Ask a German Philosopher

Ludwig Feuerbach

It’s not often that I get write to post about the combination of two of my favourite things – food and German philosophy. When I delivered a talk in Melbourne last month, I was introduced by the splendid broadcaster and journalist Peter Mares, who approached the podium to deliver the evening’s most thought-provoking remarks. He took as his point of departure the work of nineteenth century German philosophers, Ludwig Feuerbach. In particular, Peter threaded a fine narrative through Feuerbach’s work on food. Peter has very kindly allowed me to repost his remarks here, subject to the following disclaimer:

Peter Mares presents ‘The National Interest’ on ABC Radio National. The translations from Feuerbach are his own and he’s open to corrections.

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Reading ‘Stuffed and Starved’ brought to mind the phrase ‘you are what you eat’ – actually the original is “man is what man eats’ – and its sounds better in the German, which involves a play on words: Der Mensch ist was er isst.

The phrase come from the 19th Century German materialist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach – a contemporary of Karl Marx – and he meant it quite literally. Feuerbach was reviewing ‘Die Lehre der Nahrungsmittel’ – the Theory of Nutrition – one of the first books to draw a link between nutrition, metabolism and well-being – and it’s worth quoting a bit more of what the philosopher had to say:

Feuerbach believed that the science of nutrition was of ‘important ethical as well as political significance’.
[Wir sehen zugleich hieraus, von welcher wichtigen ethischen sowohl als politischen Bedeutung die Lehre von den Nahrungsmitteln für das Volk ist]

‘Foods become blood; blood becomes heart and brain, thoughts and convictions. The human diet is the foundation of human development and attitudes. If you want to improve people, then instead of declamations against sin, give them better food.’
[Die Speisen werden zu Blut, das Blut zu Herz und Hirn, zu Gedanken und Gesinnungsstoff. Menschliche Kost ist die Grundlage menschlicher Bildung und Gesinnung. Wollt ihr das Volk bessern, so gebt ihm statt Deklamationen gegen die Sünde bessere Speisen.]

Feuerbach saw diet as ‘the basis of wisdom and virtue, of masculine, muscular, strong-nerved virtue’,
[ Die Diät ist die Basis der Weisheit und Tugend, der männlichen, muskelkräftigen, nervenstarken Tugend; ] and he went so far as to blame the failure of the 1848 revolutions in Germany on the poor diet of the masses, whose staple food of potatoes lacked the proteins and fats necessary for the development of the brain. A successful revolution would require a change of diet he argued – and he enthused about the benefits of legumes to invigorate ‘the lazy potato blood’ of the German people.
[Indess ist es nicht genug, dass wir unter dem Volk, welches ja längst vor der Entdeckung der thierisch-vegetabilischen Substanz der Hülsenfrüchte aus der Erfahrung die Wichtigkeit derselben, besonders der Linsen, erkannt hat, Propaganda für den Erbsenstoff machen, um durch die Salze und phosphorsaueren Alkalien, die in den Hülsenfrüchten in so reichlicher Menge enthalten sind, das faule Kartoffelblut des deutschen Volks wieder in Bewegung zu setzen.]

It’s easy to laugh at Feuerbach’s mechanistic views on the relationship between food and history – but his enthusiasm for the then new science of nutrition is understandable. As any primary school teacher can tell you today, effective learning does begin with a decent breakfast.

And of Feuerbach is of course right when he says that ‘everything depends on eating and drinking’. [Alles hängt vom Essen und Trinken ab. ] We may not live from bread alone, but without food we are certainly dead – and what we eat and the way in which it is produced, shapes our society and the global order.