While philosophers and their observers have long known that strong drink is philosophy’s raison d’être, a satisfactory account of the relationship between binge drinking and the great thinkers of the Western philosophical tradition has heretofore been lacking study. Indeed, since this connection has remained at the fore of philosophy, scholars have failed to plumb its depth. Thus, as part of our methodology, we must turn away from philosophy proper and look elsewhere. In this essay, we turn to popular culture. This methodological turn may naturally arouse expectations of a discussion regarding the use of articles of popular culture as starting points for philosophical inquiry[i]. This we discussion we shall forgo.
Let us examine “Bruce’s Philosophers Drinking Song”[ii] by Eric Idle, of Monty Python’s Flying Circus fame.[iii] The song, a 51-second ditty, asserts that some of the greatest thinkers in Western philosophy were, in essence, raging alcoholics. While the song boasts some catchy hooks, the genre—i.e. ditty—only allows for an incipient account of this connection. Idle had only provided us with a fuzzy and somewhat dizzying conceptual framework, leaving any clear and distinct details out. The task for this paper, then, will be to cogitate, ruminate, contemplate, meditate, speculate, and debate in regard to the following question, implicit within Idle’s song and within the great works of Western philosophy, “Why are philosophers drunkards, and why not rather teetotalers?”[iv][v]
Within the philosophical tradition, many philosophical breakthroughs have come during or immediately after a philosopher’s bender. For example, St. Augustine wrote his famous pronouncement “in cuius oculis mihi quaestio factus sum, et ipse est languor meus”[vi] immediately after waking up with a hangover, not realizing his sickness derived from the aftereffects of binge drinking the night before. Similarly, there are suggestions that Kant’s famous reference to his “dogmatic slumbers” was a euphemism for the stupor he experienced after imbibing barrels of beer, for as Idle notes, Kant was “very rarely stable.”
Moreover, David Hume, while blithely swilling scotch, argued, quite impressively, that neither an a priori nor an a posteriori argument could be offered in support of the inductive conclusion that when he takes five more drinks he will feel more than a little buzzed.
And René Descartes, “a drunken fart”—and considered the prototype for the modern wino—used alcohol as a means to augment his philosophical thought. In his Meditations on First Philosophy, he famously attempts to prove God’s existence with an unconventional discussion of wine. Descartes puts forth an argument whose thrust is that wine provides him with his most clear and distinct idea of God. Furthermore, some scholars believe that in Descartes’ original philosophical writings, the Latin verb bebere was replaced with cogitare, and the same was done with the French: “Je bois, donc je suis” became “Je pense, donc je suis.”[vii] While scholars do not agree on why this change occurred (intoxicated scriveners?), Idle alludes to the original manuscripts when he quotes Descartes’ words: “I drink, therefore I am.” Idle then points out the similarity of the words within English in asserting that Martin Heidegger was a “boozy beggar”—clearly a reference to his time spent living in a hut in the Black Forest and his love for peasants—“who could think you under the table” (emphasis added). Herein the opposite switch in verbs occurs, and the idiom “drink you under the table” is transformed into a commentary on the depth of Heidegger’s thought and the height of his blood alcohol content.
St. Thomas Aquinas, conspicuously absent from Idle’s ditty, addresses drunkenness in the “second part of the second part” of his Summa Theologica. Because he philosophized, Aquinas, we can be sure, drank to excess. Ironically, he was most likely bombed when he dictated the answer to question 150, a state which then excuses—or at least mitigates—his philosophical sin: arguing against drunkenness[viii].
Plato, with whom we should have begun our inquiry—but we weren’t clearheaded enough to remember this—posed a formidable problem: the drinker’s paradox, first identified in his dialogue Meno. An interlocutor with Socrates, Meno points out the paradox during one of Socrates’ drunken episodes: “How will the truth that only comes with extreme intoxication remain after one has sobered up, since one cannot remember anything after extreme intoxication, and truth only reveals itself to those who are extremely intoxicated?”[ix]. Hence, Idle in his ditty succinctly expresses what has been lost on Plato scholars for generations: “Socrates himself was permanently pissed” and he undoubtedly was “a bugger when he’s pissed.”[x] Even Socrates’ most famous student, Plato, “could stick it away, half a crate of whiskey every day.”[xi]. Whether the historical Socrates was indeed a dipsomaniac is without question[xi].
Socrates, in an attempt to answer Meno, explains his theory of post-drunken recollection—what we today term a “fragmentary blackout”[xii]—using a narrative of a slave boy who tried to solve a geometry problem while sober. The boy had no formal education and was unable to solve the problem. Then his master provided him with a beverage containing an admixture of liquor and water, and the boy then proceeded to become sloshed, solving the problem with ease. He, however, could not recall the solution upon sobering up. His master, then, reminded him of the procedures he had utilized in solving the problem, the boy’s eyes lighting up with recollection. Thus it is with all truth, Socrates said. Meno countered, explaining that given how much Socrates drank, he would probably not be able to recall at all the truth he had uncovered—perhaps suggesting Socrates suffered from en bloc blackouts[xiii]—and since Socrates failed to write anything down, the wisdom he had discovered would be lost for all time. Socrates just chuckled. Meno’s paradox, however, has never been satisfactorily resolved.
The upshot of this discussion is this: The dualism posited in Plato’s writings and, in a sense, that is part of Western metaphysics—i.e., the “real world” vs. “the apparent world”—is easily explained: the “real world” is the world seen through the eyes of a drunkard, and the “apparent world,” the world seen through the eyes of a sober person. Thus, we can see that alcohol was the wellspring from which philosophy sprang, and the well was spiked. Oh—and that hemlock? It was commingled with alcohol.[xiv][xv]
[i] Well…Žižek uses pop culture, and he’s cool, right?
[ii] Variously known on YouTube. com as “The Philosopher’s Drinking Song,” “Philosophers’ Drinking Song,” “Philosophers Drinking Song,” etcetera.
[iv] The paper will not actually answer the question.
[v] While this exclusive disjunction may appear to be a false choice, it is not, for it is the case that all philosophers, including those who professed their abstinence from alcohol, are raging alcoholics and are not rather teetotalers, the opposite, to my mind, of raging alcoholics. Moreover, the principle of non-contradiction holds here in that one cannot at once claim to be a teetotaler while intoxicated and a philosopher while sober. Common sense bears this out. Just ask anyone who has taken even an introductory philosophy course, and s/he will tell you that the professor was wasted for the duration of the course. Philosophers are a species of the genus drunkard. Thus, being constantly inebriated is a necessary condition for being a philosopher, according to the theory proffered by Idle. Okay, maybe this is a false choice.
[vi] Somewhere in the Confessions
[vii] Not in his Meditations on First Philosophy.
[xi] Socrates was a boozer by the virtue of being a philosopher. He moreover was a vagrant who wandered around Athens pissing people off while he himself was pissed.
[xv] The author of this paper may or may not have been blasted during its writing.