I’m inviting you to “eat like a Stoic” on Sunday 26th May. We want people from all over the world to make “Stoic Soup”, based on the ancient recipe attributed to Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic school. It’s also a great opportunity to reflect on our relationship with food, from a philosophical perspective. What should we eat? How should we eat? And what does the way we eat say about our character?
The Stoics were very interested in food. We’re told that the Stoic teacher Musonius Rufus “often talked in a very forceful manner about food, on the grounds that food was not an insignificant topic and that what one eats has significant consequences.” He believed that Stoic students should begin their training in self-control by mastering their appetite for food and drink.
Musonius taught that Stoics should prefer inexpensive foods that are easy to obtain and most nourishing and healthy for a human being to eat. He advises eating plants and grains rather than slaughtered animals. He recommends fruits vegetables, which do not require much cooking, as well as cheese, milk, and honeycombs. “Zeno”, we’re told, “thought it best to avoid gourmet food, and he was adamant about this.” He thought that once we get used to eating fancy meals we spoil our appetites and start to crave things that are expensive or difficult to obtain, losing the ability to properly enjoy simple, natural food and drink.
Musonius also thought we should train ourselves to avoid gluttony:
Since this behavior [gluttony] is very shameful, the opposite behavior—eating in an orderly and moderate way, and thereby demonstrating self-control—would be very good. Doing this, though, is not easy; it demands much care and training.
Stoics should eat slowly and with mindfulness of their own character and actions. They should use reason to judge where the boundary of what’s healthy lies and exercise moderation wisely.
The person who eats more than he should makes a mistake. So does the person who eats in a hurry, the person who is enthralled by gourmet food, the person who favors sweets over nutritious foods, and the person who does not share his food equally with his fellow-diners. […] Since these and other mistakes are connected with food, the person who wishes to be self-controlled must free himself of all of them and be subject to none. One way to become accustomed to this is to practice choosing food not for pleasure but for nourishment, not to please his palate but to strengthen his body.
I think Musonius would approve of the recipe below because it’s very cheap, mainly uses common vegetable ingredients, which are easy to obtain, and it’s also very easy to prepare. You can easily make a large batch and store it in portions to reheat later. It’s unfussy but tasty and nutritious.
Therefore, the goal of our eating should be staying alive rather than having pleasure—at least if we wish to follow the sound advice of Socrates, who said that many men live to eat, but that he ate to live. No right-thinking person will want to follow the masses and live to eat, as they do, in constant pursuit of gastronomic pleasures.
Recipe for Stoic Soup
In Meals and Recipes from Ancient Greece, Eugenia Ricotti describes the following recipe called “Zeno’s Lentil Soup”. It’s a modern recipe based upon ancient sources, including remarks attributed to Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoic philosophy, which are found in the Deipnosophistae (or “Dinner Experts”) of Athenaeus of Naucratis.
1 lb. (450g) lentils
8 cups (2 litres) broth
1 large minced leek
1 carrot, 1 stalk of celery, and 1 small onion, all sliced
2 tablespoons vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
12 coriander seeds
salt and pepper to taste
She says to rinse the lentils and put them in a pot with the broth to boil. Then reduce heat and simmer for one hour. Then skim the top, add the vegetables, and leave to simmer until cooked, which should be about 30 minutes. She says that if it seems too watery either add cornstarch or pass some of the lentils through a sieve. Finally, add vinegar and honey for flavour.
After pouring into serving bowls, add a good amount of olive oil – she suggests about 2 tablespoons per serving. Finish by sprinkling on the coriander seeds and adding more salt and pepper to taste.
I’ve made this recipe quite a few times myself. I use dried green lentils, which I soak overnight and boil for a few minutes. I use red wine vinegar and often add a couple of garlic cloves and perhaps a few bay leaves, possibly also a little paprika. I’d also usually garnish it with a few fresh coriander leaves and serve with bread. This is a photo of my version…
The Stoic Handbook
Sign up today for our free email course on the Stoic Handbook. You'll receive weekly emails with my commentary on passages from Epictetus.