Wine and Philosophy

Philosophy,Rumi,Omar Khayyam,Islam People & Places Articles
  • Wednesday 24 February 2010

Can understanding each other be as simple as sharing a bottle of wine? Philosopher roger scruton thinks so. He looks at how history’s great thinkers have pondered wine’s effect on the soul, and argues that religious fundamentalists could learn tolerance through the glass

I’m not unusual among philosophers in relishing wine. Plato’s great dialogue on the theme of erotic love, The Symposium, is powered by wine, and many of antiquity’s more philosophical writers speculated about the extraordinary effect wine has on the soul when drunk as it should be – in the company of fellow winos.

Wine is mentioned by Aquinas, but only as a pleasant stuff with which one cannot have a proper friendship; it is praised in passing by Montaigne, Smith and Hume; and Kant appreciated a good Médoc with his dinner. There are scattered remarks in Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and even that sour-puss John Stuart Mill has a good word for the juice of the grape. In my experience, academic philosophers today spend more time drinking than thinking, and wine is high on the list of diversions.

I know that the late Elizabeth Anscombe, perhaps the last great philosopher writing in English (though Strawson, too, has a claim to that title), had a fondness for the stuff, since she would never agree to give me a tutorial if I didn’t invite her to my rooms in Peterhouse, Cambridge, and ensure that a good bottle of claret was between us on the table.

Yet somehow philosophers have said little about the real point of wine, which is the truth contained in it. Leaning on that old proverb oinon kai aletheia (or in vino veritas), they have assumed that the truth of wine is what you blurt out under its influence, rather than what you imbibe.

With one singular exception, our contemporary philosophers have made only passing mentions of wine; and the exception, the Hungarian Béla Hamvas, had the unusual distinction of being condemned by a fellow philosopher – the nasty György Lukács, cultural commissar in the post-war communist government of Hungary – to crushing menial labour that destroyed his prospects and hastened his death.

Hamvas’s Philosophy of Wine, like the rest of his writings, was banned in his homeland during his life. But the book is of considerable interest, since it dwells on the religious significance of this drink which took the edge off Hamvas’s sufferings. It was written in the summer of 1945, in the brief respite between the Nazi and Communist tyrannies. Hamvas describes it as a ‘prayer book for atheists’, and in it he praises wine as a symbol of God’s presence, a proof offered to those wedded to ‘the religion of matter’ that being is not a fact but a gift.

In vino veritas

I only discovered Hamvas when I had finished writing my latest book I Drink Therefore I Am, foolishly believing myself to be the first to extract the philosophical truth in wine, and show the great difference between the one who lives life as a biological process, and the one who lives life as a gift. But I don’t count Hamvas as a competitor, since the one thing he did not do (and was maybe in no position to do, in the penury of post-war Hungary) was to detail the impact of wine on his life, and give an account of the vineyards he had visited in the glass, and the winos with whom he visited them.

This is something I try to do in my book, and though I’m no expert, I found, in the course of writing it, that I had retained in my memory the taste and the meaning of many a bottle, and could look back along the line of empties, stretching now for half a century, and still see rising from the neck of each of them some ghostly memory of a day truly lived, or if not lived, at least finished off in style.

For the last seven years I’ve had the good fortune to be employed by the New Statesman as wine critic, it being the wise understanding of the editorial team that a left-wing magazine could not possibly employ a fellow leftist in so sensitive a role.

After all, lefties have no sense of humour, are largely suspicious of enjoyment – unless it can be used like sex to offend the ordinary conscience – and are indifferent to the principal ingredients in wine, which are piety and history. Writing every fortnight in that highly respectable journal, and with a view to épater les intellectuels, I decided to choose subjects that appear nowhere else in its pages – like family, children, hunting with hounds and God.

And like Hamvas I came to see that these ways in which we are in communion with the world are indeed distilled in wine, that the truth of our being has found its way into precious bottles, and needs only to be poured out and raised to the mouth in congenial company to be understood as Hamvas understood it: not a fact but a gift.

Of course the ancients knew this in their way: hence the legend of Dionysus, the abundant invocations of wine in the Hebrew Bible and the age-old rituals that are ancestors of the Christian Eucharist. But each person has to discover the truth of being for himself, and Hamvas is surely right, that those devoted to ‘the religion of matter’ must be converted before they’ll manage it.

The Marxists described this religion of matter as ‘dialectical materialism’, and proposed the divine Proletariat as its god. The Proletariat proved to be as avid for sacrificial victims as the Sun-god of the Aztecs, and it was in obedience to the imperatives of that very sinister deity that Lukács felt obliged to destroy poor Hamvas.

Things have moved on since then. Today the god goes by the name of the Selfish Gene, and requires not the death but merely the ridiculing of his victims. Nevertheless, writing about wine in a magazine devoted to the service of such a god I felt a strong desire to blaspheme against it. Swallow my medicine, I wrote, and the God of love will come into your life – provided that you don’t overdo it. And it would help to be happily married, with a family and a few horses.

Beliefs today

Any book that deals with religious themes, however obliquely, must address the religion which has recently been imported into our midst, eager to take offence at its new surroundings. I have much to say in my book about the mad Wahhabists who have set their hearts on giving Islam a bad name among those who have yet to submit to it.

These lunatics, exported by the Saudis who cannot wait to see the back of them, and now roaming the world for victims, have swallowed the crazy doctrine of an ‘eternal’ Koran – a law for all mankind that can never be revised by interpretation or bent to take account of the changed circumstances of its human subjects. What is more, a law about which none of those who expound it seems to agree.

Nothing is more necessary, it seems to me, in the difficult times we are now entering, than to point out that this view of the Koran was originally regarded as a heresy, and should be denounced as such today. The law revealed to Muhammad was not the last word, but the first word in what should have been a continuous dialogue with God.

It is indeed one of the tragedies of our time that those great winos, Hafiz, Rumi and Omar Khayyam, should have ceased to be the leading authorities on how the Holy Book is to be interpreted.

The most important philosopher of Islam, Ibn Sina, (980-1037), whom we know as Avicenna, recounts that he would refresh himself in his studies with a cup of wine, and it is very clear from the Thousand and One Nights that Islam, in the laughing, tolerant phase which it was enjoying when that masterpiece was composed, had become laughing and tolerant under the influence of the grape: The grape that can with logic absolute/The two-and-seventy jarring sects confute as Omar Khayyam (or at any rate Edward Fitzgerald) expressed the point.

I agree with my friend Norman Stone, the historian, now living in Turkey, that Muslims must learn again to drink, and should be piously applying themselves to the task. With such an example as Stone before them, I’m fairly confident that the Turks, at least, will soon rediscover the truth in wine; but whether this truth will be understood elsewhere in the Dar al-islam remains in doubt.

Being, as I said, is not a fact but a gift. But without the benefit of wine it is

hard to seize this truth; harder still to recognise the obligation that it imposes, to be gentle with others, and to allow them their own space.

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