Cooking a pot of beans from scratch is a revolutionary act that honors both your ancestors and future generations.
Unless your ancestors happen to be Pythagoreans, of course. Decolonize Your Diet is a new cookbook written by Luz Calvo, professor of ethnic studies at Cal State East Bay in Hayward and Catriona R. Esquibel, associate professor of race and resistance studies at San Francisco State. They’ve got a website (seems to be down right now), maintain a Facebook page to boot, and generally urge their readers to “[reclaim] our collective ancestral knowledge of food, herbs, recipes, and culture, with an emphasis on a plant-based diet using Mesoamerican ingredients.”
Either way, I’m skeptical. Remember, kids, decolonization is not a metaphor. By preparing this dish, you’re literally overthrowing the existing state of affairs. You’re bringing about “the coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing.” Or maybe they just mean that eating this will help you evacuate the contents of your colon — de-colon-ize. Maybe it’s just supposed to be edifying. However, there’s at least one philosopher who might agree with the imperative to eat beans, and its revolutionary portent: Ludwig Feuerbach. Sidney Hook explains.
Feuerbach’s “degenerate sensationalism”
From Hegel to
Feuerbach’s portrait as a philosopher would be incomplete if we were to omit a phase of his thought which, it must be conceded at once, is more important for an understanding of the reception of his ideas than for their development. For this phase was a short-lived enthusiasm induced by the first experimental steps of organic chemistry. But it must be treated here, if only to present the context in which appears his famous sentence “Man is what he eats” [Der Mensch ist Was er isst] — a sentence which the philosophical philistines have used as a pretext to condemn rather than to read Feuerbach’s works.
Feuerbach sincerely believed that his critique of religion and philosophy marked the turning point in the history of Western thought. And if not all of his disciples made the same claims for his philosophy, even the critical among them, like Ruge, referred to it as “the third cock’s crow of German spiritual freedom.” Feuerbach’s last word in the period of his thought we have just been considering was a call for philosophy to break its mésalliance with religion and enter into a living union with science. In his Vorläufigen: Thesen, he maintained that philosophy must ally itself once more with science and science with philosophy” (S.W., Bd. 2, p. 267).
Carrying out his own program, Feuerbach reached for the nearest science at hand which would justify his humanistic interest. And without stopping to answer the very difficulties which he had so cogently argued against Dorguth’s absolute materialism, he proceeded to swallow bag and baggage the natural philosophy of Moleschott, compared to whom Dorguth and all the materialists of the eighteenth century were models of critical restraint. Feuerbach’s philosophical extravagance was apparently an effect of his reading Moleschott’s Lehre der Nahrungsmittel, a work now only of historical interest and even in its own day of dubious scientific importance. It appeared to Feuerbach as if the long sought-for bond of unity between mind and body, spirit and nature, had at last been discovered through the revolutionary principles of food chemistry. Philosophers in their quest for truth have been overlooking what was, literally speaking, under their noses. Feuerbach runs lightly through all the major philosophic categories — Substance, Existence, Being, Essence, Thought — and no longer identifies them with sensibility, love, and passion but with something more basic still. Only Feuerbach’s own words can allay the suspicion that we are inventing them:
How the concept of Substance has vexed philosophers! That is it, Self or Not-Self, Spirit or Nature or the unity of both? Yes, the unity of both. But what does that mean? Sustenance [Nahrung] only is substance. Sustenance is the identity of spirit and nature. Where there is no fat, there is no flesh, no brain, no spirit. But fat comes only from Sustenance. Sustenance is the… essence of essence. Everything depends upon what we eat and drink. Difference in essence is but difference in food (S.W. Bd. 2, p. 82).
One would imagine that a thinker of Feuerbach’s caliber would content himself with the negative observation that without food there can be no human activity; that certain types of food under certain conditions produce certain reaction, and pass on from these irrelevant commonplace truths to more significant statements. Instead he delivers himself of a piece of rhetoric which would lend itself admirably to philosophic caricature and which might serve as a number in some unwritten Gilbert and Sullivan light opera:
Being is one with eating. Being means eating. Whatever is, eats and is eaten. Eating is the subjective, active form of being; being eaten, the objective, passive form. But both are inseparable. Only in eating does the empty concept of being acquire content, thereby revealing the absurdity of the question whether or not being and not-being are identical, i.e., whether eating and starving are the same.
How the philosophers have tortured themselves with the question as to where and with what philosophy begins… Oh, you fools, who open your mouth in sheer wonder over the enigmas of the beginning and yet fail to see that the open mouth is the entrance to the heart of nature: who fail to see that your teeth have long ago cracked the nut upon which you are still breaking your heads. We begin to think with that with which we begin to exist. The principium essendi is also the principium cognoscendi. But the beginning of existence is nourishment [Ernährung]; therefore, food [Nahrung] is the beginning of wisdom, The first condition of putting any thing into your head and heart, is to put something into your stomach (S.W. Bd. 2, p. 83).
Feuerbach had a strong sense of humor. And one feels almost certain that he is indulging it; that this passage is directed against the popular scientific evangelists who were crying up as a new truth, a simple fact, known to everybody, but now clothed in a new technical robe, trailing clouds of chemical formulae behind it. Indeed, it contains an even more delicious parody. Substitute “knowing” for “eating” and you have pure idealistic doctrine with typical argument and expression. Feuerbach seems to be making fun of the idealists, for whom knowing is like eating, the “object” being to “food” as the “subject” is to “eating.”
But alas! Feuerbach is in deadly earnest. His motto is Der Nahrungsstoff ist Gedankenstoff — a doctrine which he makes the basis not only of a philosophy of personality but of a philosophy of history. What human beings eat affects their feelings and temperament; the activity of the group depends upon the temperament of its members. Consequently, concludes Feuerbach, the vicissitudes of the struggle between different groups in history reflect the character of their diets. Food chemistry becomes the key to history. Feuerbach does not content himself with abstract generalities here. He goes into some detail. Potatoes, for example, are the staple diet of all the workers of European countries. But since potatoes have no great quantities of the phosphorescent fat and protein necessary for healthy brain and muscle, the fate of the working class is hopeless. “Sluggish potato blood” [träges Kartoffelblut] can never supply them with revolutionary energy. The struggle between England and Ireland, Feuerbach cites as a case in point:
Poor Ireland, you cannot conquer in the struggle with your stiff-necked neighbor whose luxuriant [üppige] flocks supply its hirelings with strength. You cannot conquer, for your sustenance can only arouse a paralyzing despair not a fiery enthusiasm. And only enthusiasm will be able to fight off the giant in whose veins flow the rich, powerful, deed-producing blood [roast beef] (Ibid., p. 90).
If potatoes account for the defeat of the Irish in their struggles against the English, it is the use of salad which “did” for the Italians, and the exclusive vegetable diet of the Hindus which bind them to the chariot wheel of the British Empire.
And then comes that classic passage one sentence of which, torn from the only context which could give it a particle of sense, has gone the rounds of the world:
We see of what important ethical significance the doctrine of food has for the people. What is eaten turns to blood, the blood to heart and brain, to the stuff of thought and temperament. Human fare is the foundation of human culture and disposition. Do you want to improve the people? Then instead of preaching against sin, give them better food. Man is what he eats (p. 90).
Despite its comic features there is one aspect of this doctrine which, if properly developed, would have had important implications for a reorientation of Feuerbach’s humanism towards the social problem. If man is what he eats, the immediate central problem of mankind is not political, ethical, cultural, but economic. To improve mankind means at least to improve its fare. And since it is the fare of the working class which is in greatest need of improvement, the workers can be organized as the conscious lever of social change. Feuerbach, however, brings the revolutionary moral home in a more literal fashion. If the worker’s fare is bad, his social future cannot be made any better unless a dietary substitute is found for his present spiritless fare. The revolution of 1848, he contends, ended with the triumph of reaction because the majority of the population were martyrs to their potato diet. Potato blood can make no revolution! The future of the poorer classes looks dark. It is broken by only one ray of light from Moleschott’s chemical laboratory.
Shall we therefore despair? Is there no other foodstuff which can replace potatoes among the poorer classes and at the same time nurture them to manly vigor and disposition. Yes, there is such a foodstuff, a foodstuff which is the pledge of a better future, which contains the seeds of a more thorough — even if more gradual — revolution. It is the bean!
Had this become the ideology of a mass movement, its fundamental revolutionary principles would have been drawn from the formulae of food chemistry, its strategy and tactics directed to working out specific menus rich in deed-producing elements, and its central agitational slogan “beans instead of potatoes”! This phase of Feuerbach’s thought, if we call it such, manifested itself in 1850, some years after the influence of Feuerbach upon Marx and Engels had waned. Marx had already committed to paper his criticism of Feuerbach’s doctrine when Feuerbach made his fantastic somersault back to the most “vulgar” of “vulgar materialisms.” It is a sign of the homage in which, despite their criticism, both Marx and Engels held Feuerbach that they never refer to it in their writings. What interested them much more was precisely the advance which Feuerbach made over traditional philosophy and the incomplete character of that advance.