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by Francine Prose
Oxford University Press, 2003
Review by Constantine Sandis, Ph.D. on Sep 17th 2005

Gluttony

This short book is published, in Association with the New York Public Library, as part of OUP's The Seven Deadly Sins lecture and book series, whose purpose (according to the Editor's note) 'was to invite scholars and writers to chart the ways we have approached and understood evil, one sin at a time'. Each of the chosen seven was given free reign to approach their allocated sin as they pleased. The result is refreshingly personal and diverse.

Francine Prose (a contributing editor at Harpers and the author of many critically acclaimed novels) has chosen to focus on America's current obsession with food and diet. She does so, however, by offering a witty and insightful account of the evolution of the West's notion of gluttony, from Augustine's Confessions to Weight Watchers International. So, for example, whereas Aquinas considered gluttony to be a sin because it distracted man's attention away from God, for many today it is considered to be more of an illness (we talk of 'eating disorders' and 'compulsive eating', often caused by depression) and only a 'sin' to the extent that it leads to obesity, with all its implications for both health and glamour. 

Prose argues that although gluttony might arguably be the least harmful of sins, today it may well be the most widespread (p.41). But of course, if this is true at all (a point I return to further below) it would only be true in the West. This brings us to what is in my opinion the strongest argument against gluttony, namely the fact that for most of us it involves eating more than one needs in the full knowledge that millions of people who share the earth with us are starving. And yet poverty is only mentioned twice in the book, once in relation to a purely philological point (p.90) and once when pointing out that 'third world people' (as they are referred to in the index) do not face 'the sorts of struggles' that the average American faces today (pp 64-5). This is of course true, even if it is somewhat distasteful of Prose to write about it without so much as even mentioning the obvious fact that that these people face daily struggles that are incomparably greater. Prose is also guilty of ignoring the disturbing fact that none of the modern struggles she describes throughout the book is an ethical struggle. Rather, they are psychological struggles which stem from self-obsession: how one looks and feels, and how one is perceived by others. Revealingly, starvation is only mentioned in relation to dieting and/or fasting, and the question of whether it is right to kill animals for our personal culinary pleasure is not even raised. What all of this shows is that gluttony is often the result of far deeper and vices (such as those of greed and pride) which even those who fight to resist gastronomic temptation do not seem to be troubled about. And so we come full circle: gluttony is not the most widespread vice (even in the West) but only the most widely-perceived (and documented) vice. There is a world of difference between these two states of affairs. Indeed, it is because of our other vices that we have become obsessed with gluttony.

 Despite its shortcomings, Gluttony remains a well-written and nicely-illustrated little book that will stimulate readers into thinking about these issues seriously. And that, is surely what this series is all about.

 

© 2005 Constantine Sandis

 

Constantine Sandis is associate lecturer in philosophy, The Open University.