Julian Baggini makes an unlikely iconoclast. The author of The Ego Trick and Everytown is best known for bringing philosophy to the masses, not pricking our intellectual vanities. But although his new book, The Virtues of the Table, may do for gastronomy what Alain de Botton did for Heathrow, it’s also an assault on one of humanity’s most comforting delusions: the notion that rational thought can somehow deliver us from the needs of the flesh.
Think of an archetypal philosopher and you’ll see just how deeply this myth is ingrained in our culture. Are you imagining a corpulent hedonist or a scrawny ascetic nourished only by his genius? It’s a ludicrously unrealistic image, of course; Baggini reminds us that David Hume for one was a proud glutton and the creator of a sheep’s head broth that was the talk of Edinburgh.
But it’s philosophers themselves who have encouraged the idea. “Even philosophers who do enjoy their food don’t tend to talk about it,” Baggini says. “The philosophical bias going back to Plato has been to celebrate the intellectual side of our nature, and – even if we accept the brain as the engine of thought – to see this somehow as not quite corporeal. We see the physical side of our being as an unfortunate thing we have to live with. But if you skate over our animality you fail to account for human nature.”
It’s a robust, pragmatic attitude, and one that rings equally clearly across Virtues’ other central theme: cutting through the received wisdom about food. The cruelty of the abattoir, the environmental benefits of vegetarianism, and the superiority of fresh, local and artisanal produce are all shown to be far more ambiguous issues than most of us believe. “Bad Science writer Ben Goldacre had a T-shirt made up that says ‘I think you’ll find it’s more complicated than that’ because that’s his answer to everything! And that’s the same with agriculture.”
In McDonald’s and Nespresso, Baggini finds two pantomime villains both deserving of partial exoneration: the former for advancing poultry welfare when bureaucratic tape keeps official organic standards lagging behind, and the latter for proving that mechanical automation can – for better or worse – come close to equalling the best in human artisanal skill.
As one would expect of a philosopher, Baggini hopes his refusal to unquestioningly accept the current consensus might extend our own thinking beyond the problem of where and what we choose to eat. By considering food in all its political, ethical and spiritual dimensions, his book encourages us to find and cultivate reasoned, virtuous attitudes across the rest of our lives too.