I’m reading A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage. It’s a view of the role that 6 beverages – beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and cola – have played in world history. I’m currently in the ‘spirits’ section, but I thought it worthwhile to comment on the role of wine (per Standage) in the development of the Greek culture and hence the Greek philosophy to which we all, by virtue of engaging in partial examination, are partial.
To begin with, beer was the first fermented beverage and is essentially a mechanism for consuming grain. Beer is grain in liquid form, bread is grain in solid form. With the advent of agriculture, grain became both the staple substance and a form of currency. Raw, unprocessed grain was unwieldy and not useful to laborers and the like. So it was converted into bread and beer, which were both more durable, compact and measurable. The state paid officials, priests and laborers in beer and it never lost its character as sustenance; nourishment for the body – not the soul.
Wine, while it too was a form of currency, did not have the nourishing, proletarian character of beer. To begin with, wine had a sense of danger about it that beer didn’t – getting drunk on beer meant passing out, but getting drunk on wine could induce madness (hence the evolution of the myths and cults of Dionysus/Bacchus). Already this distinction brings out wine’s critical impact on the human mind – the ability to destroy the capacity to reason. And this was important to the Greeks who adopted and developed wine culture in the Mediterranean because their concept of reason, which underpinned their philosophy and political system, was based on dialectic. Dialectic was enhanced, of course, by wine. Hence symposia.
So wine was essential to facilitating dialogue in social settings and bringing several people or a group to reasoned conclusions, whether about philosophy, love, aesthetics, politics or any other topic. There was a danger, however, that too much wine could bring the participants to madness. Thus it was a crucial function of the host of any symposium to control both the strength and rationing of wine during a party to ensure speech flowed freely, reason prevailed, and madness was kept at bay. No easy task.
The Greeks also began the habit of distinguishing between types (regions) and age of wine as a measure of quality, which was carried on by the Romans. This nuanced view of the fruit of the vine can be seen both as an example of the Greek focus on distinguish sense characteristics which still informs Western philosophical discourse today and as the earliest form of an Aesthetics of Taste which sadly has been neglected for the most part by the philosophical tradition. One man who is trying to rectify that is Barry Smith, author of Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine. I haven’t read the book, but I have heard him on Philosophy Bites and, I think, Little Atoms. He’s interested in exploring both the extent to which the experience of drinking wine is subjective and yet taste can be called objective as well as the aesthetic vocabulary of wine tasting and how it can and cannot convey meaning depending on the audience.
So pour a glass and keep posting here to keep the dialogue going. You honor Socrates with every sip. If you’ve made it this far in the article, you may also enjoy this short video on how to drink red wine…