I have been familiar with the work of Sir Roger Scruton (Wikipedia, @Roger_Scruton) since 2013. A leading British Conservative thinker, he obtained his PhD in aesthetics in 1972 from Jesus College, Cambridge and, over the years, has authored over 50 books, among them On Human Nature, The Soul of the World, The Face of God, Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation, The Aesthetics of Music, The Aesthetics of Architecture and I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine. In 2009, he presented Why Beauty Matters, a BBC Two documentary. Scruton is also known for his political opinions. A quote of his that I really like is this: “A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ‘merely relative,’ is asking you not to believe him. So don’t.”
This blog post is about I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine that I read recently and loved a lot! But before I get to the main points of the book I want to say something about why I am drawing attention to the work of this particular author. Now, I am no fan of party politics (I have mentioned this before). I find the Left-Right split in modern democracies—whether British or American or Australian or Indian or anything else—that pervades popular culture and infiltrates academia most exasperating. I truly have no position and try not to favour one side of the spectrum over another (perhaps because I always end up finding both sides to be terribly deficient, whichever country I look into?) That being said—I don’t take sides—I have to say that I have become a little bored of the excessive liberal stuff that I find on my news feeds from the media of the Anglosphere.
Of course, there are many liberal concerns I wholeheartedly appreciate, particularly that sense of atonement for historical Western atrocities—the ill-treatment of people of colour, the destruction of indigenous customs…But in the middle of this constant project of self-reflection, guilt-admission (noble and necessary as it is) and a never-ending desire for change and fluidity (open-minded as it may sound), I feel that, sadly, most leftist voices—young and old alike—fail to give serious thought to the good classical aspects of Western civilisation. I think this is a real problem (and I’m not even white, I’m of Indian stock). How can any idealistic undertaking aimed at multiculturalism and bridge-building succeed when one is incapable of comprehending and celebrating that which is useful and important and praiseworthy about one’s own heritage? Here’s where conservative academics like Roger Scruton can help.
I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine is a work that passionately unpacks a cherished Western habit (not solely so but primarily, yes)—wine-drinking. Scruton’s purpose here is to defend the opinion once attributed to Plato, that ‘nothing more excellent or valuable than wine was ever granted by the gods to man’ (I get this totally, maybe because of my Catholic upbringing). The book is a “tribute to pleasure, by a devotee of happiness, and a defence of virtue by an escapee from vice”. Its argument is addressed to everyone, theists and atheists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, to every thinking person who loves both “the joy of meditation” and “the pleasures of embodiment”. The philosopher talks not so much about the medical benefits of the drink as its intellectual, ethical, social, spiritual and cultural implications.
I have organised the key points here:
- Firstly, what is wine? Technically, the product of the grape vine, Vitis vinifera, that has been cultivated in the Old World at least since 6000 BC, when it was grown in Asia Minor, for the first time just south of the Black Sea. So wine is as old as civilisation. Scruton prefers to say wine is civilisation. Why so?
Settled people do not belong only to each other: they belong to a place, and out of that sense of shared roots there grow the farm, the village and the city. Vegetation cults are the oldest and most deeply rooted in the unconscious, since they are the cults that drive out the totemism of the hunter-gatherer, and celebrate the earth itself, as the willing accomplice in our bid to stay put. The new farming economy, and the city grows from it, generated a sense of holiness of the planted crop, and in particular of the staple food – which is grass, usually in the form of corn or rice – and the vine that wraps the trees above it. Such, surely, is the prehistory of the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
- There is a close and natural relationship between wine and religion/spirituality:
Although wine is not necessary for holiness, however, holiness is a wonderful addition to wine. The greatest wines grow in sacred places – the temples of Roman gods, the gardens of monasteries and the terraced hillsides where calvaries parcel out the land.
Scruton adds poetically:
A great wine is a cultural achievement, not available to Protestants, atheists or believers in progress, since it depends on the survival of local gods. One of the greatest goods bestowed on France by the Catholic Church is to have offered asylum to the battered gods of antiquity, to have fitted them out with the clothes of saints and martyrs, and to have cheered them with the drink that they once brought down from heaven to us all. That, in a nutshell, is why French wines are the best.
- Wine is not a drug, an escape route. Wine doesn’t deceive you, as cannabis does, with the idea that you can enter another and higher realm through its consumption. Wine:
paints the world before us as the true one, and reminds us that if we have failed previously to know it then this is because we have failed in truth to belong to it, a defect that it is the singular virtue of wine to overcome.
- Wine is a drink which illuminates dualities and unities, especially that of the body and the soul:
That first sip of a fine wine stirs, as it makes its way downward, the rooted sense of my incarnation. I know that I am flesh, the by-product of bodily processes which are being brought to a heightened life by the drink that settles within me. But this very drink radiates the sense of self: it is addressed to the soul, not the body, and poses questions that can be formulated only in the first-person case, and only in the language of freedom: ‘what am I, how am I, where now do I go?’…Through wine we know, as through almost nothing else that we consume, that we are one thing, which is also two: subject and object, soul and body, free and bound.
- Wine can be a great addition to human society, provided it is used to embolden conversations, and provided that conversation remains civilised and general. A good wine leads to a good topic, a good topic is, in turn, needed for a good wine. Also, a culture of wine is very different from a situation of drunkenness. The social drinking of wine, conducted in cognisance of the drink’s delicate taste and evocative aura, seldom leads to loutish behaviour. With too much whiskey, though, ten conversations may be pursued at once, each leading nowhere, and the “ceremonial replenishing of the glass gives way to grabbing and guzzling”. Scruton writes on the current issue of drunkenness in Britain:
The drink problem that we witness in British cities stems from our inability to pay Bacchus his due. Thanks to cultural impoverishment, young people no longer have a repertoire of songs, poems, arguments or ideas with which to entertain one another in their cups. They drink to fill the moral vacuum generated by their culture, and while we are familiar with the adverse effect of drink on an empty stomach, we are now witnessing the far worse effect of drink on an empty mind.
- Finally, my favourite bit. Properly used, wine is a solvent of awkwardness and a stimulant of agape-love (there is a very interesting discussion on the link between wine and eros-love as well in the book, but it’s long and complicated and I can’t cover it here). The author presents two wonderful thoughts on this topic:
After a glass or two, I find myself able to do what we all should do, and which only pride forbids, which is to rejoice in the success of our rivals. After all, a world that contains success is better than a world without it, and under the influence of wine all success casts credit on the drinker. Wine offers a glimpse of the world sub specie aeternitatis, in which good things show their value, no matter who possesses them.
Towards the end, Scruton writes:
For a few years…, I lived alone in London and, feeling the need for views and experiences different from my own, and a circle of friends who might agree to differ, I established a regular symposium at my flat. Those attending included the art critic Peter Fuller, the philosopher Anthony O’Hear, the political scientist Norman Barry, the composer David Matthews, the novelist Ian McEwan, the psychoanalust Juliet Mitchell, and the philosopher Sebastian Gardiner. Our discussions were among the most fruitful that I have known, partly because of the underlying differences of world view and the deep tensions which, in other circumstances, might have spurred distrust. And what made those discussions possible, and created the unique atmosphere in which people who disagreed nevertheless learned from their disagreements, was the presence of wine.
Very few things in life could be more beautiful and wondrous than that!
Here are four videos of Roger Scruton:
You can read the philosopher’s articles on The Imaginative Conservative.