The work that made C.S. Lewis famous was also the book that he found the least enjoyable to write. The Screwtape Letters, a series of 31 epistles written by an older devil, Screwtape, to his young nephew-apprentice, Wormwood, on how to lead a “patient” to Hell, was easy to write because, as Lewis noted, “it was easy to twist one’s mind into the diabolical attitude.” Yet, that ease “was not fun, or not for long. The strain produced a sort of spiritual cramp...Every trace of beauty, freshness, and geniality had to be excluded. It almost smothered me before I was done.”
In Chapter 17 of this brilliant work of moral satire Lewis takes a look at the vice of gluttony, and does so in a way that is wonderfully modern. He is not really too concerned with what he calls gluttony of excess, rather, he focuses his attention on the gluttony of delicacy. The gluttony of excess is rather simple and therefore tends not to lead one to other, more deadly, sins like pride; but the gluttony of delicacy is something quite different and much more desired by the demon Screwtape.
The delicacy at hand rears its ugly head in two ways, and those two ways are quite compatible: the delicacy of quantity and the delicacy of quality. Neither of these, alone or in combination, tends to raise any warning signals of the terrible vice that they embody, and, for the most part, they are seen as virtues and signs of being one of the “beautiful people”.
The delicacy of quantity focuses on the lack of food on the plate, sending the signal that the diner is very much concerned with what she or he puts into the body. Or, as Lewis points out, it signals a lack of charity both as a guest in someone’s house or as a patron in a restaurant. He has Screwtape highlight the importance of delicacy rather than excess: “But what do quantities matter, provided we can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitable-ness, and self-concern?”
The delicacy of quality is also quite prevalent today, and seems to be very much a function of media like the Food Network and Instagram. The goal of gluttony of quality is to search out the most beautifully prepared food, take photos of it, and post it online because being a “foodie” is a sign of sophistication and taste. If the food presentation happened to have been labor intensive and the food itself quite exotic, then all the better.
A dining experience that is both minimal in quantity and maximal in quality would be the perfect bait on the hook of the deadly vice of gluttony. How easy would it be to get used to such a meal, and how subtle would the work of Screwtape and Wormwood be on such a soul?
In most discussions of gluttony the opposite is described as either moderation or, to go a bit further, asceticism. Certainly when it comes to gluttony of excess those two are meaningful goals for the overindulgent person. Eating less, or eating a lot less, does not really apply in the case of gluttony of delicacy - that seems to be the problem. The state of indulging one’s appetite through the gluttony of delicacy while believing that one is practicing moderation or even asceticism is so deadly because it is so blinding - how can someone who eats so little food, and of such high quality, be a glutton?
Just as Lewis’s intellectual mentor G.K. Chesterton believed in the common sense of the common man, so must the glutton of delicacy look to the common food of the common folk. Eating every-day food in every-day quantities doesn’t necessitate eating too much of the wrong things, but it does help to rid oneself of the “querulousness, impatience, uncharitable-ness, and self-concern” of which Screwtape is so desirous.
Food, of course, has as its primary purpose the enabling of the body to function properly. But it also has a spiritual purpose, and we instinctively know this to be the more important use of food. The word companion comes from two Latin words that translate to “with bread”. The spiritual purpose of food is on display every time we are invited to someone’s house for a gathering, and it is this spirituality of food that is the core of the common life of the common folk.
As so many cultures believe, food is an expression of love and not status, and within that context something as simple as a few fish and some bread, and maybe even a little homemade wine, can be a manifestation of the transcendent companionship that encompasses freshness, geniality, and, most of all, beauty.