About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Chopped and Philosophy

by Steve Neumann

And what, Socrates, is the food of the soul?
— Hippocrates, Protagoras

In the tradition of publisher Open Court’s Popular Culture and Philosophy series, I’d like to use the popular Food Network reality show Chopped as a springboard for an exploration of the types of individuals and corresponding lifestyles that exist in society. The show itself has no explicit philosophical angles, but recently I’ve been thinking about how the art of gastronomy parallels the art of living, which can be called the pursuit of eudaimonia.

Each episode of Chopped consists of four chefs competing against each other for three rounds: appetizer, entrée, and dessert. In each round, the chefs must take a basket of mystery ingredients and create a dish that is judged on three areas — presentation, creativity, and taste — with only twenty minutes to plan and execute. One chef gets “chopped” from the competition at the end of each round. The winning chef receives $10,000. A panel of expert judges, all chefs and restaurateurs themselves, dole out accolades and criticisms — and the final verdict.

I. Socrates’ Tripartite Soul Food

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates introduces a description of the human soul that attempts to account for human behavior, and to his lights the soul is comprised primarily of three parts: reason, spirit and appetite. Additionally, Socrates shows that individuals can come to be ruled by any one of these tendencies: some may be ruled by reason, which would manifest itself as a love of truth and wisdom; others may be ruled by spirit, which corresponds to a desire for victory and honor; and still others may be ruled by their baser appetites, driven by a love of money and the satisfaction of unnecessary desires. As mentioned, on Chopped there are three areas on which individual chefs are judged: presentation, creativity and taste. I like to think of these as corresponding to Socrates’ tripartite soul as follows.

When creating a meal, the presentation should be pleasing, both to the eye and to the intellect. A ghastly appearance isn’t appetizing, and a disordered plate is inimical to our desire for harmony and coherence. In other words, our faculty of reason likes to experience lawfulness and congruity; it wants things to make sense.

In addition to creating an inviting dish, every chef wants to showcase her creativity. Making a standard spaghetti marinara, for example, is one thing, but to “kick it up a notch” enables her to be proud of her penchant for flair and ingenuity. In other words, our spirited side relishes the accolades heaped upon our imaginativeness and innovativeness.

And of course every chef wants her dish to taste good: our basic appetite wants to be satisfied; and once it gets a taste of the good stuff, it wants even more! It can be, as they say, insatiable.

Socrates describes to his interlocutors the salient characteristics of individuals ruled by each of the three soul-parts, as they find expression in the various forms of government. There are five forms of government which Socrates distinguishes, in descending order of value from the best form (aristocracy): timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and, finally, tyranny. Socrates also takes the time to explain how each type of government evolves (or devolves) out of the one preceding it, and then asks what type of individual answers to each form of government. It’s this latter analysis that most interests me.

II. “There are some who call me... Tim.”

Socrates describes the Timocratical Man — let’s call him Tim — as follows:

... they have neglected her who is the true Muse, the companion of reason and philosophy, and have honoured gymnastic more than music... but one thing, and one thing only, is predominantly seen — the spirit of contention and ambition; and these are due to the prevalence of the passionate or spirited element... he is a lover of power and a lover of honour; claiming to be a ruler... because he is a soldier and has performed feats of arms; he is also a lover of gymnastic exercises and of the chase.

Clearly, anyone who goes on a reality TV show in the hopes of winning a large sum of money has a certain level of ambition beyond the norm. And the contestants on Chopped are on various levels of the restaurant ladder of hierarchy, from Line Cook to Sous Chef to Chef de Cuisine — with the ultimate aim of achieving the culinary crown of Executive Chef, not necessarily or merely by virtue of any intellectual abilities, but because they have “performed feats of arms.”

In American society, Tim seems to me to be the most common type of individual. One striking example in support of this is the American obsession with sports. You may have seen the graphic floating around Facebook and other sites, according to which college sports coaches are by far the highest paid public employees in the country. It’s not as surprising as it may at first seem: our society is saturated with sports personalities and sports advertisements, and sports is intimately and inescapably tied up with all manner of products and services churned out by marketing firms.

Don’t get me wrong, I love sports myself: I played varsity soccer in college, and continued to play in competitive recreational leagues well into my thirties. I even staunchly root for my home-state NFL teams the Steelers and the Eagles (though I must admit I’ve given up on the Eagles!). And participating in competitive sports does more than just enhance one’s physical health: as my father wrote to me in a letter while I was in college:

I think you will have to admit, your continuing participation in athletics at a high level of competition has been a very important element in your educational and social development... The character traits you are building by facing/overcoming the problems and challenges you meet in the heat of athletic competition mold the way you will respond to far greater and vastly more important problems / challenges far from the confines of those carefully drawn chalk lines of the playing field.

Of course, one has to have the presence of mind, or the discipline of will, to capitalize on the experiences of sports participation. One need only consider some professional athletes, whom many people lionize or emulate, to understand how seductive and prevalent the baser desires of a Tim are: the love of money, fame and influence — a personality ruled by spirit and passion — gets many a putative role model in all sorts of trouble; just think of the shenanigans of people like Tiger Woods, Pete Rose, and Lance Armstrong. It’s not unreasonable to think that the aforementioned individuals have forsaken the rational principle in their souls, having lost their “best guardian [i.e., Philosophy] who comes and takes her abode in a man, and is the only saviour of his virtue throughout life,” as Socrates declares when describing the Timocratical man. It would seem that the spirited desires in pursuit of honor and ambition have a firm hold on the reins in these men.

III. “Everybody looks like ants!” — Ollie Williams 

Socrates thinks that the Oligarchical Man — let’s call him Ollie — is even less virtuous than Tim. An oligarchy is, according to Socrates, “a government resting on a valuation of property, in which the rich have power and the poor man is deprived of it.” One need not look very far for an Ollie in American society. There are numerous examples of the powerful rich throughout American history, up to the present day, looking down upon the rabble as if they were ants.

American society today is characterized by an inequality of wealth never before seen in its history. And consider the history of government participation in the United States, vis-à-vis voting rights: the privilege of participating in the newly-formed government was originally restricted to rich white men. Even Thomas Jefferson, a man who could be said to be primarily ruled by reason, kept slaves, who owned no property — indeed, they were property. It wasn’t until the 1820s that universal manhood suffrage was enacted; it took another 50 years or so before the 15th Amendment was added to include non-white men; another 50 years after that to include women; and another 40 years to get rid of a prohibitive poll tax. The aforementioned groups, as disparate as they are, have one thing in common: they were all without property or poor, or both.

Socrates speculates about the devolution from timocracy to oligarchy, or from a Tim to an Ollie, when he claims that somewhere along the line Tim develops a tendency to hoard wealth, and others seek to rival him by doing the same; and thus the arms race of wealth accumulation takes off, and a love of money and possessions supersedes a love of honor and fame. Socrates says that “the more they think of making a fortune the less they think of virtue.” Spirit gives way to appetite.

Since “what is honored is cultivated, and that which has no honor is neglected,” society begins admiring the powerful rich man and despising the poor man. A perfect storm of culture and politics in the 1980s seems to have solidified this mindset in America. Movies like Wall Street and Scarface, TV shows like Dallas and Dynasty, and garish and kitschy popular music all combined with so-called “Reaganomics” to create caricatures of the rich and the poor. Of course, President Reagan didn’t do himself any favors when he opined about the homeless in 1988:

In an interview broadcast tonight, President Reagan dismissed the idea that his Administration bears any responsibility for the problem of homelessness and he said “there are always going to be people” who live in the streets by choice.

Socrates, ever the champion of harmony and unity, bemoans the fact that an oligarchical society will necessarily be divided; and what’s worse, the rich and poor will conspire against each other. Additionally, Socrates thinks that a third class or type of individual arises in this state of affairs, which he likens to the drones of a beehive who do no real work but can still sting and stir up trouble for both the rich and the poor:

... there they are, ready to sting and fully armed, and some of them owe money, some have forfeited their citizenship; a third class are in both predicaments; and they hate and conspire against those who have got their property, and against everybody else, and are eager for revolution.

In other words, society is well on its way to becoming a hot mess.

Likewise does the soul of an Ollie begin to exhibit this juxtaposed, antagonistic state:

The man, then, will be at war with himself; he will be two men, not one; but, in general, his better desires will be found to prevail over his inferior ones... For these reasons such a one will be more respectable than most people; yet the true virtue of a unanimous and harmonious soul will flee far away and never come near him.

The Ollies of society are still largely esteemed because it is presumed that they have achieved their position and fortune through hard work and sacrifice, and that they are probably therefore self-made men. Also, there isn’t any overt lawlessness or necessarily any lack of rational discipline in their appetite for wealth. Indeed, their reason is in the service of their appetite; and this, perhaps more than their hard work and sacrifice, is what makes their wealth possible.

The Ollies of American society are essentially its Baby Boomers; and they are the possessors of the most political and economic power.

IV. “Demi Lovato is a Work-in-Progress”

The Democratical Man, or woman — let’s call her Demi — continues the downhill slide into multiplicity and internal conflict. The combination of political liberty and cultural equality is what produces, or at least contributes to, this next permutation of society and individual:

In the first place, are they not free; and is not the city full of freedom and frankness — a man may say and do what he likes? And where freedom is, the individual is clearly able to order for himself his own life as he pleases? Then in this kind of State there will be the greatest variety of human nature?

And what goes for the general mien of society goes for the internal state of the individual: being free to speculate about and evaluate everything under the sun according to one’s own lights tends to produce conflicting valuations and, therefore, innumerable conflicting drives within a single soul. These opposing drives constantly vie for supremacy, for the commandeering of one’s attentional resources in the pursuit of various ends.

The relatively uninformed, undisciplined approach to evaluating life characteristic of a Demi creates an unstable emulsion of impulses which, when things start to fall apart, can compel her into seeking out the most immediate and expedient palliatives she can find. These may be as banal and innocuous as junk food and reality TV (the irony is not lost on me), or as daring and destructive as self-injury or illicit drugs. Thus when a Demi gets a “mystery basket of ingredients” thrown at her, as a result of her toleration of her overflowing inner plurality, undoubtedly she will have the confidence to tackle it, and she will employ all of her energy and ingenuity in her attempt; but a quick failure or a protracted (psychological) war of attrition will lead her back into the refuge of her old addictions.

A Demi is likely to go through this cycle innumerable times — maybe even throughout her entire life. But just as her demons return, so do her better desires. It is this perpetual hope that sustains her, despite the sheer magnitude of options available to her in the 21st Century. Our republic isn’t Plato’s Republic: political freedom combined with an information economy and technological advancement presents an exceedingly larger number of options than were available even a century ago.

Being untethered from any traditional creed or regimen impels her to redefine received norms as best she can.The bricolage that is the modern Demi exhibits no satisfying sense of order or harmony; thus the Democratical Man or Woman is a continual work-in-progress, likely being a member of the Nones from Generation X.

V. “A dark Jedi is nothing compared to the power of the Sith.” — Darth Tyranus, fka Count Dooku

Last of all comes the Tyrannical Man — let’s call him Darth Tyranus. He is subject to the same multifarious and unruly desires as Demi, but whereas the more reasonable parts of Demi’s soul still retain a fair amount of influence, allowing her to achieve a livable protean equilibrium, Darth Tyranus’ soul is characterized by an unrestrained passion that overreaches, and is similar to the way in which our ordinarily unspeakable desires (our wild-beast nature, as Socrates calls it) manifest themselves in our dreams. According to Socrates: “[the Tyrannical Man] becomes always and in waking reality what he was then very rarely and in a dream only.”

Any reasonable impulses that do remain within the soul of Darth Tyranus are subject to the imperious blitzkrieg of his increasingly rapacious desires. When these desires overreach, with the aim of eliminating the more temperate ones, there is likely to be a backlash — as Socrates said, an excessive increase in anything causes a reaction in the opposite direction. So in order to quell this inner anarchical insurrection, Darth Tyranus gets more tyrannical with himself, which has the unintended effect of alienating him further from friends and family. Eventually, his only “friends” are dark associates, other Sith lords, and he can’t even trust them. As Dooku says to his Sith lord, Darth Sidious:

I have dealt out your deaths, your schemes, your betrayals. I have paid for your war with my riches, my time, my friends, and my honor.

Perhaps, in the end, the Tyrannical Man commits suicide, seeing no other way out; or he indulges his desires and addictions to such an extent that he secretly hopes they will lead to his own demise, if he lacks the final courage to kill himself with his own hand. A Darth Tyranus doesn’t seem to be limited to any one demographic of society; the lawlessness and potential energy within his soul bring about the complete domination of it by his irreversibly recalcitrant nature. Fortunately, however, this type doesn’t seem too prevalent; there may be no more heart-wrenching sight than a man or woman destroying themselves in unreachable isolation.

VI. The Judging Round

Socrates sought to judge the level of happiness of each type of man he discusses. For him, the least happy is the Tyrannical Man, and the most happy is the Aristocratical Man, whom I didn’t mention, but who is Socrates’ ideal man, the most stable, the most ruled by his love of reason, truth, wisdom: the philosopher.

Socrates’ judgment could be said to be based on the level of order and harmony present in one’s soul, on how well one organizes and harnesses the disparate parts of one’s nature into a coherent whole and life project. Finding a balance among one’s spirited and appetitive desires with the ascendancy of reason is the ideal because it leads to the happiest life. Tim, on the other hand, thinks the pleasures of recognition and fame comprise the best life; Ollie believes the accumulation of wealth and possessions does; and Demi’s approach is to turn the sails to the prevailing winds. Darth Tyranus could be said to be “not even wrong.”

On Chopped, the chef who manages to create the most harmonic arrangement of presentation, creativity and taste out of a hodgepodge of ingredients is able to satisfy her intellect, receive praise, and win the prize. So, in the culinary vernacular, we may say that, in life as on Chopped, mise en place!


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