Beauty for its Own Sake: Eating & Eucharist

Have you ever asked yourself, “What is good, and how can I know?”

In Book III of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle teaches (according to Joe Sachs) that there are three “levels” of goodness: utility, pleasure, and beauty (in that order).

Let’s apply this hierarchy to the human activity of eating. I find that people eat for different reasons.

Some people eat merely for nutrition. I call this approach to eating “the food-as-fuel” approach. Fitness freaks in the 1990’s who advocate a diet of mainly rice cakes, runners who eat “runners goo” to maintain energy levels on a long run, or weight-lifters who consume whey as a means to increase muscle mass: these are all forms of eating as utility. Here one eats as a means to some other end, an extrinsic end: weight loss, added muscle mass, etc.

Others east for pleasure. For Aristotle, this motive is superior to utility, for eating for pleasure is an activity which is a means to an end which is intrinsic to the activity itself. Here one eats because food is delicious and tasty. One drinks, for example, because beer is pleasurable. The Christian tradition gives Aristotle a “high five” for advocating pleasure, and arguing not only that it is good, but that it is better than mere utility.

Finally, however, we come to what, for Aristotle, is the most noble level of the good: beauty. You see, body builders eat for utility; hedonists and “foodies” eat for pleasure. But there is one other group of people, one other “tribe,” which consists of folks who eat not for utility and not for pleasure, but for beauty.

Beauty itself.

This tribe is called the Christian Church, the Eucharistic community, the people of God. When we feast on the body and blood of Christ at the Table where Christ is the host and we are the guests, where God and man at table are sat down, we eat not for utility, not for pleasure, but for beauty.

Elsewhere in the Ethics Aristotle teaches that beauty is, in essence, completion. It is that of which nothing is lacking, nothing is needed. In the harmony of all its parts, it is complete and perfect. It is for this that Christians eat at the holy altar. Here, we eat not to get more physical energy, and not because the elements taste so good. Rather, it is here that the cosmos is completed in all its parts: God and man, heaven and earth, nature and supernature.

All of this is included in the ritual of Holy Eucharist, when we chew on and swallow the Word made flesh, and injest his body and blood. Not by ourselves, but with each other.

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