Bibo Ergo Sum: An Analysis of Binge Drinking and the Philosophical Tradition, with Reference to Idle’s “Bruce’s Philosophers Song”

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]

End Notes:

[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.
[iii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruces’_Philosophers_Song,http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQycQ8DABvc
[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.
[viii] http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3150.htm
[ix] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meno’s_paradox#Meno.27s_paradox
[x] http://www.stlyrics.com/songs/m/montypython9364/philosophersbeerdrinkingsong313377.html
[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.
[xii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackout_(alcohol-related_amnesia)
[xiii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackout_(alcohol-related_amnesia)
[xiv] http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/phaedo.html
[xv] The author of this paper may or may not have been blasted during its writing.

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Grey Scales

Olivia, a Timneh African Grey parrot, has a knack for learning and composing music.

By Gerard Nolan

Olivia, my mother’s parrot, has been known on occasion to bob her head and drop fat beats from her beak in exchange for peanuts. She and I have logged many beat-box sessions, our heads bobbing in unison as we create mad rhythms. But Olivia’s musical skills and repertoire extend well beyond beat-boxing.

Olivia is something of an avian musical prodigy. Most of the music she composes can only be described as avant-garde. That is to say, she’s pushing the sonic envelope with her experimental, atonal, minimalist compositions. And while I can’t say I am sophisticated enough to fully appreciate their inchoate beauty, I still can catch a small glimpse of her staggering genius.

In addition to her accomplished career as a composer, she’s a versatile vocalist, able to mimic the ring of a telephone or the timbre of family members’ voices. Her range and control are impressive. She can project a shrill whistle that can be heard across the street with all the doors and windows closed. And with her lower register, she can utter phrases in my brother’s tone of voice. But most of the time she just asks questions. These four are her most oft-repeated.

“Are you okay?” she’ll ask, plaintively.

“Wanna go out?” I am not sure whether she’s talking about the dog or herself.

“What?” She likes to scream this, in a manner akin to Lil’ John’s vocal performance in that Usher song from the ’00s.

“Wanna peanut?” This is self explanatory.

At night, she coos a faint “wooo,” her way of saying good night without disturbing those who may be sleeping. Indeed, Olivia is an extraordinary animal. African Grey parrots rank among the most intelligent animals—and they’re first among parrots when it comes to mimicry, second only to mynas if we consider all avian species.

She answers the phone by beeping and intoning a deep, rich “hello” She has a penchant for laughing at jokes. She even screams during family quarrels. Parrots are very vocal and social creatures, and Olivia likes to respond to the loudest human vocalizations, like explosions of laughter or shouting matches. If you call her name from another room, she’ll reply variously with a chirp, a laugh, or a whistle. We also have two other birds, a parakeet and a Senegal parrot. And each morning she and our other two birds welcome the new day with a chorus of peeps that fill the house.

***

Recently, I started to think Olivia had entered a new phase of her musical career—writing Christmas carol melodies that had already been written centuries ago. I had begun to notice Olivia’s whistling the opening notes of a familiar tune, ‘Good King Wenceslas.’  I began entertain the thought that she had miraculously crafted the tune on her own—independent of human influence. It was as if she had tapped into some sort of ethereal, transcendent repository of beautiful Christmas melodies.

I deluded myself into believing this for weeks. Perhaps it was because I am, at bottom, an impractical dreamer. Or perhaps I suffered from a temporary lapse in sanity. I suspect it was a bit of both.  A more reasonable person would at worst suffer a kind of cognitive dissonance, holding both the idea that Olivia had composed the musical phrase by herself and the idea that she had somehow learned it through human intervention as true. But eventually this person would probably come to her senses. I’d like to tell you that this was the case for me. But it wasn’t. Reflecting on the matter, I do recall a faint feeling that I might have been mistaken, but I soon dispensed with such notions. Soon I believed with an almost religious fervor that Olivia was an ornithic Mozart. No one, to my knowledge, had taught her the opening notes of the song, so naturally I thought that the most plausible explanation was that she had come up with it herself. Philosophers call this an appeal to the best explanation. My logic was airtight.

In hindsight, I realize that the probability of Olivia’s writing the musical phrase is close to 0. In order to get a sense of the number of note combinations possible, I performed a little thought experiment.

Olivia whistled only the opening seven notes of the Christmas carol. Let us determine the odds that Olivia could have randomly whistled these notes using only one octave, divided into 12 notes. The seven opening notes just happen to fit within one octave. To simplify things, let’s say that the song can only be whistled in one key, so that there is only one seven-note sequence in an octave that would correspond to the opening seven notes of the song’s melody. We can calculate the number of combinations of notes by calculating 12 to the 7th power, which equals 35, 831, 808 note combinations. So Olivia, under the constraints of the thought experiment, each time she whistles a string of 7 notes, has a 1 in 35, 831, 808 chance of whistling the 7 opening notes of ‘Good King Wenceslas’. And that’s if Olivia whistles with perfect randomness, which she doesn’t. Moreover, even if she did happen to whistle this string of notes, she probably wouldn’t repeat the string. And there are probably factors that I am not even thinking of that would push the probability of Olivia’s whistling this particular musical phrase to an even more astronomical level.

***

After a few weeks, I learned that Olivia had learned the tune from my sister, Alisa. Even today, part of me still wants to believe it. Like a committed conspiracy theorist, I want to ignore any and all facts that could falsify my preposterous theory.

I want Olivia to be that musical genius again.

Still, Olivia is a fine beat-boxer. Perhaps the best bird beat-maker in the world:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a48LZcMNM3E&context=C3283095ADOEgsToPDskIU8DAK7kPCu16hmM56iZH9

Hi, World.

bowieI’ve decided to venture into the world of blogging. But instead of settling on a theme for this blog, I am going to take a piecemeal approach, delving into an assortment of interesting topics without any real organizing principle. A central theme will probably emerge in time, but I like the freedom this approach affords. I do, however, have at least one aim for this project from its inception—to become a better writer.

I recently graduated college after majoring in philosophy, which made for a very enjoyable academic career grappling with profound questions whose sheer richness, difficulty, and abstractness provided me with an unwarranted sense of smugness. But I’ve since abandoned such pretentiousness.

I hope writing this blog will palliate my job search blues by becoming an outlet for my creative urges.