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Thinking and eating. Can we do both?

I lead a lonely life, and to fill the fearsome void, I arrange dinner parties for philosophers.

This involves detailed planning regarding the guest list.

For example: What about having Nietzsche over for dinner?

Fritz was such a touchy guy. Had some problems with his digestion so, despite his ego-inflating use of terms like Will to Power and Ubermensch, and his exuberant announcements of the death of God … he’d probably want consommé and crackers. At heart, he was a mommy’s boy. No fun. No invitation.

Immanuel Kant — he’d be a problem. The menu would have to be crafted in light of a dish that could be served to everyone, at all times. That’s tough. Plus, we could never know the spaetzle in itself, so ...

Hegel? Let’s see, the sausage lasagna would be countered with its antithesis, Waldorf salad, and the resulting entree would be? Too extreme.

Descartes would have to doubt he was eating, until he reached the point he realized he couldn’t doubt he was doubting he was eating and, since doubt is a form of thought, he’d get bogged down in identifying being with thinking, then dealing with mind-body problems relative to the enjoyment of food. And all that prior to a rational analysis of the menu. That would take time and the food would get cold. Anyway, he’d probably eat with his mouth open.

Augustine would vigorously deny any pleasure in the meal, pining for the nectar awaiting him (but probably not me) at the eternal table. Who wants a pill at the table?

Sartre would eat, but he wouldn’t like it. And he would chain smoke and spew invectives at the other guests. Heidegger would invent new terms for the foods and confuse everyone present.

Why am I considering such things?

When I am alone — when Kathy flees the scene in search of agreeable company — facing the prospect of cooking a meal, I wonder about the great philosophers in the Western tradition.

Doesn’t everyone?

And doesn’t everyone generally agree with Georges Sorel when he says “… philosophy is, after all, perhaps only the recognition of the abysses which lie on each side of the footpath that the vulgar follow with the serenity of somnambulists”?

I related this quote to a friend the other day.

Why I did this, given the quality of my friends, is a mystery.

My friend was able to pull little meaning from the quote. He heard the name of the author and said: “I have a pair of Sorels that I’ve used for six winters. Best boots I ever owned.”

At least he proved Sorel’s point.

Why do philosophers inhabit my fantasy life, instead of sports heroes or rocket scientists?

Easy to explain: I was a marginal athlete and a rotten student in high school, lazy, easily distracted, given to careless behavior — a junior version of what I am today. I didn’t idolize athletes who made me look clumsy and uninspired, and I wasn’t bright enough to deal with rocket science. I was no better when I first attended college — before they kicked me out. I had not improved much when, after a stint in the music biz, I returned to school.

It was when I returned that I began the study of philosophy and the concept of disciplined (OK, slightly disciplined) scholarship took root.

I found I loved to read philosophy, to engage in argument, to learn obscure terms and, thus endowed with the ability to disorient people, to pretend I was smart.

I was so adept at confusing people and pretending I was smart, I went on to teach the subject, working as an adjunct instructor teaching courses in the department of philosophy at a state college. I was one of the galley slaves, shackled to the pedant’s oar when the boat needed to move, rewarded with a measly quarterly paycheck.

After 14 years of haphazard work, of bureaucratic whippings delivered for my refusal to seek a terminal degree (I used the excuse that trees should not die for another vapid dissertation), I quit. Or maybe they let me go.

That was more than 25 years ago, but I have not lost my taste for philosophy. I revisit my favorite thinkers and texts, dipping in and out of the classics like a deranged hummingbird flitting into rare blossoms encountered at random during crazy-quilt flights.

I keep books next to the bed and read snatches at night. With my teensy attention span, that means five or six pages at a time.

I also keep cookbooks next to my bed and read at least one recipe per night. Recipes, when written well, resemble competent philosophical arguments: to the point, rational, proceeding from premises to a conclusion.

It’s natural, then, that I associate philosophers with food.

So, there I am, wondering what it would be like to entertain my favorite philosophers, to feed them, to drink and play catch with ideas late into the night in the tradition of The Symposium.

What can I offer them? What kind of music would play in the background? Seating arrangements?

Are there foods that mimic the style, the temper of certain thinkers? Could menus be created to mirror philosophical concepts?

The other night, I pondered dinner with some of the ancients. First, with Socrates.

Wouldn’t work: the froggy little fellow would be boorish. One question after another, and no telling what he would do next: indulge or abstain — eat and drink, laugh it up and be merry, or talk about going back to his spare abode, back to snippy Xantippe and his one change of sackcloth.

Plato?

The conversation would be excellent; the food would leave a lot to be desired. Plato was a geek — a frightfully intelligent geek, but a geek nonetheless. And no fan of sensual fun. If you have Rabelais at one end of a spectrum, Plato sits foursquare at the other pole. A real yawner, foodwise. There’s no eating to excess and while pounding down a drink would not be out of the question, ribaldry would not be on the program.

There would be no appreciation of the transmutation of elements in the preparation of food, when fire meets flesh, when acid meets malleable substance. What thrill is there in contemplating the pleasurable results of transformation when you believe the matter being changed is not real? What delight do you take in taste and texture when you work overtime to degrade the evidence of the senses? True, we might have an interesting chat about how the form of a particular food gives rise to the pale imitation we ingest at the table (for the sake of fun I would opt for emanation, ala Plotinus). Plato might briefly be intrigued by the notion of a recipe, it’s status as idea and it’s relation to clearer, more beautiful eternal truths, but there’s no fuel in that. He would leave early.

It’s sad, this interior life, but it’s all I’ve got.

Then, I considered a dinner party for interesting fellows, planning meals for Pre-Socratics.

I thought about inviting Pythagoras but realized his constant chatter about mathematics, harmonies and the identity of eternal verities with numbers would limit the chances for fun. He’s like a mystical CPA, and we know how much fun CPAs are at a party. Plus, he wouldn’t eat beans and he’d insist on strumming a three-stringed lyre. No go.

Parmenides and Zeno were possibilities, until I realized we couldn’t get to the end of the meal. Passing food from one side of the table to the other could not occur with Zeno, since motion is an illusion. He would spoil the evening by reminding everyone that, if space consisted of discrete points, the dish of mashed potatoes would have to pass through an infinite series of points on its way from one set of hands to another. It would have to go halfway across the table, then halfway from there on, and halfway from that point on, blah, blah, blah, always half the remaining distance away from another diner. No problem, though, since Parmenides would deny that I could cook food, since becoming is an illusion and nothing can arise from something else. Everything simply is. The beef simply is; I cannot change it.

What kind of meal is that?

I settled on some other ancient thinkers — Milesians and Ephesians alike — incorporating elements they tabbed as the building blocks of the sense world. That is what they were all about, these ancient Greeks — figuring the Ground Zero of Being. Hey, these guys didn’t have television. They couldn’t watch American Idol — they had to do something!

I’d invite Thales, Anaximenes, Anaximander and Empedocles and park them around my dining room table.

We’d start with ice water, in honor of Thales. He believed the essential element was water.

I would treat Anaximander to an “indeterminate boundless” appetizer — some drippy mass, like hummus.

For Anaximenes, in a nod to his fixation on air, a soufflé would do the trick.

Then, a dish in honor of Empedocles. He proposed four immutable forms of matter: earth, air, fire and water. I could make a soup with the water as the foundation for a stock, mushrooms as earth, a bit of chile pequin as fire and a frothy aioli as air.

To please Anaxagoras, I’d rely on a discussion of kitchen technique: an explanation of how mind (nous) acts on matter to produce the desired product via the recognition and impression of a pattern — a recipe.

Whew. That’s a lot of work and, no doubt, the evening would degenerate into tedious hair splitting. So, I’d invite another guest to the table to shake things up.

Heraclitus. The Obscure One, from Ephesus.

Heraclitus focused not so much on the elements of which all things are composed, but on the process of change. He noted that all things are in flux, the “you can never step into the same river twice” gambit.

He’s the perfect guest for the cook — for what is cooking but control of flux, mastery of the change of state, coercion of elements into something new?

And change, the process Heraclitus fittingly described as “fire,” is not haphazard — just as the processes of the kitchen are not haphazard. There might be novelty, yes, but there is guidance, control of the fire by what Heraclitus called “logos.”

Logos — the active presence of pattern (a recipe and the techniques needed to complete it) in fire (the ingredients). Perfecto.

Further, Heraclitus recognized tension is necessary to prompt change — the conflict of opposites. “All is strife,” he said. And this fits the kitchen and the planning of the menu as well: Pitting flavors against each other, balancing textures, juxtaposing colors — all have a place in the completion of a meal.

Plus — and this would be the puzzling Ephesian’s prime quality — Heraclitus was reported to be rather cranky, with a BS tolerance right around zero.

Yep, Heraclitus it should be. He’d get the party started and weed out the weaklings.

As frosting on the cake, maybe I’ll throw all caution to the wind and invite Aristippus and his mom, Arete. They were Cyrenaics, and to say they went to extremes is to downplay their point of view. Sensual pleasure was, for them, the key to enlightenment. Satiation was paramount, overindulgence a rule.

What a crew: a bunch of dotty guys feebly trying to piece together the bedrock of Being, a hair-shirt crank unwilling to get along with anyone (to the point he is said to have lived in a cave), and a mommy and son who believed everything worthwhile feels good and should be indulged to the max.

Whoohah, we’d be having some fun!

Mousakka, anyone?

Let me think about it.

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