What is a drunkard?

Raffaello Tesi

Consider a person, pour in five or six litres of beer, and you will get a drunkard,” Schopenhauer used to say to the students on his course Pessimism at the University of Jena. It was a phrase that the Master often used to say, and every time his students wondered whether their teacher was very deep or very drunk.beer

Actually, Schopenhauer wanted to say that any of us is a potential drunkard. Naturally, being drunk himself, he needed a comparison with the beer to give an idea of drunkenness. If he had been sober, he would have used different words, and he would not have lain down on the desk.

As a matter of fact, the philosopher used to wonder, what is a drunkard? I guess some of you have already been puzzled about that question. Obviously a drunkard is not one who drinks. All of us drink. Neither is he one who drinks a lot. Camels drink a lot, but I have never seen one being thrown out of a pub.camel

Schopenhauer, for example, used to give the following definition of a drunkard: “A drunkard is that person who, after drinking a lot of wine, beer, or alcoholic drinks, sees, at the end of the night, two barmen behind the counter.” Actually, that is an erroneous definition, as Hobbes pointed him out. What if, for example, a barman and a barmaid are serving behind the counter, do all the customers of the pub have to be considered drunk? Obviously not. Thus, according to Hobbes the exact definition is: “A drunkard is a person who, after drinking a lot of wine, beer and treacle, sees, at the end of the night, twice the barmen he saw earlier.”

Apart from the fact that Hobbes, as you all have noticed, uses the word ‘treacle’ instead of ‘alcoholic drinks’, that is not ontologically correct, as it corresponds to a subjective taste, and it is hard to see how this definition can be considered correct. “As a matter of fact,” Shopenhauer criticizes, “the theory of the double is absurd. Let us consider that at the beginning, when the becoming drunk starts to drink, there is only one barman serving at the counter, while the barmaid is sweeping the back of the pub. At the end of the evening the drunkard will not see a barman plus a barman: but two barmen and two barmaids, that is four times the starting number. Furthermore, if one goes to the pub to have fun, he cannot really spend his time counting the number of barmen to realize whether he is drunk or not.”

The Schopenhauer’s critique is very fierce, certainly, but in re ipsa unacceptable, at least up to this point.

barman“Hobbes,” Schopenhauer continues, “may go on in his vain search for a mathematical definition of the essence of drunkenness. But, as a matter of fact, he is a treacle drinker, and hence he should restrict himself to talking about children’s books. However, if a definition of a drunkard may be attempted, I would suggest the following: “A drunkard is a person who, after drinking a lot of wine, or beer, or fernet, or alcoholic drinks, cannot stand on one leg with his arms wide open, and walk on an imaginary straight line.” An unshakeable definition, although containing some weaknesses. And that did not escape Hobbes, who also used to say that ‘in love and philosophy anything is allowed’, as his schoolgirls well knew. He attacked Schopenhauer’s construction with the heavy blow of his dialectic. He firstly pointed out the presence of the word ‘fernet’ fernetin the Master’s speech. “Obviously,” Hobbes wrote, “in the room where Schopenhauer is nowadays locked up, he has found a bottle of fernet, which has seriously deviated his methodological perspective; as a matter of fact his last definition is a masterpiece of formality, lacking any matter. Let us consider the fact of ‘standing on one leg with arms wide open’. It is obvious that really few civilized persons have ever been in such a position. And yet I don’t think they should be considered drunk. Neither the Pope, I believe, could stand on one leg and with arms wide open. Is Schopenhauer insinuating some anticlericalism? And hence, how do have we to think this principle should work? Should one get in a pub jumping on one leg, just to prove he is sober? And he will be as such as long as he is able to stay in that position? And if he puts the other foot on the ground, will he be then considered drunk? And how would he be supposed to drink if he has to stay with his arms wide open? If Schopenhauer answers these questions, I shall give him a bottle of brandy as a present. Furthermore, what does “imaginary straight line” mean? Obviously, if we give give room to imagination, the scientific rigour goes to hell. And what if I cannot imagine a straight line, but only naked girls? And, even assuming I can imagine it, who will tell me that it is straight, and fantasy has not played funny tricks on me, so that I am spending the whole night walking around a circumference? I believe, although ruthless, I have made myself clear.

“I propose then the following last definition, which I consider perfect: ‘A drunkard is one who, after drinking a lot of wine, or beer, or treacle, gets out of the self‘.”

Short, enlightening definition, which nevertheless may not entirely satisfy a superior mind. “As a matter of fact”, Schopehauer wrote, “it seems we are getting ridiculous. The phrase ‘gets out of the self’ is a masterpiece of stupidity. Gets out of the self? And where does he go? And if he gets out of the self, does he leave all that he drank inside? But then he is not drunk anymore. And if he takes all that he drank with him, what will the first self say? And the barman, who is going to ask to pay the bill? To the new self, the old abandoned self, or both? I hope that is not an excuse to drink for free behind workers’ back.

drinks“However, I grant a last chance for this discussion. Not for Hobbes, who is too busy in his philosophical talks, but for all who care about the civil dialectic dispute. I will say then that ‘a drunkard is a person who has drunk really, but really really a lot of wine, beer and alcoholic drinks‘.”

I think that the Master’s definition doesn’t need to be commented on. This time, even Hobbes agreed and paid for a drink.

Translated by Raffaello Tesi (2004) from the book
Bar Sport” by Stefano Benni, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 1979.

Last update 2012. Thanks to Ros Cooper for the proofreading.