Michel Onfray’s Philosopher’s Guide to Good Food

From Nietzsche's 'Sausages of the Anti-Christ' to Kant's 'Ethical Alcoholism', the French celebrity philosopher serves up a sumptuous smorgasbord of philosophical plates.

From ‘food for thought’ to ‘you are what you eat’, our culture is full of playful attempts to link the very primal act of eating with the higher intellectual functions. But these are more than just metaphors: scholars have long realized there is a very profound association between the act of eating and the act of thinking.

In Appetites for Thought: Philosophers and Food, French philosopher Michel Onfray explores the relationship between philosophy and food. It’s taken more than two decades for this book to appear in English; it was originally published in French in 1989. It is, perhaps, a reflection of western philosophy’s return to the material and phenomenological that food, taste, and the experience of eating are once more hot topics in the academy.

In the hands of anyone else a book like this might wind up sounding trite, but it fits perfectly in the broader scope of Onfray’s philosophical work, shockingly little of which has yet been translated into English. Onfray is one of France’s superstar philosophers. He quit his job as a high school philosophy teacher (only in France!) to open a free university. He once published an interview with former French president Nicolas Sarkozy in which he declared Sarkozy an “ideological enemy”. He’s also taken aim at Christianity, Judaism and Islam, all of which he skewered in what is probably his best known book-in-translation, Atheist Manifesto.

He has described his own philosophy as post-anarchist, and as ethical hedonism. And he lives what he preaches. In fact, Appetites for Thought was his first book, written following a heart attack at the age of 28. Famously, he is purported to have sent his doctors packing when they tried to lecture him on healthy eating, with the defiant declaration that he “preferred to die eating butter than to economize my existence with margarine.”

Approaching philosophers through food offers an interesting vantage point. For some of them, humanity’s relationship with food was an inextricable part of a broader system of morality or ethics. Those who advocated an ascetic minimalism saw the daily meal as a reflection of their broader morality, the chance to make a point, set an example and discipline the self. Others saw the advances of civilization reflected as advances in gastronomic technique and complexity. Some saw in the diets of different peoples a reflection of the inherent values and sophistication of those cultures and societies.

Even if they didn’t weave food and eating directly into their philosophical systems, many of these philosophers still had a preoccupation with writing about the topic, and their personal approaches to food and diet offer an interesting glimpse into their personalities.

What a study in contrasts they offer! The classical Greek cynic Diogenes pursued a rustic simplicity – cynics advocated eating raw meat and were rumoured to even try human flesh as a back-to-basics sort of approach (Diogenes eventually died of eating raw octopus). French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau also pursued a back-to-basics simplicity, railing against the decadent encumbrances of modern civilization, but in his case developed an ethics around vegetarianism (ovo-lacto, mind you: he had an unnerving obsession with dairy products).

German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote less about food than wine, for which he had a weakness (of which, naturally, he produced a detailed analysis). Onfray tells us that Kant was a regular at the local pubs for many years, popping in for lunch and a glass of wine and stumbling home many hours (and glasses) later, sometimes too inebriated to find his way home. He refined his style over the years, developing a more restrained science to drink (he abhorred beer, deployed a systematic approach to wines, and took up rum late in life).

His one-meal-a-day, never-dine-alone style was riddled with nuances that would probably be considered obsessive-compulsive in today’s world, but he also seems to have spread a fine table and been a delightful dinner companion. He wrote stridently against “brutish excess” in the form of either gluttony or drunkenness. Seeing no virtue in stuffing one’s face, he had nonetheless an indulgent sympathy for moderate intoxication that was doubtless born of experience. Insofar as it helped humanity to be more sociable, being intoxicated at least served a public good. As Onfray explains, moderate drunkenness “encourages speaking freely, the opening up of emotions, and the expansion of morality”. Or as Kant himself wrote: “It is the instrumental vehicle of a moral quality, namely frankness. Holding back one’s thoughts is an oppressive state for a sincere heart, and merry drinkers do not readily tolerate a very temperate guest at their revel…”

At the other end of the spectrum from the ascetics and the cynics were the likes of the imaginative Charles Fourier, who in addition to envisioning a world free of sexual inhibitions also envisioned one in which other passions were liberated, including those involving food. In fact, gluttony will become the basis of the future social order, predicts Fourier. Children will be trained in gourmandizing from an early age and fed on jam, sweetened cream and lemonade. The oceans will be converted to lemonade, and “[f]ruit with sugar must become the bread of Harmony, the staple of peoples who have become rich and happy.” Well, everyone’s entitled to their own Utopia. Presaging Iron Chef by two centuries, he also envisioned wars being fought and empires lost and won through elaborate international cooking challenges.

And then there was Friedrich Nietzsche, obsessed with his charcuterie, who drew inspiration and strength from an assortment of hams and sausages. The infamous architect of the Übermensch dabbled in vegetarianism but decided moderation was the better part of valour: “it is clear that occasional abstention from meat, for dietetic reasons, is extremely useful. But why, to quote Goethe, make a ‘religion’ out of it? …anyone who is ripe for vegetarianism is generally also ripe for socialist ‘stew,’” he wrote to a friend.

But Nietzsche raises another philosophical issue that manifests in food: that of free will. Against those who argued that eating particular foods in particular ways would lead to good health and long life, Nietzsche argued the opposite, Onfray explains: “you do not choose your dietary regimen; you only discover what is most in harmony with the needs of your own organism.” It’s an intriguing spin on the whole ‘free will’ debate. And a particularly useful one for those, like Nietzsche, who decided their organism was most in harmony with good German ham.

But times change: Filippo Marinetti, the Italian catalyst behind the Futurist movement, writes at the opening of the ’30s that “men think, dream and act according to what they eat and drink.” Hence the Futurists’ crusade against pasta, in anticipation of a dynamic new world where humanity is light and adaptable, rather than heavy and slow; where the focus is on quality, not quantity; where the citizen of the future “can be perfected and ennobled through study, the arts, and the anticipation of perfect meals.” The Futurists, poised on the cusp of the air travel era, held great hope for the enlightening and revolutionary qualities of airplane food. Little did they know what banal treacheries the future would hold.

But as Onfray points out, however much we pride ourselves on innovation there is actually nothing that’s really new or novel: all futuristic ideas can find their analogues in medieval or classical examples. “Whatever is put forward as the latest in novelty, or a will to Copernican revolution, is nearly always the reactivation of some culinary past… there is no innocent dietetics, nor is there any profoundly revolutionary one.”

Jean Paul Sartre, too, had his forward-thinking tendencies; he disliked natural foods and appreciated foods that had been processed, mediated and reshaped through human hands. But it is his obsession with (and repugnance at) the existential implications of lobster which renders his chapter most interesting.

Onfray’s book is a delight. It is also very French: written in a sophisticated and sometimes florid style that is nonetheless enjoyable and full of light-hearted humour and wit. An aesthetic joy, in addition to being quite filling.

There is, however, one thing noticeably missing from this meal: women. All seven of the philosophers Onfray analyzes are men. Where women appear, it’s only in the context of male philosophies: the absent-minded misogynies of Rousseau, Nietzsche, Sartre and others. It’s as much a missed opportunity as it is a mark against the book.

What would Hannah Arendt have nourished herself with while chewing on The Human Condition? After relocating to the US from Europe, did she ever lament about the banality of American meat and potatoes? Was Judith Butler always a fan of pastry? If gender is performative, couldn’t dessert be as well? For Luce Irigaray, pomegranates play an important symbolic role in the psychoanalytic interpretations of mother-daughter relationships; surely there’s the seed for a chapter in that!

More seriously, scholars have written entire works about the significance of food in the work of Simone de Beauvoir, for whom everyday culinary rituals reflected important feminist and existentialist themes. Helene Cixous wrote of “my need to share with you the food, the bread, the words, the painted food”. Christine de Pizan enumerated the contributions of women to humanity: her allegorical queens “provided them with better food than the acorns and crab apples that they used to eat: wheat, corn, foods that make the body more beautiful, the complexion more radiant, the limbs stronger and more agile, for they are more substantial and better suited to the needs of the human race. What is more worthy than to develop a land filled with thistles, thorn bushes and wild trees, to till it and sow it and turn wild heath to cultivated fields? Human nature was thus enriched by this woman who carried it from barbarous wildness to orderly society…”

The list goes on. Just not in this book. Certainly one can’t include everyone, but the lack of a single woman philosopher jumps out at the reader as a glaring omission, much like baking a cake but forgetting to add flour.

Outside of that, Appetites for Thought is a delightful read; a deceptively small book, but packed densely with ideas. It’s like a serving of fancy tapas: misleadingly small little dishes, but rich and filling once you consume them.

Be warned though: this is a book that will fill your mind, but leave you feeling ravenously hungry.

RATING 8 / 10