When was the last time we found ourselves discussing the connections between finance, food, and spirituality? There is so much to say, and the concepts involved have such wide-ranging impact, that perhaps they should be on every secondary school’s curriculum. One cannot imagine how such a primary subject got missed; which is why this topic will cover more than one post. Let’s not allow another moment to escape without beginning this discussion!
The philosophy of our modern diet, and our modern finance began with religion in the dark ages. Most of today’s world was born and raised in monotheistic systems that came to dominance after the agricultural and iron age revolutions, solidifying about one to two thousand years ago, depending on region. In the West, Christianity was by-and-large imposed from the top down, imposing a theology of One God over a landscape that had harboured gods and goddesses – who represented both human failings and divine help, divinities tied to one particular place, minor spirits who helped with one aspect of life, helpful totems associated with each tribe, and spirits of everyday items, trees, rocks, hills, herbs – in a word, polytheism. In ancient times, Rome’s founding was associated with the wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus – the snake was associated with wisdom and healing – Irish tribes were said to each have their own totem tree – the Netherlands is named after its own goddess of place, Helle (Hol-land); not to mention the divinities who gave us the days of the week, and also represented movements of the sun, moon and visible planets.
Plato’s writings could be said to have laid the foundations for monotheism by popularizing the concept of one perfect, abstract archetype that lies behind each type of material object. Behind every cat, lies an abstract “cat”, which contains all the physical cats – behind every meal, lies an abstract “meal” that epitomizes all the meals – and so on. These writings and the traditions they came from, were lost to early Europe for a time, but preserved in the Middle East, and thus were part of the cultural landscape as both books of the Bible were written.
Those who have dipped into Icelandic Sagas, particularly the work of Snorri Sturluson, will have read about the discussion in Iceland, circa the year 1000, about whether people should follow the Norse tradition of polytheism, or adopt Christianity. This is how we know that for kings, Christianity had one siren virtue; Divine Right. Divine Right is the belief that God has chosen our parents in order to place us in the sphere of life in which He wants us. In other words, kings are made by God; any disobedience to the royal will is a sin against God and the proper order as determined by absolute authority. It is a very Calvinist notion – far more punitive than the idea of karma, where those born into misery must have sinned in previous lives. With karma the door is open for improvement in this life – with divine right, one man is locked in place at the top – and the rest are frozen in an immutable hierarchy below. The difference, in fact, relates to whether philosophy holds “the one” or “the many” as the basis of correct thinking. Calvinism and the Divine Right of Kings have only one narrative; karma is a choose-your-own-adventure. . .
According to the old testament, “the many” are closer to our instincts as humans; the Bible itself describes the difficulties in maintaining monotheism. A glance at today’s Christianity shows many polytheistic elements: the Trinity, Mother Mary, Saints, places such as Lourdes, as well as the more humble practice of exorcism. Monarchies have mostly been superseded by non-hereditary forms of government, but the concept of divine right in politics continues – modern government is quite intolerant of challenges to its authority. Extending the analogy, many readers will notice the similarity in structure between divine right of kings and the central bank system of finance and currency that each country has today! Try paying for your meal with wampum, cowrie shells, or salt, all of which were once considered valid currency – established in common law, one might say – unlike challenging the government, so secure are central banks that the most probably reaction will be laughter!
The most famous proponent of the divine right of kings was Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes’ opinions have frequently been attributed to his premature birth due to his mother’s fear at the news of the Spanish Armada approaching England – in itself, a very Calvinist explanation for a remarkable work of either wisdom, or propaganda – depending on one’s beliefs. Hobbes most famous work, Leviathan, is celebrated for his analogy of government as a human body – the king is the head, and each hierarchal hereditary group has its immutable place in the “body politic”, held in place by natural law, as our bones, organs and muscles are held in one spot by our functioning systems. Many will have heard the most famous quote from the Leviathan, where Hobbes calls life without a monarch, “nasty, brutish and short”.
Hobbes’ Leviathan is a classic example of how our desires mold our beliefs! Thinkers before this era recognized the heart and the gut, (and a lower organ), together with the head, as alternate sources of behaviour. Modern science supports the earlier view – the gut has been found to have its own complex nervous system – our hearts are another source of decision-making, controlling some hormones and body functions – and perhaps even Hobbes didn’t believe that our heads always ruled all of our lower organs! Thomas Hobbes was tutor to Charles, Prince of Wales during the period of the English Civil war, which is to say that Thomas Hobbes had a personal financial incentive to write as he did, as did the many who quoted his work, so perhaps we shouldn’t assume that he was completely behind all that he wrote.
Interestingly, at about the time that Hobbes was proposing government as a body politic, food in the western world was changing. Previously, food in the Christian world was in line with the rest of the world: each bite was supposed to contain all of the four flavours – sweet, savoury, salty and sour. Think of a mincemeat pie; one of the few survivors of the change in philosophy from a polytheistic (many) to a monotheistic (one) cuisine. The new style was invented in France – also the origin of the ultimate expression of the divine right of kings – L’état, c’est moi – and involved a single flavour – a breast of turkey, for example – with a sauce of thickened turkey juice, to intensify the turkey flavour.
Normally, Raw Tibicos is in favour of culinary diversity, however, in hindsight, one can notice three unfortunate results of the switch to monotheistic cuisine.
First: the unitary flavours tend to make us overeat. We fill up on the savoury, but yearn to overeat as our sweet and sour flavours have not been satisfied!
Second: the unitary flavour concept led to the idea of “purity” in food, which has lead us to nutritional nightmares such as white sugar and white, bleached flour.
Third: monotheism in food has led to the notion that getting almost all our calories from only wheat, beef, and tomatoes is virtuous – in other words – only one starch, only one meat, and only one veg!
Never challenge the king’s rule, and never challenge the supremacy of wheat, beef, tomatoes, in many, many forms.
Over the past few decades, in the Christian world, the people most likely to say, L’état, c’est moi, have been not monarchs, but central bankers. When younger, Raw Tibicos spent a few years in the World of New York Banks. At that time, the elder bankers were – without exception – while wearing bespoke suits, hand-tailored shoes, handing around cigars, snorting white, hopping in taxis to go to surf ’n’ turf meals – they were smiling while saying that North America was going to become a service economy. Being a rather literal child, Raw Tibicos couldn’t help imagining how happy these bankers would be in a pure service economy — nothing but services — getting pat downs and foot massages as compensation for being naked and homeless in a New York winter – smoking and snorting – what? – another person’s breath, provided as a service? Being carried around by two stout (naked) service providers, to a lovely dinner of one’s own saliva – or perhaps, in a service economy – someone else’s?
Joking aside, talk of becoming a service economy was never about reality – it was an expression of hierarchy – the kind of hierarchy Hobbes, the king’s tutor, understood. Banks themselves are the epitome of a service industry. At this time, Raw Tibicos was interested in politics, rather than banking, and spent may hours chatting with the bank’s chief lobbyist. We may have discussed questions such as: if one buys a politician, the politician who is bought – isn’t he also part of a service economy? His service is pleasing campaign donors? Like Hobbes, our beliefs follow our desires. One of the most basic desires of mankind, is to be surrounded by “people like us”. From a self-referential, mirror-gazing perspective, one can understand that policy-makers (who are of the service economy) might think that increasing the number of “people like them”, is the ultimate good, and those who do so are benefactors. That’s logic!
What Plato has to say about politicians verges on rude, so we will pass him by. Thomas Hobbes was a monarchist, of course, and would not hesitate to tell us that rule by the service economy, for the purpose of expanding the service economy, would be like having a body politic composed of only hands. Hands are the service sector of the physical body. Having fiscal policies that benefit only hands, brings new meaning to the expression, “he’s all hands,” doesn’t it? Amazing how the rudeness creeps back in, isn’t it?
In a monotheistic world one function is more important and rules over the others. For Hobbes it was the monarch, the head. In the modern world we feel democratic by making a lower part of the body supreme – the hands. Yet, whether the head or the hands rule, it is still rule of the one!
Yet, this all relates back to food. Both Plato, and Hobbes, and in fact, all pre-modern philosophers lived in a culinary world where all food was local, seasonal and organic, and in all cases, white flour would have been an expensive delicacy, and sugar almost non-existent. Plato travelled from Athens to Italy and Egypt, and ended up summarizing his archetypal ideal meal as bread, wine, figs, cheese and honey, along with other fruits and perhaps beer – but absolutely never large servings of meat. History has not recorded Thomas Hobbes food preferences – all we have is one Dad joke – probably apocryphal:
Q: What was Hobbes favourite healthy drink?
A: A shot of cod liver oil (“nasty, brutish and short”)
History has also remained silent on the bacterial contents of pre-modern philosopher’s guts. We can find a proxy, though. Recent research with the Hadza – a hunting-gathering tribe still following traditional food ways – has shown some incredibly interesting facts:
Overall diversity of bacteria was much greater with the Hadza than modern populations,
The composition of the bacteria changed seasonally, as food changed,
Bacteria associated with illness in the modern world, Treponema, were not only more prevalent among these hunter-gatherers, but the autoimmune diseases we associate with these bacteria in modern populations do not appear in the Hadza,
Bacteria differed in men and women, reflecting a different proportion of hunting, versus gathered foods eaten by men and women. Perhaps beauty is more than skin deep – perhaps it is gut-biome deep?
Our two featured philosophers were separated by almost two millennia, but their gut biomes – in fact, the guts of every single person before modern n food – would have been closer to the Hadza than to ours. All our ancestors gut biomes would have been seasonal, location-based, and complex – a polytheistic gut biome, in effect – or, in body politic terms – it would have had all its limbs, organs, functions, with competing centres of decision-making power. Modern gut biomes are hands only!
Hobbes could plead that the head should be paramount over all the other centres of bodily power – we who live in a centralized, simplified, sterile world must balance our bodies and diets by seizing the other end of the analogy. For us, health, prosperity and happiness of a polity, a body, or a meal depend on overlapping power structures, overlapping tastes and textures, complementary dishes and beverages, independent decisions by heart, mind, soul, gut, government, business, labour, service – independent yet with a common goal of health, wealth, happiness. Hobbes lived in a world of always changing diverse gut bacteria, diverse dialects, customs and foods, which change as one travels even a few miles away; and a wide range of currencies available in each market, not only bi- and tri-metalism, but English, Spanish, French coins of different (and changing) values, not to mention frequent barter and promissory notes. He sought to balance this with what we today call totalitarianism; (although it is important to note that the ability of the monarch, at this time, to impose his will often did not extend beyond his court). In contrast, today we have thin, fragile, monoculture biomes, year-round choice of the same few processed foods, paid for with a single centrally-controlled currency, bought in towns that each resemble the other. For balance, to be whole people, at least our cuisine must be polytheistic.
Hobbes, personal tutor to a monarch, spoke for the head, and history followed. If we, the many, speak for and cultivate the microbiome, what will our future be? Shall we revel in the beautiful complexity of our bodies? Shall we care for our intestinal biomes, like gardeners and gourmets, wrapped into one? Shall we explore how changing our diet – not only changes our internal biome – but also shifts the external biome too? Much has been said about how the flap of a butterfly wing can affect events miles away – and that may be – however for Raw Tibicos, the small action of a central banker pressing “return” on a keyboard has a direct effect on the food we all eat, in a way that policy-makers themselves may not be aware aware of; and in return, the food that we eat (in the aggregate) shall rebound onto national policy. Shall we return to choose-your-own-adventure?
Placed here is a conceptual overview, future discussions will go deeper and higher, looser and tighter, so please stay tuned!