January 17, 2016
A couple of weeks back when I decided to dedicate this year’s series of blogs on “food ethics icons” to full-bore, no-one-would-raise-an-eyebrow-about-me-calling-them-philosophers philosophers, Aristotle was one of the guys I had in mind. He certainly meets the no-eyebrows-raised criterion. I think it was Alfred North Whitehead who said that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato, but these days it’s Aristotle who is thought to be the pinnacle of thought in Ancient Greece. He was a Macedonian born in 384 BCE, but like Socrates and Plato, his philosophical legacy is tied closely to the city of Athens. I’m not going to do biography. I kind of like the way that Plutarch makes Aristotle out to be something of a gangster in his time, implicating him in a plot to assassinate his onetime pupil and conqueror-of-the-known-world Alexander. It’s probably not true, but hey, that hasn’t stopped us here in the Thornapple Blog before. Aristotle died on the island of Euboea (can I resist a surrealistic tangent on Ebola?) in 322 BCE.
I’m also going to break form from the last two food ethics icons by saying absolutely nothing about Aristole’s general philosophy. There’s way too much of it, for one thing. In ethics, he is cited as the paradigm expositor of virtue ethics, which is just a bizarre conceit among philosophy professors that is intended to mark out three general approaches to ethics. Consequentialists think that ethics is only about getting the best outcome from what you do, while deontologists think that ethics is only about knowing and discharging your moral duty. Virtue ethics is in truth kind of a trash-can “not either one of those” approaches, but it does pivot on the idea that ethics is predominantly about developing a strong moral character.
So you protest, dear reader, “I thought you weren’t going to say anything about Aristotle’s general philosophy, yet here you are prattling on about virtue ethics!” But I have two responses. One is to remind you (for the second time in this blog) that not everything you read in the Thornapple Blog is strictly true (though of course, some of it is). More substantively, a) I haven’t really told you much of anything about Aristotle because b) in fact all the Greeks were really doing virtue ethics, especially when you compare them to the way that consequentialists and deontologists do ethics today. One key point would be go back to the last paragraph and ponder the fact that the word ‘only’ is italicized. Twice.
So I do in fact think that food ethics really demands a ‘virtue ethics’ approach, but that wouldn’t be why I picked Aristotle as a food ethics icon. In point of fact, I’m not so sure that he was a good choice, after all. There’s not a hell of a lot about food or farming in Aristotle (not that I would represent myself as having read every word of Aristotle, mind you). You could go off on a few passages where he talks about the appropriateness of eating animals. But I won’t.
What made me think of Aristotle as a food ethics icon are a few passages in the Politics where he says that the family household is the model for a good society. Some of my feminist and gay friends tee off on this, but that’s not reading Aristotle in the appropriate historical context. He’s not defending the model of a family household that we learned from watching Leave It to Beaver back in the 1950s. He’s actually thinking about the kind of farming household that Xenophon discusses at length in his Oeconomicus. As I wrote a couple of weeks back, we’ve already done Xenophon, so here’s a link. You can tell that Aristotle has the farm household in mind because he talks about the hoi mesoi which we would probably translate as “the middle class”. This ties in nicely with themes Aristotle stresses in his virtue ethics, where he writes that a virtue is usually a “mean” or middle-point between two vices of excess. “Courage,” for example, is the mid-point between cowardice and foolhardiness. But I said I wasn’t going to say anything about Aristotle’s larger philosophical views, so I’d better just drop this right now.
It’s easy to read that “middle class” thing to mean people just like you, me and Bob, but neither you, me nor Bob very likely represents the hoi mesoi unless Bob happens to be a farmer who is also a member of the National Guard. The farm households had a special relationship to the heart of the polis, which is, in turn, the heart or core of political solidarity. Unlike the hoi polloi they were not plutocrats, but had to work for their living, and the work they did depended on the sustainability of society and its ability to protect their fields from invading hoards. Invading hoards like Cyrus and the Persians, who were not a Peloponnesian punk band, but actual and for instance in fact invading hoards.
Well, I’m being a bit sarcastic and stretching the truth a little and I might as well admit it. But it’s also just a fact that lots of philosophy professors who know a lot more about Aristotle than I do seem to miss this singular fact about the way that he describes the basis of political association. So to push this line just a little bit harder, I’m calling Aristotle a food ethics icon.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University