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.

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