So, I said a few posts ago that I would try to write some ideas about what is, and what isn't, gluttony. This is one of those posts where I become an armchair theologian. I might be on to something, or I might be completely wrong. Take it with a grain of salt!
Aquinas's definition of gluttony seems to have one glaring problem: it lacks a bright-line rule. "Gluttony means inordinate appetite in eating," he tells us, and we rightly ask: What do you mean, "inordinate?" Out of accord with the natural order of things, one supposes. He clarifies:
Now in eating there are two things to consider, the food that is eaten, and the eating thereof. And consequently there may be a twofold inordinateness of appetite: one in respect of the food itself that is taken; and thus in respect of the substance or species of the food one seeks dishes that are expensive; in respect of the quality one seeks dishes too elaborately prepared, that is, daintily; in respect of quantity one exceeds in eating too much. The other inordinateness is in the taking of the food, either by anticipating the due time of eating, which is too soon; or by not observing due mode and manner in eating, which is too eagerly.
We've been over this before: we can be a glutton by eating too expensively, too daintily ("pickily"), too much, too soon, or too eagerly. This is a nice categorization because it expands the usual definition of gluttony, but it still leaves us asking: But Thomas, what do you mean by "too" anything? If one can eat "too" expensively, then surely one can eat "just expensively enough," and so forth. Where is the line? How do we know when we've crossed over from eating promptly, to eating "too soon?" Eating with relish, and eating "too eagerly?" Selecting good food and being a glutton of pickiness?
I think the answer is that gluttony, like most concupiscence, abhors restraint; what makes gluttony different from other vices, such as sloth or lust is that the restraints it abhors all have to do with food. Different people live under different sets of restraints, some more stringent than others; and different times call for different restraints; so the boundaries of gluttony cannot be defined clearly as a set of rules that are appropriate for everyone. And so eating quite a lot of food, or eating expensive food, or eating at odd times, isn't inherently gluttonous; what makes it gluttonous is if the eater is supposed to be exercising restraint, but isn't.
What kinds of restraints might we live under? Well, here are some:
The restraint of charity. We should be gracious guests; we shouldn't make onerous demands on the people who prepare and serve our food; we shouldn't demand the most or the best, always leaving lesser portions for others. We shouldn't make messes that others have to clean up.
The restraint of obedience. Men and women in religious life observe a rule of set mealtimes. Children must obey their parents who tell them, "Don't spoil your dinner." Employees might be enjoined to refrain from eating and drinking during working hours or in work areas. A husband and wife might agree to save money by curtailing impulse food purchases or restaurant meals.
The restraint of resources or money. Each person has only so much money to spend on luxuries, and the luxuries we enjoy shouldn't cut into our budget for necessaries.
The restraint of physical health. We have a responsibility to guard the health of our bodies, and to do this we must keep our diets within a certain range, one which varies from person to person. Certain illnesses (diabetes, food intolerances) might restrict us further. And many of us have experienced the immediate uncomfortable effects of too much of the wrong food (or drink) in too short a time.
The restraint of religious or ethical duties. These are culturally specific: Some people keep kosher. Some people swear off factory farming. Some people don't eat meat on Fridays during Lent.
The restraint of manners. Also culturally specific, but significant: We don't start eating until the blessing is said, or we have courses in a certain order, or we eat with utensils and not our fingers, or we don't ask for refreshments until they are offered, or we graciously try some of everything served to us -- whatever the standard of polite behavior regarding food may be, wherever we are.
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My point here is that I can't draw a bright line such as "Eating 15 minutes before a meal is to be served, is an example of Aquinas's 'eating too soon' and is therefore gluttony." That's because some of us live under circumstances where snacking fifteen minutes before dinner is doctor's orders, some of us live under circumstances where snacking fifteen minutes before dinner causes no problem to anyone at all, and some of us live under circumstances where snacking fifteen minutes before dinner would be a serious violation of a duty to obedience.
But all of us live under some duties of gastronomical restraint. Sometimes the restraint is imposed from outside, for instance by medical advice, common manners, appropriate authorities, or monetary limits. Other times the restraint is entirely of our own making: we may set a goal to cut out sweets, reduce our carbon footprint, lose weight, or eat more vegetables. Or the restraint may follow naturally from trying to live out our convictions, as in being a gracious dinner guest, or making sure that others have enough before taking seconds.
Whatever the restraint we live under may be, I think gluttony is the inability or unwillingness to bear the restraint. To the extent that it's an inability we are talking about a weakness, a vice or a character fault; to the extent that it's an unwillingness we are talking about incidences of sin. The weakness and the sin happen to share the same name, but I think it is not too difficult to tell the difference.
If I can't or won't set limits for myself, or if I constantly promise myself to set a limit and then break the promise, this is a symptom of gluttony. It's not a sin to eat a sweet. It's not a sin to promise myself I won't eat any more sweets tonight, and then give in and have just one more before I go to bed. But if it's a pattern that I promise myself every night I won't eat sweets, and then every night I eat sweets anyway, then there's good reason to suspect I have a problem with the sin of gluttony -- because I have the habit of giving in, of detesting even this small self-imposed restraint. And of course, if I suffer from this weakness, it's so much more likely that I will fall into the sin.