The History of Wine and Existentialism

Wine and existential philosophy have walked hand in hand through the ages, often inspired by the same cultural zeitgeists and influences. By examining key phases in Western thought side-by-side with developments in the wine world, we can trace their intertwined evolution.

Just as the trajectory of existential thinking reflects changing views on human purpose and meaning, the story of wine mirrors society’s changing relationship to nature, industry, and pleasure. Let us explore how wine has nourished existential ideas across history.

Ancient Roots of Wine and Existentialism

Wine’s origins intermix with religious speculation on life’s mysteries. The early wine deity Dionysus links to rituals probing the chaotic, irrational parts of existence. Wine’s mystique came from its seemingly spontaneous creation from grape juice.

In Ancient Greece, where wine permeated culture, early thinkers asked what constitutes the ‘good life’. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle debated virtue, wisdom, purpose and the soul. Wine fueled symposia discussing existence’s extremes of folly and brilliance.

Wine signified civilization tamed from wildness. But also the danger of individual excess and unreason. This duality resonated with philosophical explorations of logic and emotion, order and ecstasy coexisting.

Wine Goes Monastic

After Rome’s fall, winemaking shifts to monasteries. Christian thought focused less on this world than eternal salvation. Wine nourished the body on earth but also represented Christ’s blood and the soul’s nourishment.

Saint Augustine saw a “plentitude of both kinds of happiness – terrestrial and celestial” in good wine drunk in moderation. Wine in medieval philosophy sustained spiritually and physically.

The balancing of Vice and Virtue in wine mirrors debates around will, sin and God’s grace. Wine’s wavering between sensuality and sanctity parallels faith’s contradictions examined by medieval theologians.

Wine Rationalized

The Renaissance exalted human reason and science over faith. Wine became an expression of rational ordering more than divine mystery, now created in elaborately designed vineyards and purpose-built cellars.

In his utopic New Atlantis, Francis Bacon imagined a society centered around experimentation and expanding knowledge. Wine was studied empirically alongside other natural phenomena to demystify its workings.

Descartes’ radical skepticism aimed to render everything logically explicable, even the seat of consciousness and subjective experience. Wine was examined as a material substance obeying the laws of nature. No more mystical transformations.

Wine and Emotion

The Romantic era rediscovers intense emotion, awe of nature, and imagination. Philosophy recognizes the limits of reason alone in plumbing life’s depths. Wine gets celebrated anew as a creative muse.

19th-century poets like Baudelaire and Keats extol wine’s dreamlike intoxication, transcending reasoned thought. Vineyards represent man and nature’s partnership. Wine as nourishment becomes secondary to its psychological effects.

Søren Kierkegaard insists on passion’s necessity and subjectivity as truth. He concludes: “The gods of Greece and Rome are now dead…but Dionysos still lives.” Wine channels existence’s irrationality.

From Terroir to Absurdity

Post-WWI, existentialism explodes as thinkers grapple with meaning-seeking after profound trauma. Wine’s focus shifts to terroir – the web of place, culture, and time intertwined. Both realms turn inward.

For Martin Heidegger, meaning comes not from abstract theorizing but from concrete human existence always rooted in particular soil, language, tools, and heritage. Wine’s territorially expressive character aligns with his focus on groundedness.

Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus concludes human life is inherently absurd and meaningless. Life on earth “is both intoxicating and nauseating.” Wine’s contradictory ability to both satisfy and sicken mirrors the absurd condition.

Wine and Freedom

By mid-century, technology and capitalism changed wine. Stainless steel tanks and international grapes reflect efficiency, global markets, and consumerism, which Jean-Paul Sartre critiques as inauthentic and conformity-inducing.

In Being & Nothingness, Sartre insists humans define themselves through free choice, not prescribed roles. Wine similarly pursues originality – rebel winemakers reject conventions, customize techniques, and ignore hierarchies of taste.

Roland Barthes’ Mythologies decodes the constructed, constantly shifting mythology surrounding wine. Neither wine nor human nature have intrinsic essences. Meaning comes from how we subjectively interpret signs, symbols, and places. Wine inhabits culture.

The Existential Now

Today philosophy focuses less on unifying theories than on the diversity of individual, marginalized experiences. Wine similarly fragments into niche styles and experimental production.

Identity, seen as fluid, not fixed, pairs well with the myriad of customized wine options. Subjective tastes rule. Just as life has no single meaning, neither does wine.

With climate change and technology-accelerated life, wine and philosophy both inhabit an anxious present. Wine relishes experimentation without knowing the future. Philosophy explores meaning in uncertain times.

But wine still provides moments of wonder, joy, and reflection. Like existentialism’s resolve in the face of absurdity and absurdity in the face of resolve. The journey continues, glass in hand.

This simplified tour through centuries of thought illustrates wine and existentialism’s frequent fellow-traveling. Though we can only scratch the surface here, the signposts are laid for further connections in this endlessly rich territory where philosophy and wine inform and inspire each other.

Extensionalism Philosopher: Friedrich Nietzsche

Extensionalism Philosopher: Friedrich Nietzsche

Did you know? Existentialist wine culture was not just about exploring existential themes in literature and art, but also about the culture that surrounded wine. Existentialists were known to gather for wine parties, where they would discuss philosophy, literature, and the human condition. These gatherings were seen as a way to connect with like-minded individuals and to experience the existentialist philosophy of individual freedom and choice.

Want to read more? Try these books!

Lolita Existentialism and Human Emotion (A Philosophical Library Book)

Categories: Philosophy & Literature, This Day in Wine History | ArticlesBy Published On: September 1, 2023Last Updated: February 29, 2024

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