Marriage and Meals

Nathan Richardson

In a previous post, “The Essence of Marriage,” I responded to a review of a book on marriage.1 The author of the book summarizes a variety of marriage systems throughout history, showing how the concept of marriage has varied over time and culture. The reviewer determines that because of this variety, we can conclude that “marriage has no ‘essence.’ There is no one function or purpose it serves in every time and place.” This conclusion appeals to those who advance the gay agenda because it justifies redefining marriage according to the latest whims of some segments of society.

The author’s summary of the differences in marriage systems throughout history, as well as the reviewers conclusions from the review, is the result of confusing descriptive characteristics with defining characteristics. For example, a pencil is a long, thin tool (descriptive characteristics), but that does not mean a paintbrush is a pencil, even though it is also a long, thin tool. And even if you find many pencils of various colors, sizes, and materials, as long as they have a graphite core encased in a solid material (defining characteristics), they are pencils. Variety in descriptive characteristics does not mean there are no inherent defining characteristics.

Imagine, for example, someone using such logic to redefine the social institution of meals, as depicted in this imaginary dialogue:

Meals are when people gather and eat.

No, that’s a rather artificial, out-dated social construct.

What do you mean?

Meals aren’t essentially about eating.

What! The very purpose of meals is nutrition.

Oh, you’re so sheltered and ethnocentric. Do you really think that every society sees mealtimes the same way?

Every society has mealtime. They always have!

Yes, but there’s an incredible variety of cultural views on meals.

What kinds of views?

Some societies see mealtimes as a sacred event, but some don’t. Some societies eat meals in private; for others, meals are a public affair. Some societies eat sitting around a table, others eat standing up. Even within the same culture, some meals are cooked in the home and others are bought out in public.

What are you trying to say?

Mealtime has no “essence.” There’s no intrinsic purpose that mealtimes serve that remains constant across all times and cultures; it’s all relative.

I’m not contesting the fact that there’s differences, but it doesn’t prove your point. Regardless of cultural variations, meals have always been about eating and sustaining the body.

No, a meal is a social gathering where people who enjoy each other’s company spend time together talking and laughing and fulfilling a variety of other purposes. It’s any mutually agreed-upon gathering. It’s not about eating. I mean, the Bible even defines it that way. Ecclesiastes 10:19 says, “A feast is made for laughter.”

Meals are intrinsically about eating food, not merely gathering. That definition has been a necessary part of life on earth for eons. How can any society survive if the people don’t eat meals? Every society has had this practice.

Yes, every society has had meals, but it’s not always about nutrition or sustaining life. Haven’t you heard about the Roman vomitoriums? They’d have huge banquets and then go to special rooms designed for purging. Then they’d go back to the banquet. You see? It’s not about nutrition. It’s about a social gathering for mutual enjoyment. That’s an example of an advanced civilization that didn’t meet your limited definition of “meals.”

The Romans civilization isn’t around anymore, is it?

Oh brother, do you really think it fell because they had these unique eating practices?

Not exactly, but I’m sure they didn’t help.


1. Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: Viking); cited in Julian Sanchez, “Marital Mythology: Why the New Crisis in Marriage Isn’t,” Reason Magazine, 1 Jun. 2006.


  1. So I guess the example of the purging Roman civilization would just prove the antagonist’s view of mealtimes not only being for nutrition, right?

    Also, it might better be illustrated for the antagonist to have said (in the second line), “Meals aren’t about eating at all,” instead of
    “Meals aren’t essentially about eating.” Does that sound more accurate, Nathan?

  2. Good point. With the Roman example, I guess it depends on definitions. When someone uses a term loosely, it gets messy, like saying, “I took a 15 minute nap, but I never fell asleep.” We know that what he means is, “I lay down for 15 minutes.” That kind of flexibility is OK for everyday conversations, but once you step into law or science, definitions have to be precise. And since everyday speech isn’t that precise, no legal or scientific definition of a word will ever completely correspond to its everyday use.

    As for the second point, I see what you mean. I wrote, “Meals aren’t essentially about eating,” because I meant, “They can involve eating, but don’t have to.” But maybe your phrasing is better. Thanks!

  3. The Roman vomitorium was NOT for purging after a meal. The vomitorium was the exit from the Colosseum (Flavian Amphitheater if you will)… it would “vomit” the people out.
    Google is your friend.

    That being said, the Romans were very healthful people for their time. Well, those that could afford food. The peasants were recipients of state provided corn. One reason why Rome his 1 million people in population.

  4. Yes, I’m aware that, while some Romans apparently did vomit intentionally after meals, there were not rooms designated for that purpose (one source). The point I intended to make, however, is that people often look to past examples to legitimize current practices, and that sometimes in our eagerness we misinterpret or misapply history.

    For example, sometimes people note that in some periods of Greek history, pederastic practices were seen as normal, even beneficial. They then conclude that this means same-sex marriage is fine, not a problem at all, since the Greeks had an advanced civilization. I feel like there are several unwarranted leaps of logic in that chain.

    Anyway, thanks for helping me make that clarification. Glad you found our site!

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