Camp Seneca: Day 1- On Food


Obligatory Disclaimer:  This is not medical, nutritional, or dietary advice.  Seek professional opinions for these things.  

Don’t get hurt, that would make both us sad, Stoic or not.

So, at first one might ask why someone would undertake such a project, the Stoics weren’t ascetics, right?  I think I’ve rehashed that question often enough (Link 1, Link 2, Link 3, Link 4), but it’s still commonly heard, esp. on the internet.

“Therefore upon the learning of the lessons appropriate to each and every excellence, practical training must follow invariably, if indeed from the lessons we have learned we hope to derive any benefit.”

— Musonius Rufus, Lecture VI: ON TRAINING.


That seems pretty straightforward to me, and coupled with:

“And since habit has established a strong predominance, because we have acquired the habit of turning our will to get and our will to avoid only to what lies outside our control, we must set a contrary habit to counteract the former, and where impressions are most likely to go wrong there employ training as an antidote.”

— Epictetus, Discourses III.12:  ON TRAINING


And lest we forget our training period’s namesake:

“When shall you put it all into practice? For it is not sufficient merely to commit these things to memory, like other matters; they must be practically tested. He is not happy who only knows them, but he who does them.”

— Seneca, Moral Letters LXXV. ON THE DISEASES OF THE SOUL.

So, that issue (I hope) being resolved, let’s look at the most startling of the Camp Seneca practices for this period.  Restricting food to one meal a day.  Why might we do that, and more importantly, why is this a Stoic practice at all?  For this, we’re going to turn to Musonius.

“First of all,
      (1) the man who eats more than he ought does wrong, and
      (2) the man who eats in undue haste no less, and also
      (3) the man who wallows in the pickles and sauces, and
      (4) the man who prefers the sweeter foods to the more healthful ones, and
      (5) the man who does not serve food of the same kind or amount to his guests as to himself.
 There is still another wrong in connection with eating,
      (6) when we indulge in it at an unseasonable time, and although there is something else we ought to do, we put it aside in order to eat.”

— Musonius Rufus, Lecture Lecture XVIIIB ON FOOD


As Musonius (via his student Lucius) notes that unlike some rarer circumstance, we are faced with eating daily, and sometimes twice a day.  Maybe Musonius is a bit more optimistic about whence we’re starting, because now most westerners eat three meals daily, and there is often snacking between.  Some health folks suggest six smaller meals throughout the day (although this is challenged in some health/fitness quarters).  Regardless of where we fall in the “three to six range,” it is fair to say this is a challenge we are faced with often.

In the second portion of the lecture on food, Musonius notes a variety of places one can go wrong during a meal.  I’ve broken them down and numbered them for ease.  He notes six opportunities for failure in self-control.  It is my experience that number (5) is practically a non-issue, the politeness culture and sense of hospitality that is common in American and European communities(I’m sure others as well, but this is the extent of my experience) renders it moot.  Guests are usually given the best of what’s available, and seconds or even thirds are often foisted on them with or without consent.  God help the person who doesn’t want food while visiting a grandma, even is she’s not your grandma!

But, the others are ripe for our inspection.

Restricting ourselves (for a time) to one meal a day will cause a shift of attention.  Many meals are taken thoughtlessly.  The working lunch, the sandwich in the car on the way to an event, “what are we doing for dinner tonight, honey?”  When we pare down the opportunities, we will necessarily be a bit more mindful in our choices with what remains.  Additionally, this should help solve (1) and (6).

However, my suspicion is that items (2), (3), and (4) may actually become a greater issue on which we have to focus.  This is not problematic, though.  Now, you’ll notice, we’ve cut down our problem areas in regards to food by half.  We only have three things to which we must really pay attention.

As a youngster, I spent some time in the summer with a religious community,  a Benedictine monastery in the Illinois Valley.  Meal time is very regulated (unsurprisingly).  Meals are taken in silence, and there are several readings which are read aloud.  If you look at other traditions across the globe, mealtime is given an equally weighty treatment.  An effect of this sort of formalism is a necessary slowing down of the drives and desires in regards to food.  In a quiet, meditative environment we are able to focus more on what we’re doing.

This takes care of items (2) and (3).

Of course, in an intentional community, with community meal preparation, (4) is often taken care of by someone else.  We do not have this luxury, however.  We are required to exercise an extra portion of σωφροσύνη.  In item (4) we may be especially challenged.  There are a couple  of modes from which we can choose.

Any choice we make here should be in consult with medical personnel, and be tailored to our health needs.  Individual responsibility is required.

The first, being that in having a fairly severe caloric deficit, we might choose foods which are calorically denser.  This is an added difficulty, for one of the Musonian precepts is to avoid animal-flesh as food.  This is common to see in Buddhists monks (most of whom outside of China, Japan, and Korea) are not vegetarian; and I’m told they can put away a goodly amount of food in their one meal.

The second option, if health allows for it, is to simply go without.  What we are doing is a form of intermittent fasting, and there a wide variety of programs.  Some who will fast for 16 hours, and feed for 8.  Or 20 and 4, or what have you.  Restricting ourselves to one meal is on the end of the IF spectrum, where effectively we’ll be fasting for 22 or 23 hours a day, and adding the fact that some will be abstaining from meat, it’s not going to be an easy thing.  To date, I think the longest I’ve intentionally gone without food (while not sick) is something like 36 hours.  I do expect this to be a challenge for me, as I have a lot of work to do on the ‘moderation with food’ issue, as my belt size will attest.

It is my hope that this exercise is a good context for which to have a greater experiential understanding of self-control.  It may also contain opportunities for courage and fortitude.  It is of the utmost importance that we remember all of our training must be motivated towards virtue:  or simply put, we’re in the wrong.

So, if you’re adopting my program for Camp Seneca, let me know in the comments.  If you using some other regimen let me know also in the comments.

This is part of the 2016 iteration of Camp Seneca.

2 thoughts on “Camp Seneca: Day 1- On Food

  1. You’ve inspired me to make my own ascetic training routine. I am going to use a more mild regimen though, because I’ve never tried any ascetic routine so hard before. A couple times I’ve gone a week only sleeping on the floor, a couple years ago I gave up soda for three months, and I once went forty days with out drinking alcohol. but other than that I’ve never tried anything like this.

    So my regimen will be
    1 begin and end every day by reading
    2 I will abstain from all sweets on weekdays, and from all meat on Saturday and Sunday.
    3 I will always sleep on the floor
    4 I will not use gloves or a stocking cap to keep me warm at work (I work in a walk in refrigerator). Additionally, it’s starting to get pretty hot outside where I live, and my apartment doesn’t have very good AC, so circumstance necessitates that I train myself against the heat too. So I in this, I have an advantage over the ancients, as I will be able to train myself against both heat and cold in the very same day
    5 I will endeavor to dress simply. This one will be hard for me, personally, because In the last year or so, I’ve started to take quite a bit of pride in the way I dress. So giving up stylish clothes will not be easy. I plan to stop using hair gel and to stop wearing fashionable jeans. For a shirt, I think I will buy some plain grey tees and wear those.

    One week from today, I will review how I’ve done, and modify my regimen to make it harsher, or milder in certain ways, if I think that needs to be done

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