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For the love of wine and wisdom

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Wine Love WISDOM

For the love of wine and wisdom

My experience with Sir Roger Scruton started—as most philosophical journeys do— with a question. Broadly speaking, my question was about wine and life, and as a professional wine writer, I had researched, traveled, and tasted widely in search of an answer. Despite years of effort, my question still lingered. But by that stage, it was accompanied by a bloodless desire to have it answered.

Roger’s interest in wine was only part of his appeal. I was equally drawn to his belief in the importance of literature to philosophy, not only as its influence on expression but as a way to address the human condition. Much contemporary philosophy, he wrote, “ceased to address itself to living creatures.” I had a similar predicament with wine criticism; to understand wine objectively one was asked to remove the subject, but with the subject also went the meaning. In both cases, it seemed to me, something was missing.

And yet here was a philosopher on the other side of the world who wrote beautifully and made space for this realm, to say nothing of his way of teaching—a mixture of symposium-style lectures over dinner at the Reform Club in London and, if you were fortunate enough to be supervised by him, tutorials at Albany in Piccadilly. Crucially, Roger was the only person who not only understood my question but also seemed to know what to do about it. I still can’t think of a less practical thing to do, but several years after discovering his work I left a life in Melbourne and moved to London to seek the answer to my question.

Back to the originals

Roger taught in a way that is, I am told, now rarely used: the old Oxbridge method. You wrote him an essay, and he found the holes in your arguments, pulled down the decorations, and then, without explicitly saying so, turned you where you needed to go next.

“Write,” he said after assigning some essay topics. And so I started offering timid essays that we discussed in his London flat at the top of Albany, a flat that looked just as you’d imagine a philosopher’s flat to look anytime from the past century. “You’re still homing in,” he’d say. “Keep writing.”

Roger also believed you didn’t know anything until you could argue it on a page—which, like many things he believed, turned out to be true. In my mind, I would set out as some intellectual warrior sent back in time to retrieve an important idea from philosophy but, somewhere along the way, turned into a confused spaniel who came back with nothing but a wet stick from under the neighbor’s house. And yet, dedicated as he was to his students’ education, Roger still looked it over and offered encouragement before making his diagnosis: “Back to the originals. Read Plato.” And with that, he sent me tumbling back 2,000 years through the history of ideas.

Rising above

Seasons change rapidly in London, and as autumn retreated from town, and darkness claimed its larger share of the day, Roger was appointed to a government advisory commission into new building, whereupon by “the Twitter mob” (as he called them) did their worst. That, and the more damaging media hounding the following year, have been well documented; suffice to say we watched in disbelief as he was put on trial by many who had never heard of him nor read a word he had written.

The next day, following another tutorial, I walked with Roger from Piccadilly to Pall Mall to attend his scheduled lecture and dinner on Kant. Roger seemed as grand as the buildings on Piccadilly, and when he broke into his stride it was as though someone had animated a statue. As his jacket flapped behind him, he carved his way between the red buses and black cabs in giant defiant strides with which I could barely keep up. Discussing the poison on the Internet, I asked him what the hardest thing was. “The hatred,” he replied.

Despite the ordeal, Roger delivered the lecture to his 14 students, enthusiastically answered questions over dinner and wine, and then, as was his occasional custom, joined us for a drink in St James’s. When the conversation inevitably turned to the media, someone jokingly mentioned vengeance. It would have been easier to laugh it off, but ever the exemplar of decency, Roger gently snuffed out the idea: “No, one should never respond to hatred with hatred.”

Two great lessons

As Plato depicted in Book VII of The Republic, there is a time in every student’s philosophic journey when they want to turn back. “And, if he compelled him to look at the light itself, would his eyes hurt and would he flee, turning away to those things that he is able to make out and hold them to be really clearer than what is being shown?” asked Socrates of his student in the Allegory of the Cave, Plato’s depiction of the philosophic quest from sense perception to intellection of the highest good.

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