It’s typical to associate gluttony with overconsumption, or, an excess of food or drink.
But according to C.S. Lewis, that’s only one form the vice takes. The broader definition of gluttony is any inordinate desire related to food or drink. That includes overconsumption, but it also includes overselectivity regarding the type or quality of food and drink.
A memorable passage in C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters captures this other meaning of gluttony. It involves a conversation between two demons who are trying to bring about the spiritual destruction of the humans to whom they have been assigned:
“My dear Wormwood,
The contemptuous way in which you spoke of gluttony as a means of catching souls, in your last letter, only shows your ignorance. One of the great achievements of the last hundred years has been to deaden the human conscience on that subject, so that by now you will hardly find a sermon preached or a conscience troubled by it in the whole length and breadth of Europe. This has largely been effected by concentrating all our efforts on gluttony of Delicacy, not gluttony of Excess. Your patient’s mother, as I learn from the dossier and you might have learned from Glubose, is a good example. She would be astonished—one day, I hope, will be—to learn that her whole life is enslaved to this kind of sensuality, which is quite concealed from her by the fact that the quantities involved are small. But what do quantities matter, provided we can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness and self-concern? Glubose has this old woman well in hand. She is a positive terror to hostesses and servants. She is always turning from what has been offered her to say with a demure little sigh and a smile ‘Oh please, please … all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast’. You see? Because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before her, she never recognises as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it may be to others. At the very moment of indulging her appetite she believes that she is practising temperance. In a crowded restaurant she gives a little scream at the plate which some overworked waitress has set before her and says, ‘Oh, that’s far, far too much! Take it away and bring me about a quarter of it’. If challenged, she would say she was doing this to avoid waste; in reality she does it because the particular shade of delicacy to which we have enslaved her is offended by the sight of more food than she happens to want.”
C.S. Lewis’ expanded definition of gluttony may expand typical reflection on the vice. When thinking about gluttony’s presence in modern society, one might immediately point to obesity rates and alcoholism, which would both be included in that category Lewis refers to as “gluttony of excess.”
But what about the “gluttony of delicacy”? As examples of gluttony, is it legitimate to point to the abundance of different foods and cuisines we enjoy, our access to several television channels purely dedicated to “food porn,” and perhaps even some segments of the organic food movement?
Food and drink is important — very important — in human life and relations. But has it become too much of an obsession for many in modern society? Does gluttony reign today?