Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle.
Hobbes was fond of his dram,
And René Descartes was a drunken fart.
'I drink, therefore I am.'
so introducing the classic line ‘I drink therefore I am’ to a new generation who might not have known that the original is attributed to the great WC Fields (1880-1946).
The line has now moved so conspicuously into the public domain that it borders on cliché and most authors would be foolhardy to even contemplate using it as a title for book on wine. Roger Scruton though is not most authors and the subtitle of the book ‘A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine’ provides the bridge to reclaiming the comment, for as we’ll learn in due course, Scruton sees Descartes as ‘the most overrated philosopher in history’ and he suggests drinking ‘a deep dark Rhône wine’ when you read Descartes since ‘such a wine will compensate for the thinness of the Meditations and give you rather more to talk about’.
While most authors and publishers seek to take the low road – consider The Dummy's Guide to Whatever – Scruton moves in the opposite direction, even calling one of his books An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy where he states in the introduction that he ‘presupposes no knowledge other than that which an intelligent person is likely to possess already,’ simple things we gather like the complete works of Shakespeare, Beethoven and Wagner’s ring cycle. I can only imagine what horror a tutorial with him must have been like.
All of these aspects give the book, like a good wine, layers of complexity leaving a lasting impression on the reader long after you’ve put the book down even if you struggle with the form this lasting impression takes.
Before we finally get to the structure of the book itself, it must be pointed out that Scruton equates wine with culture and civilisation, and intoxication is different to drunkenness noting that wine intoxicates like poetry when drunk correctly through ‘measured desire’. He believes that all the problems of the world could be solved by sitting down and talking them through over a glass of good claret. Against this background he has harsh words on Islamic abstinence and notes that in surah xvi verse 7 of the Koran wine is unreservedly praised as one of God’s gifts, but following the prophet’s Medina exile, surah v verses 90-91 are less complimentary and later revelations cancel the earlier.
But nor does the Western culture of drinking to get drunk escape his critical pen as he notes:
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 and 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 a drink has on an empty stomach, we are now witnessing the far worse effect of drink on an empty mind.
The book itself can be subdivided in discrete themes. It starts with a youthful Scruton ‘discovering’ good wine during his Cambridge university days as he is introduced by successive mentors to the best of red and white Burgundy and acknowledges Napoleon’s quip that ‘nothing makes life so rosy as to contemplate it through a glass of Chambertin’.
We then go on a tour of the wine regions of the world, though for Scruton, the world of wine is divided into France and everywhere else. We get a tour of both balanced in those proportions and enjoy both a history lesson and comic sketch book and giggle along the way. Sometimes, Scruton has a humorous anecdote to help on the journey (in America there is a journal called The Modern Drunkard which offers ‘useful advice on the forgotten art of staggering’) while at other times the humour is entirely accidental such as when he claims that ‘reading the literature of New Zealand feminists, animal rights activists and multi-culturalists, I long ago decided I could have no place in the intellectual life of Canterbury’.
When the world tour is over (the ‘I Drink’ part), we move to the ‘Therefore I am’ part as he discusses what ‘I’ means. This is by far and away the most difficult chapter and full absorption is not entirely required for the book to be enjoyed as a whole. After that, it’s the meaning of wine – how for example is great wine different from great art or great music and how can we understand taste? Can we describe it? Then we have ‘the meaning of whine’ where he takes a pot shot at prohibitionists and ‘mad mullahs’ who he feels are as addicted to anger as drunks are to alcohol. The last chapter sees Sartre’s Being and Nothingness become Being and Bingeing as he discusses the misuse of pleasure.
At the end of the book, we get a section on what to drink with what and here Scruton is not going anywhere near ‘pinot with lamb’, rather, one should drink Tuscan wine with Hegel and a New Zealand Chardonnay with Schopenhauer, philosophy’s unrelenting pessimist. Most philosophers you could name and many you couldn’t are briefly discussed here in the contexts of their work and the corresponding pairing.
However, a special mention goes to Sam the Horse with whom Scruton clearly enjoyed a close relationship. We learn by the middle of the book that ‘in my duties as a wine critic, I try out a full bottle on Sam the Horse, stirring a glass-full into his oats and studying his reaction, I can make no distinction between his relishing the wine and his merely enjoying it’. By the back though we learn that despite what has just been said, ‘Sam has his preferences’. We are told that Sam the Horse most eagerly gobbles his oats when laced with rosé, with Scruton suggesting that Sam’s firm favourite is Amethystos from Greece, ‘available at Oddbins’; I can only wonder to know how the producers of the wine and Oddbins feel about that fact.
Overall, this is a satisfying and challenging read and a book that should appeal to wine lovers and wine thinkers. One feels from the book that Scruton himself is a fascinating individual though not without his own issues, painting a picture of a man nursing a bottle of Bordeaux alone in a backwater French farm with only Sam the Horse for company. His sheer intelligence though and scope of learning together with an often brilliant turn of phrase and a gentle but tickling wit ensure a good read. One can only smile at his ‘first principle’ of drinking that despite his rants against spirits, beer and cocktails (i.e. anything that’s not wine) states that ‘you should drink what you like, in the quantities you like. It may hasten your death, but this small cost will be offset by the benefits to everyone around you’. That is most certainly my kind of philosophy.