• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Three Meals, Three Minds

January 2018

If, in the course of one day, you were given the opportunity to join first at breakfast, and then at lunch, and finally at dinner three different people—be they modern or ancient, living or dead, near or far, kindred or foreign—to whom would you lend your imaginary invitations? With which figures of history would you most like to pass your time? Within which intellects would you eagerly dive? With which minds would you most crave to converse? You might choose a scientist or an artist, a romantic or a humanist, a philosopher, an apostle, a singer, a star, a conqueror, or a queen. Perhaps a dignitary or a revolutionary, a humble monk or a business mogul. Any person born of any civilization awaits you. All you have to do is call, and he or she will oblige.

Who, then, given this daunting carte blanche, will you choose? But first, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, allow me to clarify the conditions just a bit more. For each meal, your interlocutor must be one; only he or she is to be present, seated across from you face-to-face at your favorite bistro, booth, or bar. No extras nor cameo appearances are to be permitted, save for the intermittent intrusions of the waiter. It’s to be a tête-à-tête—a strictly intimate affair. I should add also that your chosen companion will be with you for one meal and one meal alone. Each successive time you find yourself seated at a new table, from morning, noon, until the evening’s close, you’ll encounter a new person, always of your choosing, and your prior friend will never reappear. He or she is to return, grudgingly, to the lofty perches of history or textbooks whence he or she came. Such are the conditions. The rest is up to one’s imagination.

It’s an idea that confronted me a few days ago, and I’ve not stopped chewing on it since. This scenario, unlike those others that bid you choose one person with whom to spend a day or one lover a night, requires you to think not only about the audiences you wish to hold, but of the timing with which you want them held. Are you to start your day (putting a desperate end to your overnight fast) with someone jaunty or sober, enthusiastic or soporific? Will your mid-day meal be a time for a philosophical contemplation or an airy crescendo for the night life to come? And on that point, your night—will it be one of reflection or of revelry? Take your time and decide. In the meantime, below, you’ll find listed the three dining partners that will lead me through this once-in-a-lifetime day.

For breakfast, that most long-awaited moment of gustatory inauguration, I’ve decided to reach deep into the history of Western thought for my first companion. I’ll meet him where he can be most reliably found, in the homely gardens of Athens. While yes, they pale in comparison to those hanging at an earlier Babylon or a later Italian countryside, a sentience and equanimity flowers there that the others lack. It’s there, in the gardens, and not in the stoa nor the agora nor the Lyceum nor the Academy where most other philosophers can be found. Detached from those Socratic descendants is Epicurus, the first person with whom I’ll share a meal.

Entering his garden, I’ll pass under the inviting inscription, “Guest, thou shalt be happy here, for here happiness is esteemed the highest-good”. A propitious way, I should think, to begin any day. A few steps more and I’ll find my philosopher friend, seated, smiling, and contented in his genial thought. Closer still and I’ll lay witness to him scribbling his voluminous letters and books (we’re told he had authored over three hundred), of which only a small number exist. In them, he’ll praise pleasure and prudence as life’s first and ultimate goods. He’ll anticipate and warn us of our unhealthy infatuation with what lies beyond the grave by stoically stating that “death is nothing to us”. He’ll bring to the earth Plato’s metaphysics and distance himself from Aristotle’s passionless scientific prattle that drains of life its vital essence.

As he does this, I’ll approach and tap him on the shoulder. I expect he’ll turn and greet me with his easy affability and the natural sincerity of his warmth. Contrary to our modern connotation of his name with decadence and hedonistic sin, we’ll likely enjoy together a glassful of wine, (probably diluted as the ever-temperate Greeks preferred) and a simple course of hearty bread and goat cheese. For a sparse, if not wholly abstemious consumer of breakfast such as I, the Epicurean diet suits me well. And his philosophic prescription of ataraxia (which means, “serene tranquility or equanimity”) and Eudaimonia (“overall and general happiness in one’s life”) and fearlessness in thinking about death is the most clear-eyed, earnest, and gregarious way to start my day.

Typically, in the natural development and evolution of ideas, poetry precedes philosophy, and philosophy grounds itself before an emergent science. But here, and only here, I’ll reverse this well-established order, bend these ancient rules, and shake up the status quo. In doing so, I’ll make it in the nick of time for my lunchtime date at Combray with Marcel Proust. Of course, the city doesn’t exist, at least not outside the adventurous and inimitable mind of Proust. Perhaps I’ll accompany him to the equally fictional but no less appealing seaside town of Balbec or to the very real Champs-Élysées.

The timing will be perfect; Proust was known to favor afternoons and twilights over early or even late mornings and afternoons. To him, the sunrise was his alarm clock, and every day it beckoned him away from his prodigious nightly labors back to bed. His work began when the moon embarked upon its slow climb into the crepuscular Parisian sky. Then, and not a moment before, he’d settle into his dimly-lit study, which seconded as a bedroom, and set himself to the task of crafting seven volumes of the finest literature the twentieth century (and arguably, any century) had ever seen. I expect at some time around noon, the insatiable author will be hungry.

I’ll insist that we seat ourselves at an outdoor café—preferably one surrounded by an active environment: a mise en scène blossoming with flora, chirping with fauna, and animated by people passing by. There, I can be an accomplice to Proust’s perspicacious eye. I’ll concentrate, seeing what he sees and listening to what he says about the quotidian things we can’t help but overlook. As I lather with butter another hot piece of French baguette, I’ll ingest through his words all of the minutiae that this endlessly colorful and beautiful world paints before my unseeing eyes. He’ll talk for pages and hours about aristocratic pretensions, honest brows, haughty chins, chrysanthemums, churches, sensitivities, insecurities, liberties, and sexual fantasies he could never hope to repress. He’ll rejoice or lament the precipitous fall of the upper crust elite and the fading fin de siècle. He, like no other, will articulate as we finish our lunch the details of this world that we see but fail to put into words.

Proust will leave me with a poetic reminder of just how miraculous and beautiful the grand and small things of this world can be. He’ll have brought to the fore all of the majesty and the bounty that this world has to offer. It’s a beauty that we’re prone to obscure—carelessly and habitually—in the background of our inattentive minds. For that, I’ll thank him, bid him adieu, and move on to my final dinner appointment. I needn’t travel too quickly nor too far if I’m to make it on time; if I leave Paris by mid-afternoon, I should arrive at Ferney—a small, homely town on the cusp of the Swiss border—by the evening’s light. I walk swiftly toward the humble chateau before me, where I’ll find waiting Aureat de Voltaire—the rascal of the regency, the patriarch of pen, and the indomitable spirit of France.

With him, I’ll pass in fascination my last meal. Speaking with Voltaire will be a seamless transition, a thorough encapsulation of the ideas and the people I’d met before. In short, a perfect way to cap off the night. In Voltaire, I’ll find the friendly, earthly philosophy I’d stumbled upon in Epicurus; the prodigious, indefatigable literary zeal I’d immersed myself in with Proust; and the uniquely mordant wit, the scientific prowess, and the esemplastic erudition of a man who, in his time, had been both loved and hated, exiled and embraced, excommunicated and canonized as the patron saint of the Enlightenment.

I’ll be sure to be on my toes, though; while history knows Voltaire best for being an intellect and a belletrist of the greatest type, he was also a recidivist—a repeat offender equally as comfortable in jail as in a salon. At least twice he was imprisoned at the infamous Bastille and thrice expelled from the capital at Paris. I’ll be just uneasy enough as we settle down to eat, with one eye on the great sage and another on the door. The police might barge in at any moment. I’ll laugh with a sheepish grin as he unlocks the entrance, welcomes in the entire town, and assuages my fears.

In between bites, we’ll talk about a life whose content and action exceeded his boundless work. I’ll ask him of the duels and the dames he’d experienced through the years and the wounds he’d inherited from both. He was as readily brought to fighting as to loving—though in all cases, his zeal was unrequited. Those against whom he wished to duel deferred with a haughty laugh, while those upon whom he showered his love died in a quiet tragedy and withered away.

We’ll discuss our shared infatuation with the British empiricists: Bacon, Newton, and best of all, Locke. He spent a brief time, after all, on that European island called England and learned of her startling freedoms and advancements. From commendation to vituperation, he’ll turn to lambaste the likes of Leibniz, Rousseau, Diderot, and Frederick the Great.

Quietly, I’ll listen. All might be considered in a more sympathetic view, but personal slights make such optics impossible. We’ll argue about pacifism and atheism and agree to disagree. We’ll talk about travesties like Lisbon and the human response and its spirit, and I’ll ask him, as candidly as I can, if all truly is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Doubtless, the bon vivant will have a ready answer—one that’s as earnest and brilliant as the sky is blue.

Having covered all topics, answered all questions, mused all mysteries, and sated all my belly’s growlings, I’ll bid Voltaire good-bye, as I did Proust and Epicurus before him. I’ll take from this last repast all of the lessons that philosophy, poetry and science have to offer. I’ll walk away, slowly back to reality, with my waistline expanded as well as my mind. I’ll digest for days, weeks, and surely years all that I’d learned from these three meals and these three minds. Full myself, I ask of you, hungry reader, this delicious question: what will you learn, whom will you see when you bring to dinner three minds? All of humanity is the menu from which to choose. Bon appétite!

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