What do we mean exactly when we use the word “Enlightenment”? Does the term indicate a set of doctrines, an intellectual movement, a distinctive approach to knowledge, or simply an especially interesting phase in the history of European culture? The question is as difficult to answer today as it was when the philosopher Immanuel Kant first raised it in the 1780s. Indeed, it is somewhat surprising that an object so hazy and ill-defined should continue to influence the modern imagination.
Over the past two decades the attention of scholars interested in the nature of the Enlightenment has gradually shifted from the study of major works and famous intellectual figures to that of ordinary activities involving wider groups of people: for example, the circulation of books and printed materials, education, religious and medical practices, social networks and scientific gatherings. If Kant defined the Enlightenment as a philosophical posture, a distinctive moral and intellectual attitude towards authority, this new historical perspective presents it as a diffuse and complex process of transformation of ancien régime society in a variety of domains. Eating the Enlightenment belongs to this type of approach “from below”: focusing upon France from the late 17th to the mid 18th century, E.C. Spary traces the diffusion of new “stimulating” luxury foods - such as coffee, tea, syrups and spirits - and the creation of appropriate establishments for their sale. Following the careers of some prominent entrepreneurs in the field, she describes how and where these products were promoted and marketed, and the public’s response to them.
The aim of the author is not, however, merely that of tracing the evolution of some novel habits of consumption, curious and entertaining though some aspects of the phenomenon might be. Her research shows how the appearance of such products required the development of specific technical skills connected with their preparation; it also generated a range of conflicting scientific views about the impact of stimulating substances on the bodies and minds of consumers. Some of the arguments focused on the mechanisms of what was broadly described as “digestion”, and more generally about the most desirable forms of diet. At a time when medicine had very limited powers to cure, the dietary habits of those people who could afford to choose their food seemed crucial to their well-being: not just to their physical condition but also to the state of their emotions and their psychic balance.
But the issue was not just medical: a variety of moral and political considerations were also at stake. Throughout the age, luxury consumption of all kinds was the object of fierce controversy. Some writers regarded it as indispensable to the growth of the economy, because of its power to promote industry and generate employment, ultimately bringing prosperity to the working poor. Others stressed the wasteful immorality of excessive luxury when set against the destitution of the masses, and argued that productive resources should be directed instead towards the creation of more accessible and socially useful commodities. As for novel exotic foods, their potentially corrupting effects seemed especially dangerous since, by penetrating into people’s bodies, they might affect their most intimate physical and psychic nature. The colonial provenance of some products, such as coffee, was also a source of concern: how could one be sure that the consumption of stimulants grown in a wilder, more primitive environment would not alter the faculties and character of European consumers? Coffee houses and cabarets have long been an object of interest to 18th-century historians, as they famously served as meeting places for dissident intellectuals and renowned literary personalities. In Spary’s account, such establishments were not just places where the like-minded met to exchange ideas but also instruments of social promotion and workshops for the development of new scientific skills outside the traditional networks of patronage.
On the whole, Eating the Enlightenment provides a well-researched, original and occasionally fascinating approach to an interesting dimension of 18th-century culture. The intrinsic merit of the material is sometimes ill-served by the author’s anxiety to position herself within current academic debates, elaborating on the “post-structuralist” method to which she subscribes. Lay readers will need no special introduction to recognise, in the Enlightenment discovery of individual pleasure and well- being, a familiar foretaste of our own modern obsessions.
Eating the Enlightenment: Food and the Sciences in Paris, 1670-1760
By E. C. Spary
University of Chicago Press, 368pp, £29.00
ISBN 9780226768861 and 68885
Published 10 December 2012