The Seven Deadlies Revisited: II. Gluttony

It would be quite satisfying to begin our reflection on this month’s Deadly Sin, Gluttony, by invoking it to explain the global financial crackup. Googling the terms “gluttony” and “financial crisis” shows that a few thousand people have recently done just that. And why not, given how this particular capital vice has come to be construed? Isn’t Gluttony just some atavistic subset of Greed? Doesn’t it figuratively describe the financial and other marketplaces lately – i.e. taking in more than you need or is good for you?

The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is no – which is exactly why the modern temptation to sugarcoat Gluttony demands resistance. Gluttony is almost always used metaphorically today, when in fact it is perhaps the most literal of all the Deadlies beginning with the word itself (from the Latin gluttire, to gulp down or swallow). Perhaps the lengths to which we go to tart up our Gluttony, i.e. to dress it figuratively rather than literally, tells us something meaningful: this capital vice, in our age of plenty, may be both the most ubiquitous of all the Deadlies, and the one to which many of us wrongly believe ourselves immune.

So let’s take Gluttony here literally instead, to see what results. This month California became the first state in the union to require chain restaurants to post calorie counts: many things will some day pass away – even this interminable national election will pass away – but the fat we moderns will apparently always have with us. And not just we Americans, either. The same day as Governor Schwarzenegger’s announcement, a continent and an ocean away, Glasgow University announced the start of one of the largest studies of child obesity ever conducted in Europe, which will last five years and examine the “diet and lifestyle” of more than 17,000 children from ten countries. Similar news items in like combinations demonstrate Gluttony’s ubiquity; obesity, unlike so many other stocks right now, remains a growth industry.

A pitiful, if amusing, feature of our “non-judgmental” times is that throughout the enormous literature on the phenomenon, many authorities in the fat field assure us that the G-word has nothing to do with it. We should dismiss those “century-old preconceptions about the penalties of gluttony and sloth,” says Gary Taube in his popular Good Calories, Bad Calories. “If you’re fat, it’s not your fault,” says Dr. Barry “The Zone” Sears. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is one Deadly Sin with a public face – and backside – that’s hard to miss. We all know that eating and drinking have something to do with our personal enlargement, for a simple reason: because the more we eat or gulp, the bigger we get. And when we don’t, we don’t. Disputes about exactly which dietary culprits are most in need of public flogging – meat, dairy, refined sugars and flours, transfat – may be fascinating, even relevant to public health; but they miss the moral point.

If you’ve read this far and still feel comfortable – meaning that you are among the minority of adults who are not overweight or obese – please read on. If you’ve been reading and feel uncomfortable, read on too, for the comfortable are about to get their comeuppance. Many people who are not fat stop thinking about Gluttony right there – shaking their unjowled heads at more self-indulgent brethren. And this is exactly where the comfortable themselves go wrong.

Both St. Gregory the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, laid down rules about what constituted Gluttony. Only one was what we commonly associate with the sin – i.e., eating or drinking too much. The other four concerned loss of self-control over food and drink, different ways of putting things rather than people first: eating too soon, too expensively, too eagerly, and too daintily. In other words, one can be a glutton not only by excess, but also by spending too much time and savor in either doing so or not doing so – including, to update the examples, priding oneself on one’s “virtue” in only eating from “healthy” or “correct” sources. How many shoppers at Whole Foods or other gastronomically correct stores, for example, feel entitled to gorge in the evening because their daytime buys have all been of the “healthy” variety?

And here’s one more spiritual step that many of us, whether comfortable or uncomfortable, should take. Gluttony in an age of cheap food means that Christians should be entertaining other unwanted ideas, too – like the possibility that our plenty imposes obligations on us that our ancestors didn’t have.

For example, being proper “stewards of the earth” today – when our nutritional needs are easily fulfilled without animal flesh – means that we should re-think not only how much we eat, but also what. Matthew Scully in his 2003 book Dominion makes just that call with his subtitle: Human Power, Animal Suffering and the Call to Mercy. Vegans call this absence of animal products a “cruelty-free” diet; just because they’re making the claim doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. Why shouldn’t a meditation on Gluttony in our own day and age lead us to ask whether vegetarianism is right?

All of which is to say that however you take your Gluttony – with a shovel or a mother of pearl spoon, in a 64-oz. supersized cup or (one personal favorite) in Sancerre by the case – odds are that today, we’re all taking it somewhere. Contrary to what those of us who are surrounded by it have come to believe, Gluttony can be, and is, many insidious things. A metaphor is probably the least illuminating of them.


Mary Eberstadt

Mary Eberstadt is a Senior Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute. Her latest book, Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics, was published by Templeton Press.