Here is my most recent offering in “The Hoya,” Georgetown’s campus newspaper.
A curious confluence of events took place last week at Georgetown.
First, a most unusual speaker graced the campus: a self-described Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist farmer named Joel Salatin. Salatin owns and runs Polyface Farm in Swope, Va., and has received some fame through appearances in the pages of Michael Pollan’s bestselling book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and in the film, “Food, Inc.” He spoke in terms both uproariously funny and profoundly moving about germs, earth, pigs, food and love. Author of the book “Everything I Want to Do is Illegal,” Salatin defended farming practices that mimic and respect the rhythms of nature, resist the industrial model that plunders the earth, restrain our tendency to see the world and its creatures merely as things for our pleasure and use and call upon humans to be good stewards of the earth.
Another event of interest was the second-annual “Sex Positive Week,” during which various campus groups explored human sexuality and, particularly, stressed forms of sexuality that would liberate individuals from traditional strictures and restraints.
A story on the Student Activities Commission involvement in the week’s events (“SAC Funds Sex Positive Week,” The Hoya, Feb. 19, 2010, A7) quoted organizers as stating that “Sex positive means respecting an individual’s right to do with their bodies what they want.”
I was struck by the juxtaposition of these events, since both dealt with the elemental kinds of appetite — for food and sex. Those two objects of our desire — both derived from instincts and impulses of the human body — are linked together by Aristotle in his discussion of the origins of political community. In “Politics” he wrote,
“Just as man is the best of animals when he perfected, when separated from law and justice he is the worst of all. … Without virtue he is the most unholy and savage of animals, particularly with regard to sex and food.”
Aristotle is pointing out that humans who are unable to restrain their most elemental appetites will prove unable to govern themselves in every other area of life.
The Christian tradition — building on this insight — named excesses in these areas lust and gluttony, and regarded them as two of the seven deadly sins. Indulgence in either was not to be considered a form of freedom, but the enslavement to desires without limit.
Salatin himself made this classical connection explicit during his lecture by comparing eating with most intimate sexual acts. He suggested that those who eat a plate of food without thinking of the effect its preparation has on the earth and its creatures, essentially act in the same way as those who engage in one-night stands. In a sense, fast food is comparable to fast sex: It is a kind of consumption that treats another as an object for our own satiation. We consume solely for the sake of our own pleasure, and in the process are likely to damage the object of our desire and even ourselves in ways that are thoughtless and utilitarian.
We live too much in a “food positive,” as well as a “sex positive” age — one in which we tend to defend self-seeking satiation of appetites as the individual right to do with our bodies what we want without thought of the moral ecological system that is damaged by our consumption. This is a stance that contributes equally to industrial sex — or pornography — and industrial farming. The first treats people — and the second, animals — merely as objects for our use and enjoyment.
Both of these are obscene, but in our current political arrangement, each party finds only one sin to be problematic.
And therein lies a great problem. The great and pressing issues of national and international import that face the current generation — indeed, which will burden today’s students throughout their lives — are rooted in the inability to govern our appetites and the tendency, instead, to assert our “right” to do what we want. This lack of restraint underlies the contemporary environmental, financial and debt crises — all of which are part of a broader moral crisis.
Our refusal to exercise governance over our most fundamental appetites has manifested itself not only in the individual excesses of lust and gluttony, but in the degradation of the earth, in the greed that nearly devastated an economic system and in the shameless “borrowing” from future generations in the name of current enjoyment. As I sat listening to Salatin, it was humbling to realize that the powerful and educated in the world’s imperial city stand to learn a great deal from a simple farmer from the provinces.
Not always true. I’m a self-indulgent coffee glutton (aka snob) who wants only the best. But it turns out that getting the best coffee beans means getting coffee that originates from smaller farms that have a diversity of tree species that make for good bird habitat. It means irresponsible spending on my own pleasure in order to buy from small roasters who pay careful attention to the places where their coffee comes from, which means NOT getting coffee that originates with the big corporate farms that tend to be destructive of the environment. So sometimes self-indulgence for my own pleasure actually coincides nicely with the environmental and social well-being of others.
Not saying I disagree with your article. I’m just having some self-indulgent fun with a counter-example.
C.S. Lewis noted that:
“Suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a pork chop or a piece of bacon. Would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with their appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something strange about the fact that people pay money to watch a woman take off her clothes?” – Mere Christianity
What Lewis did not make explicit, and what I think he may have understood, is that there is an intimate connection among all the appetites. One cannot have a disordered appetite for sex, while having an ordered one for food. I think it is no surprise that obesity and sexual appetite have both gone disordered at the same time in the United States. Or, to put it in Porcher language (perhaps), one cannot be consumerist about sex and not about anything else. “Abbe Pambo asked Abba Antony, [St. Antony of the Desert] “What ought I to do?” and the old man said to him, “Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.” St. Isaac the Syrian said that “The work of fasting and vigil is the beginning of every endeavor directed against sin and lust, especially in the case of a man who fights against the sin which is within. This practice shows hatred of sin and lust in the doer of this invisible warfare. Almost all passionate impulses decrease through fasting.”
“Better shun the bait than struggle in the snare.”
Fine work, Patrick–hope it get’s the attention it deserves.
And thanks Jonathan for the good reminders from Anthony and Isaac.
Reticulator, my own experience matches yours: virtuous eating is good eating. In the parallel realm of sex, I understand from married friends of mine that sexual pleasure is perfected in marriage.
We learn the same lesson from the Old Testament: the well-lived life is full of blessing; the profligate life offers a seductive but deadly curse.
… “control your tongue and your stomach”. Hmm, a little Desert Prudence that a certain prolix maniac might heed. The Concept is threatening me with the Spring Diet and Fresh Chinatown Tofu ever since Junior busted my Pecan Sandy Cache in the leaning tower of cigar box discards. If we are talking about temperance, perhaps I might pay equal attention to my barking.
Salatin writes, bar none, the most enjoyable “how-to” books on farming. It’s cogent that you drew the connection between the two events occurring simultaneously. Per MizzE, “Be careful what you wish for”…words to live by.
Ahhh Vice, gateway to both redemption and recidivism.
Off topic, but have you ever read the Stockman Grass Farmer?
Mr. Salatin used (may still be?) a regular contributor to the newspaper. Every issue is full of successes from across North America similar to the Polyface farm story.
Nope, but I just ordered up my free sample and thank you for the reference. …”successes from across North America similar to (Salatin’s) Polyface….” . All these successes might impinge upon my impartiality to failure but I look forward to it. thanks.
It is no coincidence that it is in regards to these two elemental appetites that we have historically placed the greatest emphasis on the social propriety known as manners. As a vanguard against gluttony and because it best suits an intelligent being’s nature, the well-mannered person separates himself from the animals by sitting upright at table, pacing his consumption, observing the various customs of appropriate utensils and table etiquette, and adding a social aspect to the occasion. In response to the dangers of lust, we find, between proper men and women, a respectful distance, appropriate social interaction and modest attire.
Sadly, many or most of these basic manners deserve to be spoken of only in the past tense, in regards to our society. This breakdown in basic limits is, no doubt, a major contributor to our unabashed “food positive” and “sex positive” age.
Perhaps Mr. Salatin would make a guest appearance here on FPR? Perhaps bringing together men (and women of course) such as himself for the edification of those of us who weren’t fortunate enough to hear him speak could be a future endeavor of FPR?
Mr. Deenan, I should have read this article before I commented on your article “Majoring in Idiocy” because the two are more intimately related than one would think at first glance.
So where are the Georgetown Jesuits during “sex positive week?”
I’d be interested if any of the students at Georgetown agree with the points Prof. Deneen makes about both sex and food…
I am failing to see how satisfying one’s sexual appetite has anything to do with the economic crisis, environmental degradation, and the growing national debt. Arguably, all have to do with some greed or another…but it still seems like a leap to say that promiscuity has anything to do with the countries political problems. Just sayin.
In these days of increasing socialism, many people shun any discussion of the wisdom of taming one’s own appetites out of a well-justified fear that such sentiments are merely Trojan horses for proposals to have government intervene in everybody’s choices of food, sex, and other leisure activities “for our own good.”
It seems to me that this fear is well taken, and that we need to establish both a social norm (to restrain individual busybodies) and a constitutional amendment (to restrain government) that says every adult has the absolute right to make these choices for himself.
Then if an insurance company (or, goodness forbid, socialized medicine bureaucracy) wants to make the individual pay for his choices in these areas, more power to them. But they have no business providing coverage and then using that fact as a reason we all must live our lives according to their safety prescriptions. If (for instance) I enjoy smoking enough to give up two years’ life expectancy for it, how dare anybody — government, boss, or landlord — say I can’t, or even nag me about it!
I don’t intend any of this to detract from your message that self-restraint is a good idea. The point is that, like charity, true self-restraint can be neither learnt nor practiced unless the individual has the option to choose otherwise (with only those consequences the laws of nature itself impose).
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