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Cookery, Cuisine and the Truth: Plato’s Gorgias

 

From Plato’s Gorgias:

Polus: But what do you consider rhetoric to be? [462c]
Socrates: A thing which you say–in the treatise which I read of late–“made art.”
Polus: What thing do you mean?
Socrates: I mean a certain habitude.
Polus: Then do you take rhetoric to be a habitude?
Socrates: I do, if you have no other suggestion.
Polus: Habitude of what?
Socrates: Of producing a kind of gratification and pleasure.
Polus: Then you take rhetoric to be something fine–an ability to gratify people?
Socrates: How now, Polus? Have you as yet heard me tell you [462d] what I say it is, that you ask what should follow that–whether I do not take it to be fine?
Polus: Why, did I not hear you call it a certain habitude?
Socrates: Then please–since you value “gratification”–be so good as gratify me in a small matter.
Polus: I will.
Socrates: Ask me now what art I take cookery to be.
Polus: Then I ask you, what art is cookery ? [462e]
Socrates: Then I reply, a certain habitude.
Polus: Of what? Tell me.
Socrates: Then I reply, of production of gratification and pleasure, Polus.
Polus: So cookery and rhetoric are the same thing?
Socrates: Not at all, only parts of the same practice.
Polus: What practice do you mean?

Socrates, in the Gorgias, compares rhetoric, that is the art of speaking, to cookery [opsopoiike ]. He distinguishes it from arts [techne ], calling it merely a practice [or habituation, empeirian ], or worse a routine [tribe ], and as cookery, it falls into being a subdivision of a larger devotion [epitedeuseos ], which is flattery [kolakeian ]. He contrasts cooking to medicine, and distinguishes that medicine is something that, unlike mere cooking, tells us the real nature of things [phusis ]. And he bases this distinction upon the idea that it is the soul commands the body:

For indeed, if the soul were not in command of the body, but the latter had charge of itself, and so cookery and medicine were not surveyed and distinguished by the soul, but the body itself were the judge, forming its own estimate of them by the gratification they gave it…everything would be jumbled together.

Now, a thinker like Nietzsche, (and in a way, one like Spinoza), would turn to the Latin word for wisdom, sapientia, and speak of how such a word is derived from the sense of experiencing, or literally tasting, and suggest that such a dichotomy between cooking and medicine is not so strict. Also, as the body/soul distinction begins to break down, does not the rhetoric/truth distinction also begin to break down? Is it not, in any particular monism one might have, that when we encounter a thought, we “taste” it, as if it were cooked up, and find ourself either repelled or attracted to it, almost instinctively. And is it not the case that through familiarizing ourselves with certain abstract “cuisines,” we can acquire a taste for them, become able to digest with pleasure what in the past might have repelled us? And as we familiarize ourselves with these “practices,” we even can become expert enough to cook some up ourselves, so that others who share our taste, in tasting them might like them?

And what of medicine itself. Would it not be more wise to consider medicine a sub-division, a derivative of cooking? Are not pharmaceuticals really very narrowly defined recipes of “cooked things,” both in history (let’s say from the processes of alchemy to those of chemistry), and in actual practice? Could this not be said of “truths,” a series of cultural practices which “taste” has lead a community of thinkers to produce? And in the opposite direction, I have always found interesting the philosophical concept of “essence”. How like in cooking, I am thinking of French Cuisine, does one try to reduce things to thier essential parts, boil it down to a concentrated form, whose digestion has a remarkable effect. Is it not a mistake to have taken Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum to be something other than a French reduction, a boiling down of the bones and juice so as to make a sauce, designed to have appetitive affect (perhaps that Rosecrusian was himself confused).

Could it be that all this distillation and cooking has been meant to be nothing more than something experiential, a kind of cooking that aims for pleasure, (not the kind of “immoral” pleasure that rationality fights against), the kind of pleasure that comes with health and experience. There is a funny thing that happens when you study a philosophy in its detail, tasting all its distillations, all the recipes you have worked to become acquainted with: you begin to experience the world differently.

Perhaps Socrates got it wrong. The Body does do the discerning, and the result is not that all things are jumbled together. But rather that the body is wise, is tasting. And the result of this tasting, are things such as medicine, science and ethics (among so many other things, with which they are not jumbled). Is it not that with even the most abstract things we are still tasters, that work to refine and enhance our tasting capacities.

Cicero was of the opinion that Socrates in his division of rhetoric from philosophy did a great dis-service to both. It deprived rhetoricians of important things to say, and philosophy ways of saying them. It made philosohy otherworldly, meant to exist apart from the community of users (“tasters”) that together made philosophy both possible and important. Achilles, by Homer, is described as being great in speech and deeds. He is both knowledgable in medicine, but also notably in preparing meals. Would it not be advisable to see clear, once again, the connection between cooking and thinking, and hence between thinking and community?

…What the word does is open one up to both the biological and cultural (historical) origins of discernment. Further, I think it demystifies judgments to a degree. We certainly don’t know how “taste” works in any determinant experiential manner, but it is not mysterious. We accept the “foundationless” nature of taste without fearing that such a foundationlessness will fall into relativism. If we taste propositions, and either like them or not, we might not be so deluded into thinking it is due to something entirely ahistorical. And there is something potentializing in thinking about philosophies, or arguments as recipes. Or even essences as “reductions”. This of course is not without precedence, for Plato in the Phaedrus, in telling the orgins of the written word, speaks speaks of writting as the “pharmakon” (which can mean either “poison” or “medicine”), properly the “potion”. This is something that Derrida makes a great deal about, the inherent polysemy of words and meanings. Written texts are recipes that produce a multiplicity of effects.

 

[written September 5, 2006]

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