What does essential really mean?

King Lear and the Fool © Anthony Topper on flickr.com

There’s a Shakespeare quote that’s been on my mind a lot lately. It comes from Act II, scene 4 of the tragedy King Lear, at the point where the title hero, having been asked by his calculating, cruel daughter Regan why he still needs knights and servants, explodes:

O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s.[…]

The question of what counts as essential to daily life is a common topic for discussion these days. With one of the four reasons that people are allowed to leave their houses under the UK Covid-19 lockdown being to shop for necessities, question marks have arisen over what should be considered reasonable purchases.

At times, the issue has prompted extreme reactions. Several regional police forces have come under fire for claiming that they might set up road-blocks to search people’s shopping or monitor aisles of non-essential items in the supermarkets. (These threats have since been retracted.)

However, it’s not just the police who seem to have homed in on this question of what counts as essential. I find myself doing it too, watching disapprovingly as other shoppers unload packs of cakes and sweet treats at the checkout or tutting at the sign in the frozen foods aisle that states that ice-cream and other desserts are limited to three purchases per shopper as a result of the run on these items since the start of social distancing.

There are several things going on in my head when I do this. The first has to do with the odd siege mentality that has taken root in recent weeks – one that does not so much concern food and water as rights. If other people flout the government guidelines around going out and only buying what you need, the thought process goes, my freedoms might be even further curtailed. It’s as though there’s a sulky schoolchild in my head, stamping its foot and screaming, ‘They’re spoiling it for everybody else!’

There’s also snobbery and prejudice at work. I tend to get most judgmental when I see people buying types and quantities of food that I would never consume. All the in-built societal biases around body image highlighted by fat activists such as Danish stand-up comedian Sofie Hagen come to the fore, awakening some extremely unkind impulses.

And there is a large helping of hypocrisy in the mix too: I make these judgments while my own trolley is full of Easter eggs and smoked hummus and lamb’s lettuce and all kinds of other indulgent superfluities.

The truth is, of course, that most of what is available to the average shopper in this affluent country goes far beyond basic need. Those of us lucky enough to be able to afford them have an extraordinary choice of products and food stuffs from around the world, many of which are available in a range of forms and brands.

If it were intent on restricting us to buying what we needed in order to keep us alive, the government could have tried to force through a stripped-back, spartan offering of foods that would provide the required nutrition. It could have reintroduced rationing. More, it could have scrambled to mass-produce packets of astronaut food that could be delivered to each household, eliminating the need for food-shopping trips altogether.

No. Most of what we buy in the supermarkets in the UK is not strictly necessary to our survival. But is it essential? Well, I suppose that depends on how you think about that word.

If you understand it to mean ‘vital’ or ‘crucial’, then, no: most of these things are not essential. But if you look at it in terms of one of the other definitions provided by my battered Oxford English Reference Dictionary – ‘constituting the essence of a person or thing’ – the cards start to fall differently.

The truth is that, wherever we are in the world and however much or little is available to us, we human beings are given to excess, to creativity, to complication. As Lear explains, it is part of what we are to want ‘more than nature needs’.

This is one of our shames and our tragedies – the driving force behind many of the environmental and humanitarian issues facing the world today. But it is also one of our glories. It is the source of art, literature, music and fun. This striving for more than we need is what gives richness and beauty to human life. And allowing it in others is a manifestation of generosity, friendship and love.

Are pots of smoked hummus essential? Are deep-filled jam donuts essential? Are pre-boiled quail eggs encrusted with sea salt and topped with a sprinkling of saffron essential?

I imagine King Lear would argue that they are.

Published by Ann Morgan

I'm a UK-based author, editor and Royal Literary Fund fellow. My first book, 'Reading the World' (UK title) or 'The World Between Two Covers' (as it's known in the US), was inspired by my 2012 journey through a book from every country, which I recorded on ayearofreadingtheworld.com. My next two books are novels, 'Beside Myself' (Bloomsbury, 2016) and 'Crossing Over' (Audible, 2019).

15 thoughts on “What does essential really mean?

      1. Of course – I think you’ve changed your picture since your last comment so I didn’t recognise you! I hope you are coping okay with lockdown.

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    1. I’m also in the UK and quite near the beginning of the lock down went to the local shop and bought chocolate. Nothing else, just chocolate.
      I commented on this to a couple of friends (via a messaging app) and stated that if anyone questioned the ‘essential’ aspect of my purchases, they could take responsibility for the continuing health of my boys.
      I love my boys but, in that moment, a lack of chocolate….well let’s just say it helped me to calm down!

      So yeah, ‘constituting the essence of a person or thing’, means different things to different people, for me that includes chocolate, for my boys it’s computers/tablets/ TV.

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  1. I live in the US — the land of excess — and honestly, this concept of essential groceries has never occurred to me, nor have I heard or read about it here. You are so much more advanced in your thinking in England! While you debate essential foods, our president threatens to reopen America in three weeks. At that point, no one had head space for considering the items in their grocery cart.

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  2. Really thoughtful post. I do think fear drives us to all kinds of excesses, including food we might not ordinarily call necessary. Interesting that you bring up rationing, as I’m currently reading about German and Italian POWs held in Ohio (U.S.) during WWII. Being military complexes, the POW camps didn’t fall under the same rationing restrictions as did citizens. This caused quite a lot of strife and jealousy and resentment. I think you’re right to dig into what we mean by essential–essential to survival (as animal bodies needing a certain amount of calories, minerals, and nutrients to live) and essential to human life, with all its complexities. Thank you for giving me a lot to ponder this morning!

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  3. Thanks for your thoughts. Enjoyed reading about peoples’ concepts of what is essential.
    I’m in WA state. It seems here essential is only related to work needs and services. At the start of the shopping madness, I became aware of what was placed in shopping carts. I am a nutritionist and will always check shopping carts when I’m at the checkout
    My favorite was a cart with about 4 large bags of potato chips, a necessity. Another was a woman with 3 large bottles of what looked like whiskey, she may have had a premonition of what was coming. I judge.

    Liked by 1 person

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