The English philosopher Roger Scruton died in January 2020 just a few weeks shy of his seventy-sixth birthday. He left behind a large circle of admirers and a correspondingly large shelf of books in a variety of genres — novels, opera libretti, volumes of occasional journalism, cultural and architectural criticism, and various philosophical works, popular as well as technical. He wrote and wrote about music, hunting to hounds and politics. He also wrote about the subject that brings us together: wine.
Roger was a gifted teacher, always on the lookout for opportunities to educate the ignorant, enlighten the benighted and expand the horizons of those cramped by bigotry and parti pris. His missionary work extended to the pages of the New Statesman, the left-wing organ in whose pages his wine columns appeared. That British magazine later repaid his patronage very poorly, but that is a subject for another day and, besides, it was after he compiled a selection of his columns in a book with the splendid title I Drink Therefore I Am (2010). The back cover of my edition informs the curious that the book is “a good-humored antidote to the pretentious clap-trap that is written about wine today and a profound apology for the drink on which civilisation was founded.” Indeed it is.
Roger was an eloquent apologist for the pleasures of wine, indeed for pleasure period. Like Walter Bagehot before him, Roger, a high Tory himself, understood that “the essence of Toryism is enjoyment.” True pleasure, pleasure rightly understood (as Tocqueville might have put it) is at bottom a conservative prerogative. It is also an ancient one, as the author of Genesis acknowledged when he observed that “God made the world and saw that it was good.” It is (to use a locution dear to our Marxist friends) no accident that Jesus’s first recorded miracle was the transformation of the base liquid water into the precious liquid wine — and good stuff, too, by all accounts.
Wine, of course, enjoys a distinguished philosophical as well as a distinguished theological pedigree. In the Symposium, Plato enacts his inquiry into the true nature of love, beauty and immortality on a stage set by the drinking of wine: “symposium” meaning “drinking party,” something you can easily forget if you spend too much time on a contemporary college campus.
I Drink Therefore I Am occupies an eminent place in this tradition of elevated speculation. The title, of course, recalls Descartes’famous exercise in epistemological hubris. I feel certain that had Descartes argued Bibo, ergo sum instead of Cogito, ergo sum, he would have had many more disciples today. Whatever can be said for the ontological argument for the existence for God, Roger showed that the oenological argument has the advantage of instant intuitive conviction. To alter A.E. Housman’s effort at theodicy, let us say that “Wine does more than Milton can to justify God’s ways to man.”
Roger’s title also recalls another famous chapter in contemporary thought, namely Monty Python and their bracing “Philosophers’ Drinking Song.” If you do not know it, please look it up. It may be on the test. Like most serious books, I Drink Therefore I Am is a tribute to the importance of appearances — what shallow people disparage as the surfaces of thing. As Oscar Wilde once put it, only very shallow people do not judge things by their appearances. Roger was not a shallow person. Ergo, etc., etc.
He described the book as “a tribute to pleasure, by a devotee of happiness.” It is addressed to everyone — “theists and atheists, to Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims” — in short “to every thinking person in whom the joy of meditation has not extinguished the pleasures of embodiment.”
Not everyone celebrates the fruit of the vine, and Roger has some condign animadversions about “health fanatics, about mad mullahs and about anybody else who prefers taking offense to seeing another’s viewpoint.”
This cheering book contains much wisdom and some sage advice. In his dubious pamphlet On Liberty, John Stuart Mill announced “One very simple principle” that, he promised, would encourage beneficent eccentricity, hone everyone’s critical faculties and nurture pleasing “experiments in living.” What he in fact managed was to raise querulousness to the status of a categorical imperative and to undermine the rich amplitude of custom, habit and tradition.
The principles Roger Scruton offers us are much more benign. The first is that “you should drink what you like, in the quantities you like.” Another principle is no less salubrious: “Drinks which have a depressive effect — water, for example — should be taken in small doses, for medicinal reasons only.” To which I will only add, Salut!
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s October 2022 World edition.