Roger Scruton was a controversial figure. Despite being a British philosopher who specialized in Kant and aesthetics, he was famous for founding a right-wing political magazine The Salisbury Review, along with his now infamous book Thinkers of the New Left (republished as Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands) in which he critiqued Lacan, Badiou, Zizek, and others. Whatever you may think of his political leanings, which are Burkean in nature — staying far from the neoliberalism and neoconservatism we see today — Scruton’s aesthetics offer food for thought. He wrote prolifically about architecture and art, but some of his most important insights come to light when discussing the beverage of Bacchus — wine. His take on wine can be summed up by the title of his work — I Drink, Therefore, I Am. (For those philosophically inclined, this is a pun on Descartes’ famous saying.) The first part of the saying refers to Scruton’s history with wine, and his extensive knowledge of it. The second part refers to his philosophical insights on wine. I will look at each in turn.
Roger Scruton: I Drink
Growing up in a working-class family in the English countryside, Roger Scruton enjoyed few pleasures. One of the fondest memories from his childhood was of making homemade wine. Scruton describes the long process, and the delights of the taste, touch, and smells induced by the process. It is evident that such sensual experiences left quite the mark on him, as he quickly developed a lifelong love of wine. Heading to Cambridge, Scruton recounts spending much of his money and time pursuing his hobby of wine. In his work I Drink, Therefore I am, stories from his university days are described in beautiful detail, and his progression from amateur wine-sipper to wine connoisseur becomes evident.
Scruton spent much of his time in Europe and he has many stories of great adventures from his pursuit of wine in France, Spain, and England. His encounters with other lovers of the drink (or priests of Bacchus, as he calls them), are telling, and much information is obtained from them. It appears that under the tutelage of these wine connoisseurs, Scruton developed a philosophical distinction between intoxication and drunkenness.
Intoxication, he says, is a state of consciousness, while drunkenness is a state much nearer to unconsciousness. Wine is meant to produce a loosening and free-flowing state of consciousness. And while intoxication can transform into drunkenness, Scruton is onto something with this distinction. One can certainly see the difference by looking at some of the artists who struggled to understand the difference between the concepts. Looking at wine’s place in history provides some support for this claim.
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Scruton’s past certainly gave him the credibility and the depth of knowledge required to develop a philosophy of wine. The question then becomes, can he do such a thing?
Grapes…. Or Dirt?
Before moving on, I think it would do us some good to tarry with one of the most intriguing insights Scruton had. It may come as a surprise to many that Scruton did not enjoy wine tasting as practiced so often today — by swishing around the drink and spitting it out. He saw the act not only as wasteful, but as unilluminating. Roger Scruton is certainly right that tasting can be wasteful, just take a look at these expensive wines to see what he is getting at. The problem with it is that there doesn’t seem to be a point. It is impossible to accurately describe one sense through another sense, i.e., to convey taste through the medium of other senses like hearing and touching. Anyone who doubts this point is free to describe what red sounds like, or how the taste of an apple feels. Hence, it is impossible to communicate the bliss of a glass of wine through writing about the taste. Scruton clearly realized this, and he attempted to circumvent it as best he could, but with little avail. Rather, he advocates for proffering a wealth of information about the wine.
The main problem with the “sip and spit,” method of wine tasting is that it divorces the wine from its native land and the hands that created it, and so it is divorced from the rich tradition that particular wines carry with them. This idea may sound far-fetched to many, but I believe it stems from Kant’s influence on Roger Scruton.
One of the major themes of Scruton’s work on aesthetics is the free play of the imagination. By divorcing the wine from its tradition, one divorces the wine-taster from engaging the free play of their imagination. In less abstract terms, if you were to drink a Burgundy with no idea where it was from, or without any idea of the history of France, you would not be able to dwell on those who made it, the soil that nourished the grapes, the significance of the wine to the local area, and so forth. In essence, you would lose out on the interaction of your mind (specifically the capacity for imagination) and the wine. Wine tasting is not just about feeling the liquid travel across the taste buds and down the throat but it is about playing with the tradition that the wine represents.
Therefore, I Am
The second overarching theme of Roger Scruton’s philosophy of wine is his emphasis on its purpose, i.e., the function it has served historically in philosophy. From this, we can tease out some ideas of wine’s function, and learn how to apply them to our own lives. But, to do this, we must follow Scruton in taking a dive into the history of philosophy and note the great thinkers of old who have been aided by the thirst-quenching grapes of Bacchus.
To start, we can look at Plato’s Symposium, a famous Platonic dialogue in which the interlocutors discuss taboo subjects, specifically sex and love. Interestingly enough, the dialogue takes place in the context of an ancient Greek symposium — an event after dinner in which people would sit and enjoy wine. Now, Roger Scruton takes this phenomenon as communicating to us something crucial. Wine is used to ease the mind and body so that difficult topics are better able to flow naturally in conversation. Wine is a solvent, you could say — breaking down the anxiety surrounding complex conversations. Many of us know this, but often philosophers take the obvious and make it explicit, forcing us to slow down and contemplate the things we often overlook. We come then, to the first of wine’s purposes.
Roger Scruton doesn’t stop there. Moving past the time of Socrates, he goes on to note that the famous Muslim philosopher Avicenna had a penchant for wine. Avicenna would work late into the night and when he got tired, would sip wine to keep him alert. (One may wonder whether the wine helped him stay focused or tell him when it was late enough to rest). This seems like a trivial fact… can anything come out of it? Scruton thought so. He noted that Avicenna was an Aristotelian and worked to integrate Islam and Aristotelian ideas. He is famous for putting forth what is called a “contingency argument” for the existence of the monotheistic God. There are many different varieties of such arguments, but Avicenna’s runs something like this: there exist contingent things in the world, such as you and I. Consider the set of all contingent things — does it have a cause? Since something cannot come from nothing, the set of all contingent things must have a cause. But such a cause couldn’t be contingent, or else it would be included in the set to begin with. The only option left is to posit a cause that is itself necessary.
Being necessary, rather than contingent, this cause would be something that cannot not exist. Since it is eternal, it follows that it must be outside of time, because being in time entails corruption, or tending toward non-being. Avicenna derives more divine attributes from the original argument and comes to what has been known as the monotheistic god — Yahweh, God the Father, or Allah.
Scruton’s point in noting Avicenna’s wine-drinking habit and theological arguments goes much deeper than it might first appear. In contemplating God, in this classical sense, Avicenna contemplates the necessary being, or the very foundation of all contingent beings (a contingent being would be all reality that we encounter — modern defender of this view if Josh Rasmussen whose work can be found here). Avicenna then provides us with two insights into wine’s purpose — the rejuvenation of the tired mind and the contemplation of fundamental being. To tease this latter point out, I think it is necessary though, to stride over to another tradition — the Catholic one.
St. Thomas Aquinas was another Aristotelian who argued in a similar vein to Avicenna. Aquinas’s famous “Five Ways” along with his discussion of God provide an insight into what is meant by being, consequently allowing us to understand what Roger Scruton means when he says that wine allows us to contemplate being. In his work De Ente et Essentia, Aquinas puts forth an argument that runs roughly as follows: things around us have both an essence (a what-it-is-to-be-that-thing) and an existence. But essence and existence are really distinct. If then, the things of our experience are composites of essence and existence, and those things are distinct, how do the things around us exist at all? In other words, how are essence and existence conjoined together? With a few more steps in the argument, Aquinas comes to the conclusion that only something whose essence is not distinct from its existence could be the cause. Such a thing is constantly sustaining the conjoinment of essence and existence in everything where they are distinct. This metaphysical ground is, in Aquinas’s words, ipsum esse subsistens, or the subsistent act of being itself. Aquinas’s argument in the De Ente, along with his Five Ways, if correct, proves that God is not a being, but being itself.
But we mustn’t stop with the arguments of Aquinas to see the depth of wine’s importance in the Catholic tradition. Following Jesus’s words at the Last Supper, and Catholic Church teaching, wine plays an extremely important function during mass. It is used by the priest during the Eucharist as a liquid that is transformed into the literal blood of Jesus (a process called transubstantiation).
But what exactly is the function of the Eucharist? To deal a grave injustice to the thousands of pages of commentary on it, it is used to remind us of the sacrifice Jesus gave, and to rejuvenate our souls through the blood of the Lamb, saving us from death. In short, wine functions as a bridge to the utterly transcendent.
Hence, the Catholic tradition provides us with further insight into the philosophical use of wine. Wine allows us to contemplate the very source of reality — of all that exists. God is not a person or a thing, but the first principle, the sustaining cause of all that is, and the very source of being. For Roger Scruton, tasting the sweet nectar of a California chardonnay opens the door to contemplation and deploys an infinitesimally small bridge between finite and infinite. Perhaps though, as Scruton clearly sees, the most important function of wine for the Catholic is its use in the Eucharist as the sublime reminder of Jesus’s sacrifice, along with the healing of the spirit.
We could go on, perhaps looking at the Romans, or even looking at wine’s function in more contemporary philosophical traditions. But alas, space necessitates that I digress. From our short journey into three philosophical traditions, we have gleaned valuable insights. The overarching theme of Scruton’s philosophy of wine is that the nectar has been used by some of the greatest of all thinkers to push the very boundary of human reason, even surpassing it and venturing into the mystery of the divine. In our modern age, we would do well to learn from the ancien tradition and recover a contemplative sense and gaze toward mystery. After reading much of Scruton’s work, I think he would endorse such a statement wholeheartedly.
Final Thoughts on Roger Scruton
Previously, I was impressed by Roger Scruton’s take on beauty and his thought-provoking survey of modern philosophy. His take on wine is even more illuminating. Until encountering Scruton’s philosophy of wine, I thought that the drink was nothing but a beverage used to induce intoxication. Scruton’s profound insights opens up to a world of contemplation and transcendence. Now, every time I nourish myself with a glass of wine, I will remember that I partake in a rich history of thinkers who have used the nectar to tarry with life’s greatest questions. With that in mind, I hope that reading this has instilled in you a new reverence for wine.