Alexandria, VA . The causes of the current economic collapse have been widely discussed and minutely explored. However, to date I do not believe that I have yet seen anyone offer what I regard to be the definitive and irrefutable explanation: the decline of the use of the fork. In abandoning our habituation in eating with utensils, we have essentially rendered our appetites untamed. We have ceased to be mannered, and an unmannered society is one that invites collapse.
It is a daunting challenge to teach children to eat with a fork and knife; ask any parent. Let’s face it: they’re born like wild beasts, and if they could run around naked eating with their hands, dropping half their food behind them and going back later when they’re hungry again to eat off the ground what’s left – they would. Anyone who has an idyllic fantasy of peaceful and heart-warming family dinners in which conversation flows freely and gentle wit punctuates gradually unfolding dinner courses hasn’t been over my house for dinner recently. Dinner is a kind of near state of barely restrained anarchy. “Use your fork.” “Don’t lick your plate.” “Stop putting your knife in your mouth.” “Sit up.” “Sit back down.” “Don’t mash your peas.” “No, you can’t eat that piece from your brother’s plate (or, alternatively, no, you can’t put your food on his plate).” “Don’t talk with your mouth full.” “You forgot to ask to be excused.” On and on and on. Incredibly, all one seems to do as a parent is repeat the same things over and over and over. Kids hate it, and parents get frustrated. Why do we bother? What’s the point of good manners?
The easy answer is, so that someday we can have peaceful and heart-warming family dinners in which conversation flows freely and gentle wit punctuates gradually unfolding dinner courses. Teaching manners is to instill a second nature to a child: to eat with grace is not natural to them, but someday we hope it will become “second nature” for them to eat with a fork and knife, not to take food from other people’s plates, and to excuse themselves when they leave the table.
But above all we do this because learning manners is an effort to make children into human beings. It may be wholly unconscious, but no less an authority than Aristotle informs us that this is so. In the Politics, Aristotle writes: “For just as man, when he is perfected (when he achieves his telos) is the best of animals, so too separated from law and justice he is the worst of all…. Without virtue he is most unholy and savage, and worst in regards to sex and eating.” Aristotle doesn’t spell out what he means by this last comment, but it’s pretty clear that humans who lack virtue – who live without law and justice – exhibit the worst forms of human behavior in matters of sex and eating, engaging in what remain, even in our own incredibly permissive time, two largely acknowledged taboos – incest and cannibalism.
Aristotle is not saying that children or humans generally have to be taught how to how to eat or how to copulate. That’s something we all pretty much figure out on our own at some point – instinct kicks in as a baby in the case of eating, and in the case of sex, well, that will come in time for you all. Both these instincts are deeply embedded in our nature – we must eat to continue living, we must copulate in order to reproduce.
But that’s about all that nature tells us in these matters: eat to live; copulate to procreate. That’s all that nature needs to tell to all God’s creatures – all, that is, except mankind. Nature’s admonition to eat and to procreate is not the whole of the story, in our case, because we are creatures not solely in the thrall of nature. Natural features of humanity cause us to act according to our natures with a degree of reflection and choice. As Leon Kass has argued in his marvelous book, The Hungry Soul, the human form itself resists our “mere” nature. Our upright form places us above the horizon, making it possible to see further visually and metaphorically gives us the ability to set our sights to higher things. Our mouth and nose – set down and back in the skulls, unlike the snout of other beasts – means that our eyes purposively lead and guide our eating faculties, not vice-versa. Our tongues and lips, in addition to assisting in the process of eating, also have a form which permits the faculty of speech and communication. Our omnivorousness gives us actual and metaphorical preferences; we pick and choose what we will eat, given the opportunity, just as we exercise choice about how we will eat, and even further, how we will live. We are conscious and self-reflective; we are conscious too of the preferences of others by dint of the fact of speech and reason. It is thus in our nature not only to eat and to copulate, but to ask about the meaning of these things and to ask whether there are better and worse ways to engage in these natural necessities and urges. As Erwin Straus has written, “Considering [man’s form], we do well to envisage the possibility that [it is] not society [which] has first brought man into conflict with nature, but that [it is] man’s natural opposition to nature [which] enables him to produce society, history, and conventions.” This Aristotelian insight suggests, contra Rousseau, that it is in our nature to be “unnatural.” Better put, humanity can act in accordance with nature most humanly as a result of a training in virtue, or alternatively, can act in accordance with nature least humanly when we act in blindly in the thrall of those basest instincts as a brute or beast. To fulfill man’s natural telos is to act in ways not most immediately “natural.” We might say that man is by nature a conventional animal.
The simple reason that humans have the potential to be unholy and savage in matters of eating is because, as omnivores, we are inclined to eat meat. This means that we are a predatory animal: one of our most primal desires impels us to kill. To kill is an awesome deed: our desire to sustain our lives drives us to combat and overcome the survival instinct of other living creatures. In this, we are primally no different than the lion or the wolf: we must kill other animals in order to slake our craving for meat. Indeed, we are the most successful predatory animal that has ever existed on earth – no animal can for long protect itself from us when we decide upon its death. Our diet reveals our rapacity, our potential for savagery, the very “inhumanity” of our humanity.
The fact that we eat meat also means that we can eat each other. This is not unknown in nature, and of course is not unknown among some human civilizations. The Aztecs ritually sacrificed and ate thousands of captives, removing first their still beating hearts as a sacrifice to their sun god and then devouring the remains. Cannibalism is not literally unthinkable, though I much doubt many of us think about it very much if at all – and that’s a good thing too. To live among people who were always sizing you up as a meal – and perhaps even worse, in which you were doing the same – would be a living hell, worse than Hobbes’s State of Nature. There could be no stability, no decency, no trust, no love.
Society as we know it could not exist if we weighed cannibalism as a serious option for our diet. The fact that we do not weigh and consider, much less think about cannibalism, is a silent reminder of civilized humanity’s longstanding virtuous decision in which we have concluded that human beings are not food. The negative formulation – humans are not food – implicitly reveals a positive formulation: that human beings are creatures set apart because of their inherent dignity and nobility. It is the very decision not to eat humans that fundamentally reveals the truth of our dignity: we are uniquely the creature that commands itself, that exercises restraint over appetite and instinct and discriminates between human and non-human (sometimes that gets us into trouble, but it is fundamentally a praiseworthy faculty). Man is by nature the ethical animal: all ethics begins in injunctions, in saying no, and the most primal ethical decision concerns what we will eat and what will not be eaten.
Nevertheless, in the deepest recesses of our collective memory and in the most primal depths of our hearts, we know that to eat meat is dangerous and awe-inspiring. Table manners are the inscribed tradition – practice and custom – that reflects and in some senses commemorates this conscious decision to ascend from brute appetite and to demonstrate that we are not slaves to our cravings. Next time you sit down with an anti-traditionalist, see if they eat by tearing their food apart with their hands, or by eating with their faces in their plates. We are all traditionalists, and it’s a good thing too.
Even as we employ our manners as we eat – for we MUST eat – manners demonstrate that we seek to constrain and moderate, if not fully to extinguish, our natures. Manners are conventions that shape and govern our nature: we don’t cease to be creatures that must eat, but manners are a largely unconscious demonstration our governance of our nature as eating creatures, even as we necessarily submit to and even engage in a more exhalted practice of our nature. Far from being a troublesome and meaningless set of conventions, table manners are the daily manifestation of our commitment to the aspiration of human flourishing, of a realized humanity that ascends from “mere” or given humanity. To be a human is to be conventional, and among those most important conventions that express our humanity is to mediate, moderate, and master our appetites through the conventions at dinner time.
Eating with utensils does not make eating food easier – it makes it more difficult. By using the fork, we bring food in small portions to our mouths. As my son knows, it’s much faster to eat either by putting your face in your plate or just using your fingers. We have a particular challenge with rice – it’s hard to eat rice with a fork, so he tries endlessly to position his mouth next to his plate and use his fork as a bulldozer. We end up having to sweep a lot of rice off the floor as a consequence of our insistence that he eat by raising his food to his mouth. What this allows, of course, in addition to a slowing of the pace of the eating, is the posture of face-to-face diners. We eat in such a way that makes it possible for us to see one another (even as part of good manners is not to look too closely at another person eating), and more importantly, to speak with one another as we eat. By eating with forks – with utensils generally – we raise our heads above our food and communicate. We forge community.
The fork was introduced in the West because over time it became unacceptable to use the hand or the knife for introducing food into the mouth except when absolutely necessary. The knife – the first utensil used for eating – became understood to be a visible sign of the violence that underlies our meals, and civilization eventually sought to minimize its use, and even when it was used, to make its function nearly unrecognizable. Our desire to obscure the violence underlying our meals is reflected in the form of the knife that is usually placed on the table: the end of the knife is rounded, not pointed, and it’s pretty much impossible to cut anything with an almost completely blunt blade. If, however, you are at a restaurant and you order steak, a knife is brought to you from the kitchen only when the meat is served, and cleared as soon as the meal is finished. As we eat using fork and knife, various customs encourage a certain infelicity and awkwardness. In Europe, the knife is held in the weaker hand, making it less likely there will be knife play at the table. In America, food is cut with the knife in the right hand and the fork in the left; after each cut, the utensils are switched to the opposite hand and that single piece is eaten. Americans are regularly subjected to scorn and derision for this awkward practice. However, let me quote from the Harvard Olin lecture of Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners, who defends such a practice: “American table manners are, if anything, a more advanced form of civilized behavior than the European, because they are more complicated and further removed from the practical result, always a sign of refinement.”
Table manners contain and reflect the governance of our basest nature – that we will eat deliberately, in a measured fashion, with layers of convention and practice that partially obscures our potential for bestiality. Manners, we might say, are the visible sign of our depravity, our inclination to submit to appetite. Manners are a constant reminder of our fallen nature: as Byron wrote, “ever since Eve ate apples, much depends on dinner.” Original sin is inextricably bound up with the human inability to control our appetite; manners are the form that forces a degree of control upon us. Manners are a form of what Aristotle calls “habituation”: they are practices ingrained into us when we are young and not yet wholly conscious of their meaning, necessary foundations for the virtuous human who would act with moderation and prudence, sophrosune and phronesis.
At the same time, manners point also to our higher nature. To have manners, as my son knows but perhaps does not yet fully understand, is to be civilized. Manners aspire to civility. We practice manners in the main in order to put others at ease – they are, to a significant extent, outer directed. Ironically, manners are an acknowledgment that we are not given to care about each other. Respect is different from care. As the sociologist Edward Shils has written in his book entitled Civility, “There is not enough good nature or temperamental amiability in any society to permit to it to dispense with good manners.” But, such habituation in manners – a sign of our permanent dividedness and insufficient stores of unquestioning love for every human being, contra John Lennon – at the same time also points to our potential for flourishing communal life. To eat with manners is to slow down our food intake, to force us to face one another as we slowly dine. We make time in order to speak and to listen. By holding at bay our primal instinct to gorge ourselves as quickly and efficiently as possible – by restraining our self-interest and practicing self-governance – we foster opportunities for human interchange which may simply remain “civil,” but which may also lead to friendship and even love. By governing the low, we make possible the high.
Aristotle writes that “man is by nature a political animal.” Man is by nature the creature that must live according to convention – under law, with self-restraint against nature’s imperatives, by means of a flourishing that can only come about as the result of habituation, education, cultivation. He who is without a city is either a beast or a god. The human telos can only come to fruition within cities of humans: leisure, arts, learning, memory, culture, philosophy, even worship – these are activities that rely fundamentally upon the existence of human cities. Politics begins with politeness – with good manners. Rather than figuratively or literally eating up our opponents, we must dine with them. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “the survival of a parliamentary system requires constant dining with opponents.” Politics, like manners, is the visible manifestation of our willingness to restrain ourselves and to govern our immediate appetites in order to live and even thrive together. The city is like a fork. It is a contrived invention intended to slow us down, to “ruminate,” to put some psychic distance from our immediate whim and to give us time to “converse,” to turn ourselves about. Politics cannot be run on an economic or philosophic (here I mean ideological) model: it cannot be based upon pure interest nor can it wholly transcend interest. Like eating, we can control and restrain how we eat, but we must eat – politics must be driven by interest, even if it is interest and appetite moderated and transformed. Politics does not transcend nature – like the four-tined fork, it is the invention appropriate to our nature, neither too wide nor too narrow (though humans have long debated which regime – how many people, like how many tines – ought to govern). If it’s harder to know exactly the form a regime should take, like the fork, it should not be too big nor too small: it should permit us only small portions and not allow us to open our mouths too wide. It should slow us down enough to speak, but not so much that we starve. Politics needs to find the mean between extremes of nature and convention.
We don’t debate that much about regimes anymore – we are all democrats now. In some senses, democracy is the regime that best proves the superiority and necessity of human manners: rather than some elites needing good manners, in a democracy, the entire citizenry needs good manners. That’s a good part of the reason why I believe for most of world history most thinkers were opposed to democracy: seeing the table manners of most common people, they concluded that it would not be a good idea to give them the vote. The rise of democracy in modern times has directly corresponded to the universal adoption of the fork. Democracy has been made possible by the triumph of aristocratic manners. When we teach our kids how to eat with a fork and knife, we are educating them to be good citizens. To have good manners is to acknowledge the possibility of the common good. To be civilized is to be a citizen.
But, here we have a problem. Democracy is the regime based upon equality, and anyone who has read Tocqueville knows that democratic equality is impatient with forms. Forms appear to be precious and uppity – they are aristocratic. Seinfeld fans will recall the episode when Elaine sees Mr. Pitt eating a Snickers bar – with a fork and knife. Mr. Pitt is an old aristocrat – he even has a British accent, which is the sure sign that he’s either a villain or royalty. Elaine mentions this to George, who is quite intrigued by this eating method and adopts it for himself. As the episode goes on, more and more people adopt this eating method, until by the end of the episode Jerry enters the diner – the quintessential American locale – to see that everyone is eating “finger foods” with a fork and knife. It’s funny, precisely because we know it’s so absurd.
Think instead of the prevailing American portrayal of good manners. Typically, Americans now have the admirable global mission of teaching the world how to act like complete philistines. In films like King Ralph, the Princess Diaries, or any untold number of films in this genre, the coarse American is brought to Europe where he or she receives a crash course in good manners. Of course, this proves offensive to our relaxed and informal American sensibility, and we delight in the American revolution, take 2. By the end of the film, Americans teach Europeans how to have a good time (Princess Diaries 2, Julie Andrews is mattress sledding down the stairs…). Europe just needs to loosen up and relax. We love Julia Roberts because we identified with her in Pretty Woman when she went out to the fine restaurant and did not know which fork to use. As Miss Manners writes, “The idea that good table manners indicate a lack of humility is still with us; to this day, a great many people brag about not knowing which fork to use….”
Now: think about America’s culinary contributions to the world – whether we invented them or not, we have created worldwide markets in hamburgers, hotdogs, pizza, chicken nuggets, ice cream cones, coffee in paper cups with sipping lids and “sleeves” to protect the fingers from burning – and the list can go on and on. What do these foods have in common? First and most importantly, these foods can be eaten or drunk without utensils, without plates or cups that must be washed. They are made to be eaten figuratively, and often literally, on the run.
We invented a phrase for the kind of fueling that such as mobile society requires: fast food. We do not dine; we chow or “inhale.” We eat everywhere, all the time: the very enslavement to our biological processes – to our instinct to eat on a whim, and to eat anything – is now aggravated by “culture.” Rather than culture and restraining our instincts, culture now does the opposite of cultivating – it reinforces our animality. Leon Kass has gotten a lot of fire for prudishness and priggishness for a passage in The Hungry Soul that expresses his dismay over the eating of ice cream on the street (something I do, I’ll admit), but consider the whole passage in its context:
Eating on the street – even when undertaken, say, because one is between appointments and has no other time to eat – displays in fact precisely … a lack of self-control. It betokens enslavement to the belly. Hunger must be sated now; it cannot wait. Though the walking street eater still moves in the direction of his vision, he shows himself as a being led by his appetites. Lacking utensils for cutting and lifting to the mouth, he will often be seen using his teeth for tearing off chewable portions, just as any animal. Eating on the run does not allow the human way of enjoying one’s food, for it is more like simple fueling; it is hard to savor or even to know what one is eating when the main point is to hurriedly fill the belly, now running on empty.
And so I wonder: is our current crisis not best explained by the decline of the family meal; of the displacement of the meal with “grazing” (that manner in which beasts eat – the consequences of which Aristotle predicted?); of the rise of fast food and the consumption of increasing numbers of meals “on the run”? Was this not the most visible sign of a people with untamed appetite, a people lacking restraint, civility, and a willingness to submit to forms? If our leaders were truly interested in inculcating virtues – including “responsibility” – among the citizenry, there might be no better way to start than to commend the reintroduction of good table manners.