Eating with the Ancients: A conversation with Margaret Visser

Gracious readers,

I write to invite you to a very special event this coming Saturday, Sept 25th, 2021 at 2pm EST: A conversation on ritual, manners and social mores in the Ancient world with classist and award-winning author, Margaret Visser.

I had the great honor of visiting Margaret and her husband at their country home in the South of France this summer, and she graciously agreed to do an event with Civic Renaissance subscribers.

I adore Margaret’s work for many reasons.

The driving question behind my forthcoming book on civility is about understanding why we do things the way that we do them.

Too many books in the civility and manners genre today merely regurgitate old lists of dos and don’ts without pausing to reflect on the underpinning reasons, traditions, values that our norms, etiquette and practices represent.

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More than any other author, Margaret departs from the norms of the civility genre in bold and brilliant ways. Her cross-cultural, inter-disciplinary approach defies category norms and ensure that anyone who approachers her work will learn something new.

Because of her intellectual depth and penetrating insights into our everyday social interactions, her books—which include The Rituals of Dinner, Much Depends on Dinner, The Gift of Thanks, The Way We Are, and others— have long been a model for me and my work on civility and civil discourse.

Each page of her books brim with insights from across history and culture.

For example,

  • Did you know that diners at the Last Supper lay down to eat (John had to put his head on Jesus’s chest in order to talk to him)?

  • Or that in the 19th-century, Paris restaurants posted “diners for hire” advertisements about their establishment in case your dinner had an unlucky 13 guests?

  • Did you know that while the ritual of gratitude and thanks is enormously important to Western cultures—for example English speakers say “thank you” as many as 100 times a day—but that is not true in all places? For instance, it’s thought of as rude and elitist to say thank you in Chinese, and the Cha’palaa language in Ecuador, has no word or phrase to say thank you at all.

  • Or that there is a remarkable continuity in the manners advice about not cutting your toe nails at the dinner table? {Thank heavens!). It’s true. 2800 years ago, the Greek writer Hesiod wrote, “At the abundant dinner of the gods, do not sever with bright steel the withered from the quick upon that which has five branches.”

Thankfully for us, some advice about doing life together has stood the test of time.

Margaret Visser is a trained classicist who taught classics at the University of Toronto. She quickly realized that as she was teaching her students Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, they were most intrigued by questions related to etiquette, manners, and social norms that surfaced throughout the book.


When she began to write publicly about norms, decorum, the history of table manners, and much much more, few others were in the space. She was a pioneer in the world of food writing, and her focus on questions related to the origins and meaning behind our everyday customs have ensured her books have perpetual resonance.

Due to Margaret’s passion for this subject matter, she has been referred to as an “anthropologist of everyday life.” She is passionate about questions related to why we do things the way we do them.

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu once wrote that one can infer “a whole cosmology, an ethic, a metaphysic a political philosophy though injunctions as insignificant as ‘stand up straight’ or ‘don’t hold your life in your left hand.’”

It’s true. Our noms codify the values and beliefs that we inherited by the societies we were born into, whether we choose to recognize them or not.

As Margaret writes in The Rituals of Dinner,

“Eating, is aggressive by nature, and the implements required for it could quickly become weapons; table manners are, most basically, a system of taboos designed to ensure that violence remains out of the question.”

Sharp knives and forks are everywhere; we’re also consuming items, which can be potentially lethal. The eating interaction is inherently precarious.

This, we learn from Margaret’s work, is where table manners comes in—many of which find their roots in the ancient and classical world. The inherent fragility of eating a shared meal, in fact, informs many of our norms of etiquette around eating: to promote trust, and to take an otherwise vulnerable interaction and make it beautiful and community building.

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I’d like to invite you to join our conversation this Saturday where we will discuss the origins of many of our common social norms, as well as their original purpose and the values the express.

It is no exaggeration to say that Margaret Visser is one of the most thoughtful people to have ever written on the topic of manners, civility and social mores.

Please join us!

A special pre-event with Margaret Visser for patrons of Civic Renaissance

Have you been looking for an excuse to become a subscriber to Civic Renaissance?

This Saturday, Sept 25th, for thirty minutes before our free public event with Margaret at 2pm, I’m inviting Civic Renaissance subscribers to join a private, invitation-only dialogue with Margaret and me.

This is a chance for you to engage with Margaret first hand and ask her anything you’ve every wondered about manners, norms, Ancient Greece, and much more.

To join our conversation—and to also receive future exclusive invitations and opportunities—consider becoming a subscriber today!

After subscribing, I’ll personally send you the information on how to attend this private conversation.

In addition to joining us for this dialogue, as a patron of this project, you will continue receive exclusive invitations to conversations, content, events, and other opportunities not available to the general public.

Either way, I hope you’ll consider joining us for our free, public dialogue on Saturday, Sept 25th 2021 from 2-3pm EST. Don’t forget to share this invitation with anyone else you think might enjoy it!

Register now!

We’ll record the dialogue and make it available for viewing after the conversation, so also feel free to register even if you cannot attend live.

Looking forward to seeing many of you Saturday!

Thank you so much for being part of the Civic Renaissance community.