G.K. Chesterton vs. Omar Khayyam | How to Drink Wine

Welcome to the Inspirational Living podcast, brought to you in part of Book of Zen, inspirational fashion and gift ideas. To learn more, please visit BookofZen.com. Today’s reading was edited and adapted from an essay written by G.K. Chesterton, which appeared in his book Heretics, published in 1905.

When discussing the subject of strong drink, some people think it’s wise to suggest that wine or such stuff should only be drunk as a medicinal. With this I would venture to disagree with a peculiar ferocity. The one genuinely dangerous and immoral way of drinking wine is to drink it as a medicine. When a person drinks wine in order to obtain pleasure, they are trying to obtain something exceptional, something they do not expect every hour of the day, something which, unless they are a little insane, they will not try to get every hour of the day.

But when a person drinks wine in order to obtain health, they are trying to get something natural; something, that is, that they ought not to be without; something that they may find it difficult to reconcile being without. Thus they may begin down the slippery slope of drinking alcohol to help ameliorate whatever happens to ail them.

The sound rule in this matter is 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 villager 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.

For decades the shadow and glory of a great Eastern figure has lain upon our English literature. Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam has concentrated into immortal poignancy all the dark and drifting hedonism of our time. Of the literary splendor of that work it would be merely banal to speak; in few other books has there been anything so combining the gay pugnacity of an epigram with the vague sadness of a song.

But of its philosophical, ethical, and religious influence (which has been almost as great as its brilliancy), I should like to say a word, and that word, I confess, is one of uncompromising hostility. There are a great many things which might be said against the spirit of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and against its prodigious influence. But one matter of indictment towers ominously above the rest — a genuine disgrace to it, and a genuine calamity to us. This is the terrible blow that this great poetry has struck against sociability and the joy of life.

Someone once called Omar “the sad, glad, old Persian.” Sad he is; glad he is not, in any sense of the word whatsoever. He has been a worse foe to gladness than the Puritans. This pensive and graceful poet lies under the rose-tree with his wine-pot and his scroll of poems. It may seem strange that anyone’s thoughts should, at the moment of regarding him, fly back to the dark bedside where the doctor can do nothing but dole out brandy. It may seem stranger still that we should think of the grey wastrel shaking with gin in the gutter. But a great philosophical unity links the three in an evil bond.

Omar Khayyam’s wine-bibbing is bad, not because it is wine-bibbing. It is bad, very bad, because it is medical wine-bibbing. It is the drinking of a person who drinks because they are not happy. It using wine to shut out the universe, not to reveal it. It is not poetical drinking, which is joyous and instinctive; it is rational drinking, which is as prosaic as an investment, as unsavory as a dose of cough syrup.

Whole heavens above it, from the point of view of sentiment, though not of style, rises the splendor of the old English drinking-song:

“Then pass the bowl, my comrades all,

And let the cider flow.”

For this song was caught up by happy men to express the worth of truly worthy things, of brotherhood and garrulity, and the brief and kindly leisure of the poor.

Of course, a great part of the more severe reproaches directed against Omar’s morality are as false and babyish as such reproaches usually are. One critic, whose work I have read, had the incredible foolishness to call Omar an atheist and a materialist. It is almost impossible for a Persian to be either; the East understands metaphysics too well for that.

The real objection which a philosophical Christian would bring against the religion of Omar is not that he gives no place to God, it is that he gives too much place to God. His is that terrible theism which can imagine nothing else but deity, and which denies altogether the outlines of human personality and human will.

A Christian thinker such as Augustine or Dante would object to this because it ignores free-will, which is the valor and dignity of the soul. The quarrel with such skepticism of free will is not that the skepticism denies the existence of God; it is that it denies the existence of the individual man, the individual woman.

In this cult of the pessimistic pleasure-seeker, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam stands first in our time; but it does not stand alone. Many of the most brilliant intellects of our time have urged us to the same self-conscious grasping at a rare delight. Walter Pater said that we are all under a sentence of death, and the only course to take is to enjoy exquisite moments simply for the moments’ sake. The same lesson was taught by the very powerful and very desolate philosophy of Oscar Wilde.

It is, shall we say, the carpe diem religion; but the carpe diem religion is not the religion of happy people, but of very unhappy people. Great joy does not gather the rosebuds while it may; its eyes are fixed on the immortal rose which Dante saw. Great joy has in it the sense of immortality. The very splendor of youth is the sense that it has all space to stretch its legs in. In all great comic literature, there is this sense of space and incorruptibility; we feel the characters are deathless people in an endless tale.

It is true enough, of course, that a pungent happiness comes chiefly in certain passing moments; but it is not true that we should think of them as passing, or enjoy them simply “for the moments’ sake.” To do this is to rationalize the happiness, and therefore to destroy it. Happiness is a mystery like religion, and should never be rationalized.

Suppose we experience a really splendid moment of pleasure. I do not mean something connected with the every day, I mean something with a violent happiness in it — an almost painful happiness. We may have, for instance, a moment of ecstasy in first love, or a moment of victory in battle. The lover enjoys the moment, but not for the moment’s sake. They enjoy it for their lover’s sake, for their own sake.

The warrior enjoys the moment, but not for the sake of the moment; they enjoy it for the sake of the flag. The cause which the flag stands for may be foolish and fleeting; the love may be an infatuation and last a week. But the patriot thinks of the flag as eternal; the lover thinks of their love as something that cannot end. These moments are filled with eternity; these moments are joyful because they do not seem momentary.

Carpe diem advocates like William Pater ask us to (quote) “burn with a hard, gem-like flame.” This reveals their mistake. Flames are never hard and never gem-like — they cannot be handled or arranged. So human emotions are never hard and never gem-like; they are always dangerous, like flames, to touch or even to examine.

There is only one way in which our passions can become hard and gem-like, and that is by becoming as cold as gems. No blow, so sterilizing, has ever been struck at the natural loves and laughter of men and women as this carpe diem of the aesthetes. For any kind of pleasure, a totally different spirit is required: a certain shyness, a certain indeterminate hope, a certain childish expectation. Purity and simplicity are essential to passions — yes even to evil passions. Even vice demands a sort of virginity.

Omar Khayyam’s effect upon the other world we may let go, but his hand upon this world has been heavy and paralyzing. The new ascetics who follow Thoreau or Tolstoy are much livelier company; for, though the surrender of strong drink and such luxuries may strike us as an idle negation, it may leave a person with innumerable natural pleasures, and, above all, with our natural power of happiness.

Thoreau could enjoy the sunrise without a cup of coffee. If Tolstoy cannot admire marriage, at least he is healthy enough to admire mud. Nature can be enjoyed without even the most natural luxuries. A good bush needs no wine. But neither nature nor wine nor anything else can be enjoyed if we have the wrong attitude towards happiness, and Omar did have the wrong attitude towards happiness.

He and those he has influenced do not see that if we are to be truly joyful, we must believe that there is some eternal joyfulness in the nature of things. We cannot enjoy thoroughly even a moonlight dance unless we believe that the stars are dancing to the same tune. No one can be really hilarious but the serious man, the serious woman. “Wine,” says the Scripture, “maketh glad the heart” but only of those who have a heart. The thing called high spirits is possible only to the spiritual.

Ultimately we cannot rejoice in anything except the nature of things. Ultimately we can enjoy nothing except that which invokes the divine. Once in the world’s history, men and women did believe that the stars were dancing to the tune of their temples, and they danced as people have never danced since.

However, the sage of the Rubaiyat is no more a Bacchanal than he is a saint. Dionysus and his church was grounded on a serious joie-de-vivre like that of Walt Whitman. Dionysus made wine, not a medicine, but a sacrament. Jesus Christ also made wine, not a medicine, but a sacrament. But Omar makes 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 spinning-top. Drink, because there is nothing worth trusting, nothing worth fighting for.” So he stands offering us this cup in his hand. Do not take it.

Subscribe to the Inspirational Living Podcast at iTunes & Stitcher

Inspirational Podcasts Stitcher
Subscribe Inspirational Podcast

All transcripts from our inspirational podcasts are edited adaptations of the original work and copyrighted by LivingHour.org.