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