The More The Merrier
“The more the merrier!” Most often, I gleefully toss out the phrase as my wife and I plan a get together of one sort or another: brunch, afternoon coffee, dinner party. My mind fixes upon conversation to be had and the particular contribution each person will bring to it. Personal perspective, mannerism, education, vocation—all of these and more color and enrich conversation among friends, whether rollicking or subdued. What fills my mind most of all at these moments is a vision of friendly banter and substantive exchange, best paired with a good dose of laughter.
While I think about adding voices to a discussion, my wife thinks about mouths to feed. A joyful consideration it is for her, not an onerous one, but a consideration it remains, nonetheless. Planning and preparation occupy her thoughts because, although a conversation is augmented by the addition of fitting voices, a meal is diminished by the addition of hungry mouths. My wife’s concern finds confirmation in the less commonly heard second half of the very same adage I recited with glee: “the more the merrier” is followed in the original version by “the fewer, the better fare.” In other words, the eating and drinking will be the worse for more mouths at the table.
After the plenitude and generosity of the first half, this second half seems quite the comedown. In fact, it might seem downright impolite or inhospitable. But further reflection reveals that the adage’s original form carefully balances two sides of human existence and brings them into the light for further consideration. On the one hand, we are embodied, material creatures and according to this dimension sharing means there is less to go around—“the fewer, the better fare.” But on the other, we are also spiritual, immaterial creatures and along these lines sharing means there is something for everyone, without diminishment and rather with increased joy for all—“the more the merrier.”
Friendship, conversation, cooperation at all levels: these are shared and sharable goods, the delight and crown of human existence. Food, money, possessions: these are private goods, truly good but unable to unite us with others. And yet, these two types of goods belong together and cannot be entirely separated within human life, especially social life. The dinner party makes this clear. “The fewer, the better fare” reveals that, yes, the food and drink will run out, as I take my share and you take yours, each share remaining separate, private. But these private delights do, at the very least, bring us together, even if they cannot of themselves bring us into communion. They provide the occasion and the sustenance for friendly conversation—in vino veritas, as the saying goes, but that’s another adage for another time—and yet in themselves private goods cannot ultimately satisfy us. They cannot satisfy our desire for friendship nor slake our thirst for communion, for love. Instead, the private goods of food, drink, money, property—these prepare the way for and foster the greater, nobler, and more common goods of friendship, love, worship, and communion.
“The more the merrier; the fewer, the better fare.” Here we have a pithy lesson in hospitality and friendship, along with a realistic portrayal of the complex human good underlying these and brought to fruition in them. This complexity is embodied in the figures of Martha and Mary (see Lk 10:38–42), who personify not strained competition but right order: concern for lesser goods prepares the way for higher goods, just as Martha’s cares and preparation prepare the way for Mary’s contemplative enjoyment of simple friendship with the Master. So, too, in our lives, private goods find their consummation in common goods, as hospitality does in friendship. Let us then be ready and hospitable to the Divine guest, who knocks at the door of our hearts. By setting in order the sundry goods of human existence, we will be ready to enjoy friendship with him, the very greatest of goods; and, like the singular miraculous exception to the second half of this adage at Cana, the heavenly banquet will bring this communion to its utmost realization, where merriment will be shared by all and yet the fare is sure to be divine.
Scott G. Hefelfinger serves as Assistant Professor of Theology at the Augustine Institute. His most recent publication is a book-length translation, A Gift of Presence: The Theology and Poetry of the Eucharist in Thomas Aquinas (Catholic University of America Press).