In 1747, the French physician and philosophe Julien Offray de la Mettrie published a book entitled Man: A Machine (L'Homme Machine). It is little known today, but in it La Mettrie proposed an idea we are very familiar with nearly 300 years later: You are what you eat. He argued human beings (and all living things) were machines, fueled by the digestion of food:
"The human body is a machine which winds its own springs. It is the living image of perpetual movement. Nourishment keeps up the movement which fever excites. Without food, the soul pines away, goes mad, and dies exhausted ... But nourish the body, pour into its veins life-giving juices and strong liquors, and then the soul grows strong ... What power there is in a meal! Joy revives in a sad heart, and infects the souls of comrades." (Image: La Mettrie)
La Mettrie was a philosophical materialist. He held that everything in the universe was made up of matter. Spirit was a figment of overheated imaginations. Spirit did not exist, which meant no angels, no demons, no ghosts. The soul was merely the animating principle arising from matter, and animals as well as people had souls.
La Mettrie conceded that God "might" exist but it didn't matter because He did not interfere in the world. Today, most people would call La Mettrie an atheist, and he did used that term to describe his position. He was also a hedonist. He argued that happiness was the sole purpose of life. People should indulge in pleasurable activities as much as possible, including eating fine food, drinking, and sex.
Atheism was a rare stance in even in the Enlightenment, but it had a long history. The Roman poet Lucretius espoused materialism. Some of La Mettrie's fellow philosophes advanced atheistic arguments, notably Baron d'Holbach and David Hume. (pictured below). But most of the philosophes, atheist or not, denounced La Mettrie's claim that hedonism should be the main goal of human life.
Other philosophes, called deists, also rejected La Mettries's atheism. They argued that God definitely existed and had created a good world, but then left it to operate according to His benevolent natural laws. Deists and atheists alike fell afoul of religious and secular authorities. Deists were often denounced as atheists for rejecting key Christian doctrines.
Like other philosophes, La Mettrie had to move about for his safety. He fled France to the more tolerant Netherlands. After the publication of Man: A Machine, things got too hot for him there. He found refuge in Prussia at the Court of Frederick the Great. Voltaire, perhaps the best known of the philosophes, also fled there in 1750. (Images: Frederick and Voltaire)
But let's get back to eating. La Mettrie argued that the food one ate determined one's personality, disposition, intelligence, and behavior. Diet explained why some people were more savage than others:
"Red meat makes animals fierce, and it would have the same effect on man. This is so true that the English who eat meat red and bloody, and not as well done as ours, seem to share more or less in the savagery due to this kind of food...."
As another example of how food effects behavior, La Mettrie related the story of a Swiss judge who "when he fasted, was a most upright and even a most indulgent judge, but woe to the unfortunate man whom he found on the culprit's bench after he had had a large dinner! He was capable of sending the innocent like the guilty to the gallows."
Diet could even affect the intelligence of whole nations. "One nation is of heavy and stupid wit, and another quick, light, and penetrating. Whence comes this difference, if not in part from the difference in foods....?
La Mettrie was well versed in the science of his day, but his argument about food was hardly scientific. His evidence was anecdotal and stereotypical. Yet no one today would deny that diet can have enormous effects on mental and physical health. Medical and dietary science has linked poor diet to all kinds of illnesses and dangerous conditions.
La Mettrie's death was utterly ironic. He died in 1751 of a gastric disorder, followed by a fever and delerium. Some versions say he ate a huge amount of a pheasant and truffle pate pie at one meal to show off how much he could consume. Others claim that the food that had gone bad.
As he was dying, priests allegedly gathered in his room, hoping to get him to confess his faith in God. At one point, he cried out "Christ!" in his agony. The reverend fathers advanced eagerly towards his bed. Alas, he disappointed them. "It was just a manner of speaking," he said, smiling.
Frederick the Great gave the eulogy at La Mettrie's funeral. He called him "a good devil and medic but a very bad author."
The holiday season is upon us. Be careful what you eat.