“As the proverb says, men cannot know each other until they have eaten salt together.”
Deep in the human heart is the desire to be together with people that we love. Human happiness is always a shared happiness: shared especially with a small number of people. For most of us a fulfilled life will only be found in walking its hills and valleys in communion with family, and a few friends.
We don’t need the latest study to show us that we are losing the ability to live in communion, even with those closest to us. And not only does this problem start in our homes, it grows there. Home—the very word should resonate with feelings of warmth, belonging, togetherness. It should be the most reliable place of real personal intimacy, the surest antidote to the great bane of human existence: loneliness. But more and more, it is not.
Perhaps the central reason that we are not really living-together in our homes is that we are hardly living there at all. For starters, most of us spend very few hours of the day within, or near, our homes. But even more to the point, how do we spend those hours that we are at home?
Writing about the shared life of true friends, Aristotle says, “This will be realized in their…sharing in discussion and thought; for this is what living together would seem to mean in the case of man, and not as in the case of cattle, feeding in the same place.” I don’t think Aristotle intended a critique of Greek dining practices, but I wonder whether “feeding in the same place” would describe meal times in many of our contemporary homes. Of course meals in the home can and should be a primary context for “sharing in discussion and thought.” Such mealtime conversation is surely what Aristotle has in mind in quoting the proverb about eating salt together. One version of the proverb has it as eating a peck of salt together.
Some quick math shows that, barring an alarmingly saline diet, eating a peck of salt together will require several thousand meals. So the proverb seems to imply that deep human relationships grow only from consistent quality conversation, like what should be found at household meals.
If Aristotle is correct that the truest human intimacy takes place in good conversation, then here we have a prism through which to consider our customs of home life, beginning with meal times. Though cows usually feed in the vicinity of other cows, they are not particular about eating together. Household meals, on the other hand, can be configured to be regular occasions for communion between family members. But given the various pressures on home life today, such a configuration will need to be a conscious object of intention. Otherwise our meal practices might tend toward the bovine.
Household meals can be occasions for communion between family members. But that will require conscious intention.
Outside of meal times there are two other main household contexts that can be suited to rational and personal communion: work and leisure. But both of these have been largely removed to venues outside the home, while what is left behind has taken forms less conducive to communion.
Households were once the primary locus of human work. Much of what was needed for human life was produced, as well as consumed, therein. Even after the industrial revolution removed much production from the home, traditional “home arts” retained a significant place in household life for a number of generations. Yet the last couple of generations have seen a notable drop of even these activities. The art of cooking seems more associated with dining out, or edgy parties with peers, than with keeping a family well fed, around a table spread and seasoned with love. The arts of growing and preserving foods, while certainly not dead, are far from commonplace. The same can be said of home carpentry, sewing, knitting and the like.
Apart from other negative consequences of the demise of these arts, our home life suffers the loss of a natural context of human presence, of being-together in a meaningful way. Indeed, not only does such work provide the satisfaction of communal achievement and shared competency, it also often allows for regular, sustained conversation. Who would not start to speak with a fellow potato-peeler, or sander of wood? The repetitive yet varied and fruitful work of such arts is one of the great hidden treasures of a way of life that for many of us can only be had by re-discovering what has been lost.
If one were to judge by the sales of flat-screen TVs and the like, it might seem that the life of leisure is alive and well in the home. But Aristotle distinguishes leisure and amusement. In a rather remarkable line, he reflects: “It would, indeed, be strange if the end (goal) were amusement, and one were to take trouble and suffer hardship all one’s life in order to amuse oneself.” Amusement—of which what we call entertainment is surely a kind—has a place in the home. It serves work by providing a break, a necessary relaxation. But such is no replacement for leisure, which is a time of richer activities.
Leisure time in Aristotle’s sense, while indeed relaxing, is much more than relaxation. Its activities are rich in meaning, and consequently have an unmatched power to unite the people that engage in them. A group reflection upon blessings received; the reading or performance of a drama; stories of family history or great heroes; music appreciation; common prayer. Here a family community is especially alive, present to one another in a unique way.
Salt gives seasoning to food. But good conversation, especially that occasioned by the rich and regular activities of the home, does more than give seasoning to life. It is the beating heart of a real communion of persons, of a happy life-together with those we love.
John A. Cuddeback is a professor and chairman of the Philosophy Department at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia. His book True Friendship: Where Virtue Becomes Happiness was republished in 2010, and his website dedicated to the philosophy of family and household is baconfromacorns.com.