring; it is disgusting: eating contests. Whatever possesses people to try to eat dozens of hotdogs in a limited period of time? If they are so compelled, who wishes to watch them shovel food in their face, not for nutrition or pleasure, or the joy of eating in company, but simply to ingest large quantities of “food”? If there is any sign of the coming apocalypse, in my estimation, eating contests rank high on the list. Such contests constitute a travesty against the very nature of eating; they dramatically demonstrate the classic definition of gluttony: the inordinate appetite for food.

To my mind, one of the greatest human pleasures is to eat good food, and especially if that eating is done in the company of people. That kind of eating, as the traditional Catholic blessing rightly says, is a “gift” that comes from God’s “bounty.” More than half a dozen times in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus enjoys the hospitality of others. He shares bread with both sinners and Pharisees. He is a companion (from the Latin: cum pane—a bread sharer) and a brother (from the old Germanic root brod—bread). And, not to put too fine a point on it, He gives us himself as bread: “Take and eat …” Eating, in that sense of the term, is fundamental to a full human life.

Gluttony is numbered among the traditional “seven deadly sins.” It alone of the seven is described as bringing in its wake both physical and psychological results noxious for a human being. In a curious reflection on gluttony, Saint Thomas Aquinas defines gluttony as an “inordinate desire for food and drink” and says that it brings forth “five daughters”: inappropriate pleasure, surliness, uncleanliness, stupidity and hebetudo mentis, which may be understood roughly as mental slowness.

Dante, describing his exemplar of gluttony in the Inferno, notes that “Ciacco the Hog” stays stupefied on a pile of garbage with his head down and afflicted with strabismus (cross-eyed)— symptomatic, according to medieval medicine, for hebetudo mentis.

William Langland, the late medieval writer of Piers Plowman, has a more vivid description:

“And to drink all days in diverse taverns …
to gobble food on fasting days before the fitting time,
and then to sit supping until sleep assails them,
and to grow portly as a town pig and to repose in soft beds
Till sloth and sleep sleek their sides.”

The constant stuffing of food and drink brings with it observable results: obesity, dullness and the odd pleasure of eating for the sake of eating. Langland also notes that gluttony leads to another deadly sin: sloth.

Of course, this ancient literature must be allowed its rhetorical excess, but what all of these writers have in common is the conviction that gluttony has its consequences beyond lethal damage to the body.

Our media and our health-care workers are full of warnings about our contemporary obesity pandemic. They also point out consequences beyond getting fat: diabetes, heart problems and so on. Obesity, however, is not the same as gluttony or even—if there is such a thing—“food addiction.” There are many things that have contributed to our national disease of obesity. They are constantly enumerated for us: our predilection for fast food; our penchant for sugar-laced soft drinks; our lost opportunities for actual physical work; our hunger for greasy food coupled with our lack of enthusiasm for vegetables and fruit. In other words—and not to harp on the subject—obesity is a byproduct of profound cultural shifts in a society that is largely post-agricultural and post-industrial. Lumberjacks may require 4,000 calories a day, but store clerks and stock brokers and college professors do not.

There is nothing wrong with pleasure at table, but the glutton separates out the pursuit of pleasure as fundamental with no reference to nutrition or conviviality. Gluttony is a solitary pursuit—a kind of alimentary self-abuse. What the ancient Christian tradition most objected to about gluttony was that it struck against common humanity with consequences for the individual and society. There is a famous late painting by Hieronymus Bosch depicting the seven deadly sins. In depicting gluttony, Bosch has a corpulent man gorging himself at a table while off to the side stands another man guzzling from a wine jug. The key to the painting, however, is a child fruitlessly pulling at the seated figure begging for something to eat. Bosch’s point is that the glutton is so preoccupied with his own needs that he cannot see the needs of another. That scene tells it all. It is a striking image of the old definition of the sinner: incurvatus in se—turned in on the self.

The virtue opposite of gluttony is temperance. All of us require a certain temperance with respect to food and drink and, most often as a New Year’s resolution, pledge to be temperate if for no other reason than good health. Given our ability to be globally aware, however, there is another good reason to resist excess and cultivate more awareness of how and what we eat: the rampant hunger in the world. It is fundamental to the teaching of Jesus that we turn to the other when we think of food. That Jesus fed the crowds at the multiplication of the loaves struck the Gospel writers as so important that all four of them recorded the event. In his last great sermon on the end times recorded in Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 25), Jesus says that when we give food to the hungry we are, in effect, giving food to him. The Christian tradition has always, from its beginnings, taught that feeding the hungry is one of the great acts of mercy and justice.

Although the glutton may not be conscious of it (and given his preoccupation for the self and its satisfactions would typically not be), the abuse and misuse of food even for personal gratification is an affront to the poor of the world. It would be wrong, then, to look at gluttony solely in terms of the harm that it does to the individual. Food is, in a radical fashion, a social reality. I have always been impressed by the teaching of the contemporary Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, who argues that all humans must learn mindfulness. He says that we need to cultivate awareness of where our food comes from, who has produced it for us, and, finally, be mindful of those who have no food. That sentiment is not unlike one expressed by the early medieval monk Alcuin of York who prayed: “Whenever we eat we should give thanks to You. And having received from your hands, let us give with equally generous hands to those who are poor, breaking bread and sharing our bread with them. For you have told us that whatever we give to the poor, we give to you. Amen.”

—Lawrence S. Cunningham is O’Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Additional reflections in this series on the seven deadly sins:


© 2008 University of Notre Dame • Last Updated: May 24, 2008