An Atheist, a Catholic, and a Philosopher Walk Into a Bar: Three Writers on the Art of Drinking

The consumption of alcohol is an integral part of western culture going back to the ancients. In modern times there is a lot of discussion and disagreement over the proper place of alcohol in people’s lives. To that discussion I’d like to bring the thoughts and drinking habits of three men whom it cannot be said did not live full or prosperous lives; an atheist, a Catholic apologist, and a secular philosopher. I think listening to them makes more sense than listening to that 1,000th “study shows red wine is good for your / cause your early death!” stories that seem like pop up every couple weeks.

Notable writer, thinker, and atheist Christopher Hitchens writes of drinking in his memoir “Hitch 22” (emphasis is all my own):

A Short Footnote on the Grape and the Grain

Alcohol makes other people less tedious, and food less bland, and can help provide what the Greeks called entheos, or the slight buzz of inspiration when reading or writing. The only worthwhile miracle in the New Testament— the transmutation of water into wine during the wedding at Cana— is a tribute to the persistence of Hellenism in an otherwise austere Judaea…

 “Hitch: making rules about drinking can be the sign of an alcoholic,” as Martin Amis once teasingly said to me. (Adorno would have savored that, as well.) Of course, watching the clock for the start-time is probably a bad sign, but here are some simple pieces of advice for the young. Don’t drink on an empty stomach: the main point of the refreshment is the enhancement of food. Don’t drink if you have the blues: it’s a junk cure. Drink when you are in a good mood. Cheap booze is a false economy. It’s not true that you shouldn’t drink alone: these can be the happiest glasses you ever drain. Hangovers are another bad sign, and you should not expect to be believed if you take refuge in saying you can’t properly remember last night. (If you really don’t remember, that’s an even worse sign.) Avoid all narcotics: these make you more boring rather than less and are not designed— as are the grape and the grain— to enliven company. Be careful about up-grading too far to single malt Scotch: when you are voyaging in rough countries it won’t be easily available. Never even think about driving a car if you have taken a drop. It’s much worse to see a woman drunk than a man: I don’t know quite why this is true but it just is. Don’t ever be responsible for it.

Prolific writer and Catholic apologist GK Chesterton writes in “Heretics”;

The one genuinely dangerous and immoral way of drinking wine is to drink it as amedicine. And for this reason, if a man drinks wine in order to obtain pleasure, he is trying to obtain something exceptional, something he does not expect every hour of the day, something which, unless he is a little insane, he will not try to get every hour of the day. But if a man drinks wine in order to obtain health, he is trying to get something natural; something, that is, that he ought not to be without; something that he may find it difficult to reconcile himself to being without. …If there were a magic ointment, and we took it to a strong man, and said, “This will enable you to jump off the Monument,” doubtless he would jump off the Monument, but he would not jump off the Monument all day long to the delight of the City. But if we took it to a blind man, saying, “This will enable you to see,” he would be under a heavier temptation. It would be hard for him not to rub it on his eyes whenever he heard the hoof of a noble horse or the birds singing at daybreak. It is easy to deny one’s self-festivity; it is difficult to deny one’s self-normality. Hence comes the fact which every doctor knows, that it is often perilous to give alcohol to the sick even when they need it. I need hardly say that I do not mean that I think the giving of alcohol to the sick for stimulus is necessarily unjustifiable. But I do mean that giving it to the healthy for fun is the proper use of it, and a great deal more consistent with health.

The sound rule in the matter would appear to be like many other sound rules–a paradox.Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable. Never drink when you are wretched without it, or you will be like the grey-faced gin-drinker in the slum;but drink when you would be happy without it, and you will be like the laughing peasant of Italy. Never drink because you need it, for this is rational drinking, and the way to death and hell. But drink because you do not need it, for this is irrational drinking, and the ancient health of the world.

…Dionysus made wine, not a medicine, but a sacrament. Jesus Christ also made wine, not a medicine, but a sacrament. But [Muslims] make it, not a sacrament, but a medicine. He feasts because life is not joyful; he revels because he is not glad. “Drink,” he says, “for you know not whence you come nor why. Drink, for you know not when you go nor where. Drink, because the stars are cruel and the world as idle as a humming-top. Drink, because there is nothing worth trusting, nothing worth fighting for. Drink, because all things are lapsed in a base equality and an evil peace.” So he stands offering us the cup in his hand. And at the high altar of Christianity stands another figure, in whose hand also is the cup of the vine.“Drink” he says “for the whole world is as red as this wine, with the crimson of the love and wrath of God. Drink, for the trumpets are blowing for battle and this is the stirrup-cup. Drink, for this my blood of the new testament that is shed for you. Drink, for I know of whence you come and why. Drink, for I know of when you go and where.”

Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton writes in his book on wine “I Drink Therefore I Am”;

The world is awash with advice about what not to drink. All kinds of virtuous products, in which honest labour and the love of life have been distilled for your benefit – unpasteurized milk, for example – have been forbidden by the health fanatics. Not a week passes without a newspaper article rehearsing the damage done to the human constitution by spirits, carbonated drinks, coffee or cola, and it seems to me that the time has come to draw a line under all this nonsense and to lay down a few simple principles.

The first is that you should drink what you like, in the quantities that you like. It may hasten your death, but this small cost will be offset by the benefits to everyone around you.

The second principle is that you should not, through your drinking, inflict pain on others: drink as much as you like, but put away the bottle before gaiety gives way to gloom. Drinks which have a depressive effect – water, for example – should be taken in small doses, for medicinal reasons only.

The third principle is that your drinking should inflict no lasting damage on the earth. By hastening your death, a drink does no real environmental damage – after all, you are biodegradable, and that may be the best thing to be said about you. But this is not, in general, true of the containers in which drinks are sold. In the virtuous England in which I grew up, drinks came in glass bottles, for which you paid an additional twopence, refundable on return of the bottle to the shop. This exemplary system was followed for many years, until driven out by the arrival of the plastic bottle, the greatest environmental disaster since the discovery of fossil fuels.

People who live in cities are less aware of this disaster than we country dwellers, since city streets, from time to time, are cleaned. Walk along any country lane, however, and you will encounter, every yard or so, a plastic bottle, flung from the window of a passing vehicle, to lie forever on the verge. Each year the accumulation increases, with particular products – Lucozade and Coca-Cola, for instance – adding insulting colours to the environmental injury.

I blame the drinks, as much as the people who jettison their containers. There is something about those fizzy sugar-solutions, with their childish flavours and logo-branded bottles, that elicits the ‘me’ response in otherwise grown-up people. The quick-fix at the plastic udder, the exhilaration of bubbles in the throat, and the burp of satisfaction as the liquid settles, all serve to narrow the drinker’s perspective, and to obliterate the thought of a world beyond me and mine. And the self-satisfied gesture as the bottle is tossed from the window of the car – the gesture which says, I am king of the space through which this body travels, and f— the rest of you – is exactly what we must expect, when childish appetites are indulged in private at every moment of the day.

So here is my fourth principle: don’t drink anything that comes in plastic bottles. Declare war on them and on the firms that use them. Withdraw your custom from every supermarket that sells its milk in plastic, refuse soft drinks on principle and drink water, if you must, only from the tap.

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