This essay, discovered recently in the cafeteria of the Library of Congress, was at first thought to be the work of a follower of the great French essayist Michel de Montaigne (1553-1592). But not for long.
There is a wonderful and universal constancy among our countrymen today, that they labor to prepare great meals and pull up chairs from distant rooms before the banquet table. If any shall be elsewhere from the fold, then they embark on pilgrimages to their original shires and towns, decking our national turnpikes with their vehicles. So also are the skies filled up with planes, and the great railroads employed in family transport to this selfsame end. That is, to bring together for the feast, such filial stock as sees each other least.
What is the cause among our people of such yearly gathering, if not for gifts to present, or wedding or birthday to attend? Not to philosophize, but gourmandize, friends. In truth, drawn not by loyalty or blood, but by what Byron heard:
That all-softening, overpowering knell
The Tocsin of the soul -- the dinner bell.
Nothing obligeth sleep like the alarums of a pedant; yet also let it be seen that the bald man feels first the rain. Let me, then, be the voice of moderation, which preaches kindly that, on this special day, we not leave aside our wit and gorge down everything in sight upon the table. For, as the Babylonian Talmud says, no vessel is more despised in the eyes of the Creator than an overlooked stomach.
O gentle moderation, temperance, forbearance, abstemiousness! O aurea Mediocritas! So many centuries, and even millenia, have you eluded even the best of us. Virgil, in his "Georgics," speaks sadly of the gluttons who cram their bellies full at table, then sickeningly remove this overburdenance, that they may return for resatiation. If such gluttony had but once scowled on the face of the earth, later Iberians should not have observed: Quien come hasta entermar, ha de ayunar hasta sanar. Who eats himself sick must fast himself well.
Yet it is Thanksgiving day, and one finds not Virgil on his table, but a goose. And succulent tubers, and steamy legumes, and all manner of delectation according to our tradition, wherein, as Clifton Fadiman said it, cheese is no longer cheese, but milk's leap toward immortality.
My own stomach, reader, yearns to cease this weary discourse, and return, child-like, to gorgery and stuffing-down, where salubrious burgundies flow and the serving bowls empty steadily toward a plum pudding held to last. O surrendering castle with moat of flaming brandy!
Just so. And the more reason, this hallowed day, to remember the wisdom of our ancestral teachers. Les gourmands font leurs fosses a leurs dents . Greedy eaters dig their graves with their teeth. Not only the temperate nations render it thus, but also Hamlet's Denmark, with its cold reason:
Flere fold draeves af nadver end af svaerd.
More people are killed by supper than by sword.
In this keeping, I will relate a true happening which impressed itself upon my own self not long ago, while all my senses felt the draw of a scone in a pastry shop. This scone had enthralled me such that I intended to obtain five of its kind, slathered (so had the shopkeeper been instructed) in butter, and eat them on the spot. But as I drooled into my purse, desperate to make payment on my gluttony, I felt a tug at my sleeve. There was a man of China, who exclaimed:
To ch'ih shao tzu wei; shao ch'ih to tzu wei.
The more you eat, the less flavor; the less you eat, the more flavor.
Instructed thus, I flung the money to the floor and fled. And I pray that we both, reader, may now that same lesson relearn. For it has been my experience that this Thanksgiving day makes sore temptation, more so even than the scone. We must keep strong, and be counseled by wise men, from Geoffrey Chaucer
O glotonye, ful of cursednesse O cause first of our confusioun O original of our dampnacioun! to the laureate Masefield, who advises that "a carelessness of life and beauty marks the glutton, the idler, and the fool in their deadly path across history."
I see that time is short, though art is long, and so I remand to you these thoughts, to take them firm. And do as wisdom does, and not a man. For I see now that in my house Marcella bears the succulent goose to table, and my friends are gathering in hopes of dinner. I had not known I had so many. See how Henri throws a log upon my fire, as if it were his own house: Let not a guest so favored be, that he your hearth assumes is free. Last year this selfsame Henri, arriving early and hiding within a cupboard, ate a pudding reserved for 12.
Let us consider again, as the dinner hour approaches, the uses of philosophy. That it is a great sin, in truth, to claim virtues that are not ours. And a heathen logic that conspires to plot too well our course through life. Michel de Montaigne knew, and marveled, how fate corrects our dreams.
"Who would ever have imagined that a Duke of Brittanie should have been stifled to death in a throng of people . . . . Hast thou not seene one of our late kings slaine in the midst of his sports? And one of his ancestors die miserably by the chocke of an hog? Eschilus strucken dead by the fall of a tortoise shell, which fell out of the tallant of an eagle flying in the air? And another choaked with the kernal of a grape? And an emperor die by the scratch of a combe, whilest he was combing his head?"
No, if gluttony does not kill us, surely something else will. All that I have said is true, yet does the stomach still growl and cry out for help from the scriptures?
"Every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labor, it is the gift of God." -- Ecclesiastes, 3.13
It occurs to me that, particularly on Thanksgiving Day, we should study the lessons of humility. For the price of pride is dear, and a stout man may oftentimes be jolly, whereas Cassius' "lean and hungry look" is everywhere suspicioined and reviled. In eating may indeed lie godliness.
"He that eateth well, drinketh well; he that drinketh well, sleepeth well; he that sleepeth well, sinneth not; he that sinneth not goeth straight through Purgatory to Paradise." -- William Lithgow
When all is weighed, a moderate course is best; hurl yourself not to extremes, that you may always regain the center. And above all avoid the sin of pride, which maketh you out better than your fellows. If among you on this feast day, others are feasting, then it is the sign of a prideful and despicable man to hold him above the rest, and go hungry.
Another day we shall return to gluttony, and to its wrongful nature. For the moment, let stand the wisdom of Cicero, who says: satius est crudiate, quam fame . It is better to die of indigestion than of starvation.
I leave you, reader. Henri is in the pudding again, and Marcella says my goose is cooked.