A Tale of Two Teachers

There is only one honest response to a world of moral and aesthetic anarchy, which is to live one’s life as a testimony to order and virtue.

This is the third of three articles on wine and culture inspired by Roger Scruton’s “I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine.” Click here for the first, and here for the second.

“Dr. Watkin was one of many friends made in my brief time as a don. …In all respects relevant to the donnish life I was abnormal: right-wing, proletarian, heterosexual—any one of those defects would have raised suspicion, but to possess them all suggested a reckless disregard for proprieties. Dr. Watkin had been described to me as an evil reactionary, an enemy of social progress and enlightenment…this description so warmed me to [him] that I immediately went to call on him. Monsignor Gilbey, meticulously dressed in the style of an Anglican clergyman of Jane Austen’s day, crouch[ed] forward in a bergere chair as though interrupted in the course of a confessional. Dr. Watkin himself was dressed in a three-piece suit and starched collar, from which his thin neck rose like a fluted column…  Dr. Watkin had absorbed the [classical] idea from the Monsignor, who taught that chaos lies all around us, and that our first duty is to impose upon it whatever order—spiritual, moral, aesthetic—it can bear.

“…As I came to know them better, I came to understand both of them as accomplished thespians, who had chosen their roles and chosen to be meticulously faithful to them. To say this is not to make a criticism. On the contrary, it is a testimony to their great strength of character that, having understood the moral and aesthetic chaos of the world into which they were born, they each of them recognized that there is only one honest response to it, which is to live your life as an example.”

As I first read Roger Scruton’s story above, I was immediately reminded of several teachers I have had who I would also describe as “thespians.”

My German professor in college kept an immaculately tasteful home, and liked to have students over for what we referred to as “classy activities;” for example, Pride and Prejudice movie marathons with tea and authentic “biscuits.” Once a year, he would host a dozen students for a reenactment of the last dinner served on the Titanic—all nine courses, all five hours, dress code semiformal (I suspect he he cut us some slack because he knew we had no money for tuxes). Our only responsibility was to engage in lively conversation like civilized people. For most of us, it was a good thing we had five hours to get the hang of it. But we learned countless little things along the way, ranging from how to eat a formal meal to why Wagnerian opera is barbaric.

My philosophical mentor post-university likewise taught me many things in a classroom, but he taught me more things by the imagery his conduct provided. The way he dressed, the way he spoke, the sober way he engaged philosophical questions, and most of all his hospitality—they relentlessly told me, without stating them, the things that he valued. At his home, you would not find his children playing video games to stay out of the way—they would be actively engaging the guests in conversation, or playing in their piano quartet. And you would never visit his house in the afternoon or evening without being offered a drink (indeed, I learned my love for a gin and tonic in his kitchen).

I don’t remember too many specific things either man formally taught me. But as you can see, those images have not left me—they were clear, they were compelling, and I have sought to model my own life and household after theirs in numerous ways. I think both men would agree with the perspective of Scruton’s colleagues: that there is only one honest response to a world of moral and aesthetic anarchy, which is to live one’s life as a testimony to order and virtue. As teachers, they appreciate the truth of what David Brooks wrote in The Social Animal:

“Character emerges gradually out of the mysterious interplay of a million little good influences. This model emphasizes the power of community to shape character. …It also emphasizes the power of small and repetitive action to rewire the fundamental mechanisms of the brain. Small habits and proper etiquette reinforce certain positive ways of seeing the world. Good behavior strengthens certain networks. Aristotle was right when he observed, ‘We acquire virtues by first having put them into action.’”

And this, once again, is where wine can become an actor.

Wine cannot be gulped; it “establishes a rhythm of gentle sips rather than gluttonous swiggings,” so it teaches patience and intellectual sobriety. It (and here I depart slightly from Scruton) defies pure Reason in favor of habituation, promoting the gradual cultivation of taste instead of merely the rational pursuit of goods. And it favors imagery and experience as the method of teaching that taste, and of opening to the understanding things that cannot be verbally explained except in paradoxical language. Writes Scruton:

“That which cannot be grasped intellectually, however, can be made present in sensory form. This is the lesson of art, which has provided us down the centuries with sensory symbols of conceptions that lie beyond the reach of the understanding—symbols like the late quartets of Beethoven, which present the idea of a heart filled in solitude by a God who can be known in no other way; or like the landscapes of Van Gogh, which show the world burst open by its own self-knowledge.

“…That first sip of a fine wine stirs, as it makes its way downwards, the rooted sense of my incarnation. Through wine we know, as through almost nothing else that we consume, that we are one thing, which is also two: subject and object, soul and body, free and bound.”

As John Kay pointed out, we all know the phrase “Honesty is the best policy” from Aesop’s Fables. But we would not trust a man for whom honesty were a policy; we trust someone for whom honesty is an instinct, who has had his virtues trained so that truth-telling is not even a conscious decision. Thus rituals—like those surrounding the proper consumption of wine—that allow us to have some small influence on the virtues of our families, our guests, our acquaintances, are vitally important.

For those of us who value virtues that our culture of anti-culture has left behind, wine is a constant reminder of what we can do, in our small circles, to revive those virtues. I am a thespian. The question for me, as I look ahead to raising a family and practicing hospitality, is this: what role shall I play?