For the Love of Wisdom

The logic of iambic half-lines

The Real Epicures

Amuse Bouche or Happiness? Make your choice


I live in a city that is an Epicure's delight. We have more fine restaurants than I can count, and the energy with which the chefs innovate, sourcing locally, redesigning menus each season- well, it impresses even people outside our little city.

But what an unfortunate term "Epicure" is! It reflects ancient mocking of the Epicurean philosophy- and is very misleading- as any real Epicurean would be very concerned about someone having a keen interest in the pleasures of fine dining.

Fine dining, like nearly all of our other "amusements," only serves to distract us from doing well in our lives. That's right, an account of hedonism, of all things, will warn that becoming a foodie is a very bad idea, pleasure-wise. This might seem shocking, because such types are the ones we can so easily visualize (or hear) praising the intense pleasure they get from... say... one well-prepared truffle.

You might think we should simply applaud enthusiasm for something so refined! In our fast food overly-processed materialistic world we might think that someone who lingers over heritage tomatoes is our sole sign of hope: if only we could all begin to revel in such things! Well, here is the Epicurean line..

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"When we say...that pleasure is the end and aim of life, 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 willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not by an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not by sexual lust, nor the enjoyment of 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."

The risk of fine dining, or any preoccupation with something other than one's good behavior: travel, cars, shopping, is that we are setting ourselves up for failure in terms of the very happiness we set out to find. When we become invested in these things we stop thinking "why" they are good. We just forge ahead, assuming they matter most of all. A meal should keep you from hunger, deliciously perhaps. Yet never, in the history of time, has a gourmand had "enough," the Epicureans point out. Sure, for the moment they might say "that was so good, I could die", but the Epicureans want you to find experiences that lead you to say that *and mean it*. They want us to have so much pleasure of the right sort in our lives that we die full to the brim wiht it. But everything depends on ascertaining the right type of pleasure: one fantastic meal, one fantastic bite, even, only leaves us searching for another, and better. They write:


"So long as we do not have something we crave, we seem to need that more than anything else. Afterward, when we have it, our craving turns to something else, and always the thirst for life importunes us, open-mouthed."

And:

"The man who is tired of staying at home, often goes out abroad from his great mansion, and suddenly returns again, for indeed abroad he feels no better. He races to his country home, furiously driving his ponies, as though he were hurrying to bring help to a burning house; he yawns at once when he has set foot on the threshold of the villa, or sinks into a heavy sleep and seeks forgetfulness, or even in hot haste makes for town, eager to be back."

The case just above is made with travel, and I was talking about food, and perhaps a prohibition on foodieism can seem different and paradoxical. After all, food when simple (perhaps fresh and local, just like the best restaurants now present it) is part of the good life for the Epicureans. Epicurus is said to have thought he could have no better gift than a pot of cheese- with it he could make a feast. This is because he had kept his meals so basic, so simple, that the slightest input, the easiest addition, became something he could celebrate. The same plan is said to best for incomes, for personal goals- for all of it.

Are truffles of all sorts out? It is going to be up to you to determine. If the truffles are hard to procure and if you are going to feel a let down if you are denied them, or experience stress in getting to them- you should stop desiring them. Your interest in truffles has become a distraction. There are more steady pleasures you could pursue- friendship or, perhaps, your own cooking with truffles playing no or a less exciting role.

All this said, Epicurus also wouldn't want us to take his word for it. We can amuse our tastebuds, and see how that goes and where that leads us, or we can start to think about our life philosophically. This, the (real) Epicureans argue, would encourage us to stop and really think about whether amuse bouche after amuse bouche is enough.

Jennifer Baker, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of philosophy at the College of Charleston.

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