When we sit down to a family meal we are feeding more than our bodies; we are actually nourishing our souls, says philosopher Thomas Hibbs. Dr Hibbs was the keynote speaker at a recent conference in London – Excellence in the Home: Balanced Diet, Balanced Life – where he drew on the classics and contemporary film to shed light on the natural and spiritual virtues of eating. MercatorNet asked him about obesity, temperance and feasting.

MercatorNet: You recently rubbed shoulders with chefs at a conference in London on eating. What has a philosopher to do with mere food?

Thomas HibbsThomas Hibbs: Yeah, it was a pretty good gig for a philosopher. We spend most of our time interpreting philosophical texts or examining the clarity and rigour of the arguments of our contemporaries. But the tradition of philosophy is, in terms of its topics, quite capacious. And that tradition ought to be able to shed light on all human activities, not just the peculiar activities in which professional philosophers engage. As for food and drink, well, the setting of one of Plato’s most famous dialogues, The Symposium — which is on the topic of love, is a drinking feast. The lowest and the highest human things, as Plato well knew, are intimately connected.

MercatorNet: Obesity is — excuse the pun- – a huge problem in the richer countries, but also in parts of the developing world these days. At the same time we regularly hear about people, especially women, who starve themselves. How do you explain these extremes?

Hibbs: There are indeed these extremes; sometimes you even find them in the same person, who starts out overweight, diets fiercely, loses weight, and then ends up gaining it all back. Of course, neither extreme is healthy; both are forms of intemperance, although we have a habit in our culture of identifying intemperance solely with acts of overindulgence. Obesity itself often has complex sources-metabolism, depression, etc-but its presence in children often has much to do with the disappearance of natural physical activity from their daily lives now often consumed by inert activities of TV watching and video games. The dangers here are as much for the mind as for the body.

MercatorNet: Temperance evokes the image of Christian matrons campaigning against the demon drink. How should we understand this virtue in the context of eating?

Hibbs: Right, we tend to think of temperance purely in negative terms, as if it meant denying ourselves what we enjoy. Well, that is certainly part of temperance, a part that comes into play when we want more than what we ought to have. But, as is the case with other virtues, this one has been hijacked and distorted by those who want to emphasise self-denial. Nowadays, we don’t hear much from the Christian temperance unions but their heirs are those devoted to the cult of the perfectly slim body for whom temperance, if they use the word, is a matter of the endless calculation and subtraction of fat calories. True temperance is joyful and pleasant, not self-obsessed and sombre.

MercatorNet: Many people lament the disappearance of the family meal as a regular part of life in countries like the United States. How important is the social dimension of eating to developing a wholesome attitude to food?

Hibbs: Absolutely crucial. The isolated passivity that characterises much of our consumption of food is a powerful indirect contributor to obesity. It can also create an unhealthy obsession with food. The sharing of meals has been since antiquity one of the chief ways of building and acknowledging community, indeed of acknowledging that we are social animals. Its disappearance cannot but increase our sense of loneliness and isolation, even as it diminishes the practice of the nearly forgotten virtue of hospitality.

MercatorNet: In your paper you have much to say about the story/film, Babette’s Feast. Yet this centres on what sounds like a spectacular display of intemperance: Babette spends a fortune on preparing one meal for the community that has shown her hospitality. What does this film teach us about human nature and the power of a communal meal?

A scene from Babette's Feast Hibbs: Well, that only shows how corrupt our contemporary understanding of temperance is! As with all the virtues, so with temperance, what is appropriate depends in part on the occasion. To insist on sparse portions of food and drink in the celebration of great events might well be an example, not of virtue, but of vices such as ingratitude and lack of generosity. The communal meal is always about more than food and drink; it’s about acknowledging human sociability, friendship, the primacy of familial bonds, and the creation of memories that form us as human beings. All this and more Babette’s Feast brings to the fore.

MercatorNet: It is no accident, you say, that the Bible often uses the banquet as an image of heaven…

Hibbs: Yes, the spiritual dimension of the meal is central to Babette’s Feast. It is a marriage of bodily and spiritual delights, a recognition that we are at once animals and spirits.

MercatorNet: So what is the take-home message of your reflections on hungry souls?

Hibbs: Two things stand out. First, we need to exercise sales and advertising resistance and heap scorn on the Hollywood paradigm of the perfect body. If we could all live like Hollywood types-have others care for our children, devote big bucks to personal trainers, and have hours each day to exercise-we too could embody their hollow beauty.

Second, we need to recover both the communal and the spiritual dimension of eating and we need to be more articulate about food. Certainly we ought to cultivate an appreciation of food, of food from different regions and countries, of its sources in farms and of the means of its production. In terms of education, home economics might expand its horizon to include reflections on the significance of food in a variety of cultures and literary genres, the latter of which might include texts from Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen.

Thomas Hibbs is Dean of the Honours College and Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University, Texas. His paper, "Hungry Souls: From Homer’s Cyclops to Fear Factor, Hannibal the Cannibal and Babette’s Feast", can be found on the conference website.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet