Telfer’s Food for Thought: notes and comments

source: Telfer, Elizabeth. Food for Thought: Philosophy and Food. London: Routledge, 1996.

Telfer reminds us of Plato’s, Aristotle’s, Kant’s, and Mill’s positions on morality, which she relates to the issues of pleasure and, ultimately, food. Plato, privileging the rational and the immortal, advocates surpassing the appetites in favor of pursuing the Forms. Aristotle, another fan of the rational, also, values practical wisdom and the pursuit of good for humans and not the gods. But beware, Epicureanism: “Aristotle rehabilitates the physical pleasures in the context of his account of the virtue of temperance, which he defines as the virtue concerned with the desire for the pleasures of food, drink and sex.” Kant, insisting on the moral will, affords hospitality the potential for ethic. Because Mill values pleasure, he allows for the merits of physical pleasure. In conclusion, the valuing and devaluing of pleasure depends upon the valuing and devaluing of the physical.
My reaction: I’m inclined to take a Kantian approach to the perceived binary opposition of the merits of humans as rational vs. physical beings, attempting to merge these positions. One of Kant’s contributions to philosophy…and our lives…is his merging of Platonic and Aristotelian worldviews. I’m following his lead by proposing that through both the physical and the rational, we can achieve moments or states of transcendence. In terms of hospitality and, in particular, preparing and enjoying a meal, we combine the appropriate will–motivations and desires–with the culinary arts. With the proper intentions and aesthetic presentation, the meal becomes a blending of physical pleasures with proper intention. The meal, then, affords the possibility of transcendence—not from the physical—but from the ordinary stinginess and mediocrity of life.

Telfer catalogues the reasons and occasions for serving and enjoying meals: religious observances, allegiance statements, value assertions, event celebrations, friendship and love acts, civilization and taste demonstrations, and aesthetic presentations (38-39). Coupled with the reasons for enjoying meals are the motivations for hosting those meals. Motivation, for Telfer, is a key criterion for hospitality. She cites five properly motivated desires: companionship, entertaining, pleasing others, meeting another’s need, and a sense of duty.

My reaction: At first glance, it seemed that some of these reasons violate proper motivations for hospitableness. After all, we’re trained to believe that anytime a host orchestrates an event just to prove herself, the moral value of her effort declines. But is there no room for the host’s flair or dare I suggest, for the host’s showboating her culinary efforts? Isn’t it awesome that I can devise a theme that takes me way out of my cooking comfort zone, prepare food and organize the house to entertain two dozen people (who I don’t really know very well), and meander through the actual event without horribly embarrassing myself or my kin? You say, not really? Then, you’ve never hosted such an event. I don’t think (or at least trying not to say) that tearing and tossing a 4-ingredient salad with store-bought dressing to accompany a 5-can casserole and bakery bread, followed by the grocery bakery’s pie has no merit. I applaud those hosts. But I don’t admire them. They have extended the minimum effort–planning, preparing, and presenting little. Minimum effort, I suppose, can produce maximum pleasure. OK, I concede that such a meal could afford a tasty venue and enjoyable experience. But isn’t something missing–the pleasure of someone fretting about how her guests can best be cared for? And unlike Luther, to me, motivation comes second to work ethic. When I host and am hosted, I want to feel and witness that hospitality required work. Lots of work. And risk…but that’s another blog.

Telfer’s definition of hospitality: “the giving of food, drink and sometimes accommodation to people who are not regular members of a household” (83).

My reaction:  The key word is “giving” because it prohibits hospitality that hinges only on duty. Have you ever hosted a hospitable event begrudgingly? I haven’t. I probably shouldn’t confess this, lest some of my former guests would ever read this blog, but so many of my hostings have started out with the purest of intentions only to be spoiled by my guests’ reactions (or failures to react). If you’re wondering what I’m talking about see my Ten Tips blog. If you have advice for me to toughen up and power through inconsiderate guests, please, deluge me with your wisdom. I just can’t seem to let go of the accumulating barrage of non-RSVPs, unsolicited dinner suggestions for improving a dish, compliments only about the one item I didn’t create, ushering through the door uninvited guests (strangers, in fact), texting, and sending no thank-you note or even mumbling a post-dinner gratitude. I’ll stop. I’ve clearly lost the focus of being a truly hospitable host (which is why I so desperately need your advice). Mea maxima culpa. Let me return to Telfer’s definition, emphasizing “giving” and adding the need to risk one’s feelings getting hurt.

Telfer reminds us that eating together often protects guests and hosts from future animosity–at least within the home. Telfer reflects that the jealous Hunding is more concerned for hospitality codes than for any other morality code, tricking Siegmund to leave the home in order to be murdered. Telfer cites the Bedouin prohibition of fighting someone with whom one’s eaten salt.

My reaction: This is good to remember no matter what culture we come from and live in. Once a guest, never an enemy—at least in your home. If only diplomacy could hinge on sharing a meal.

Finally, Telfer wonders if hospitality is a moral virtue.

My reaction: Being hospitable requires being a better person. And being a better person requires being hospitable. In essence, that’s the agenda of this bog site—to learn how to become more moral by becoming more hospitable.

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