If my calculations are correct, when this baby hits 88mph… you’re gonna see some serious shit.
Of the many adventures that have captivated Man’s imagination over the centuries, time travel has perhaps been the most enticing. Who hasn’t thought of visiting the seven wonders of the ancient world, observing the evolutionary change from ape to man, hearing the great Greek philosophers lecture in the streets of Athens, and witnessing Newton grasp the law of gravity? Who hasn’t dreamt of living through various time periods of the past in order to better understand the present? The practical infeasibility of time travel shouldn’t deter us from doing precisely this. In the next few essays, we will mentally wander through several historical periods, examining the various paradigms of nutrition in each, in order to understand how our view of nutrition has changed over time.
Throughout this exercise, we will focus on the following five questions : what are the sources of valid knowledge? what moral goals are held as ideals? what tools are necessary to achieve them? at what period of life are these ideals achievable? which is most important: body, spirit, or mind? Meaning, we will examine metaphysical, epistemological, moral and political perceptions and the way they are manifest in nutritional theories.
This Ancient Greek maxim was inscribed at Apollo’s temple at Delphi. It is short, but holds an all-encompassing meaning. Many Greek philosophers believed that Man’s highest moral ideal is fulfilled by achieving a state of harmony between one’s spiritual and physical being. Philosophers (the scientists and educators of their time) taught that a life of wisdom and knowledge constitutes the best way to achieve personal and social fulfilment, because they believed that a person who knows the “good” acts upon it.
In Ancient Greece, philosophers did not have access to the scientific knowledge and the technology that we use today to understand the inner workings of the human body. Instead, they relied on direct external observations, using the five senses to understand the world around them. Naturally, this methodology was very limited; it gave no insight into our internal, spiritual, moral, and emotional world. For example, can we use our sense of sight to explain the nature of the soul or to understand the meaning of happiness and health? The Greeks concluded that the most valid way to answer these deeper questions is through introspection. Therefore, they acquired knowledge through two methods: external sense perception (i.e. extrospection) and internal, rational, sense-based observation (i.e. introspection). The former aims to collect data about the world around us while the latter aims to gather information about our internal world and analyze it in conjunction with information about external reality.
A proper education in Ancient Greece meant excellence and harmony in body, mind, and soul. To achieve this, their educational system focused on philosophy, gymnastics and music. Their study of philosophy equates to our modern-day study of natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. It encompassed any attempt to understand the principles governing natural phenomena and the working of the human soul. Gymnastics meant anything necessary to promote the body’s well-being, and it included sports, combat and warfare. Music was an umbrella term for any artistic discipline — painting, sculpting, singing, playing music, dancing, acting, etc. — that aims to invigorate the soul with spiritual, ethical and aesthetic catharsis. The Greek education system strived to give the student theoretical and practical tools to deal with extrospective and introspective data in order to understand both himself and the world around him. Thus it was said that a knowledgeable person who neglected his fitness would harm his well-being; a strong and courageous man who neglected his artistic side would become evil and compassionless, and so on. For the Greeks, knowledge in these three subjects was the necessary basis for a sound mind, body, and soul.
Mountains and valleys
That was the Ancient Greek ideal concept of education, in theory, but as with many things, the practice diverted from the theory over time.
The ethics of various Ancient Greek philosophers revolved around the notion of virtue. According to this approach, a good and happy life is directly tied to the ability to act according to positive virtues, such as: wisdom, justice, courage and moderation. This theory evolved in contrast to other cultural trends that worshiped honor and hedonism. The Athenians founded the first free city-state in history and as a free society, they enjoyed art, sports, communal feasts and sex in any possible way. In a nutshell, they embraced pleasure, and they were not afraid to satisfy their desires. But the great classical philosophers, just like their modern counterparts, worried that extreme honor worship and hedonism would ultimately lead to moral decadence and failure on both state and personal levels. They therefore offered many alternate ways to define and achieve the “good life”.
To begin with, we will summarize Plato’s philosophy and discuss its implications for nutrition.
The primacy of spirit over matter
Plato was an adamant promoter of the holistic education system. In his dialogues, he repeatedly argues that a worthy life necessitates knowledge of truth, good and beauty, which we can obtain by studying philosophy, gymnastics, and music. But Plato’s theory is not as simple as it sounds. Platonic metaphysics argues for the existence of an ideal world, the separate, spiritual counterpart to our material reality. This separate universe contains the eternal and perfect forms of all material phenomena. According to this theory, material phenomena are imperfect, inferior copies of these perfect forms, which exist only in the spiritual universe. In Platonic metaphysics, the forms represent truth and purity precisely because of their unchanging and eternal character, while the material world, in all its diversity, is regarded as inferior because of its changeable and limited character.
The Platonic theory of knowledge (epistemology) focuses on the limits of obtaining knowledge from your senses. Plato argued that since the senses can only recognize material phenomena, and familiarity with the true forms can only be achieved in a spiritual and introspective manner, true knowledge was reserved to a gifted few — the philosophers.
Ethically, the Platonic theory regards material values as inferior to spiritual values. Any dependence on the material world — such as excessive enjoyment from food — is regarded as morally corrupt. In contrast, a lifelong pursuit of understanding of the eternal forms is the righteous path to happiness and well-being, since it enables the seeker to perceive the universal, unchanging and perfect form of the good, unaffected by distortions of the senses and wrong desires. As such, Plato calls for a subordination of the pursuit of all material values to the rule of reason and his intrinsic form of the good.
Another important fact was that, to Plato, the initial “know thyself” maxim was actually limited to a small group of people — the philosophers — who were born with a, supposedly, intrinsically greater ability to grasp the truth and understand the forms. This intellectual separation between philosophers and “simple folk” (who are unable to grasp the forms), led to Plato’s authoritarian political theory. Philosophers were supposed to study the forms and develop laws for the society, while the rest of us were expected to blindly follow their rule.
The Platonic approach teaches us that only by following reason can we achieve a mind-body equilibrium that subjugates material pursuits to the ideal form of the good. This led Plato to condemn the pursuit of honor and bodily pleasures. For him, health and happiness are direct outcomes of spiritual integrity:
“What classes of things have a greater share of pure existence, in your judgment—those of which food and drink and condiments and all kinds of sustenance are examples, or the class which contains true opinion and knowledge and mind and all the different kinds of virtue? Put the question in this way: Which has a more pure being—that which is concerned with the invariable, the immortal, and the true, and is of such a nature, and is found in such natures; or that which is concerned with and found in the variable and mortal, and is itself variable and mortal?”
“Far purer, he replied, is the being of that which is concerned with the invariable.” […]
“Then, in general, those kinds of things which are in the service of the body have less of truth and essence than those which are in the service of the soul?”
“And has not the body itself less of truth and essence than the soul?”
“Those then who know not wisdom and virtue, and are always busy with gluttony and sensuality, go down and up again as far as the mean; and in this region they move at random throughout life, but they never pass into the true upper world; thither they neither look, nor do they ever find their way, neither are they truly filled with true being, nor do they taste of pure and abiding pleasure. Like cattle, with their eyes always looking down and their heads stooping to the earth, that is, to the dining-table, they fatten and feed and breed, and, in their excessive love of these delights, they kick and butt at one another with horns and hoofs which are made of iron; and they kill one another by reason of their insatiable lust. For they fill themselves with that which is not substantial, and the part of themselves which they fill is also unsubstantial and incontinent.”
Don’t forget to breathe between bites
Plato’s idealism distinguishes between the eternal characteristics of the soul and the temporal characteristics of the ever-changing and withering material body. According to this approach, the soul is eternal because it belongs to the universe of forms. In contrast, the body belongs to the material world, and is therefore inferior to the soul. Plato and his disciples concluded that acting on reason is morally superior to acting on any bodily need or desire . We can attain the good by practicing introspection and reason, and not by performing practical, “this-worldly” actions. The more we understand the forms, and specifically the form of the Good, the closer our soul gets to its eternal state. Plato does not explain what the form of the Good actually is, because it is indescribable in words (artifacts of this material realm). The only way to attain the realm of the forms in life is to undergo vigorous philosophical training. Otherwise, we can reach it only after death. Plato goes further to describe the division of the human soul into three parts: the impulsive, the courageous and the rational. He directed much scorn at the impulsive part, which was said to constantly pursue material values such as food, honor, and pleasure. The courageous part is of slightly higher stature. The noblest part strives for understanding of the truth through careful application of reason. Hence, to Plato and his followers, we can only achieve a moral, happy, and healthy life by suppressing our immediate desires and making our decisions on the basis of reason alone.
Now don’t get me wrong, Plato was part of Athenian culture, so he definitely did not preach asceticism as an ultimate value in and of itself. He believed that material pleasure is important to happiness, so long as it is consistent with reason. From this we might deduce that when speaking of nutrition Platonism only opposes pleasure derived from food if it contradicts the harmony between mind, body and spirit. Just as greed corrupts the soul, excessive eating and drinking fatigues the body and obscures consciousness, causing physical and mental harm. Flawed nutrition harms the body, and when the body is “ill”, so too the soul.
Plato’s moral subjugation of physical pleasures to reason has its merits, since it strives to achieve long term happiness and health while avoiding excess physical pleasures that might cause health hazards. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that ancient scholars did not have access to modern scientific tools, so they believed in many unscientific myths and superstitions. Therefore, when we examine Platonic theory we must hold a few problems in mind:
[1.] Plato did not clearly define the ideal “Good” one should strive for. He leaves the reader to accept dogmatically a very general definition, even if it contradicts his/her personal values.
[2.] Plato promotes unattainable goals. Since his ideals are supposedly eternal and perfect, anything that holds a lesser stature is considered unworthy. However, since all phenomena in our reality are temporal, they are regarded as inferior to the forms. Values can be important to different people in different contexts, so can we objectively say that Plato’s “eternal” values are more important than concrete “earthly” values? What about the psychological consequences of setting unattainable values? Would it not lead to a constant feeling of guilt for not being able to achieve them?
[3.] Another problem is related to Plato’s professed contempt towards the material world and sense perception. Instead of promoting equality between man’s spiritual and physical aspects, he gave precedence to the spiritual. This view might not have caused many problems during the age of Ancient Greece, where physical excellence was highly prized, but it may have led to the idealization of physical suffering and self-mutilation that characterized Christianity in later centuries. But that’s a different paradigm that we’ll discuss in greater detail in the future.References  Plato. Republic. (Barnes & Noble Classic, New York, 2004). Book 9, pp. 350-351 (original text page: 585). (Source: Google Play Books)  Ancient Ethical Theory. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy  Albert Bierstadt: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Bierstadt