To Your Very Good Health

How a culture approaches drinking can be a sign of moral illness…or a road back from it.

This is the second 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.

If drinking virtuously involves both the intellect and society, then how a culture approaches drinking must be tied up in how it approaches other things such as morality and politics.

The value of wine is apparent to doctors and health gurus. Yet Roger Scruton has no patience for those who speak of it as though it’s a vitamin. “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.”

Rather, Scruton lumps in the “health fanatics” with the puritans who favor abstinence—neither, in his view, appreciate the full value of what they have. The virtues, and risks, of wine are not primarily medical: they are social and intellectual. Drunkenness, for example, is not the fault of wine. On the contrary, it is precisely because people do not understand wine that they get drunk. And their lack of understanding of wine likewise reflects their intellectual and social decay.

“Thanks to cultural impoverishment, young people no longer have a repertoire of songs, poems, 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 of drink on an empty stomach, we are now witnessing the far worse effect of drink on an empty mind.”

Wine represents an accumulated collection of human knowledge—winemaking has been mastered over centuries, particular areas have honed their own specialties, and individual bottles improve with age. Like civilization itself, wine contains many elements, ingredients, and influences that have matured together into a whole that is more than the sum of its parts—it is a grand inheritance that both gives and requires. But as our culture and its identity came to be vilified as “fascist” and “elitist” in the late 1960s, Scruton writes, “the children of the elite seized their inheritance and took it off to the pawn shop.” And our appreciation for wine has declined with our appreciation for our broader inheritance—we followed our intemperance in drugs and alcohol with intemperance in sex, TV and internet usage, political viewpoints, and most other things.

Yet it seems that wine offers part of a road back to civilization. Marc Dunkelman writes in National Affairs that the current norm is to focus our social attention on either the people closest to us or the people we don’t know very well but who share a common interest (think of your Facebook friends and Twitter followers and you’ll get the idea). “As a result, the relationships that stand between our most intimate friendships and our more distant acquaintances — the middle-tier relationships that have long been at the root of American community life — have been left to wither.” It is precisely these middle-tier relationships that are so crucial for a healthy society, and it is precisely these middle-tier relationships that wine is so powerful in forging.

Properly used, Scruton notes, wine is a stimulus to conversation and a reminder that life is a blessing. Because sips are punctuated by discussion, by toasts (which are gestures of goodwill), and by bonding, they lead not to drunkenness but to solidarity.

“Hence wine, properly drunk, can form part of an education in temperance, and it is for this reason that adolescents should be judiciously exposed to it and not, as in America, forbidden to taste it until they have learned how to binge on everything else.”

What a subtle yet powerful implication: wine, which Jefferson called “the only antidote to whiskey” for good reason, provides precisely the kind of appreciation for moderation, for society, and for life that today’s youth (and grownups) so lack. The greatest health benefit of wine comes not from its material content, but its spiritual content, and from the rituals and social expectations that surround it: “to your very good health.”

But in a society where few recognize this fact, what are we to do? I will consider this question in my third post.

Other Posts in this Series:

Part 1: How to Drink Virtuously: Wine and Philosophy

Part 3: A Tale of Two Teachers: Wine and Imagery