I’ve always been fond of the saying, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” It’s the kind of advice you would expect to find in Montaigne’s Essays. But alas, it’s nowhere to be found in any of his priceless gems. Indeed, attribution is impossible since I
have no clue of its author. But it’s pithy and wise and therefore fitting of Montaigne, whose essential message to his readers is that we don’t have to justify or validate our existence. If you can manage your own life, Montaigne confides to us, you have done the greatest task of all. He understood that ruling your own spirit can be more challenging than ruling a state.
The appetites and temptations of a hugely affluent, modern and growing secular state are immense and cannot be ignored. Some years ago, the late historian David Potter wrote a book titled People of Plenty, in which he persuasively argued how the American character has been shaped by abundance. Nothing quite exemplifies this as much as the holiday season and the new American pastime of “Overeating.” Studies show that, on average, Americans consume 50 more pounds of sugar (sugar, according to nutritionists, is
Public Enemy #1) than they did in the 1950s. Combine this staggering datum with the 24-7 operations of fast food restaurants and it’s not hard to figure out why the expanding American waistline is expanding. We all know about the epidemic of childhood obesity.
It’s a sad commentary about our culture’s lack of discipline to see so many overweight children who will most likely carry that burden and the medical issues connected with it for the rest of their lives. First Lady Michelle Obama and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the latter obnoxiously so, have highlighted the problem but with little success. The number of overweight Americans continues to increase. During his stump speeches in Illinois, a young and ambitious politician named Abraham Lincoln would quip that God must love poor people — that’s why he made so many of them. The line provoked uproarious laughter in a world where the words of Thomas Gray’s Elegy, “the short and simple annals of the poor” was a stark reality.
By the same reasoning, one might also say that God must love fat people, but I doubt such a taunt would elicit even a smile. Obesity is a modern phenomenon directly linked to conspicuous consumption. If you could magically transport an 18th-century person into the 21st century they would be amazed by how big and even enormous so many are from the lower rung of the socio-economic classes. In the 18th century the economically deprived tended to be stunted and emaciated; but now they consume large quantities of high calorie foods and are as large and paunchy as anyone else. It’s not American equality at its best.
Few people, both philosophically and physically, were as different as the Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton and the atheist playwright George Bernard Shaw, Shaw, long, lank, thin as a reed and Chesterton, large, massively fleshy and weighing about the same as a small truck. Arriving to America from England, Chesterton playfully gave Shaw the once over and greeted him thusly:
“Why, George, you look like there is a famine in England!”
“Yes,” said Shaw without missing a beat, “and you G.K. look like you’ve caused it!”
Playful bantering aside, there has never been a famine in a modern democracy. In today’s America it is gluttony and not lack of provisions that is the problem. Being overweight is part of being American. These national inclinations are most noticeable during the winter solstice when, along with my fellow Americans, I’m inclined, despite my best efforts, toward a most distressing corpulence. When I was younger this would have been utterly implausible, having had to run around the shower to get soaked. But now my metabolism has slowed and I’ve unwisely opted for a more sedentary lifestyle (like sitting and writing these articles instead of jogging around the track).
New Year’s Resolutions about losing weight haven’t worked either because of my troubling habit of giving them up for Lent. Beware of your appetites, said Saint Francis of Assisi, for therein lies your weaknesses. That sounds like something else Montaigne could have written, but regardless of who wrote it we should pay homage to moderation by balancing our lives so we make time for meaningful leisure, a well-heeled diet, exercise, deepening our relationships and eliminating or at least reducing things and thoughts that stress us. Whatever he wrote, Montaigne couldn’t argue with such a sage investment in our own well-being.