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Philosophers on Beer
by Matt Qvortrup
‘More songs about Buildings and Food’ was the title of a 1978 album by the rock band Talking Heads, about all the things rock stars normally don’t sing about. Pop songs are usually about variations on the theme of love; a track like Van Morrison’s 1976 hit Cleaning Windows is the odd one out.
Philosophers, likewise, tend to have a narrow focus on epistemology, metaphysics and trifles like the meaning of life. But occasionally great minds stray from their turf and write about other matters, for example buildings (Martin Heidegger), food (Hobbes), tomato juice (Robert Nozick), and the weather (Lucretius and Aristotle). This series of Shorts is about these unfamiliar themes; about the things philosophers also write about.
The Germans – it is perhaps no surprise – are rather fond of their lager. Too much so, thought Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). “How much beer is in the German intelligentsia!” he lamented, and continued: “How is it possible that young men who dedicate their existence to the most spiritual goals do not feel the first instinct of spirituality, the instinct of self-preservation of the spirit – and drink beer?” (The Twilight of the Idols, 984).
Maybe Nietzsche had Martin Luther (1483-1546) in mind. The bookish theologian certainly dedicated his life to ‘spiritual goals’, and reportedly observed that, “Those who do not drink beer, have nothing to drink.”
But beer drinking is not just confined to one nation. Since the days of ancient Egypt, beer has been enjoyed in many lands, including certain islands just off the coast of Continental Europe. But even there, tastes vary. In Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous in Opposition to Sceptics and Atheists, Irish bishop and philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753) observed, “that which at other times seems sweet, shall to a distempered palate appear bitter. And nothing can be plainer, than that divers persons perceive different tastes.” He was talking about dark beer, known as ‘porter’ at the time. He was not talking about Guinness, as that particular Irish dry stout has only been brewed since 1759 – six years after the philosopher’s death.
Drinking has been part of philosophizing for a long time in Britain too. Yorkshiremen and women account for 49 percent of total consumption of beer, according to one study. It also found that overall, the English drink more beer than the Scots. Maybe this reveals a deeper tendency going back to the two countries’ most illustrious empiricist philosophers, David Hume (1711-1776) and John Locke (1632-1704). The Englishman Locke praised beer, but Hume the Scot was positively unenthusiastic.
Hume observed that you could write poetry about cider, but he went on, “Beer would not have been so proper, as being neither agreeable to the taste nor eye” (Treatise of Human Nature, p.358). Locke took a rather different view. In 1679 he penned Classification of Beer. In this meticulous, and of course strictly empirical study, Locke divided beer into three categories: home-made, for sale, and compound. He found – undoubtedly following experimentation – that, “Home-made drinks of England are beer and ale, strong and small; those of most note, that are to be sold, are Lambeth ale, Margaret ale, and Derby ale; Herefordshire cider, perry, mede. There are also several sorts of compounded ales, as cock-ale, wormwood-ale, lemon-ale, scurvygrass-ale, college-ale, &c. These are to be had at Hercules’ Pillars, near the Temple; at the Trumpet, and other houses in Sheer Lane, Bell Alley, and, as I remember, at the English Tavern, near Charing Cross” (Quoted in The Life of John Locke, by Peter King, p.15).
Is it just me, or do you also now fancy a pint of bitter? Maybe a lager too?
© Prof. Matt Qvortrup 2023
Matt Qvortrup is Professor of Political Science at Coventry University.