Roger Sruton and the spirituality of addiction

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Roger Sruton and the spirituality of addiction

Sean Walsh discusses Scruton, Wine, Philosophy, Addiction and Recovery.

We are told that we should “drink responsibly”. What does that mean? And where’s the fun in acquiescing in such an obligation?

Our Nanny Government, having shuffled its feet for a few minutes, will tend to look for reasons to invade our lives. Drink responsibly? Is that the same as “drink well”? Of course not. By “drink responsibly” the Nanny wants to control our social habits in conformity with a drab calculus of health. If you drink more than 23 you are “in danger”. If fewer then you are “within guidelines” – as if this science will ever be settled. Or as if it even matters.

To drink “responsibly” has very little to do with how much you drink but in how you drink.  Not just in terms of moderation but in recognition that from the high anthropology of Plato’s Symposium  to the equally high conundrum of the Eucharist there is a social and philosophical function served by alcohol. Drinking “responsibly” means, doesn’t it, that you recognise that there is more to it than the mere act of drinking? That there is a spiritual dimension too?

And if there is a metaphysics of drinking then must there not also be a metaphysics of addiction? If proper drinking is a spiritual exercise, then is it not plausible that addiction is a disease of the spirit?

We in AA think that it is indeed plausible.

Here’s an intriguing hypothetical: if you happened to find yourself in company with one of the great philosophers which wine would you choose? Obviously, the wine would vary with the philosopher.

As is the way of things Roger Scruton has offered us a way out of this perplexity. Given that we will only meet these philosophers in the best versions of themselves (i.e. in their writings) it follows that we must get the etiquette right. And in the appendix to his book on the philosophy of wine, I Drink Therefore I Am, Sir Roger navigates a way through the maze of manners.

What’s that you say? A philosophy book, about wine? Well why not?  As mentioned above, there is a deep and rich theological tradition on that subject and- anyway- just as the good Catholic sees the world in terms of sacramentality so the good philosopher recuperates from the everyday and trivial the eternal and transcendent. And Sir Roger is a pretty decent philosopher.

But if there is a philosophy of wine there must be a philosophy of its consequence in the form of addiction. Which philosopher can help us here?

I remember hearing Scruton once make the point that there is nothing more depressing than getting drunk with an optimist. Which would make the Danish existentialist Soren Kierkegaard an eminently safe person to drink with. Kierkegaard was never optimistic. He died a hypochondriac at the age of 42 (which kind of implies he wasn’t a hypochondriac at all) having written more books than most of us have read.

Kierkegaard’s most famous insight goes something like this: that life is lived forwards but understood backwards. He recognised that existence discloses a certain absurdity and that the way to counter that absurdity is to embrace it, and not to explain it. Live, live, live and let the person doing the living emerge from the lived choices. His 20th century admirer, Jean-Paul Sartre, put the same point thus: that existence precedes essence. We are not, on this view, persons who make choices but become persons through our choices.

Is that a genuine insight about what the gift of life is? Or is it a refusal to accept the gift?

I know many, many people who would agree with a part of Kierkegaard here. Recovery from addiction is an activity. It is a job of work. You want to embrace the absurdity of that police cell? Of that breakup? Of that child removed from your inadequate custody and integrated into the machine state? Then, you must work a recovery programme, not merely “understand it backwards”. And it is in those wonderful reconciliations that you can (if ever thus privileged) come to know the intrinsic joy of an AA meeting in which someone is getting well.

But in recovery we don’t live our life backwards except in one sense (I’ll come to that in a minute). To live in active addiction is to live with a disease but one with a peculiar form: to get over the disease you must take responsibility for having it. The alcoholic is not well but to get well we are forced on a day to day basis to confront past, present and future responsibilities. Calling our condition, a “disease” is not a cop out but a “call to arms”: a recognition that today you can get well if today you do the next right thing. If that seems counter-intuitive then all “solutions” to the free will issue ultimately devolve to paradox.

Kierkegaard is right that life is best understood backwards. But the member of the AA fellowship who “works the programme” sees that every day we are gifted is a distillation of a lifetime. And every day we are gifted we can, as head hits pillow, live “backwards”.

And then… forwards.

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  • Sean Walsh
    Sean Walsh
    Sean Walsh is a former university teacher of philosophy. He has a doctorate in the philosophy of artificial intelligence and his current research interests are in the philosophy of mind, metaphysics and the philosophy of religion. He is also interested in philosophical issues around addiction. He lives in Wiltshire and works with addiction and recovery agencies, and with a homeless charity. He runs a lot.
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