As I have done twice before (with Sloth and with Envy), today I plan to explore the Deadly Sin of Gluttony. Partially because this is one of the few Deadly Sins I remember without having to look them up, and partially because this was the sin above all others (with the possible exception of the array of “sins” surrounding sex) about which my mother commented to me–at length. So here we need to look at another sin of the flesh. Let’s explore Gluttony. Simply put, the sin of Gluttony is the overindulgence of food and drink and the obsession, the preoccupation, with sustenance as pleasure. The wariness most human institutions display regarding pleasure of any kind is a topic for another day, but suffice for this essay, it seems likely that all creatures that eat and drink feel pleasure when doing so. It seems to be the body’s way of encouraging a creature to leave the safety of a nest or hiding place to go and find what’s needed for continued life. At its most basic, life itself, continued existence, requires food and, at least, water, at more irregular intervals but just as absolutely as life requires breathing (of some kind). And all living bodies reward the finding and ingesting of food and water with pleasure. And therein, in human cultures, lies the rub.
Now, any human need can and will be abused, can and will be twisted, can and will be taken too far in any possible direction. Food can have an emotional component much more complex than the simple “food is necessary and therefore pleasurable” equation explored in the above paragraph. For some people, food was made equivalent to love by a parent or, for some others, food was the only pleasure possible. These motivations simply scratch the surface. We all know that humans can become addicted to their pleasures, whether of alcohol, drugs, food, sex, gambling, even shopping according to some experts. This has something to do with brain chemistry, something to do with filling up an empty space emotionally, something to do with early and inexplicable losses. Now such things are, at least in the scientific community, a matter of the physical self, not a matter of will. But to most of us, and most especially to the accepted dogma of our religions, addiction is still equated with lack of discipline, and all self-feeding behavior with a turning away from the hope of salvation. Thus, sin. And, with food and drink, the sin is Gluttony.
Gluttony will always be perceived as the pig in the trough, slopping through enormous amounts of food with no real appreciation in the smallest possible amount of time. Which, regarding the pig, of course, is a bit of a canard. They apparently, in real life rather than in legend and moral tales, don’t eat either that sloppily or hugely. And, since their function for humans is to put on a lot of weight in order to provide a lot of meat and lard, the somewhat unpleasant concept of force-feeding enters the picture, thus making the pig not to blame for his, well, piggishness.
My own definition of Gluttony as either a sin or as a behavioral problem to resolve probably has to do with occasions when I might eat beyond fullness, when I, in essence, force-feed myself. When the desire-reward cycle gets out of whack and all I want is more, more, more! When all thought of sustenance, moderation, health, diet, anything, even pleasure, is lost in the perpetual motion machine my fork becomes. Did I ever do this? I remember younger times when I would go out in the evening after a full dinner and still order a hamburger and fries and a malt and eat every bit. I remember Thanksgivings and buffets in hotels and all-you-can-eat pizza parties. Is this sin? Is this Gluttony with a capital “G”? Remembering those times now, it’s not hard to think so. And yet, such occasions were relatively rare. Besides, I have never binged in the classic sense of eating an entire box of cookies or a gallon of ice cream all alone. That would make me physically ill. And while I (in spite of all the pounds I’ve lost) still have many more to lose, by and large those pounds were not gained from binging, from force-feeding, from Thanksgiving dinner and Vegas buffets. The too, too solid flesh still clinging to me came from eating perhaps just a bit more than I should have and exercising a lot less than I should have (for my own benefit, not the desires or approval of others) over a lifetime, not from any specific banquet where Gail kept going back for more Beef Stroganoff, don’t hold the noodles. It’s hard to find that sinful. But then, as with many sins, it’s much easier to identify the Glutton, the Slothful, the Envious, the Vain, in others rather than one’s own self.
And why is Gluttony a sin in any event? As in my other essays on this overall topic, let’s look at the advantages to civilization if Gluttony is considered a sin. First, in our hunter-gatherer days, Gluttony would have been the mark of selfishness. To cram into one’s own mouth what should have been shared with the tribe for everybody’s well-being would have been considered a mark of wrongness from the very start of the human race. Just as sharing all one has, especially all the food one has, is considered a mark of favor, a signal of a generous human soul, hoarding to keep all that necessary food to oneself is a very bad thing. These concepts still operate today. In times of disaster, hoarding items needed by the community is still considered wrong, even when the hoarder has merely been provident in advance of the potential disaster. And generosity is considered such a good thing in human society that, for example, certain tribes of the First People of the Pacific Northwest created the Potlatch, in which a chief would give away all he had as a signal both of his wealth and of his goodness, hoping only that it would be incumbent upon these to whom he gave to then themselves invite him to a Potlatch in which he would, essentially, recoup all and more of what he gave away. In my own Christian tradition, there is the concept of casting the bread upon the waters and it will be returned a hundredfold. (Often, the implication for individuals is that you cast your bread on the waters in order that it be returned a hundredfold, when that is not what was meant by the proverb.) Obviously, this is a sophisticated concept, this idea of generosity with food; however, there is no complexity to the concept of hoarding, hiding, keeping it to oneself. That is considered nasty the world over.
But the signal reason for Gluttony becoming a sin, in my judgment, was the beginning and continuation of agriculture and thus private property. To me, this still was a huge mistake on the part of humanity, as I’ve noted before in my essays discussing Sloth and Envy. In agricultural societies, the “Big Man” (this is a current theory in anthropology, which attempts to explain the eventual rise of kings) would be a person able to talk others into helping him sow, cultivate and harvest his crops. In return for giving them a (small) percentage, he would store the rest against the bad times of year or against drouth or disaster. Thus he became wealthy and powerful. And of course, his motivation would be, basically, Gluttony–the desire to have more than enough to eat and drink.
As time went on, the piling up of extra food through cultivation of crops required the invention of, well, infrastructure. A man spending all his time cultivating crops or even supervising others doing so would not have time to hunt for meat, to grub out clay for pottery, to make mud bricks to build storage units or a home, would not have time or the resources in his own self to protect all he gleaned from those who would steal it. And so had to be born in the world specialists who, in return for a percentage of his crop, would make the pottery, graze the goats or sheep, shear them, weave the fleece into cloth, build the mud brick buildings, create a military to protect the community, and, and this is by no means the least of the important specializations, build up temples manned (or womaned) by priests to please the gods. All these things were paid for by a percentage of the crops. A gluttonous Big Man, one who hoarded, who waxed in fatness, who ate too much himself, and allowed his family and his servants to eat too much, kept that percentage small and thus the priests, the king, the military men, even the goatherds and builders and potters and whatnot, all those who did other things than raise plants and animals, would not have enough to continue their tasks, let alone have any chance of indulging in gluttony themselves. And so the civilization prospered because of a balance between the Gluttony required to build and the Gluttony that would destroy. (The map to the right of the start of this paragraph shows one of the earliest of such civilizations, Mesopotamia.)
But while Gluttony that results in creation would be a good thing for the Big Men (and their families) and the resulting kings, priests, generals and whatnot, Gluttony could not be allowed to pervade all the people in the society. It could not even be allowed to exist among even “important” people other than the king, priests, etc., because then such people would hoard the king’s share, the priest’s share. And the king and the priest, just as the potter and the herder, did not sow, cultivate or reap their own food. They subsisted entirely upon the labors of the farmers. No, Gluttony had to become a sin, had to be punished, guarded against. From the farmer who stored the surplus grain and paid out of it his taxes to the lowliest worker on his worst farm who would be punished, sometimes with death, for hiding any part of the harvest, everyone in the society needed to feel that such hoarding, over-consumption–Gluttony–was a great sin and would be horrifically punished in this world or the next. Of course, in the meantime, the king, the general, the priest, the Big Men, did hoard food, did engage in banquets in which food was consumed to a point where rooms had to be set aside to allow for vomiting so that a guest could start all over again, did waste food and lay waste to the countryside in order to get it. Anyway.
But then, a sin does not rise to the status of a Deadly Sin if it isn’t a popular failing.
Thus, naming Gluttony a sin is a good thing for the civilization, as it is normally constituted. But is there anything that can be said in Gluttony’s favor, as we have done with Envy and Sloth? Well, obviously, Gluttony underlies the will to store food against future disaster, which begins the whole cycle leading to diversification of labor and thus eventually to a civilization. Plus, to be fair, the immense variety of foodstuffs, the variable flavors of food, would probably not be a part of our world without Gluttony. Gluttony serves as the undoubted basis for the migration of human groups throughout the world, the underlying cause of human beings taking over the planet,the reason we cook and prepare food instead of simply gnaw at bones and leaves, the development of domestic strains of grain, other kinds of plants, and animals. Without human intervention, for example, there would be no cattle. No, none at all. We developed cattle from wild ruminants, but apart from yaks and water buffalo, what we know of as cattle are quite different from their wild kin and would not be able to survive without continued care (or exploitation) by humans. Gluttony led to population growth. Gluttony led to appreciation of the finer things in life, well-cooked and delicious food, wine, beer, ale, mead and liquor. And, in a sense, Gluttony can be extended to the consumption not just of food and drink, but also of art, of fashion, of performance, of architecture, landscape, beauty. Without Gluttony, life would be less interesting, less satisfying, less civilized in its more refined sense.
But all the things I’m listing in the above paragraph are in themselves an indictment of Gluttony. Without it and what it creates, we would be a small population living with the Earth instead of exploiting and destroying it. Without the wealth that resulted from Gluttony, there would be no civilization so attractive to outside human groups that war was invented and used (and still is) to overcome that civilization and get all that wealth for themselves. Not that we would recognize such a world. For most of us, probably, we would not love such a world, no matter how much healthier we and the world would be.
As for me, with my love of good food, of cooking, of creating intriguing new dishes from delicious ingredients, I am definitely part of the problem. Because I have to breathe to live, I prefer my oxygen to come from pure mountain air instead of the stuff on a subway platform. Because I must drink water to live, I prefer it to be unpolluted, fresh, rather than skimming from a puddle. And thus do I want my food to be good, fresh, healthy and delicious. And plentiful. I have to eat to live. I try not to live to eat. But, much like Lust, which I may explore in a future essay, Gluttony is never satisfied. There is never enough. If we indulge in all that we want, we will want more tomorrow and the day after that. Like all the Deadly Sins, without feeling their drive, we would not be human, would not have the world we know. But their drive is not self-limiting. Unless we find a way to rein in Gluttony, in particular, we will gnaw the planet bare. And that’s not good for anybody.