VirtueCoin to the Moon!
Hello and welcome to Practical Cynicism. My name is Eric DeMott and in this episode we’re getting back to the dirty work of being a Cynic. I had so much fun writing and researching the Christmas and New Year’s episode, but I think those episodes are less Practical because those holidays are such special occasions, they kind of separate themselves from the other three hundred sixty odd days of the year. I think it’s fair to say that the point of this podcast is to share the lessons and skills that we can use most frequently. The most practical wisdom is also the most practice-able. So if there’s something we can do once a year that is worth, let’s say one VirtueCoin, then that’s not bad, but something we can do once a month is worth 12 VirtueCoins. Once a week is 52 VirtueCoins, and once a day is 365 , three times a day is 1095 VirtueCoins! VirtueCoins to the moon! But this episode isn’t about Crypto, it’s much too late for us to cash in there. This episode is inspired by the recent article Tanner wrote about whether a Stoic should be vegan, or vegetarian or otherwise. It’s an interesting article, a quick read, and it sparked a great conversation on the discord about diets and how we can eat ethically, and virtuously. And since our squishy little bodies demand so many calories, they provide us with many opportunities to practice our philosophy and just maybe be virtuous too. Since Tanner takes the Stoic angle he has to talk about boring stuff like vegetables, and factory farms. But this, hehehe, this is Practical Cynicism, so we’re going to talk about Cannibalism.
I know what you’re thinking: Eating humans falls prey to all the same ethical issues as factory farming, and the logistics, dollars and cents, of scaling that business just don’t add up. But I won’t stand for any of your negativity. I’m here to put the human back in “humane slaughter”. And you may protest that it can’t possibly be healthy to eat people, but what better place to find all the vitamins, minerals, fats and proteins needed to make a person than in a person. And there might be an infinite regress issue if the “food people” we’re supposed to eat need to eat people too, and the political-industrial complex needed to manage such a system might prevent us from knowing whether we are the people doing the eating or being eaten. And the anxiety and stress of living in that world probably spoils the flavor. Ugh! But, but!! We are smart twenty-first century minds, and I’m confident we can make this work. Maybe some of these “food people” can be vegetarian, or omnivore or carnivore, so we can offer a few flavors of “food people”. No, we can’t call them “food people” that’s a marketing nightmare, we call cows “beef”, and pigs “pork” because it’s nice to have some linguistic distance between our forks and our hearts. Now, I’m just brainstorming here but Maybe we call them:
Anyways, that’s the pitch! Plenty of time to workshop it before the next season of Shark Tank.
An Imbalanced Diet:(e*f*q/w)^m ≠ Virtue
Now, I don’t really think that humans are part of a balanced diet, but Cannibalism is a real issue to consider and it was a talking point for actual Cynics and Stoics. A shallow dive into Wikipedia’s article on Cannibalism reveals six or seven different kinds of cannibalism, and the fun fact that more than 1,500 species exhibit this behavior, humans being one of them. If our goal as philosophers is to live according to Nature, then we have to face the challenge of eating right. The reality of the organic world around us is that all creatures, plants, animals, fungi, etc. are made out of food, foods that eat each other. The circle of life is a great chain of interconnected stomachs. I’m often of the mind that all living things are pretty miraculous, and the Cynic in me sometimes thinks that even the vegans don’t go far enough to avoid destroying life in pursuit of sustaining their own. Sure, Broccoli isn’t sentient, but it’s a living thing, and eating it destroys it before its time, and planting it robs other plants and animals of whatever resources the broccoli will need. Eating the broccoli yourself also deprives others of that same broccoli, valuing your own broccoli needs over the broccoli needs of others. But I’ve said broccoli too many times now. My point is, all of these actions, these decisions, seem to come with many, many moral consequences, and moving the goal post doesn’t make that any less true. Determining how many VirtueCoins to reward yourself for a salad versus a steak, requires moral calculus that we don’t know, which requires a moral abacus that we don’t have, and time spent doing moral mathematics might be better spent doing other even moral-er things.
Tragedy and Role Models
The complexity alone is enough to make anyone despair. The tragic reality of life is that death, and evil, and immorality are such prominent parts of it. Cynicism and Stoicism are born out of the tragedies of life, its why I can’t go more than a week without saying “shipwreck”, and talking about cruel Fortune. But Fortunately, no one understood tragedy as well as the Greeks, and the tragic figures of Greek myth provided ample examples of terrible behavior for the Cynic and the Stoic to analyze and comment upon. The fragments of their work that come down to us often reference the story of Thyestes, son of Pelops, son of Tantalus, son Zeus, son of Chronos, son of Ouranos. Which is a long succession even by Greek standards, and goes right back to the brutal beginning. According to Hesiod, at first the universe was only Chaos, Earth, Tartarus, and Love. But soon came the essentials, night and day, the ocean and the sky. The sky is Ouranos, and together with the Earth, Gaia, they gave birth to the Titans, two of which were Chronos, meaning Time, and his sister Rhea. To assert his dominance as “Alpha Titan” Chronos castrated his father and Because Incest is unavoidable at the beginning of time, Chronos and Rhea gave birth to six Olympian gods: Hades, Poseidon, Hera, Demeter, Hestia, and finally Zeus. Fearing that his children would also be huge jerks and try to kill him, Chronos cannibalizes all of his immortal children, with the exception of Zeus. Rhea wrapped up some stones in a baby blanket to feed to Chronos as Zeus was taken away to live in safety from his father. Zeus eventually forces Chronos to vomit up his brothers and sisters, so they can aid him in the Titanomachy, the Great War between Olympians and Titans. Naturally Zeus wins, and imprisons his father, aunts and uncles inside Tartarus, which is essentially the depths of the earth. With peace restored Zeus was free to do what he does best, which is to impregnate nymphs, like the lovely Pluto, whose name means wealth. And like any child of wealth, and every child in this story, Pluto’s son Tantalus was also kind of a jerk. He stole nectar and ambrosia from the gods, shared all their godly secrets, and, presumably for giggles, he once killed, cooked and fed a piece of his son Pelops to the Gods for dinner. They didn’t really find the humor in it, and so after putting Pelops back together and reviving him, they threw Tantalus into Tartarus, where he was permanently chained in a river, just under the fruiting branches of a tree, such that whenever he reached for the fruit the branches would pull away and whenever he bent to drink from the river the water would recede, thus denying him food and water forever. But after coming back to life, Pelops didn’t turn out much better than his father, and betrays and cheats his way to victory in a chariot race, the loser cursing his descendants to ever increasing torture. The sons of Pelops, Thyestes and Atreus, spend their lives fighting over the throne of Mycenae, and sleeping with Atreus’ wife, until Atreus learns of their affair, kills, cooks and tricks Thyestes into eating his own children. To seek revenge, Thyestes impregnates his own daughter, since prophecy said that the son of this union would kill his uncle Atreus, which he does. Atreus’s sons are Agamemnon and Menelaus, the famous Greek kings of the Iliad, who doom all of Greece to endless war in Troy, and Agamemnon’s children become sacrificial victims, and murder their own mother because she murdered their father.
Splitting Hairs and Eating them Too
Whew, ok. All this to say that if it wasn’t for this family, and their long history of doing just absolutely the worst possible thing at every turn, we wouldn’t have the entire genre of Greek tragedy. And our favorite philosophers wouldn’t have such great limit cases to discuss. Even Seneca wrote a tragic play based on Thyestes eating his children. Incest and cannibalism were topics of Diogenes and Zeno, and the basic conclusion was that eating your own kind wasn’t necessarily a moral evil. Chronos decided to eat his children to prevent them from overthrowing him, that was a choice he made, didn’t really work out for him, and seems like a bad thing all around. But the gods, who ate Pelops, and Thyestes, who ate his children, were tricked, certainly they can’t be blamed for any moral wrong doing. The menu planning was out of their control.
For the Cynics and the Stoics cannibalism was an interesting edge case scenario by which they could test their logic. They asked themselves: Was the taboo a cultural one or a universal one? Chronos ate his immortal children, and they survived in him for years, no harm no foul? The Greeks may have had some experience seeing animals devour their young, or insects eating each other post-coitus. Is it natural for animals to occasionally eat their own kind? Under what circumstances is the eating of human flesh acceptable? Maybe only under the harshest of starvation events, as a last resort, and only of a victim willingly sacrificing his life to save another. Would the Sage, the wisest possible person, then be justified in taking a bite? They seemed to have thought this was the case, only the wisest possible person could know when to eat another human and do so virtuously. A Timely reminder that neither you or I are Sages.
The Cynics were famous for eating very little, whatever was given to them, whatever was cheapest and easiest. Meat was labor and resource intensive and expensive and mostly part of religious Ceremonies – not an everyday food. But as Diogenes quips in one anecdote, life is expensive and difficult if you buy expensive food, and require a chef, but it’s cheap and easy and plentiful if you settle for a bucket of beans, drink from the spring and pick the wild onions as you see them. Unfortunately, most of us no longer live near a spring, or near wild onions, and we’ve become dependent on a system that trucks in our food and drink from places that can actually produce food and drink, because very few of us live where the food lives and so there is no easy philosophical answer to what we should eat. It’s perhaps easier to answer how much we should eat or when we should eat. The Cynics very often praised their hunger for making their food taste better. When was the last time you were truly hungry? Not peck-ish, or snack-ish, or skipped breakfast hungry. I mean Hungry. Hunger is the best sauce as they say, and not eating is a great way to whet your appetite, and avoid the ethical dilemmas of eating until you eventually have to. And perhaps when you do eat, your portions are too big, and you’re stuffed to the gills, that seems less moral than eating less and not wasting the extra food. Humans have an incredible capacity for storing food as fat, and in this context it’s like carrying a few extra pounds of moral failure around your waist. Popular diets like eating vegan, or carnivore, or zero carb, are attractive because they simplify the options, cutting out whole food groups, and there might be some morality there as well, Eating only one kind of thing seems preferable to the moral catastrophe of ordering a surf and turf salad, which requires your meal to impact every ecosystem imaginable.
So eating less food, and less frequently, and fewer kinds of food may be a more virtuous option than eating our fellow humans. And in order to avoid eating other humans it’s likely better to learn to cook as well, and not be too overly trusting when someone else is serving dinner. The FDA, has rules for which how many dead bugs, rat droppings, mold or other things kind of “filth”, their word, not mine, is allowed in your food. So maybe the convenience of not making your own peanut butter is coming at a much higher cost than you expect.
Its very easy for super smart people like us to get our heads stuck in the clouds when talking about philosophy, but philosophy and reason has a place down on earth too. Down here with all the delicious plants and animals, both the rational and the non-rational ones. Eating is one of the things you do most, and is something that you can and do control. It is a major source of virtuous opportunities, and therefore demands our attention and our reason. But however you eat, and whatever your diet, there is virtue to be found in eating because there is virtue in using reason and examining your choices, decisions and habits. And remember that, as tragedy teaches, your diet could always be worse.