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Philosophy for Bartenders Philosophy for Bartenders

By our existentialist behind the bar, Jennifer Gardner

"Come on baby light my fire.."

I had another of those dreams last night. But this time I didn't dream I was at work, slaving laboriously behind the bar, or about great historical figures like Julius Caesar, René Descartes, or Friedrich Nietzsche. No, last night I dreamed of both rolled into one.

It was a typical Friday night until a robed man walked in. His flip flops slapped on the floor as he made his way to the bar. "A martini," he said. He didn't look twenty-one, so I carded him. His driver's license said he was 2,539 years old.
"Where are you from, stranger?" I asked.
"No. Greece."

I placed a napkin in front of him and put a rocks glass on top of it, filled it with ice and splashed in a drop of dry vermouth. On top of that I poured in a shot and a half of what passes for our best gin. Then I pierced three olives with a plastic sword and dropped them into his glass.
"Stirred, not shaken," said the robed man. I smiled. Even an amateur bartender like me knows better than to shake a martini, in case the drink gets cloudy, or 'bruised', in barspeak. Which just goes to show that James Bond wasn't as smart as his fans like to think. I gently stirred the vermouth and gin with a straw and pushed the drink towards him. I've described this in minute detail for reasons that will become clear, even though the entire process took less than thirty seconds.

"The name's Clitus, Hera Clitus." He held out his hand.
Being the congenial bartender I am, I shook it, and introduced myself James Bond style. "Nice to meet you. I'm Fer—Jenni Fer."

Our conversation was interrupted when a customer demanded another beer—a matter of life or death for a thirsty Baptist in a small Midwestern town. But the sound of Heraclitus repeatedly pounding the bar with his fist soon regained my attention.
"Is something wrong with your martini, sir?"
"Yes," he stammered. "Where is the dry vermouth?"
I stared blankly at him.
"Dry vermouth," he repeated, "a martini requires dry vermouth."
I pointed at the glass, but of course I wasn't pointing at any particular area.
"Where?" asked Heraclitus as he leaned forward to peer into his glass. "Show me!"
I explained that as dry vermouth was the same colour as gin they couldn't be distinguished from one another once the two were mixed together.
"Why not taste it?" I suggested, which was a mistake.
"I trust my sense of sight over my sense of taste," snapped Heraclitus. "If I were to take a sip this instant and another the next instant I would not be tasting the same martini since all is in a state of constant flux. Anyway, if I were to taste it, my soul would get wet and it would die."
I laughed but it was as clear as the gin he wasn't drinking that he was deadly serious.
"Then why did you order it?" I asked.
"To teach you philosophy, of course."

Heraclitus knew there was dry vermouth in his martini and was only pretending there wasn't to get my undivided attention (not easy to get from a cute bartender wearing a skin-tight crop top and hip-hugging jeans). His martini, he said, was like the cosmos. The dry vermouth and gin represented separate parts of the whole, which was the drink itself. Not only did the whole consist of these liquids but also the ice cubes, olives, plastic sword, napkin, and the glass itself, which were all part of the drink we refer to as a 'martini.'
"All is one and one is all," he said.
This simple concept even a bartender could understood.

"But you can't tell the gin from the vermouth or the vermouth from the gin. That's because the ingredients in the drink seem stable.” He paused, examining me like a student. As each moment passed, the ice melted a little more and diluted the martini until it was another drink altogether. Heraclitus didn’t touch it. It sat there, still and mute on the bar. Even the ice in it seemed in repose. “Is this drink and its ingredients stable?" Heraclitus asked.

I considered my options. If I said 'yes', it would mean the drink would always remain the same, which clearly wasn’t true. If I said 'no', then change was constant and unceasing. As I often do behind the bar, I played dumb and shrugged my shoulders. Heraclitus supplied me with his answer. "Indeed it is not stable. Even when it seems motionless, it is in motion, just as it was when you mixed the ingredients together. "Yes," he said, holding up the glass as if to make a toast, "the drink is in constant motion, blending with itself so that if I were to take two sips, one right after the other, the drink itself wouldn't be the same drink, just as a river is not the same river if you step into it twice in succession."

I found Heraclitus's view plausible but I wanted to know more about the drink's motion. "Well," he said, "the ice is cold and the gin is warm. The coldness met its opposite when you poured the drink and this interplay of opposites is what keeps the drink in constant flux. The movement of hot and cold into and out of each other is the necessary state the drink needs to exist. But since the two opposites compliment one another and their strife is harmonious, the drink seems stable and unmoving."

I found his idea of opposites hard to follow. “But Heraclitus,” I objected, "you said that the gin was warm, not hot. How can both warmness and hotness be the opposites of coldness? How can one thing have more than one opposite?”
“What I mean by warmness is an absence of coldness so that the opposite I speak of includes anything that isn’t cold, and vice versa. Whatever isn’t hot lacks hotness and therefore opposes it as well. A good way to understand opposites is to realize that we cannot know hot unless we know cold. More precisely, we cannot know hot until we have an absence of hotness, which I define as coldness. But don’t misunderstand me. These opposing forces are both in conflict but also in harmony with each other. They are conflicting forces because each wants to limit its opposite. But this conflict is the way in which all things seem stable yet also the way in which all things change, and change is necessary and good.”

“Bills are better,” I said, trying to be witty but the pre-Socratic philosopher didn’t get my joke. “There is an organized intelligence governing the change. The strife of opposites, because it results in continual change, is also harmonious. And furthermore, this drink is only a small part of the cosmos, but the cosmos is the same. Always in constant flux, its gin and vermouth forever mixing. The world is one large martini.”
Normally by this time my other customers would’ve been screaming for service. But remember, this was a dream, and my attention was focused solely on Heraclitus. “But why is this change good?" I asked. "The opposing forces which are at work in this drink keep it in a state of constant change, but if it didn’t change at all, would it be any less good? If the cosmos never changed, would it be any less good?”

“It would be neither less good, nor less bad. It would be nothing at all," he answered with a smile. "This drink would not exist. The cosmos would not exist. Without change nor would you or I.”
“If you didn't exist, you couldn’t leave me a tip. Now that is a horrifying thought,” I quipped. "But what causes this change? I want to know who to thank for the large tip you’re going to leave me.”
The philosopher leaned forward, as if he were about to tell me a secret—like who to bet on in the Kentucky Derby. “The thing from which all things come is...” And then he whispered: “fire.”
I was shocked. “Fire?”

“Shhhhhh!” He reached into the pocket of his robe and pulled out a cigar. I handed him a book of matches. “Most don’t know,” he said as he struck a match, “that Fire is at the top of the hierarchy of life. It is change. It destroys and rebuilds, again and again."
The match burned down to his fingers and he lit another.
“The cosmos consists of material parts, fire, air, water, and earth, in that order. They each change into each other, going up and down, back and forth. Remember the drink, hot to cold, dry to wet? The bottom end of the hierarchy is the earth, representing all that’s dark and inert. The upper part is fire, which is bright and active. Governing all things and their upward and downward ways is the Logos, an active intelligence behind the processes of the world."

“I thought you said it was fire?”
“It’s both. Fire is both the unifying source of the cosmos and also the active organizer by which things change.”
“I think I understand, Heraclitus. The spirit of fire changes all things, from material fire to material earth and vice versa, and this spiritual fire—or, as you call it; the logos, is in all things, since all things change and change is in all things. One might then ask, why does the logos, or spiritual fire, change things from fire to earth if fire is obviously the better of the two?” Heraclitus started to speak, but I already knew his answer and interrupted him. “If things didn’t go both up and down, there would be no change, and change is both good and necessary for life. So things must move both up and down, or else they cannot be?”

“Very good.” He puffed on his cigar as if to congratulate me. By now all the ice had melted in his untouched drink.
“But what does all this mean?" I asked. "How should it change they way we live?”
“Most of us sleepwalk through life, believing the cosmos to be stable when it’s not, trusting our senses when they tell us nothing ever changes. The first step to awakening is realizing that the world has always and will always be changing. Then we must realize why it changes. Once this is realized we must attune ourselves with the fiery logos, and kindle our soul. The soul is much like the cosmos, but not entirely. It exists as a very small version, or a microcosm to the macrocosm. Just as there are upward and downward ways in this martini and also in the cosmos, so there are upward and downward ways in our souls."
“That makes sense,” I said. “Is the soul the equal of fire?”

“You’re getting ahead of me. Please attend. The upward way for a soul is the awakening I have spoken of. The downward way is living life as if it were as stable as it seems, cutting oneself off from the logos. If a soul goes down too far and becomes wet, it dies. The further down it goes, the less it moves. When it stops moving, it ceases to exist.”
“Best for it to move up, then?” I said.
“Indeed. I am the highest advocate for the soul’s upward way."
"But if the soul was the equal of fire, how could it go up? Surely it could only go down. So I suppose it must be somewhere in the middle so it can go both ways.”
“Very good,” he said again and lit another cigar.
As he nursed the flame, I sang Jim Morrison's lyrics to him. “You know that it would be untrue; you know that I would be a liar; if I was to say to you, girl we couldn’t get much higher. Come on baby light my fire...”

Heraclitus laughed and suggested I take singing lessons. Sensing that I was about to awaken from my dream, I asked the philosopher to sum up his argument.
“A martini consists of many things, which blend together through an interplay of opposites. Like a martini, the cosmos also contains many things and is affected by many opposing forces. It is the strife of these forces which creates harmony and ensures stability in an ever changing world. Overseeing this change is the Logos, which I associate with fire. Souls too, are ever changing, through their upward and downward ways. To live an awakened life, one must live in harmony with the Logos and realize that all is change. The soul must attune itself with it and have a passion for the changes of life. Only then can the soul move upward to be like fire in the cosmos, and to be one with the Logos.”

I applauded, as did many who were listening. Other customers began buying Heraclitus drinks, but he refused, saying: “a man when drunk is led by a boy, stumbling and not knowing where he goes, having his soul moist."
“But Heraclitus,” said one wag from the end of the bar, “a martini is made with dry vermouth, so your soul can't get wet.”
“Good point!” laughed the old philosopher and proceeded to down the four martinis lined up in front of him. By the end of the night, Heraclitus was rolling drunk. He even sang 'Light My Fire' (badly). People have said that Heraclitus is arrogant. But I found him a fun-loving guy and a generous man who gave me huge amount of knowledge and an even bigger tip. Of course, his soul died that night because it got so wet. But he was 2,539 years old.

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© 2005 Jennifer Gardner. All Rights Reserved
© 2005 Jennifer Gardner. Picture, design & construction © 2005 / 090705

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