What are feasts for?—A very brief Epicurean meditation for our church's Wednesday lunch club

What are feasts for? They are often thought of as extravagant dinners designed to celebrate saints and dictators, colleges and corporations, kings and queens, bishops and lords and, of course, now traditional feasts such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. No doubt you’ve all been to some of these in your time . . .

But I think the truer feasts are often the rather more modest simple meals one can share with a friend when you are both opened up to the wonder of the universe and of the possibilities of life and, together, you feel impelled to celebrate this in some way.   

Many times my wife, Susanna and I have found ourselves out in walking in some wild landscape with little more than a couple of rolls, some sliced meat and cheese when, as we prepared to open the rolls to receive the meat and cheese following our little grace, Susanna has looked up at me, face beaming, and said “What a feast!” Yes, indeed, what a feast! These are the feasts I recall most often and they remind me that, above all the feasts for saints and dictators, colleges and corporations, kings and queens, bishops and lords, there is the greatest feast of all, namely sharing simple food in the company of one’s closest friends.

This idea of in what consists a true feast is, of course, rooted firmly in the philosophy of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BC). Although he knew friendship first developed because of its basic utility he also knew that, once born, it became desirable in and of itself. Epicurus was highly aware that every individual existence, being alone, always needs the other to thrive and be happy and that, therefore, only ever to eat alone was in fact highly destructive. Indeed he once wrote: “To eat and drink without a friend is to devour like the lion and the wolf.”

He also understood that this kind of feast shared with a friend, though it might very occasionally be grand and luxurious, it could always also be incredibly modest, in fact it was for the most part better that way and, in acknowledgement of this, he memorably wrote to a friend “Send me a pot of cheese, so that I may be able to indulge myself whenever I wish.” It would never have occurred to Epicurus to ask his friend for the third-century BC Greek equivalent of a hamper from Fortnum and Mason’s, just a plain pot of cheese, that was enough indulgence for him, just a soupçon more than the bread, olives and water he ate on a daily basis.

One of the themes of this year’s lunch club has been attachment and separation. Well, Epicurus knew it was vital never to become attached to grand and luxurious living and eating and that we should always be learning to leave this unnecessary, damaging and unhealthy desire behind. If a grand feast came along now and then, all well and good, we should enjoy it — as we will in a moment. But when the grand and the luxurious were not present and we only had a little pot of cheese, which for most of us is most of the time, Epicurus saw there were always already wonderful feasts to be had, as along as they were had with friends.

So my question for you today is where and when have you experienced such modest Epicurean feasts and from them what have you learned?