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Monty Python's 'Philosophers Song'

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Monty Python artwork by Terry Gilliam of a man in an armchair with eyes popping out of his head.

Warning: This Entry contains mild swear words and vulgar expressions for drunkenness and drunkards.

The Monty Python team, being a bunch of Oxbridge graduates (Michael Palin and Terry Jones from Oxford; Eric Idle, John Cleese and Graham Chapman, Cambridge), tended to have a cerebral aspect in some of their humour. This Eric Idle song is one of the prime examples of this. The Pythons have said that a thesaurus helped to write the song, as with the 'Dead Parrot Sketch'. In the case of the greatest thinkers of history, they were trying to get as many variations of an inebriated state into one song.

This original 'Bruces' sketch appeared in the second series of Monty Python's Flying Circus and was first aired on 24 November, 1970. The song was later added to the stage shows and appeared on the Matching Tie and Handkerchief album.

The choice of philosophers was not totally random. Many of them had said something regarding the nature of drunkenness or alluded to it in their work.

The Philosophers

Immanuel Kant (1724 - 1804)

Immanuel Kant was a real piss ant
Who was very rarely stable

Immanuel Kant is most famous for effecting a Copernican revolution in philosophy. He was born in the East Prussian (now Germany) town of Königsberg and lived, studied and taught there, never venturing further than 50 miles from home.

Kant was actually renowned for being an advocate of teetotalism. He was especially concerned about the affect of alcohol on women, saying they should avoid drunkenness because their privileged place in society was ensured only if they adhered to a higher moral code of behaviour than men.

As for the scurrilous remark that Kant was rarely stable, his writings endeavoured to remove the scepticism of shallow talk and thus ensure social stability.

Martin Heidegger (1889 - 1976)

Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
Who could think you under the table

The German Martin Heidegger is unique in this Python song for being the only living (then) person referred to. He asked his Ultimate Question but also wrote in Being and Drinking:

But idle drinking does not occur as a condition which is present-at-hand in something present-at-hand: idle drinking has been uprooted existentially, and this uprooting is constant. This means that when the Drinker maintains himself in idle drinking, he is, as Being-in-the-world, cut off from his primary and primordially genuine relationships towards the World. Such a Drinker keeps floating unattached...

He was partial to pints of German ale when not thinking for a living and, as the above quote shows, seems to have had some personal experience of a drunken stupor.

David Hume (1711 - 1776)

David Hume could out-consume
Schopenhauer and Hegel

The Scot David Hume said:

Reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

If so, surely one of man's passions is for enjoyment. One of the ways man enjoys himself is through drink, and to be a slave to that passion will result in the occasional night of drunkenness. Indeed, whilst staying in Paris, Hume said:

I really wish often for the plain roughness of The Poker Club of Edinburgh... to correct and qualify so much lusciousness.

So, quite plainly such a club would involve drink of various types and, no doubt, bachelor Hume partook.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 - 1860)

Arthur Schopenhauer is yet another of the Germans that dominate this roll-call. He wrote in Psychological Observations:

Man, on the other hand, by his silly dress becomes a monster; his very appearance is objectionable, enhanced by the unnatural paleness of his complexion - the nauseating effect of his eating meat, of his drinking alcohol, his smoking, dissoluteness, and ailments. He stands out as a blot on Nature. And it was because the Greeks were conscious of this that they restricted themselves as far as possible in the matter of dress.

This suggests that the dress sense of the Greeks prevented them from heading to the other issues that resulted. However, he clearly has close knowledge of the effects of overindulgence, whether in person or from observation.

Georg Hegel (1770 - 1831)

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was one of the founding thinkers of German idealism. He observed that good wine years coincided with the appearance of comets:

I've made Mr Bode sigh, when I said to him, the experience shows us now that on the sight of comets we get good wine years, as in the years of 18111 and 18192, and this double experience is as good, or even better, than the one on the return of the comets3.

So, clearly, he must have been a connoisseur of the fermented grape in order to recognise the subtle differences.

There is a Bar Hegel in Berlin which serves Hegel's Todestrunk (Hegel's Death Drink). However, as Hegel died during a cholera epidemic, it is unlikely his death was caused by drinking an alcoholic concoction.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 - 1951)

And Wittgenstein was a beery swine

Austrian-British thinker Ludwig Wittgenstein, while not commenting directly on drink or drunkenness, did say:

If people never did silly things nothing intelligent would ever get done.

With drink being one of the silly things that many of us partake of, often coming up with, if not necessarily remembering, some intelligent thought must surely fit this reference.

Friedrich von Schlegel (1771 - 1829)

Who was just as schloshed as Schlegel

Hanover-born Schegel was largely a literary student. However, at the end of his life he did publish two philosophical works: Philosophie des Lebens (Philosophy of Life) (1828) and Philosophie der Geschichte (Philosophy of History) (1829). He did write:

There are writers in Germany who drink the Absolute like water; and there are books in which even the dogs make references to the Infinite.

In modern parlance, this could of course refer to a brand of Vodka. But at the time it is assumed to have meant getting drunk on the absolute led to their writings getting too carried away.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 - 1900)

There's nothing Nietzsche couldn't teach ya' Bout the raising of the wrist

Friedrich Nietzsche was yet another German philosopher who wrote critiques on religion, morality, contemporary culture, philosophy and science. His influence is great, especially in the philosophical realms of existentialism and postmodernism. He referred to:

Two great European narcotics, alcohol and Christianity.

So, like Marx, he obviously saw religion as an opiate to the masses, either that or drink.

Socrates (469 - 399 BC)

Socrates, himself, was permanently pissed...

The Greek philosopher Socrates is a little bit of an enigma, as our image of him is distorted by the later writing of Plato and Xenophon's dialogues. These, plus the plays of a fellow contemporary Aristophanes, are the source from which we tend to unravel this great of the mind.

His view on drink may well have led to a permanent or semi-permanent state of intoxication. He said:

Bad men live that they may eat and drink, whereas good men eat and drink that they may live.

John Stuart Mill (1806 - 1873)

John Stuart Mill, of his own free will,
On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill

The Britain-born philosopher John Stuart Mill may well have been ill on a half pint of shandy. In his 1848 treatise Principles of Political Economy he wrote:

While a man who is intemperate in drink, is discountenanced and despised by all who profess to be moral people, it is one of the chief grounds made use of in appeals to the benevolent, that the applicant has a large family and is unable to maintain them.

Surely such a statement must have come from one who was not often taken to drink. So the MP may well have become squiffy on the amount of alcohol stated.

Plato (427 - 347 BC)

Plato, they say, could stick it away
Half a crate of whisky every day.

Plato wrote the great philosophical dialogue The Republic, but it was in his First Book of the Laws that suggested a simple test for selecting and educating men who can be trusted as statesmen. The test has subsequently come to be known as Plato's 'wine test'. In this dialogue, Plato asserts that drunkenness loosens a man's tongue, which can give educators an idea of what he is really like. Plato also wrote:

He was a wise man who invented beer.

So, obviously, those well-educated comics on the Python team were wise to include the Greek in this high-brow drinking song.

Aristotle (384 - 322 BC)

Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle

Aristotle believed in a golden mean - a middle point, or virtue, that sits between excess and asceticism. He defined that golden mean as:

A person should neither drink, nor eat, too much, nor should he/she drink, or eat too little.

So you have to watch out when Aristotle had the bottle, as he may not quite have finished with it. But then again he just might have.

Thomas Hobbes (1588 - 1679)

Hobbes was fond of his dram

The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes may well have a case for misrepresentation in this song, because in his 1647 work De Cive he stated:

Drunkenness, which we have therefore in the last place numbered among the breaches of the Natural Law, because it hinders the use of right Reason, is also forbid in sacred Scripture for the same reason.

So far from being partial to the dram - he was very much a puritan of the age living through the Commonwealth years.

René Descartes (1596 - 1650)

And Rene Descartes was a drunken old fart:
'I drink, therefore I am'

At the age of 18, Descartes began leading the life of a gentleman in Paris. Here, he appears to have enjoyed wine, women and gambling for a while, before retiring to a quiet suburb for two years to think. When his wild friends found him, he went somewhere else quiet to think - a war in (what is now) Germany. On 10 November, 1619, he had a remarkable dream which was believed to include the application of algebra to geometry. It later became the beginning of analytic and coordinate geometry.

He remained in the army for two years following the dream, then retired to Paris to think about 'What can we know?' and 'How can we know it?' His first knowable fact was of his own existence and is the one punned in the song Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am.)

Yes, Socrates, himself, is particularly missed;
A lovely little thinker but a bugger when he's pissed!

See above for Socrates, who is the only philosopher to merit two references in this song.

1The Great Comet [designation C/1811 F1] which even had Comet Wines named in its honour.2 Encke's Comet [designation 2P/Encke] was the second periodic comet to be recognised as such, after Halley's Comet.3Taken from Hegel's Lectures on the Philosophy of Nature.

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