Enlightenment Dietetics

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W hat had been a religious obsession about moral corruption in Martin Luther's sixteenth-century understanding of obesity and the body came in the Enlightenment to be the stuff of the science of dietetics dealing with illness. The meaning of the fat body came to be the focus of science with all of the moral quality ascribed to secular questions of health and illness, rather than to the moral readings of gluttony and obesity.

By the seventeenth century, there was the first, modern creation of a specialized literature of "healthy" and "unhealthy" foods such as Johann Sigismund Elsholtz's (1623-88) Diaeteticon (1682). His tabulation of every possible food and drink that was (or could be) consumed for its healthy and unhealthy properties had become a standard for the classification of foods. Indeed, he quotes Galen to the effect that every physician should become knowledgeable in the art of cooking (Elsholtz 1984: xx2). Toward the end of his book, he advises on the appropriate diet for men—they should combine eating with work or exercise, such as fencing. He also ends his book with a warning, following Hippocrates, that the athletic body of the man can more easily age and become ill when he overeats (Elsholtz 1984: 345).

The moral questions remained, but slowly were loosed from the overt religious rhetoric of obesity. The French essayist Jean de La Bruyère (1645-96) presents us a series of portraits of men who are types, or "characters," in 1688. Among them is Clito who had, throughout his life, been concerned with two things along: namely, dining at noon and supping at night; he seems born to digest; he has only one topic of conversation: he tells you what entrées were served at the last meal he was at, how many soups there were and what sort of soups.

He is "the arbiter of good things." But sadly, La Bruyère notes, "he was giving a dinner party on the day he died. Wherever he may be, he is eating, and if he should come back to this world, it would be to eat" (La Bruyère 1970: 208). The deadly sin of "gula" (gluttony) has become gormandizing, but the result is the same—death.

By the Enlightenment, Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland (1762-1836) had captured in his extraordinarily popular The Art of Prolonging Life (in two volumes, 1796-7) the "good" and "moral" aspects of the physical nature of man (Hufeland 1797: I, 169). Fat is simply bad for Hufeland and the Enlightenment philosophers because most people eat much more than they need. "Immoderation" is one of the prime causes of early death (Hufeland 1797: II, 43 ). Invoking the golden mean, eating too much and eating too richly will kill you. "The first thing which, in regard to diet, can act as a shortener of life, is immoderation" (Hufeland 1797: II, 43). Too much food and food that is too "refined" are the cause of the shortening of life. Food that tastes too good makes one eat too much. Simple is better than complex: "Eggs, milk, butter and flour are each, used by itself, very easy of digestion; but when joined together, and formed into a fat, solid pudding, the produce will be extremely heavy and indigestible" (Hufeland 1797: II, 45-6). "People in a natural state ... require few rules respecting their diet" (Hufeland 1797: II, 242). Balance in diet is vital: Vegetables and bread must be eaten with meat. Indeed, the avoidance of "flesh" and of wine is advocated (Hufeland 1797: II, 248). Healthy is simple; simple is long life.

"Idleness" is also a cause (Hufeland 1797: II, 64). Human beings have lost their natural ability to determine how much we need by childhood overindulgence. Natural man, notes Hufeland, in plowing the fields has purpose, exercise, and food appropriate to long life. "His son becomes a studious rake; and the proportion between countrymen and citizens seems daily to be diminished" (Hufeland 1797: II, 217). The fat child is now the father (and mother) of the fat adult. Indeed, Hufeland places at the very beginning of his list of things that will certainly cause early death—a "very warm, tender, and delicate education" in childhood in which children are stuffed "immoderately with food; and by coffee, chocolate, wine, spices, and such things" (Hufeland 1797: II, 9). Not sin but middle-class overindulgence begins to be seen as the force that creates fat boys. In the nineteenth century, the "science" of diet seems to replace the morals of diet. The hidden model remains the same: The normal, reasonable man is always contrasted with the fat boy and always to the fat boy's detriment. And the reward for the thin man is life, life extended (and if Augustine is to be believed, life eternal), while the fat person dies young and badly.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), in his essay on "Overcoming Unpleasant Sensations by Mere Reasoning" (x797), argued that dietetics could only become philosophy "when the mere power of reason in mankind, in overcoming sensations by a governing principle, determines their manner of living. On the other hand, when it endeavors to excite or avert these sensations, by external corporeal means, the art becomes merely empiric and mechanical" (Kant 1991: 371-93). This is his direct answer to Hufeland's empiricism. Hufeland had sent him his book on diet and longevity in the winter of 1796, and Kant recognized in it Hufeland's attempt to fulfill Kant's demand that the physical (and physiological) aspects of the human being be treated "morally." Kant's recognition that Hufeland's argument for prophylaxis is to avoid illness, rather than using specific foods for treatment in a philosophy of moral life. He relates this to the Stoic notion of "endurance and moderation" (Kant I99I: 375).

Kant's essay (as with many of these presentations concerning diet and longevity) is highly autobiographical. His discussion of diet is tangibly tied to his awareness of his own aging body (Kant 1991: 383). He compares himself to the men in their prime, and he defines aging specifically in gendered terms. He speaks of the increased amount of liquid that "aged men" seem to need to drink, which then disturbs their sleep. For Kant, the power of the rational mind to avoid illness rests in the control that the mind has not only over that which one ingests, but also the very control of breathing and the body. It is the will that controls the body. Part of this rationale is explained in the final footnote in which Kant speaks of the blindness in his one eye and his anxiety about the failing sight in the other. He distances this fear by asking whether the pathologies of vision are in his eye or in the processing of the data in his brain, and notes that he has not actually felt the loss of the blind eye. Unlike diet, which can be manipulated to control the health (and weight) of the body, the aging body seems to have its own rate of decline for which there is no control, even in rationality. Kant's essay, which begins with Hufeland's dietetics, ends with the aging, half-blind philosopher ruminating on the irresistible but fascinating decay of his own body.

The beginning of a "modern" (i.e., materialist) science of medicine saw the development of the view that human beings proceed along an arc of development and that there is a specific moment where the body is most at risk from obesity. In 1757, the Dutch physician Malcolm Flemyng (1700-64) argued for the inheritance of a tendency toward obesity in a presentation to the Royal Society of Physicians in London. His A Discourse on the Nature, Causes, and Cures of Corpulency (1757) argued for a physiological rather than a moral definition of obesity: Fat people are not inherently lazy or sinful. His cure is exercise early on as "persons inclined to corpulency seldom think on reducing their size till they grow very bulky and then they scarce can or will use exercise enough to be remarkable serviceable" (Flemyng 1757: 34). Thomas Jameson in 1811 felt that the period from the twenty-eighth to the fifty-eighth year was the height of male perfection (Jameson 1811). Kant would have agreed with this. And yet this is also the age of the most danger as "we . . . find corpulency steals imperceptibly on most men, between the ages of thirty and fifty-seven. In many instances the belly becomes prominent, and the person acquires a more upright gait" (quoted in Jameson 1811: 90). Yet this is not necessarily a bad thing as "a moderate degree of obesity is certainly a desirable state of body at all times, as it indicates a healthy condition of the assimilating powers" (quoted in Jameson 1811: 91). Obesity "also diminishes the irritability of the system, since fat people are remarked for good humour, and for bearing cold better than those who are lean, on account of the defensive coat of fat surrounding their nerves" (quoted in Jameson 1811: 91). But fat can become dangerous: "when the heart and great vessels are so oppressed with fat, as to render the pulse slow and feeble, and the respiration difficult, the cumbrous load becomes of more serious import to the health" (quoted in Jameson 1811: 92). The "prominent belly" is "considered as the first symptom of decay, particularly as it is generally observed to continue through a great part of old age" (quoted in Jameson 1811: 105). Here again the shadow of the Greek humors reappears to claim that the phlegmatic body and the aged body have the same, underlying pathology, that of obesity.

See also Greek Medicine and Dieting; Luther; Natural

Man; Roman Medicine and Dieting

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