Wine and Philosophy

Wine and Philosophy: From Orphic Mysticism and Hellenic Symposiums, to Enlightenment Salons, and beyond.

Presentation to The Philosophy Forum, August 6, 2012

1.0 Wine and the Origins of Philosophy
1.1 In Bertrand Russell's "History of Western Philosophy", an argument is presented on the unique characteristics of Hellenic civilisation. These characteristics include geographical particulars (in the same way that Jared Diamond would argue the success of European civilisation). However, one of the more surprisingly claims is that, indirectly, wine was responsible for philosophy, specifically through Orphic contemplative mysticism, itself an offshoot of the wild intoxications and behaviour of Dionysus worship, and its association with "the divine madness". Specifically, the Orphics sought intoxication as a means to acquire "enthusiasm", the union with the divine, and acquire knowledge not achievable by sober, ordinary means. From this Orphic mysticism a direct lineage is drawn to Pythagoras, from Pythagoras to Plato, and from there to the entirety of western philosophy which has any concept of religiousity.
1.2 According to contemporary philosopher Seth Paskin, is notable that wine was chosen over beer. "Beer is grain in liquid form, bread is grain in solid form." With grain the staple form of subsistence after the invention of agriculture, beer provided nourishment for the body. Do the difference in the intoxication, drinking too much on beer meant passing out, but too much wine meant the divine madness. There was no equivalent "beer-cult" as there was for Dionysus.
1.3 A transition in the philosophical contemplation of wine intoxication can be seen in the development of the symposium, (Greek sympinein, "to drink together", the Latin equivalent was convivium) a drinking party. These were by no means limited to the philosophers - it was an important male institution of ancient Greece - however it is Plato's Symposium, which discusses the nature of love and desire, where the most famous use of the term has become known.
1.4 There are some notable characteristics about philosophers in this tradition which suggests that they had "madness" or were "divine". Pythagoras was believed to be mad for his belief in the transmorgification of souls, and the proposition that everything could be quantified (and therefore predicted). As for Socrates; he was would drink heartily in social situations, but would appear give any indications of being drunk. He was also apparently impervious to the cold; which caused his fellow soldiers to treat him with suspicion - these were superhuman abilities.

2.0 The Enlightenment
2.1 James Van Horn Melton (The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe), notes that from the late middle ages the "pub", a public drinking establishment, became common. Prior to that the consumption of alcoholic beverages was conducted in the open, and for important health reasons (a source of calories, impurities in water). With the rapid rise of an roofed establishment, social drinking in a public space led to the rise of debating societies, and a place for political news and rumours, and even opposition - there is are several cases of peasant uprisings starting at public drinking establishments.
2.2 With a combination of an alphabetic script, movable type, and a modification of the wine screw-presses of the Rhine, Johannes Gutenberg developed a printing press which would remain the standard for over five hundred years. In the century that followed Gutenberg's invention, more books were printed than the entirety of previous human civilisation - it was also the beginning of seditious religious and political material, leading to the Reformation, and the rise of modernity (thanks to Nigel Sinnot for reminding me of this).
2.3 It was the French salon that revived the idea of meeting in the home of an inspiring hostess (usually), for the purpose of literary and philosophical discussion. It was originally an Italian invention of the sixteenth century, under Isabella d'Este and Elisabetta Gonzaga as patrons of the arts. Initially these gatherings would often be held in the hostesses bedroom, with the guests sitting on nearby chairs. The first renowned salon in France was the Hôtel de Rambouillet in Paris, operated by the Italian Catherine de Vivonne, in the seventeenth century; she established the rrules of etiquette, derived from Italian codes of chivalry.
2.4 According to Dena Goodman's research (c.f., The Republic of Letters), in the seventeenth century the salon transformed from an aristocratic event, to academic discussion. It became a public sphere, where no topic was avoided, and were polite, but rigorous conversation was requisite. Jurgen Habermas, in his classic text The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, argued that the French salon, the English coffee house, were essential to the emergence of a modern public sphere, independent of the machinations of court society.

3.0 Intoxication : Some Questions
3.1 It is well known that different types of intoxicants induce personality differences. There is evidence that different philosophers found that different recreational intoxicants 'assisted' their work. This has historical and cultural biases. Some examples; Plotinus and Marcus Aurelius (neo-platonic and stoic philosophers, respectively) would regularly consume opium. The pragmatic philosophy William James tried peyote, ether, but was most affected by nitrous oxide, writing a paper entitled ""Consciousness Under Nitrous Oxide" for Psychological Review. Jean-Paul Sartre was a very heavy user of mescaline and amphetamines, the former causing him to hallucinate talking lobsters that chased him, and the latter to write nigh-incomprehensible material in The Critique of Dialectical Reason. Walter Benjamin experimented with opium and hashish, writing a small treatise on the latter. John Lilly, a philosopher of mind and communications, was provided experimental LSD from the U.S. government, leading to the publication of the book Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer
3.2 On the matter of temperance, Epicurus argued that pleasure had the highest value for people; but he has a particularly sophisticated version of it, predating utilitarian calculation by over two thousand years. He argued against, for example, heavy indulgence in alcohol, as that would cause more pain for a longer period that the pleasure it brought during drunkeness. The aim of the hedonist, was ataraxia ("freedom from worry") which involved releasing oneself from unnecessary desires and by being content with philosophical conversation with friends.

4.0 Bruce, The Philosopher's Song
4.1 A contribution from Monty Python's, sketch of the Philosophy Department of the University of Woolloomooloo. It is considered to be a slight dig at the "Australian realism", a school of thought which included John Anderson, David Malet Armstrong, John Leslie Mackie, David Stove, et. al. Amstrong semi-jokingly suggested "the strong sunlight and harsh brown landscape of Australia force reality upon us".
4.2 The song does contain a few references to theories of the philosopher's themselves. For example, Kant had a theory of the stability of the universe ("very rarely stable"), Nietzsche was accused of excessive masturbation ("raising of the wrist"), John Stuart Mill was highly concerned with political liberty ("of his own free will"), and Descarte's famous phrase "I think therefore I am" is modified ("I drink therefore I am")
4.3 The song! Sing it!

Immanuel Kant was a real pissant Who was very rarely stable.
Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar who could think you under the table.
David Hume could out-consume Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel,
And Wittgenstein was a beery swine Who was just as schloshed as Schlegel.
There's nothing Nietzsche couldn't teach you about the raising of the wrist.
Socrates himself was permanently pissed..
John Stuart Mill of his own free will, on half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.
Plato they say could stick it away, half a crate of whiskey every day.
Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle,
Hobbes was fond of his dram,
And Rene Descartes was a drunken fart: "I drink, therefore I am"
Yes, Socrates, himself, is particularly missed;
A lovely little thinker but a bugger when he's pissed!