Indulgence on the Acropolis

Mayor Bloomberg’s eating habits may signify a larger threat to democracy

New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the city’s richest and most powerful man, embodies New York in all its contradictions. He brags about taking the subway to work but first gets chauffeured to the subway station in an SUV. He exercises regularly and keeps a running calorie-counter in his head but throws salt on his pizzas, devours fried chicken, and grabs food off the plates of aides and strangers alike. He has already spent $37 million on an uncompetitive election campaign—spending $7,000 alone on pizza.

This push and pull between restraint and indulgence is not just Bloomberg’s story: It’s the story of New York City. Manhattan may be New York State’s thinnest county, but the culinary temptations are everywhere. Countless pizza places leave the door open for the smell of fresh bread to waft outside, as thick slices with countless toppings sit on display. In Times Square, bright flashing ads of M&Ms bombard tourists as they gape upward, extra-large sodas in hand.

The city’s bipolar swings between temptation and abstinence evoke the anxieties of a more ancient city-state. The ancient Athenians viewed the world as teeming with temptations—food, alcohol, clothing, sex—and sophrosyne (self-restraint) was paramount to protecting their democratic way of life. In Herodotus’s chauvinistic “Histories,” the Greeks overcame the invading Persians because their army maintained sophrosyne, eating only the sparsest food, while the Persians indulged in luxuries even as they overstretched their empire, depleting the land as they feasted on it, marching westward in their own imagined manifest destiny.

As University of Warwick Classics Professor James N. Davidson explains in his book “Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens,” Athenians viewed indulgence and tyranny as inextricably intertwined. Pleasure-seeking and power-seeking were often one and the same—if a man could not control his appetite for fish and sex, what would prevent him from taking over the acropolis?

Americans have found hedonism less problematic than the ancient Athenians: Love today rarely strives to be platonic. But the tension between indulgence and self-restraint does manifest itself in the way in which many Americans treat food and exercise. It’s all too common for high-achievers—whether at Harvard or in New York—to indulge in greasy food one moment and hit the gym the next.


The parallels extend even to New York’s financial system. Just as Bloomberg goes on a ferocious diet after seeing an unflattering photo of himself, Wall Street has almost completely abstained from giving out loans. Considering the way banks used to court risk-taking businesses clearly unable to repay them, this is a diet of the highest magnitude. Likewise, after getting tied up in highly leveraged purchases of their own homes, American consumers have been forced to get thriftier. History Professor Niall C.D. Ferguson has even warned that New York may go the way of Venice and become just another tourist center, underlining a permanent shift in the economic balance of power from West to East.

Davidson ends his book with an ominous image: While Aeschines is prosecuting Timarchus in 346 BCE for practicing homosexual prostitution in his youth—a warning sign in Athens of tyranny—he portrays an “anti-Athens” of hollow zones and derelict buildings that “lurks still in the city’s crevices” amidst “unbridled appetites and animal passions”—waiting “like the abysmal Charybdis to swallow Athens down.” It’s still eerie to modern ears, for though New York’s skyline may stand mostly intact, 143 stalled building sites loom over the city, and after eight years, the World Trade Center site still looks like Ground Zero. The unemployed—now over a tenth of New York City’s population—often roam the streets in greater numbers than the tourists.

Bloomberg is perhaps the one man with the power to temper these developments. The next four years will be critical. If he has the will and the ability to maintain New York’s standing as a key financial center—while helping ensure that Wall Street does not help cause the next global financial crisis—historians may look back on his tvhird term as an embarrassing hiccup in democracy that ultimately helped maintain New York and America’s dominance on the world stage.

Or his story may end in lame-duck leadership as he feasts on over-salted pizza and New York’s economy slides into irrelevance. The choice is his.

Bonnie J. Kavoussi ’11, a Crimson news writer, is a history concentrator in Winthrop House.