Chicago, Illinois, United States
The notion of gluttony (gula in Latin, meaning throat, gullet) was born among the Desert Fathers. These were hermits who in the early Middle Ages chose to live in a harsh environment and in solitude, conditions they deemed most suitable for mystical contemplation. Among them, the monk Evagrius Ponticus (345-399 AD) prepared a list of vices or wicked thoughts—the capital vices or cardinal sins—that the devil was apt to employ for their souls’ perdition. The first one was gluttony, the second was lust; six others followed, but the first two were firmly bonded to each other: their union proved exceedingly long-lasting. It was a match made in hell. Later theologians introduced some modifications: the capital sins were reduced to seven: the controversial acedia1 was assimilated to sloth, and gluttony was moved to fifth place, after pride, avarice, lust, and wrath, and preceding envy and sloth. This is presently the canonical form of the infernal muster roll.
Medieval theologians defined gluttony as eating (and drinking) too much. But also eating greedily; eating before the regular meal time; and eating opulent foods “sumptuously” adorned or exquisitely prepared. The grave nature of this sin derived largely from its consequences. Copious food and libation loosen the tongues of the convivials, who then engage in disputes, sometimes in violence, sing obscene songs, and utter hebetudinous or blasphematory remarks. “It is not what goes into the mouth, but what comes out of it that counts,” wisely admonished Saint Ambrosius. Not to mention that a full stomach well rinsed with spirits induces a euphoria during which bodies touch each other; hence slide to sensuous contacts; and may fall into sexual relationships the main object of which is not reproduction, but—horror of horrors for theologians of the Patristic Age—purely sexual pleasure, the appurtenance of debauchees and libertines. Recall that for medieval Christian religious leaders, sexual intercourse other than in the so-called “missionary” position (erroneously thought likeliest to produce pregnancy) was appallingly perverted. A moralist once claimed that the Almighty, angered by couples who deviated from the only “natural” position in order to enhance venereal pleasure, sent the Biblical flood in punishment to mankind for this outrageous transgression.2 There you have the real origin of the Flood.
This was gluttony’s time of glory, when it was truly a deadly sin: the kind that could doom you to perpetual roasting in the afterlife. Yet, vices were ably combated with the contrary virtues, viz., pride with humility, lust with temperance, and gluttony, of course, with fast. Heroic were the efforts of holy men in this combat. St. Romuald, not content simply with fasting, had succulent dishes prepared for him, approached them to his nostrils, and taking in nothing but the aroma, would say: “O, my throat! How great delight it would be for you to swallow these delicacies! But you shall have none.” And straight away he ordered the dishes taken back to the kitchen. Hagiography consigns many episodes of this type.
Even at the zenith of its preeminence, gluttony had already begun to lose face. If Divine Providence had made the act of eating pleasurable, why would fine dining condemn us to eternal affliction in the hereafter? On close examination, gula did not seem so diabolical. Artists knew this, since they symbolized wrath with a lion, envy with a venomous snake, and gluttony with a pig. (Figure 1). Clearly, a sin represented by a pig is not in the same league as those which call forth a lion, an eagle, or a deadly asp. St. Thomas allowed that when a man earnestly desires the pleasures of the palate, yet would not for their sake do anything contrary to God’s law, it is not a mortal sin. In short, gluttony was demoted to the rank of “venial sin.” It would see worse times still.
The undefinable, slippery notion of “good taste” terminated gluttony’s prestige as a sin. In medieval banquets, the guests stuffed themselves avidly and to excess with any available viands. The specter of famine always lurked in the background. As food production improved, the fear of scarcity receded, and the act of eating could be aestheticized. One could now take pride in eating foods daintily adorned, expertly seasoned. This became a mark of refinement.
The French contributed mightily to the undoing of gluttony by elevating the cultivation of the palate to the rank of a fine art. French intellectuals live by “fine phrases” just as patients with obstructive pulmonary disease live by oxygen tanks. Thus, Brillat-Savarin and others extolled the appreciation of fine foods with a slick prose. By dint of flowery sentences, they defanged the former demoniac sin. “Gourmandise” used to be a synonym of “gluttony,” it now became “our implicit resignation to the orders of the Almighty, who, having condemned us to eat in order to live, invites us by the appetite, sustains us by the flavor, and rewards us by pleasure.”3
Gluttony’s decline did not stop here. A special commission that included two members of the Académie Française, presented in 2003 a petition to Pope John Paul II to remove gourmandise from the list of capital sins.4 The idea was not to abolish the sin of overindulgence—henceforth to be called gloutonnerie—but to allow that eating pleasant foods in moderation amid group conviviality is a life-enhancing experience. The pope was sympathetic. One could enjoy gustative sensuality (even the kind judged aphrodisiac) remorselessly. The circle was complete: the sin had become a virtue!
But the devil is not easily routed. And who would have thought that modern medicine helped the Malignant One to make a comeback? Yet, it is a fact that medical discourse restored gluttony to its former infernal dignity. First, we were informed that obesity is a dire disease of “epidemic” proportions in our societies, which results from imbalance between calories ingested and calories expended. The obese were therefore stigmatized as sick and deviant. They are those who devour and ingurgitate immoderately; who nibble between meals; who manifest a weakness for daintily-prepared, cholesterol-rich viands; and who sit all day: the lazy, indolent, and fainéant. Medical journals speak of the causes of obesity being “gluttony” (yes, gluttony is back) and “sloth,” two deadly sins.5
Scholars point out many similarities between biomedicine and religion.6 Medicine is “the religion of our time.” It offers salvation, but only to those who perform certain tasks of ritual purification, like exercise, while avoiding impious actions, like smoking, or eating “bad” foods. The new casuists try to reconcile the pleasure of eating and conviviality with the tenets of the biomedicine religion. Pleasure and merrymaking are also essential to individual wellbeing, are they not? But while this debate is ongoing, gluttony is back. Astride on her pig, she displays a malevolent, sarcastic smile as she stares at us disheveled, with injected eyes, swollen cheeks, and reddened nose.
- Andrew Crislip: The Sin of Sloth or the Illness of the Demons? The Demon of Acedia in Early Christian Monasticism. Harvard Theological Review 2005: 98 (2): 143-169.
- James A. Brundage: Let me count the ways: canonists and theologians contemplate coital positions. Journal of Medieval History 1984:10: 81-93.
- Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: Physiologie du goüt, ou Méditations de gastronomie transcendante. Vol. 1, Paris, Librairie des Bibliophiles. 1879, p.205-206
- Mary Blume: “Sins Be Damned, French Say; Let’s Eat.” The New York Times, (Arts section). March 6, 2003.
- Andrew M. Prentice and Susan A. Jebb: Obesity in Britain: Gluttony or Sloth? British Medical Journal 1995: 311 (No. 7002): 437-439
- Goldberg: “Religion, the culture of biomedicine , and the tremendum: Towards a non-essentialist analysis of interconnection.” Journal of Religion and Health 2007: 46 (1); 99-108.
F. GONZALEZ-CRUSSI was the Head of Laboratories at the former Children’s Memorial Hospital of Chicago (now renamed Anne & Robert Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago) until his retirement in 2001. Born and raised in Mexico, he has authored 20 books of essays, in two languages (English or Spanish). His latest book in English, Carrying the Heart (Kaplan, 2009) won the 2014 Merck Literary Prize in Rome, Italy, for combining medicine and the humanities.