A Short Philosophy of Wine

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Bacchus, by Caravaggio (c. 1595)

Wine lovers know that wine is so much more than a drink, but how to explain the love of wine to those who do not already share it?

When you uncork a bottle of mature fine wine, what you are drinking is the product of a particular culture and tradition, a particular soil and exposure, a particular climate, the weather in that year, and the love and labour and life of people who may since have died. If you know how to read it, the wine, like a book, will speak to you of all those things and more.

The wine is still changing, still evolving, so much so that no two bottles can ever be quite the same. By now, the stuff has become incredibly complex, almost ethereal. Without seeking to blaspheme, it has become something like the smell and taste of God. This moving mirror, this transdimensional distillate, will send shivers down your spine. It will make you burst into laughter. It will knock you right out of yourself, release you from the abstract and self-absorbed prison of the mind and redeliver you into the magic and mystery of the world as though you had just been reborn. Remarkably, every wine that can do this does it in its own way, meaning that there can be no end to your journey.

To get the most out of wine, you will need to sharpen your senses, and you will need to deepen your knowledge. By wine, we become more aware of our senses, and we begin to develop them, especially the neglected, almost vestigial, senses of smell and taste. By awakening our faculties, we begin to experience the world more intensely. We also begin to experience it in a different way, almost as though we were a different kind of animal. Through wine, I have learnt a great deal about geography, geology, agriculture, biology, chemistry, gastronomy, history, languages, literature, psychology, philosophy, religion… By wine, I have communed with, and actually visited, many parts of the world—and should add that wine regions, with their gardened slopes and goldilocks climates, make for the most agreeable destinations. Blind tasting has accelerated my development. It has also taught me about the methods of the mind, and, in the process, made me less bigoted, less dogmatic. On so many levels, wine offers a medium and motivation to apprehend the world. It is, ultimately, a kind of homecoming, a way of feeling at home in the world.

Wine is also an ideal vehicle for alcoholic intoxication, serving to loosen the mind and dissolve the ego. Wine brings people together, helps them be together, and be inventive together, as in the Greek symposia and Roman convivia, in which measured drinking could lead to expansive elation and creative conversation and the voicing of disruptive ideas and perspectives. Wine also played a central role in the secret rites of Greek mystery cults such as the Dionysian Mysteries and the Cult of Cybele, which aimed above all at ecstatic union with the divine—an idea that has survived to this day in the sacramental blood of Christ. Dionysus, who, like Jesus, died and was reborn, was the god of wine, regeneration, fertility, theatre, and religious ecstasy. He was an important god—no doubt, in certain periods and places, the most important—and most fervently celebrated around the time of the vernal equinox.

Let me paint a picture of a Dionysian orgy. The procession begins at sunset, led by torchbearers and followed by wine and fruit bearers, musicians, and a throng of revellers wearing masks and, well, not much else. Closing the parade is a giant phallus representing the resurrection of the twice-born god. Everyone is pushing and shoving, singing and dancing, and shouting the name of the god stirred in with ribaldry and obscenity. Having arrived at a clearing in the woods, the crowd goes wild with drinking, dancing, and every imaginable manner of sex. The god is in the wine, and to imbibe it is to be possessed by his spirit—although in the bull’s horn the booze may have been interlaced with other entheogens (substances that ‘generate the divine from within’). Animals, which stand in for the god, are hunted down, ripped apart with bare hands, and consumed raw with the blood still warm and dripping.

The Dionysian cult spread through the Greek colonies to Rome. In 186 BC, the Senate severely restricted it through the senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus (‘senatorial decree concerning the Bacchanalia’). According to the Roman historian Livy, the decree led to more executions than imprisonments, with many committing suicide to avoid indictment. Illicit Bacchanalia persisted but gradually folded into the much tamer Liberalia in honour of Liber Pater (‘Free Father’), the Roman god of wine and fertility who so resembled Bacchus/Dionysus as, eventually, to merge into him. The 4th century reign of Constantius II marked the beginning of the formal persecution of paganism by the Christian Roman Empire. But the springtime fertility orgy survived through the centuries, albeit in attenuated forms. At last, unable to suppress it, the Church integrated it into its calendar as Carnival.

The Dionysian impulse for irrationality and chaos can be understood as a natural inversion of, and release from, the habitual Apollonian order and restraint imposed by the state and state religion—and blind tasting, with its emphasis on reason and deduction, as an attempt to unite the Apollonian and Dionysian and attain to the ever receding dream of civilization. In the Birth of Tragedy (1872), the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche recognizes the Dionysian impulse as a primal and universal force:

Either through the influence of narcotic drink, of which all primitive men and peoples speak, or through the powerful coming on of spring, which drives joyfully through all of nature, that Dionysian excitement arises. As its power increases, the subjective fades into complete forgetfulness of self. In the German Middle Ages under the same power of Dionysus constantly growing hordes waltzed from place to place, singing and dancing. In that St. John’s and St. Vitus’s dancing we recognize the Bacchic chorus of the Greeks once again, and its precursors in Asia Minor, right back to Babylon and the orgiastic Sacaea.

By diverting the Dionysian impulse into special rites on special days, the orgy kept it under control, preventing it from surfacing in more insidious and perfidious ways. More than that, it transformed it into an invigorating and liberating—and, in that much, profoundly religious—celebration of life and the life force. It permitted people to escape from their artificial and restricted social roles and regress into a more authentic state of nature, which modern psychologists have associated with the Freudian id or unconscious. It appealed most to marginal groups, since it set aside the usual hierarchies of man over woman, master over slave, patrician over commoner, rich over poor, and citizen over foreigner. In short, it gave people a much-needed break—like modern holidays, but cheaper and more effective.

‘Ecstasy’ literally means ‘to be or stand outside oneself’. It is a trance-like state in which consciousness of an object is so heightened that the subject dissolves or merges into the object. Einstein called it the ‘mystic emotion’ and spoke of it as ‘the finest emotion of which we are capable’, ‘the germ of all art and true science’, and ‘the core of the true religious sentiment’. More than ever before, modern society emphasizes the sovereign supremacy of the ego and the ultimate separateness and responsibility of each and every one of us. From a young age, we are taught to remain in tight control of our ego or persona with the aim of projecting it as far out as possible. As a result, we have lost the art of letting go—and, indeed, no longer even recognize the possibility—leading to a poverty or monotony of conscious experience. Letting go can threaten the life that we have built or even the person that we have become, but it can also free us from our modern narrowness and neediness, and deliver, or re-deliver, us into a bigger and brighter world. Little children have a quiescent or merged ego, which is why they brim with joy and wonder. Youth and ecstasy are the echoes of a primordial wisdom.

Neel Burton is author of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

Concise Guide to Wine 2e

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The Myth Of Narcissus and its Meaning

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A person with narcissistic personality disorder has an extreme feeling of self-importance, a sense of entitlement, and a need to be admired. He is envious of others and expects them to be the same of him. He lacks empathy and readily lies and exploits others to achieve his aims. To others, he may seem self-absorbed, controlling, intolerant, selfish, or insensitive. If he feels obstructed or ridiculed, he can fly into a fit of destructive anger and revenge. Such a reaction is sometimes called ‘narcissistic rage’, and can have disastrous consequences for all those involved.

The myth

Narcissistic personality disorder is named for the Greek myth of Narcissus, of which there are several versions. In Ovid’s version, which is the most commonly related, the nymph Echo falls in love with Narcissus, a youth of extraordinary beauty. As a child, Narcissus had been prophesized by Teiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes, to ‘live to a ripe old age, as long as he never knows himself’.

One day, Echo followed the grown up Narcissus through the woods as he went about hunting for stags. She longed to speak to him but dared not utter the first word. Overhearing her footsteps, the youth cried out, ‘Who’s there?’ to which she responded, ‘Who’s there?’ When at last she revealed herself, she rushed out to embrace Narcissus, but he scorned her and pushed her away. Echo spent the rest of her life pining for Narcissus, and slowly withered away until there was nothing left of her but her voice.

Some time after his encounter with Echo, Narcissus went to quench his thirst at a pool of water. Seeing his own image in the water, he fell in love with it. But each time he bent down to kiss it, it seemed to disappear. Narcissus grew ever more thirsty, but would not leave or disturb the pool of water for fear of losing sight of his reflection. In the end, he died of thirst, and there, on that very spot, appeared the narcissus flower, with its bright face and bowed neck.

The meaning

What does this myth mean? On one level, it is an admonition to treat others as we would be treated, and in particular to be considerate in responding to the affections of others, which, as with Echo, are often so raw and visceral as to be existential. Poor Echo had no self and no being outside of Narcissus.

On another level, the myth is a warning against vanity and self-love. Sometimes we get so caught up in our self, in our own little ego, that we lose sight of our bigger picture and, as a result, pass over the beauty and bounty that is life. Paradoxically, by being too wrapped up in ourselves, we actually restrict our range of perception and action and, ultimately, our potential as human beings. And so in some sense, we kill ourselves, like so many ambitious people.

Our self, our ego, is nothing but an illusion, nothing more substantial than Narcissus’s reflection in the pool of water. Ultimately, Narcissus’s ego boundaries dissolve in death and he merges back into the world in the form of a flower.

Echo had not enough ego, and Narcissus far too much: the key is to find the right and dynamic equilibrium, to be secure and yet to dissociate.

Is Wine Blind Tasting a Sport?

 

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Wittgenstein famously claimed that games could not be defined. But in 1978, Bernard Suits more or less successfully defined a game as ‘a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles’.

In that much, sports resemble games. They also resemble games in that they take place outside of ‘real life’, and in that they have no tangible product: when they do have a tangible product, such as fish in angling, then this is largely incidental, and the fish are returned to the river.

There are games like scrabble or monopoly that are clearly not sports. But are all sports games, as Suits claimed? While many sports like football and golf are also games, some sports like running, skiing, and rock climbing are not so obviously games other than in that they are voluntary and unnecessary. In ordinary language, we speak of ‘playing football’ or ‘playing a round of golf’, but not of ‘playing running’ or ‘playing skiing’. But if we are running from a lion, our running is neither a game nor a sport.

Culture and politics aside, what is it that makes a sport a sport? If scrabble and monopoly are not sports, then this is surely because they do not involve any physical activity, or because physical activity is not their primary purpose and any physical activity incurred is merely secondary or incidental.

In 2015, the English Bridge Union (EBU) challenged a decision by Sport England not to recognize bridge as a sport, a decision with consequences since it would deprive bridge from government and lottery funding. The EBU lost their High Court battle on the grounds that bridge does not involve physical activity any more than, as Sport England argued, ‘sitting at home, reading a book’.

But physical activity on its own is not enough. The primary purpose of working out on a cross-trainer is physical activity, but this is classed as exercise rather than sport. What is needed for sport is not physical activity per se, but skill in the exercise of physical activity, with some athletes going so far as to test the limits of human performance.

In 2005, Sport England recognized darts as a sport, presumably because darts involves skill as well as physical activity. By that account, video gaming, although targeted at a representational world rather than the real world, might also make the cut. Chess on the other hand is probably not a sport because, although it involves some physical activity, this physical activity is not particularly skilled, and, in any case, is not the primary purpose of chess. It is perfectly possible to get someone to move our chess pieces for us and still be counted as playing chess: in that much, the physical activity associated with playing chess is not central or even secondary but merely incidental.

If I, as an amateur, decide to go skiing for a couple of days, is my skiing exercise or sport? The answer depends on my own attitude, whether I am skiing primarily to keep fit, or for the sheer thrill of pushing myself or simply being in the world: and I think that this potential for thrill, for exaltation, for a certain kind of joy—rather than just panting and sweating—is an important part of what makes a sport a sport.

Well what if I meet a friend and we race each other down the mountainside? Does this competitive dimension make my skiing more of a game and therefore more of a sport? A person who develops a certain skill, whether in skiing or in baking or in any field of human endeavour, naturally wishes to measure that skill in competition with others who also lay claim to that skill. It is this competitive aspect that makes many sports so compelling to watch, although competition is by no means essential to popular spectator sports such as gymnastics and figure skating. What’s more, a sport need not make compelling watching to be counted as a sport: angling, cricket, golf, canoeing, and weight lifting are probably not the most exciting to watch, but are nonetheless sports.

Wine blind tasting is one of my favourite pastimes. Fiercely fought competitions are popping up all around the world, and some of these competitions even have audiences. So can blind tasting be counted as a sport? Scrabble and monopoly are not sports because they do not involve any physical activity, but blind tasting clearly does involve some kind of physical activity, namely, tasting, and, as the name suggests, tasting is its primary purpose and not merely secondary or incidental. Moreover, this physical activity is highly skilled, and, in some cases, can be said to test the limits of the human body.

It might be objected that the physical activity involved in blind tasting is not locomotor but gustatory, involving not the musculoskeletal system in tandem with the cardiovascular system but ‘passive’ senses such as olfaction, taste, and touch. It might further be objected, and this is an argument that I myself have made, that the real limitation in blind tasting is not in the tasting apparatus as such but in the cognitive appraisal of the wine, and thus that blind tasting is more like chess than snooker or darts—although it must be said that snooker and darts also involve an important cognitive element. Finally, it might be added that the thrill or joy in blind tasting lies more with the cognitive aspect than the tasting aspect, although that does depend on the wine.

But unlike with chess, with blind tasting it is not possible to delegate the physical component: you cannot get someone to do the tasting for you and still be counted as blind tasting. In that much, blind tasting is more of a sport than chess, which the International Olympics Committee already recognizes as a sport.

As any athlete will attest, cognition is an important part of any sport: why create arbitrary distinctions between the primarily physical and the primarily mental, or between the musculoskeletal system and the specialized senses? Are the nose and the tongue and the brain not also part of the body? And are they not also trainable, fatiguable, fallible, mortal? Chess, bridge, and maths have their associations, players, teams, training, rules, competitions, professionals, spectators, drama, and tears—everything, in fact, but a skilled, primary physical activity. And blind tasting even has that.

Now pass me a napkin.

Neel Burton is author of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

What is the Meaning of Life?

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The question of the meaning of life is perhaps one that we would rather not ask, for fear of the answer or lack thereof.

Historically and still today, many people believe that humankind is the creation of a supernatural entity called God, that God had an intelligent purpose in creating us, and that this intelligent purpose is the ‘meaning of life’. I do not propose to go through the various arguments for and against the existence of God. But even if God exists, and even if He had an intelligent purpose in creating us, no one really knows what this purpose might be, or that it is especially meaningful. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the entropy of a closed system such as the universe increases up to the point at which equilibrium is reached, and God’s purpose in creating us, and, indeed, all of nature, might have been no more lofty or uplifting than to catalyse this process in the same way that soil organisms catalyse the decomposition of organic matter.

If our God-given purpose is to act as super-efficient heat dissipators, then having no purpose at all is better than having this sort of purpose because it frees us to be the authors of our own purpose or purposes and so to lead truly dignified and meaningful lives. In fact, having no purpose at all is better than having any kind of pre-determined purpose, even more traditional ones such as to please or serve God or improve our karma. In short, even if God exists, and even if He had an intelligent purpose in creating us (and why should He have had?), we do not know what this purpose might be, and, whatever it might be, we would rather be able to do without it, or at least to ignore or discount it. For unless we can be free to become the authors of our own purpose or purposes, our lives may have, at worst, no purpose at all, and, at best, only some unfathomable and potentially trivial purpose that is not of our own choosing.

Some might object that not to have a pre-determined purpose is, really, not to have any purpose at all. But this is to believe that for something to have a purpose, it must have been created with a purpose in mind, and, moreover, must still be serving that original purpose. Some years ago, I visited the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the South of France. One evening, I picked up a beautiful rounded stone called a galet which I later took back to Oxford and put to good use as a book-end. In the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, these stones serve to capture the heat of the sun and release it back into the cool of the night, helping the grapes to ripen. Of course, these stones were not created with this or any other purpose in mind. Even if they had been created for a purpose, it would almost certainly not have been to make great wine, serve as book-ends, or seem beautiful to passing human beings. That same evening over supper, I got my friends to blind taste a bottle of Bordeaux. To disguise the bottle, I slipped it into one of a pair of socks. Unlike the galet, the sock had been created with a clear purpose in mind, albeit one very different from (although not strictly incompatible with) the one that it had assumed on that joyful evening.

Some might yet object that talk about the meaning of life is neither here nor there because life is merely a prelude to some form of eternal afterlife and this, if you will, is its purpose. (Usually, the idea of an eternal afterlife is closely allied with that of God, but this need not necessarily be the case.) One can marshal up at least four arguments against this position. (1) It is not at all clear that there is or even can be some form of eternal afterlife that entails the survival of the personal ego. (2) Even if there were such an afterlife, living for ever is not in itself a purpose, and so the question arises, what is the actual purpose of the eternal afterlife? If the eternal afterlife has a pre-determined purpose, again, we do not know what this purpose might be, and, whatever it might be, we would rather be able to do without it. (3) Reliance on an eternal afterlife not only postpones the question of life’s purpose, but also dissuades or at least discourages us from determining purposes for what may be the only life that we do have. (4) If it is the brevity or the finiteness of human life that gives it shape and purpose (not something that I personally believe), then an eternal afterlife cannot, in and by itself, have any purpose.

So whether or not God exists, whether or not He gave us a purpose, and whether or not there is an eternal afterlife, we should strive to create our own purpose or purposes. To put it in Sartrean terms, whereas for the galet it is true only that existence precedes essence, for the sock it is true both that essence precedes existence (when the sock is used on a human foot) and that existence precedes essence (when the sock is used for an unintended purpose, for example, as a bottle sleeve). We are either like the rock or the sock, but whichever we are, we are better off creating our own purpose or purposes.

Plato once defined man as an animal, biped, featherless, and with broad nails; but another, much better, definition that he gave was simply this: ‘A being in search of meaning.’

Human life may not have been created with any pre-determined purpose, but this need not mean that it cannot have a purpose, nor that this purpose cannot be just as good as, if not much better than, any pre-determined one. And so the meaning of life, of our life, is that which we choose to give it.

Ebook Giveaway

Note: Owing to certain restrictions, this giveaway is open to US residents only.

Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions

Today more than ever, the education doled out in classrooms is cold and cognitive. But, once outside, it is our uneducated emotions that move us, hold us back, and lead us astray. It is, at first and at last, our emotions that determine our choice of profession, partner, and politics, and our relation to money, sex, and religion. Nothing can make us feel more alive, or more human, than our emotions, or hurt us more. Yet many people lumber through life without giving full consideration to their emotions, partly because our empirical, materialistic culture does not encourage it or even make it seem possible, and partly because it requires unusual strength to gaze into the abyss of our deepest drives, needs, and fears. This book proposes to do just that, examining over 25 emotions ranging from lust to love and humility to humiliation, and drawing some useful and surprising conclusions along the way.

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Heaven and Hell by Neel Burton

Heaven and Hell

by Neel Burton

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Reviews

Burton is never short of an interesting and sharp judgment. —Prof Peter Toohey, Psychology Today

Each of us spends maybe 15 years or more in formal education. We are taught mathematics, chemistry, geography, history, and so on, but at no point are we taught anything about the emotions. ‘Heaven and Hell’ helps to redress the balance by educating our emotions… The book reminds us of the power and significance of our emotions, and that their influence is all-too-often overlooked. Each of the 29 chapters focuses on a particular emotion and discusses its origin, historical aspects and philosophy. The impact of each emotion, both negative and positive, is then addressed. Essentially, in relatively few pages, the reader’s existing perception of an emotion is challenged as he or she develops further insight and understanding. The book does what it sets out to do: it makes you stop and think… ‘Heaven and Hell’ focuses on a subject that is relevant to all. It enables and encourages us to think differently and challenges our understanding of emotions we experience but do not really think about… a fascinating read. —British Medical Association Book Awards

My New Book on Marriage

If you marry, you will regret it;
If you do not marry, you will also regret it…
This is the sum and substance of all philosophy.
— Søren Kierkegaard

For Better For Worse-Should I Get Married? 1

For Better For Worse examines the institution of marriage in history and contemporary culture, along with kin concepts such as romantic love, sexuality, and family. Drawing upon several fields of inquiry, it sets out as neither pro- nor anti-marriage, but seeks instead to investigate an institution that has long been at the centre of society, and that we tend to take for granted despite its defining impact on almost all aspects of our lives. Whether or not to tie, untie, or retie the knot is a question that we each have to answer for ourselves, and this book aims no higher than to frame and inform our deliberation.

See the full contents list and pre-order the book:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

UK and ebook publication date: 1 October 2017

Love, Sex and Marriage in the Bible

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It may come as a surprise that there is quite a lot of polygamy in the Bible. Some of the better-known polygamists, each with several wives or concubines, include Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Esau, Moses, David, and Solomon. That said, biblical polygamy usually had a bitter ending. According to the Book of Kings, Solomon had ‘seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines’, but ‘his wives turned away his heart’. ‘For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the Lord his God…’ (1 Kings 11:3-4).

Incest, bestiality, and prostitution

The Bible also features a fair bit of incest. Lot’s daughters both became pregnant by inebriating their father and raping him (Genesis 19:30). Ham ‘saw the nakedness’ of his father Noah. When Noah ‘awoke from his wine’, he ‘knew what his younger son had done unto him’ (Genesis 9:22,24). Tamar dressed up as a harlot and had sex with her unsuspecting father-in-law Judah in exchange for a goat. ‘And it came to pass about three months after, that it was told Judah, saying, Tamar thy daughter in law hath played the harlot; and also, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burnt (Genesis 38:34).’

Leviticus prohibits incest: ‘None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin to him, to uncover their nakedness… (18:6).’ It also prohibits bestiality: ‘Neither shalt thou lie with any beast to defile thyself therewith: neither shall any woman stand before a beast to lie down thereto: it is confusion (18:23).’ Deuteronomy condemns prostitution: ‘There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel, nor a sodomite of the sons of Israel (Deuteronomy 23:17).’ St Paul also condemns prostitution: ‘Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot? God forbid (1 Corinthians 6:15).’

Monogamy

The idea of exclusive monogamy goes right back to Adam and Eve. In Genesis 1, God seems to have created man and woman at the same time: ‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.’ After blessing them, the first thing God tells them is to ‘be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth’. However, Genesis 2 finds Adam alone in Eden. God says that ‘it is not good that the man should be alone’, and creates Eve from one of Adam’s ribs. Adam seems to consider Eve as another self: ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh… Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.’ This pronouncement implies marriage and monogamy as the norm for man. Much later, the Apostle Paul advised that a bishop ‘must be blameless, the husband of one wife… (Timothy 3:2)’. The serpent that draws Eve, and through Eve Adam, to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is seductive, and phallic in form, and may represent sexual temptation or adultery. To punish Eve, God curses her to the pangs of childbirth, and to marital subservience. He clothes Adam and Eve in skins and tosses them out of Eden.

Romantic love

The concept of romantic love, which is, in fact, fairly modern, barely exists in the Bible. All love is directed at God, and the love for the spouse and more generally for the other is subsumed under the love of God. In the Binding of Isaac, Abraham’s love for God trumps his love for Isaac his own son, whom he is willing to sacrifice for no other reason than that God commands it.

Today, the most popular reading for weddings is Chapter 13 of St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Here is a quick run-through:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way: it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things … When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways … And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.

The problem in this context is that Paul is not referring to bleary-eyed romantic love, but to Christian love for our fellow men. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which is the source of the passage, gives the Greek agape as ‘love’, but the King James Bible prefers to render it as ‘charity’: ‘And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.’ Faith, hope, and charity are called the three theological virtues—‘theological’ because they are born out of the grace of God, and because they have God for their object. Charity in particular is the love of man for God, and through God, for his fellow men.

Even the Song of Songs (the Song of Solomon), which appears to celebrate sexual love, is read by the Jewish tradition as an allegory of the relationship between God and Israel, and by the Christian tradition as an allegory of the relationship between Christ and his ‘bride’, the Christian Church. ‘I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys. As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters. As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste (Solomon 2:1-3).’

David and Jonathan

So it is perhaps not entirely surprising that the two greatest love stories in the Bible are not of husband and wife, nor even man and woman, but of man and man, and woman and woman. David rivalled Jonathan, son of King Saul, for the throne of Israel. After slaying Goliath, he appeared before Saul with Goliath’s head in his hand: ‘And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul … And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his garments, even to his sword, and to his bow, and to his girdle’ (1 Samuel 18).’ Much later, upon learning of Jonathan’s death on Mount Gilboa, David lamented: ‘I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women (2 Samuel 1:26).’ One evening, Saul rebuked Jonathan for favouring David over his own father and family: “Thou son of the perverse rebellious woman, do not I know that thou hast chosen the son of Jesse to thine own confusion, and unto the confusion of thy mother’s nakedness?” David and Jonathan both had wives and children, and we are to believe that the love between them was homosocial rather than homosexual.

Ruth and Naomi

In the Book of Ruth, Naomi is married to Elimelech. A famine leads them and their two sons to move from Bethlehem to Moab. In time, Elimelech dies, as do their two sons, leaving Naomi and her two daughters-in-law destitute. Naomi returns to Bethlehem, entreating her daughters-in-law, who are Moabites and thus from a different ethnic group, not to follow in her barren footsteps. But Ruth insists upon following her, telling her: ‘Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried…’ This sounds more like a marriage vow than anything else. When the pair arrive in Bethlehem, Naomi tells the Bethlehemites: Do not call me Naomi, call me Mara (‘Bitter’), for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.’ Ruth takes to gleaning in the barley fields of Boaz, who it transpires, is a kinsman of Elimelech, Naomi’s late husband. With Naomi’s encouragement, Ruth marries Boaz, who bears Ruth a son, Obed. Interestingly, it is as if Obed is the son of Naomi: ‘And the women said unto Naomi, Blessed be the Lord, which hath not left thee this day without a kinsman, that his name may be famous in Israel. And he shall be unto thee a restorer of thy life, and a nourisher of thine old age, for thy daughter in law, which loveth thee, which is better to thee than seven sons, hath born him. And Naomi took the child, and laid it in her bosom, and became nurse unto it. And the women her neighbours gave it a name, saying, There is a son born to Naomi…’ For the genealogy, Obed was the father of Jesse, and through Jesse, the grandfather of David.

Celibacy

Is married life better than celibacy? Jesus did not marry, and neither did Paul or most of the Prophets. Paul clearly favours celibacy and chastity, but accepts that most people ‘cannot abide even as I’ and that ‘it is better to marry than to burn’:

It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband … But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment. For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn … He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife.

While Paul permits (but does not command) marriage, Solomon, the apocryphal author of Ecclesiastes, seems—despite, or because of, his 700 wives—to warn against it, as well as against lust, on the grounds that they detract from the path to God:

I applied mine heart to know, and to search, and to seek out wisdom, and the reason of things, and to know the wickedness of folly, even of foolishness and madness: And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands: whoso pleaseth God shall escape her; but the sinner shall be taken by her.

The early Church Fathers took their cue from Solomon and especially Paul in favouring the freedom of celibacy over the bondage of marriage and family. Noting that angels are single, St John Chrysostom argued that celibacy surpasses marriage inasmuch as angels surpass men (Homily 19 on First Corinthians). Writing in the third century, St Cyprian maintained that, although God had commanded Adam and Eve to multiply, the earth, by now, was full (Of the Discipline and Advantage of Chastity).

Arranged marriages

From the Old Testament, it seems that marriages could be arranged, and that the virginity of the bride was paramount. In Genesis 24, Abraham makes his eldest servant swear to pick a wife for his son, not from the Canaanites but from his own kin. According to Deuteronomy, if a newly wed is found not to have been a virgin, she should be stoned to death in front of the door to her father’s house ‘because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father’s house (22:21).’

Gender and marital subservience

Once married, should a wife be subservient to her husband? Used by God to introduce Eve in Genesis 2:18, the word ‘help’, ‘helper’, ‘helpmeet’, or ‘helpmate’, though possibly a mistranslation, suggests that Eve’s subservience predated the fall and God’s curse of marital subservience. According to St Peter, Sara obeyed her husband Abraham, ‘calling him lord’ (Peter 3:6). In Ephesians, St Paul compares marriage to the relation between Christ and the Church: ‘Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church … Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing (5:22-24).’ In Corinthians, he establishes a clear chain of authority: ‘But I would have you know that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God (1 Corinthians 11:3).’

In the Middle Ages, the word ‘obey’ was introduced into marriage vows, but, even so, a wife’s subservience to her husband is not understood to be unconditional. In Galatians, St Paul says that faith levels the field: ‘But after the faith is come… There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:25,28). In his 1880 encyclical Arcanum, Pope Leo XIII states that ‘The woman… must be subject to her husband and obey him; not indeed, as a servant, but as a companion, so that her obedience shall be wanting in neither honour nor dignity.’

Recreational sex

Is recreational sex permissible within marriage? Certainly, lust should not form the basis of a marriage (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5). But once married, sex should not be withheld: ‘Let thy fountain be blessed: and rejoice with the wife of thy youth. Let her be as the loving hind and pleasant roe; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; and be thou ravished always with her love (Proverbs 5:18-19).’ St Paul seems to agree, albeit it with less grace and poetry: ‘Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband. The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband; and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife (1 Corinthians 7:3-4).’

Levirate marriage, contraception, and masturbation

The practice of levirate marriage is set out in Deuteronomy 25:5-6. A childless widow should not re-marry with a stranger, but with her late husband’s brother; and their firstborn son will succeed in the name and estate of the late husband. This could concern the brother-in-law, who, by fathering a son in his brother’s line, would be creating a claimant on the larger part of his inheritance. When God killed Er, Er’s father Judah told his second son Onan to marry Er’s widow Tamar and ‘raise up seed’ to his brother. But when he lied with Tamar, Onan, who ‘knew that the seed should not be his’, spilled his semen on the ground: ‘And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also (Genesis 38:10).’ This episode is largely responsible for the ban on contraception and masturbation.

Adultery

Adultery is forbidden in several places. It is, of course, the subject of one of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. David famously lusted after the bathing Bathsheba and impregnated her, leading, ultimately, to the death of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah the Hittite, the death of Bathsheba’s first child by David, and the revolt of David’s son Absalom. St Paul inveighs against adultery in more than one place, and St Matthew goes so far as to equate it with a lustful thought: ‘But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart (Matthew 5:28).’ According to Deuteronomy, an illegitimate child and his descendants cannot be admitted into the Church: ‘A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 23:2).’

Divorce

In Old Testament times, a husband could easily divorce his wife (Deuteronomy 24). Jesus, however, forbids it: ‘But I say unto you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication (Gk. porneia), causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery (Matthew 5:32, and echoed in Mark and Luke). Jesus refers back to Genesis 1 and 2 when discussing the indissolubility of marriage: ‘Have ye not read, that He which made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, for this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder (Matthew 19:4-6).’ By referring back to Genesis 1, Jesus may be implying that marriage ought to be between a man and a woman. Jesus performed his first public miracle at the marriage at Cana, saving the day by turning water into wine. This story has been upheld as evidence that he supported marriage, and also as an argument against teetotalism! St Paul commands: ‘Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).

Homosexuality

Marriage and sex are strictly between a man and woman. Leviticus clearly condemns homosexual acts, as well as touching pork, eating shellfish, and getting a tattoo or a round haircut: ‘Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination (Leviticus 18:22).’ The punishment is harsh: ‘they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them (Leviticus 20:13).’ St Paul seems to echo Leviticus in condemning the ‘abusers of themselves with mankind’ and the ‘soft’ or ‘effeminate’ (1 Corinthians 6:9), and again ‘them that defile themselves with mankind (1 Timothy 1:10)—although, given the original Greek, it could be that he is simply condemning male prostitution.

What of Sodom, destroyed by fire and brimstone? In Genesis 19, Lot gives shelter to two beautiful angels. The Sodomites threaten to force themselves upon Lot’s guests, and such is Lot’s idea of hospitality that he offers up his daughters instead: ‘Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof (Genesis 19:9).’ It is not clear whether the sin of Sodom was homosexual rape, lack of hospitality, or both or other.

The only reference to same-sex love between women is in St Paul’s First Letter to the Romans. To punish the people for their idolatry, ‘God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural (physikos, ‘produced by nature’) use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly… (Romans 1:26-28).’ It could be that, rather than homosexual acts per se, St Paul is in fact condemning the prostitution and pederasty of the Romans, or the pagan practice of priests and priestesses prostituting themselves out of their temples, or simply those people who go against their nature, that is, against their heterosexual orientation.

Despite David and Jonathan, and Ruth and Naomi, the concept of homosexuality as a sexual orientation is relatively recent. The only possible mention of homosexuality as a sexual orientation is in Matthew 19:12, when Jesus speaks of ‘eunuchs which were so born from their mother’s womb’.

Closing remarks

Many traditional attitudes have come down from the Bible. But the Bible is not only or even primarily an instruction manual. It is not a unified work. It often contradicts itself. It lends itself to interpretation. It is open to misinterpretation. Choices made in style and translation can reflect the biases of the translator. Still, for better or worse, no single book has exerted a greater influence on the way we live and think.

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