Roger Scruton

What wine meant to Roger Scruton

Sir Roger Scruton moved through personal tragedy and objective philosophy to justify wine as a “social intoxicant”

Artillery Row

Philosophy, booze, and wit come together surprisingly frequently. Monty Python (or, more accurately, Eric Idle) came up with “The Philosophers Song,” in which Heidegger was a boozy beggar and Wittgenstein a beery swine. That particular ditty contains no reference to wine, but wine tends to float the brains of real philosophers.

Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine, by Roger Scruton

Sir Roger Scruton advocated for wine as an aid to good thought and good society. Scruton was an itinerant philosopher, funded by journalism, including as wine correspondent for the New Statesman (2001-2009). This wasn’t a plot to smuggle philosophy into the minds of winos, or conservativism into the minds of leftist highbrows. He was passionate about wine; the subject brought out his wit too. Writing from his farm, he often inserted a line about how Sam the horse enjoys rosé in his oats – a nod to the free rosé sent to him in hope of review.

Barry Smith was in on it. He is a professor of philosophy at the London School of Advanced Study. In 2007, he edited The Philosophy of Wine, with a chapter by Scruton. Scruton developed this chapter and his writings for the New Statesman into a book called I Drink Therefore I Am. (This is a line from “The Philosophers Song” – paraphrasing René Descartes, who “was a drunken fart.”)

At the end of the 2000s, Scruton joined the University of Buckingham, where he communed with Professor Anthony O’Hear, over philosophy, wine, and music, until Scruton’s death in January 2020.

In the last couple months of 2020, the Scruton Legacy Foundation organized Smith and O’Hear (separately) to revisit Roger’s work. O’Hear had more of a musical relationship with Scruton, which unintentionally provides evidence for Smith’s complaint: Scruton did not “include wine as an aesthetic object.”

France was the place where Scruton realised his Britishness and conservatism

Scruton wrote a book entitled The Aesthetics of Music. Later, he used music as exemplar of a secular aesthetic that could provide a willing consumer with transcendental experiences. Scruton used these experiences to explain how things become sacred. The overlap between secular and religious transcendentalism is clearest in a book called The Soul of the World (2014). This was his only book dedicated to what we might call religion and spirituality, although such terms do not quite capture it. Its title partly conveys Scruton’s intense view of the value of sensual pleasures to well-being. The book incorporates music, visual arts, architecture, and literary fiction, but not wine.

This brings us back to Smith’s complaint. Smith says that Scruton treated wine, unlike music, as “not expressive” of the maker’s emotions, even though they must reflect the maker’s skills. Smith blamed Scruton’s Kantian rationalism, in contrast to Smith’s own Humean sensuality.

If Smith is correct, then Scruton failed his own promise to write “a tribute to pleasure, by a devotee of happiness.” Later, Scruton writes that he “fell in love” with his first fine wine, pilfered from a stupefied companion, while living as a poor student on cheap plonk. “I was overwhelmed…”

Scruton was overwhelmed by classical music too. The difference is that while he played and composed music, he advises disinterest in the making of wine. He advises us to learn the trivia and whimsy of a wine’s origins, including its place, history, and culture, but to ignore techniques and ingredients. He sides with believers in terroir but treats it culturally rather than biochemically. I Drink Therefore I Am is lengthy in its description of Burgundy, his favourite wine region, down to the lighting of the valleys. But he never visited Burgundy.

As a winemaker myself, I am surprised that Scruton’s sensuality, his evocative descriptions of taste, his love of craft and home, did not encourage him to try winemaking. Knowing that a batch took lemon peel or chestnuts, you can go looking for the taste, but Scruton went looking for metaphors. He uses the names for grapes like the names of places.

Smith speculates that Scruton wanted to avoid the technical obsessiveness of a winemaker. Others in the discussion wondered if he wanted to avoid spoiling the romanticism of remote places.

Another explanation is darker. Like The Soul of the World, I Drink Therefore I Am is a complex mix of subjective experience and objective philosophy. The preface wittily thanks his wife for “putting up with the 12 years of research that went into the writing of this book.” The appendix advises on what to drink when reading each philosopher. Some of his references are obscure, but a taster is his advice to drink a “deep dark Rhône wine” with Descartes, to “give you rather more to talk about.”

He was nostalgic for the austerity that encouraged his mother’s elderberry winemaking in the 1950s

In between, the book is more serious and less transparent. After the introduction, the next first two pages describe the author’s nostalgia for the smell and the stickiness of his mother’s elderberry winemaking. He was nostalgic too for the austerity that encouraged such self-reliance (in the 1950s). Then he admits that nostalgia is tinged with guilt for his father’s tempestuous treatment of her. (Scruton “ran away from home” months before his higher education, and never went back.) Implicit in these two pages is that winemaking was forever tainted.

Yet Scruton still discovered a passion for wine. How? As an undergraduate, he followed a girlfriend to France, where her Irish father was “living on the favours of a high-class lady,” as a rude Army song would have it. The girlfriend dumped him, but Scruton kept visiting her father in shambolic but convenient apartments in Paris and Fontainebleau. His host introduced him to fine wine and literature. Both broadened his language and culture, but it is only the wine that he described as enabling “travel to the parts of France that my old scooter had never reached.”

From that path dependency followed a lifelong bias towards French wine (the index contains no reference to anything German), transplantations to Rome (helping to explain why Italian wines come second in his descriptiveness), a bias to Romance languages and cultures, a self-consciously French coming-of-age (in contrast to his self-described “puritan” upbringing in central England), and a French girlfriend (who became his first wife).

Yet France was also the place where he realised his Britishness and conservatism. Three years after completing his first degree, and one year into his doctorate, he was in Paris, during the summer of 1968, watching the pretentious street violence of his French peers. As he related many times thereafter, his disgust at the violence and “Marxist gobbledygook” convinced him of conservatism. That turned him home – eventually to a farm in Wiltshire, fox hunting, and a British wife.

So, what was the meaning of wine for Scruton, decades after he had settled his British conservatism? In a short introductory chapter, Scruton makes a rather whimsical case for wine’s real purpose: “a better accompaniment to thought” and conversation than even to food.

The seriousness of this case becomes clear later, when he frames everything aesthetically – aestheticism being his chosen branch of philosophy. Scruton sides with the norm that taste and smell are lower senses than sight and hearing. Thus, wine cannot be aesthetic, but paintings and music can. Even intoxication, which Scruton regards as useful – in moderation, is sensory, not aesthetic.

Scruton describes wine as a ‘social intoxicant,’ like the peace pipe and hookah

Nevertheless, Scruton invents a “cognitive status” for wine – “an object of thought and a vehicle of reflection.” This cognitive status is not just for the individual, but more so for the group. Scruton describes wine as a “social intoxicant,” like the peace pipe and hookah. Readers with good memories might recall the scandal at the start of his time as wine correspondent, when a leak revealed that he had received thousands of pounds per month from a tobacco company, while he railed against public intervention into private use of tobacco and other normative recreational drugs.

Subsequently, Scruton reduced his drugs to wines. I Drink Therefore I Am advocates for wines as moderate alternative to spirits, and less “dreary” alternatives to water. He contrasts Britain’s drinking culture of the 2000s, which he blames on “cultural impoverishment … moral vacuum … empty minds.” Elsewhere he traces the blame back to Mr. Tony Blair’s administration, but in I Drink Therefore I Am he avoids politics.

Scruton abhors prohibition and sobriety as much as blind drunkenness. “Without their aid [intoxicants] we see each other as we are, and no human society can be built on so frail a foundation.” He criticizes the “health fanatics” and the “mad mullahs.” (I doubt publishers would permit that Islamo-laden phrase today.) He doubts any impact of moderate drinking on physical health, but, in any case, adds that the benefits to our “mental health” outweigh any physical harm.

Scruton wants to revive the ancient Greek symposium. In contrast to modern dinner parties, in which pairs of people have “egocentric” conversations, he idealizes the symposium, with one conversation involving all participants (actually, more of a series of monologues, to which all listen politely). Such conversation encourages “topical” and “general” subjects.

Scruton’s best summation of his philosophy of wine is as follows:

The health fanatics who have poisoned all our natural enjoyments ought, in my view, to be rounded up and locked together in a place where they can bore each other rigid with their futile nostrums for eternal life. The rest of us should live out our days in a chain of linked symposia, in which the catalyst is wine, the means conversation, the goal a serene acceptance of our lot and a determination not to outstay our welcome.

Even if you take out the wine, that’s a pretty good philosophy to live by: a mix of cynicism and stoicism, without the asceticism, but with all the rhetoric. That would go well with a Merlot, I reckon.

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