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#6: Gourmand, Gourmet, or Connoisseur?

Copyright © 2014 by William B. Irvine

You may need water to live, but ice cubes are a luxury. Indeed, your body will have to melt the ones you consume before they will be of any use to you. But the fact that ice cubes are a luxury has not stopped enterprising businessmen from coming up with super-premium cubes. One sells gourmet cubes for $7.50 apiece.

And what would a 21st century Stoic like myself have to say about this phenomenon? Would he eschew super-premium ice—and even regular ice—and limit himself to liquid water? Not at all.

As I’ve explained in previous posts, the ancient Stoics were not ascetics. They did not think we should avoid sources of pleasure. To the contrary, we should partake of the delights the world has to offer but do so very carefully, keeping in mind the danger of becoming enslaved by pleasure. It was the ancient Cynics, not the Stoics, who were the ascetics.

Furthermore, when Stoics enjoy something—be it a friendship, a meal, or maybe even a $7.50 ice cube—they do so in a thoughtful manner. They might reflect on the fact that they are lucky to be able to enjoy such things. They might also reflect on the possibility that this is the last time in their life they will be able to enjoy them. These may sound like glum thoughts to have, but Stoics realize that engaging in this sort of “negative visualization” will intensify their enjoyment of whatever they are experiencing.

A 21st century Stoic will be careful to distinguish between gourmands, gourmets, and connoisseurs.

A gourmand is someone who is excessively fond of eating and drinking, and has therefore allowed himself to become enslaved by pleasure. Stoics will be careful not to become gourmands.

A gourmet is someone who has developed such discriminating tastes that he can no longer tolerate anything less than “the best.” Many people will be happy to be served beer of any kind. A gourmet, though, might become quite unhappy on being served “ordinary” beer. Such beer, he might explain at length, is not fit for human consumption.

Stoics will try hard not to become gourmets. Why go out of your way to reduce the number of things capable of delighting you? Stoics will pity gourmets for having painted themselves into a corner, hedonically speaking. Because of their exceedingly high standards, there will be very little that gourmets can take pleasure in, and there will be much that disappoints them. They therefore live in a state of self-inflicted misery!

This brings us to connoisseurs. In one sense of the word, connoisseur is synonymous with gourmet, but if we look at the root meaning of connoisseur, it is simply a person who “knows.” A connoisseur of wine knows all about wine; a connoisseur of art knows all about art; and a connoisseur of, say, hot dogs knows all about hot dogs.

Although Stoics will avoid becoming gourmets, they will advocate that we become connoisseurs, inasmuch as knowing about something can dramatically increase the pleasure we derive from it. Allow me to explain.

Try this experiment. See how much pleasure you can derive from eating a single almond. If you eat it while watching television, you probably won’t experience much pleasure at all. If you instead pay attention to the act of eating the almond, tasting its saltiness, listening for the satisfying crack as you bite into it, and savoring the burst of almondy goodness that results, your pleasure will be intensified.

But if you want to extract the maximum pleasure from an almond, you should become an almond connoisseur by learning about its history. You will discover that maybe ten years ago, someone planted an almond tree in the off-chance that someone like you would someday want to eat an almond. Other people cared for that tree till an almond crop came in, harvested those almonds, transported them to your local store, and placed them on the shelves from which you, for a few cents per almond, bought them.

To the person who is mindful of the history of an almond, the consumption of that almond can be a profound event—a minor miracle, in fact. To most people, consumption of an almond is not a miracle; it is just a midday snack.

A Stoic’s goal will be to become a connoisseur of everything and a gourmet of nothing, and as a result, he will find himself living in a garden of delight.

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