I Drink Therefore I Am

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John von Heyking

I Drink, Therefore I am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine. Roger Scruton. London: Continuum, 2009. Copyright © 2010 John von Heyking.


Roger Scruton, author of numerous books on political philosophy, music, modern philosophy, beauty, hunting, and this year’s Gifford lecturer, has written a witty yet philosophically rigorous account of wine. Scruton is not only a connoisseur of wine (with a special love of French wines), he is also a wise philosopher who teaches us how wine cultivates our moral virtue and our civilization. He encourages us to recognize that stream of liquid descending from our pursed lips into our throat as the red or golden chord that runs from heaven to earth, and binds everything in-between into a cosmic whole. Wine both reflects and helps constitute our participation in all strata of reality, and points the way to our redemption.

The first part of the book is a tour through the wine producing areas of the world whose main point is primarily to sustain Scruton’s argument that in drinking wine, we drink not just the material product of a process of fermentation, but we drink a region’s history.

The Australians and Americans are unwise, but typically modern, in listing the grape (or grape blend) on their bottles because the real significance of drinking wine is in learning the culture of the soil that sustained the grape. Listing a wine as a merlot tells us nothing except the artifact that is the grape. More important is the region, which has a history and civilization that forms the production of that wine. In drinking wine, we drink not just an artifact, but we commune with a civilization. Thus, the well-traveled wine connoisseur need not join the masses of tourists in Burgundy because the essence of the region is transferred from its soil into the grapes, and the process of this transfer is the cultural history of the region.

Wine drinking not only has a history in civilization, but is civilization:

At some level, I venture to suggest, the experience of wine is a recuperation of that original cult whereby the land was settled and the city built. And what we taste in the wine is not just the fruit and its ferment, but also the peculiar flavour of a landscape to which the gods have been invited and where they have found a home. Nothing else that we eat or drink comes to us with such a halo of significance, and by refusing to drink it people send an important message — the message that they do not belong on this earth (p. 137).

One cannot help but to think that some blood had to be spilled before things were sufficiently settled for the farmer to plant the vine. But this prepolitical struggle to secure “a place in the sun” reminds us of the moral qualities that wine both represents and brings out.

The moral significance of wine lies in this: because its joyous taste is received like a revelation, it encourages an attitude of gratitude toward others and toward things. The joy of imbibing wine results in our awareness that something this wonderful nearly shares our own substance (on account of being inside of us) and points to individual people and things outside of us. Wine helps us experience others not as other things or people, but as dignified individuals whose existence, like ours, is a gift.

After discussing for a few pages Avicenna’s argument for the existence of God from the contingent nature of beings, Scruton concludes: “Wine, properly drunk, transfigures the world at which you look, illuminating that which is precisely most mysterious in the contingent beings surrounding you, which is the fact that they are — and also that they might not have been” (p. 115). Avicenna, an oenophile, was certainly on to something. One should note that Avicenna explains how he drank wine while philosophizing and writing, which means his drinking was tempered by the rule of reason, and the demand that reason attain the highest things.

No wonder wine, a “living thing” that is undergoing fermentation even in the bottle, is used in the Christian Eucharist and that Dionysius was said by the Greeks to be inside the wine. Scruton describes his initiation into the cult of Dionysius in terms of conversion or periagoge. Indeed, Michael Franz, a Voegelin scholar and wine critic, once described to me his own discovery of wine at his wedding in similar terms.

While Scruton’s prose is exuberant, which is appropriate for the subject matter, he backs up his account of wine with rigorous analysis of the experience of wine (which, as we shall see, is not quite an aesthetic experience), and the lesson in the virtue of moderation it inculcates. The near-aesthetic sensory and moral lessons both share the requirement that it takes a rational being to have both.

Scruton argues that it is the mark of a rational being to relish wine.  His horse, Sam, likes wine but does not relish it. The difference between relishing and liking wine, which might also mark the difference between being intoxicated and being drunk on wine, is that in relishing wine, we relish the experience itself. We relish a line of poetry, which is an aesthetic experience. However, relishing wine is a sensory experience and not, strictly speaking, an aesthetic experience. In an aesthetic experience, we relish the object of consciousness, as when we relish a line of poetry. Tasting wine is not even like other sensory experiences, including visually aesthetic experiences, because the object of taste is not the wine per se, but the aroma emitted by the wine. The wine (as anything smelled or tasted) need not be present, as made evident to us by its aftertaste. Conversely, visual objects must be present in order for us to see them.

Thus, the possibility of relishing wine is the result of the reflective distance we experience in our sensory experience of it. In being removed from the physical object, the experience of tasting wine comes into its own as an object of contemplation. However, its revelatory taste works its goodness on the individual doing the tasting. The oenophile is not a neo-Kantian transcendental ego who stands over and against the wine in a subject-object dichotomy, but the loving being-for-another whose olfactory organs stretch forth to receive wine, as a lover’s lips stretch forth to receive the other’s lips, and as Augustine’s soul stretches toward God.

It should be clear by now that the intoxication of wine, which engages the full personality of the oenophile, including the eroticism of his intellect, differs in kind from drunkenness as well as the effects of drugs like cannabis. Whereas wine inculcates an opening of the soul to another, cannabis and other narcotics induce the soul’s closure. The intoxicating conversation of a symposium of friends differs drastically from the “mutual befuddlement” of a group of stoned teenagers. Wine inculcates convivium, whereas cannabis aggravates the solipsism.

Wine as helper to reason is the anchor for Scruton’s defense of moderation, which draws heavily from Aristotle. Scruton regards the Puritan who rejects wine as barbaric. His critique of Puritanism of all kinds is scathing, and correct.  Of note is his observation that the Puritan (defined by H. L. Mencken as someone who worries that someone, somewhere, is having fun) too easily and too casually changes objects of prohibition because he lacks training in moderation. Once a social taboo gets lifted (as in the case of sex, for instance), the Puritan no longer has any means of educating the passions of the young. This is why the practice of the colleges at Cambridge of having large inventories of wines for the consumption of faculty and students is a most civilized practice. If a student can, like Avicenna, still debate intelligently about philosophical topics with his tutor and friends after consuming some wine, then he will have understood the meaning of moderation.

The culture of binge-drinking and “hooking-up” in North American universities (and British ones now for that matter) illustrates how far the education of the young has degenerated. Indeed, contemporary practice illuminates the relationship of the Puritan to the immoderate. Having tasted the hitherto “forbidden” fruit, the untutored individual imbibes recklessly and becomes addicted to it. If the Puritan’s approach is painful, then the opposite, indulgence, must be pleasurable, and the more and greater amount imbibed, the more intense is the pleasure. In a Puritan culture, the immoderate knows nothing of the mean. The addict needs more intense pleasures, and he is a megalomaniac for whom the world is there simply to serve his needs. He objectifies everything, including, finally, himself in his isolation from reality. If the Puritan is a busybody tyrant, the addict is also a tyrant who, despite being on the opposite side of moderation, is really the same: “The alcoholic, the drug addict and the divinewrathaholic live in worlds of their own devising, which block out realities and mislead the soul into nightmares and dreams” (p. 172).

Wine, on the other hand, preserves the balance necessary for moderation because it helps reason turn toward that which offers being and intelligibility:

We are seeing the world as a gift, secured by the sacrificial attitude that puts others and their freedom before me and my needs. The world of contingent being is often described as what is given, the data. But it is only in a meditative posture that we can know what this truly means. The given-ness of the world is revealed to us only when our hearts are cleansed. That is the work of redemption, and we accomplish it through ritual, through meditation, and through the forgiveness that comes from both. (p.173)

The Appendix of the book contains Scruton’s wine recommendations, that is, which wine to drink with which philosopher. Plato, Aristotle, Maimonides, Kant, Hegel, Sartre, Wittgenstein, and others are covered. Not only does his list illustrate the participation of reason in sensory experience which is the argument of his book, but it his justifications are frequently hilarious. His recommendation for Heidegger alone is worth the price of the book. While he makes a recommendation for reading Leo Strauss (Stag’s Leap, produced by a former student of Strauss, Warren Winiarski), he overlooks making a recommendation for a wine to accompany the reading of Voegelin.

I dare not reveal my ignorance of wine in making a serious recommendation. My knowledge of wine is really just opinion: I know that I like certain wines, but I could not really tell you why. Moreover, Voegelin did not really talk about wine, and does not offer much insight into it when he does mention it. He approves of Cicero’s mention of wine-tippling as a manifestation of a diseased soul. For the better, he approves of Hafiz’s celebration of wine (which is done along the lines of Scruton’s account) while criticizing Wedekind’s sensualism. I’m told Voegelin would serve California Chardonnay with dinner.   But, like Aristotle’s moderate individual and unlike the teatotaler, he had “disdain” for the appetites because his first concern was the exercise of his intellect, which had to be free of the influence of those appetites.

With these caveats, permit me to suggest that a robust Burgundy would probably be the most appropriate wine to accompany one’s reading of Voegelin’s work, at least the writings up to volume four of Order and History. The Burgundy will reinforce your stamina in following him as he dissects the Austrian positivists, diagnoses the Gnostics, describes the discovery of Israel’s historical form, and criss-crosses the panorama of history, with its lines of meaning that run vertically and horizontally.

For volume five of Order and History and his late mystical writings, a Chablis Grand Cru might be in order. Make sure it has a full body and isn’t too light, otherwise you won’t feel the full oomph of It-reality moving your soul to the Good Beyond Being.

John von Heyking

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John von Heyking is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Lethbridge in Canada and serves as the book reviewer editor for VoegelinView. He is author and editor of over a dozen books, the latest being The Form of Politics: Aristotle and Plato on Friendship (McGill-Queen's, 2016).