Posted initially at Edible Arts
The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus not only gave his name to the enjoyment of food and wine. He thought deeply about the nature of pleasure with some lessons that we wine lovers probably ought not forget.
The highest aim in life for Epicurus was to achieve a state of mind free from disturbance, which he called ataraxia. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not think desires or the pursuit of pleasure were inherently disturbing. In fact, he thought pleasure, if pursued in the right way, is the proper path to a life of happiness and tranquility . The problem, as he saw it, was that we usually try to satisfy desires in the wrong way by following myths and superstitions generated by the society in which one lives.
Epicurus insisted that a simple meal, eaten slowly and with good friends and plenty of wine, can be enormously satisfying and a memory to treasure. But a meal undertaken in order to be seen eating at the right location and with the right people has the wrong kind of motivation because it’s not the enjoyment of the food but the maintenance of social status that is at stake. The genuine pleasures of food and friendship are buried under socially imposed expectations that can never be satisfied and are thus the source of anxiety which inhibits ataraxia. Chasing fads and trying to keep up with social expectations is an endless and fruitless task because those expectations are constantly changing and thus are a continuous source of frustration. If such a pursuit becomes a habit, one is no longer able to genuinely enjoy the true pleasures of life.
If Epicurus were alive today, he might launch a critique of certain dimensions of our wine culture. We worship wines with high scores and higher price tags which put them out of reach of most of us. Many wine lovers devote countless hours and financial resources striving to experience the latest wine trends, and the competitive nature of wine certifications and job opportunities, as well as the tendency to define social capital in terms of wine knowledge, put many wine lovers in a position of constantly striving for social recognition that seems just out of their reach.
I think Epicurus was wrong that the highest aim in life is a state of mind free of disturbance. Tranquility is fine for a couple hours but it is frankly boring beyond that. Striving for new experiences, even if they are just beyond your reach, is a lot more satisfying than contentedly gazing at cloud formations or napping at the beach.
Nevertheless Epicurus has a point. If all that striving for knowledge and recognition prevents you from enjoying the wine in front of you, that’s a problem. And, if social status anxiety is a constant irritant, your capacity to enjoy wine and its culture is severely limited.
So on Epicurus’s view is wine education really interfering with pleasure? Well, that depends.
In his analysis of pleasure, Epicurus distinguished “natural desires” from “empty desires.” Natural desires are based on the needs of the body. The desire for food or to avoid pain are natural desires. He also thought our need for friendship and social interaction is a natural desire. In addition, some desires are natural but not necessary. Eating expensive or elaborately prepared food is natural but not necessary. Epicurus (I think wrongly) recommended that we not pursue such pleasures, but if we found ourselves in such a situation we should not refrain from enjoying them.
By contrast, what he called “empty desires” should never be pursued. “Empty desires” are natural desires distorted and exaggerated by society. According to Epicurus and his followers, especially Lucretius, “empty desires” are promoted by false narratives that glorify wealth and luxury, extol the virtues of the intense, obsessive desires of love, or promote belief in the Gods and immortality. These narratives are the source of much suffering. A desire intensified by such stories can not be satisfied because the the body’s natural experience of pleasure is corrupted by delusional beliefs that strive for something we can never realize. We can never lead the perfect life of the gods, and immortality is nothing but a pipe dream. We can never have all the luxuries we are told we need and feeling inadequate because one’s social status is not high enough is an endless cycle of frustration. Someone will always be “above” you and beating yourself up over not being the best can destroy a personality. As to love, well, the beloved can never live up to the exalted expectations that love creates. Disappointment and a loss of tranquility is the inevitable outcome. Natural desires can be regained and a life of ataraxia achieved only by eliminating these false beliefs.
Putting the views of Lucretius on love aside for another day, is this natural-empty distinction a real distinction and what might that tell us about the enjoyment of wine?
Consider the genuine enjoyment of a widely recognized great wine. The enjoyment of wine is a natural desire shared by many across the globe in most cultures. The pleasure is natural, from an Epicurean perspective, in that only two factors need be involved: the wine and the aesthetic response of the person drinking it with no intervening social myths to distort the experience. Importantly, for the issue of wine education, natural desires include the use of one’s cognitive abilities in order to enhance enjoyment, so having an understanding of the wine’s origins and the significance of aromas and other qualities in light of that are not an obstacle. He generally thought that pleasures enhanced by knowledge and cognition are less likely to have painful consequences and are longer lasting because we are more likely to maintain a positive attitude toward them.
Nevertheless, that exalted wine you’re tasting may be associated with a variety of society’s expectations that might count as “empty desires.” A wine tasting or dinner party may be a place to be seen and is an opportunity to show off one’s expertise or alternatively suffer the indignity of displaying one’s ignorance. The potential for “empty desires” taking over is certainly real in these contexts. Furthermore, wine is associated with wealth and success and drinking such an exalted wine can encourage thoughts about what gaining access to such a wine says about one’s social status. The whole experience can become one in which anxiety about gaining access to such wines replaces contentment.
Of course, this does not always happen to wine lovers. It is not the fate of every wine lover to worry about their social status. But the Epicurean point is that the more the empty desires of social expectations dominates the experience, the less enjoyment the wine will provide. Our consciousness may be divided between the natural desire to enjoy the wine and the empty desire of proving our status by showing that, after all, we do know how to appreciate such a wine. Furthermore, we may in fact hardly taste the wine in other than the most superficial way because we’re so focused on demonstrating knowledge. In that case, we have lost a chance to experience one of the deepest and most long-lasting pleasures in life. To an Epicurean, for whom life is short and there is no afterlife, wasting time by pursuing empty desires is a personal failing.
Another type of empty desire common to a variety of aesthetic experiences is the desire to figure out what we are supposed to experience, in this case, what we’re supposed to taste or smell in the wine. Learning about what kinds of experiences can be expected from varietals and regions is a necessary stage in learning to taste wine. But in some circumstances it is an “empty desire” not because it is endless, but because it can become a filter that blocks the pleasure of tasting. One learns to associate certain wines with certain aromas because of previous tasting experiences or because of what wine experts tell us to expect. Taste a particular style of wine enough and ruts start to form. Be too concerned about what experts say about a wine and the mind can channel the experience into a personal test of one’s aesthetic skills. While there is nothing necessarily problematic in associating certain aromas or textures with regions or varietals, if our preconceived expectation prevents us from exploring the wine in front of us or discovering new unexpected dimensions of it, then our experience would qualify as an empty desire. A wine may offer a unique flavor profile but if we’re too concerned to discover what we expect to be there, we might miss these unique features. From an Epicurean standpoint, we need to eliminate from consciousness beliefs or expectations that filter or distort the pleasure of the wine.
This is a problem. Isn’t wine education devoted to precisely this, building a storehouse of expectations that we can use to sort through the faint and confusing aromas that wine has to offer?
Imagine we are told by various wine media what a great wine must be like and we are given to believe that if a wine does not have that form, then it has no aesthetic value. We then happen to taste an alternative style for the first time. Our perception, distorted by the wine world’s stories about what counts as great wine, is limited by the belief that this cannot be a great wine and it is not even worth trying to understand. Arguably, rosé has suffered this fate as has natural wine at least in some circles. The general point is that clichés or stereotypes about what counts as a great wine might distort our ability to experience wines that offer unusual experiences. The problem is not that cognition interrupts our ability to taste. The problem is that cognition is often laden with clichés and stereotypes that can mislead us.
That said, there is a fundamental flaw in Epicurus’s way of articulating this issue. His use of the term “natural” suggests there is some pure experience of taste we can enjoy that is independent of language or socially induced beliefs. He seemed to think the individual could somehow be thought of independently of the stories and discourse of the society in which one lives. I doubt there is such a “pure,” unsocialized experience. All of the research on human behavior suggests it is impossible to clearly separate the biological from the social and identify the relative contribution of each to any reasonably complex practice such as wine tasting.
Instead of marking the distinction between “natural desires” and “empty,” socially constructed desires, we might instead distinguish subject matter from extraneous matters. The question is whether we are taking full advantage of the pleasure made available by the object in front of us by keeping our focus on it, or are we distracted by unrealistic and delusional desires extraneous to that object. This is the insight that Epicurus and his followers had. Empty desires distract us from genuine aesthetic pleasure by substituting a form of pleasure on an unrelated subject that can’t be satisfied.
Thus, wine education has to walk a fine line between encouraging knowledge but in a way that enhances enjoyment rather than inhibiting it. I imagine anyone pursuing a Master of Wine certification continuously confronts this fine line.