book cover imageThe Virtues of the Table: How to Eat and Think,
by Julian Baggini.
Granta Books, 2014.
Paper, 280 pages, $14.

There are few areas of life as difficult to navigate or moderate as eating. It’s necessary for existence—one of the most primal acts in which we partake. And yet it is also a deeply contested act about which hundreds of thousands of people have strong opinions. Is it wrong to eat meat? Should you buy organic? What about eating at McDonald’s? As we delve further into the ethics of eating, more questions emerge: what is gluttony? Does buying “humanely” matter? Why do we care about “beautiful” or well-prepared food? Why is food so important to religious belief or community life?

There are some books that have beautifully addressed this subject in the past, Leon Kass’s classic The Hungry Soul being one of the best. But I have not yet found a book that covers the topic with such lucidity, depth, and meticulousness as Julian Baggini’s The Virtues of the Table.

Baggini is editor-in-chief of The Philosopher’s Magazine and author of several philosophical books that discuss the meaning of life, personal identity, and virtue ethics. He is an atheist, but the beauty of his most recent book is that it excellently applies Aristotelian virtue ethics to the principles of eating. It is thus a book that people from all religious and ideological backgrounds can appreciate.

Each chapter focuses on an aspect of food or eating, and then on an associated virtue. Additionally, each chapter closes with one of Baggini’srecipes (I cannot wait to try them all, from the Sugo di Pomodoro to Einkorn bread). The first several chapters discuss what we buy for our table: the virtues (or vices) inherent in buying seasonal or organic, humanely raised meats or fair trade goods. Baggini is painstakingly even-handed in his judgment of each: he points our which are genuine and which are often a façade, which are important and which ought to be discarded (or at least embraced with some skepticism).

Baggini issues some fair warnings for those like me, a “crunchy con” with a love for the local and seasonal: “The idealizing of the local risks creating a parochial mindset that confines people to the cultures they were raised in,” he writes. “… What is needed, I think, is a way to combine the positive aspects of the new localism with the old virtues of internationalism … a ‘virtuous globalization,’ by which local traditions are strengthened and made sustainable by their connections to the wider world through trade and exchange.” In his discussion of whether butchering and eating meat can be humane, Baggini visits a local butcher and discusses with him, in-depth, the process involved in a pig’s demise. He concludes that there is a humane way to treat, kill, and eat animals: “Compassionate meat-eating … does not deny that animal life has value, but it does not overstate what it is.”

Baggini also discusses the preparation of our food and which virtues are involved in this process. In one chapter, he argues for the importance of tradition: “Food traditions are part of our cultural inheritance … this is another example of the virtue of stewardship, underpinned by the conservative insight that there is often wisdom in the evolved practices of the past.” My favorite chapter in this section examined what Baggini calls technophronesis, or the prudent use of technology. Baggini balances the acknowledgeable goods and superiorities of technological innovation with the undeniable benefits of artisanship and tradition. His conclusion marries the two in a balanced, thoughtful fashion:

Technophronesis means wanting the artisan to continue to thrive, even when machines can match or improve what she can make, because it understands that what matters is not just the result, but the process by which you get there. There is plenty that we will happily allow to be mechanized, for the obvious benefits it brings, but there are plenty of other things we will continue to prefer to be handmade … The exchange of food is a human relationship, and humans are imperfect, so a world of technical perfection that denies the human element can never be truly perfect for all.

Baggini also discusses the virtues associated with “not eating”: resistance, willpower, humility, and autonomy. The first three virtues are directly related to dietary concerns. Without the ability to resist excess, to show perseverance, and to comprehend our own limits and weaknesses, it is impossible to maintain a healthy lifestyle. But Baggini’s chapter on “autonomy” is actually an argument for the benefits of fasting. He admits that fasting is usually a religious practice, but he thinks it holds value for the secular person, as well. Fasting takes us out of the sphere in which we act unthinkingly on fleshly desires, and helps us instead to exercise ownership over them. This sort of autonomy, says Baggini, goes against the modern ideas of dieting: “Practical wisdom has declined as we have come to rely more on measurements, rules, and procedures.” These cannot replace true phronesis and self-control: “In a sense, control that relies on micromanaging every detail is not really control at all.… True control requires an ability to accommodate what you can’t completely control, and true autonomy means living life according to your own judgments, not controlling everything that happens in it.”

Finally, Baggini brings us to the table itself, and discusses the virtues of eating. He argues for the importance of gratitude and “saying grace”—even from an atheist’s perspective. He takes this beyond saying a “secular grace” before meals, and suggests that “true gratitude is expressed by how we live, not just by our words and feelings.” Thus, much of this chapter discusses the vice of food waste: a very concerning problem in American society and one we should be more aware of. “A deeper sense of gratitude,” writes Baggini, “needs to be embedded in the habits of daily life, expressed in our attitudes to waste as well as our frame of mind when we sit down to eat.”

The Virtues of the Table ends with an excellent chapter on mindfulness: how we can bring this sense of presence to our tables. The term “mindfulness” has been somewhat overused of late to describe how human beings ought to live, but without much substance or definition. We should be “mindful”? Mindful of what? Baggini’s discussion of the virtue is a bit more robust than the common use—he contrasts “mindfulness” with the excesses of hedonism. Whereas hedonism is the pursuit of “as many and as intensely pleasurable moments as possible,” mindfulness “requires approaching everything we do in a frame of mind that makes us most sensitive to what it has to offer.” It is not a pursuit: it is characterized by stillness and appreciation. In a sense, Baggini’s “mindfulness” is actually gratitude, expressed in slightly different terms.

The beautiful moderation of this book is worth emphasizing. Unlike most books on food or eating, Baggini isn’t worried about setting down a list of rules, a series of dos or don’ts. To the contrary: “The major insight of Aristotle’s virtue-based approach,” he writes, “is that there is no manual for living well that can reduce everything to a list of do’s and don’ts.” Instead, “We need to learn the right way of living, and that is about attitudes, habits, dispositions, and virtues.”

What if, instead of embracing a paleo diet or a vegan diet, we learned to eat with moderation, humility, and mindfulness: to buy what is good, and partake with care and gratitude? What if, instead of relying on a Fitbit or phone app to tell us how to eat or live, we practiced non-quantifiable virtues: virtues that encourage human flourishing and health that transcends the body and enriches the mind?

It’s not really a revolutionary idea. Baggini’s book may have only come out last year, but Aristotle’s virtue ethics have been around for thousands of years. What we lack, now as always, is the ability to set aside distraction and vice, and truly commit to the pains and difficulties of nurturing true virtue. It’s easier to download an app than to cultivate one’s conscience.  

Gracy Olmstead is an associate editor at The American Conservative. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.