House Hedonist

 

Founder: Aristippus of Cyrene

Founding date: 399 BCE

Current Chair: Lord Boris of Brighton & Hove

House Instrument: Psaltery

House Wine: Assyrtiko of Santorini

 

House Hedonist was founded by the philosopher Aristippus of Cyrene in 399 BC, following the death of his mentor and fellow Minstrel, Socrates. Aristippus is arguably the most important personality in the history of the Minstrels of Wine. He managed the relocation of the Minstrels from Byblos to Athens, set the philosophical foundations of the Minstrels, and established links with like-minded institutions across the known world, many of which subsequently merged with the Institute.

Aristippus, a native of Cyrene in modern-day Libya, visited Greece in order to watch the Olympic Games of 415 BC. Once in Athens, he sought out his hero Socrates and became his disciple. He joined the Athenian chapter of the Minstrels of Wine the following year, at Socrates’s behest, and together with his master, tirelessly lobbied the Minstrel authorities in Byblos (ancient Lebanon) to relocate to Athens.

Aristippus’s philosophy, however, began to diverge markedly from that of Socrates. He emphasised the importance of extracting pleasure from all circumstances and wrote several treatises in praise of luxury, fornication and feasting, the originals of which are preserved in the archives of House Hedonist. Aristippus attracted the opprobrium of several of Socrates’s disciples, particularly Plato, who developed a well-recorded grudge against him following a drinking competition at Minstrels Hall in 402 BC.

For ten years, despite Byblos’s decline into a provincial backwater, the Institute’s authorities refused Socrates’s treaties to relocate. But Aristippus had hatched a plot to force the relocation by less conventional means. He announced a month-long study tour of the vineyards of Attica and the Peloponnese for the entire 700-strong membership of the Minstrels of Wine. All accommodation expenses would be covered by the Athenian chapter (which was already richer than the Minstrels’ central headquarters, thanks to the patronage of Greek and Macedonian merchants), and there was to be feasting every night. Tales of Aristippus’s parties were already legendary across the Eastern Mediterranean, so most of the Institute’s membership, bored rigid by life in dull old Byblos, needed little encouragement to attend. The membership duly made the journey west, from Lebanon to Greece, assembling at a grand temple dedicated to Dionysus, close to the Forum in central Athens. A great feast was served and Aristippus ensured that the serving staff were composed of young men and women of exceptional beauty. He also spread a rumour that, following the meal, a great party would take place, at which the same serving staff would be present without their clothes.

As the feast neared its end, Aristippus rose to his feet and asked for silence. He thanked the attendees for their presence and begged their forgiveness for springing upon them a short administrative procedure. He explained that this was the first time in over twenty years that a quorum of the Minstrels, including the Regulatory Oversight Committee, had been present, and that this was too good an opportunity to miss.

To the astonishment of the assembled Minstrels, Aristippus proposed an immediate vote on moving the headquarters of the Minstrels from Byblos to Athens. The new Minstrel Hall would be the magnificent temple of Dionysus in which they now found themselves and the costs of relocation would be covered by the Athenian chapter. Aristippus clapped his hands and a young man entered holding a wooden cage, inside which an African dove hopped and cooed.

The dove, Aristippus explained, was trained to fly straight to Byblos and carried a message instructing Mount Lebanon’s most reliable shipping agency to pack up the contents of Minstrels Hall in Byblos at once and transport it across the Mediterranean Sea to Athens. If the Minstrels voted yes (which required a 75% vote in favour, including a majority of the Regulatory Oversight Committee) the dove would be dispatched that minute and the party would commence. If they voted no, the dove would be sacrificed to the Gods and the party cancelled. To gasps of excitement from the assembled Minstrels, the serving staff disrobed and Aristippus demanded a show of hands.

The membership voted in favour of the move, by a large majority. The powerful provost of House Olivarum, however, a native of Byblos and champion of the interests of olive growers within the Minstrel fraternity, rose to his feet and condemned the irregular proceedings, stating that for such a vote to be valid, it must take place in Byblos. Aristippus challenged the provost to quote the relevant protocol and, as the man stammered and stuttered, Aristippus declared: “Let the dove fly or return to Byblos!”

At this, a headstrong young Minstrel (whether he was pro- or anti- the move to Athens is unknown) ran at the man carrying the caged dove. But, stupefied by drink or distracted by the naked serving staff, he stumbled at the last second, sending both men and the captive bird clattering to the floor. The cage broke open and the dazed dove struggled to its feet, shook its head, and flew to the roof where it sat upon a high rafter and cooed. The provost of House Olivarum screamed for an archer, but it was too late. The bird flew to a window, slipped between the curtains and launched itself into the night. The party that followed was considered the greatest all-nighter in the ancient history of the Minstrels and is used as a model to this day in the festivities surrounding La Vendange.

Two days later, the dove arrived at the offices of a Mount Lebanon shipping agency, whereupon a clerk read the simple message tied to the bird’s ankle: ‘For the dove, finest grain. For the Minstrels, finest Athens.’ The Minstrels’ stocks of wine, artefacts and documents were carefully packed and began the month-long journey by sea from Byblos to Athens, stopping in Cyprus and Crete to procure further stocks of fine wine.

Seven years later, in 399 BC, Socrates passed away. Aristippus founded House Hedonist in his honour, though not without some criticism from Plato and other contemporaneous philosophers, who noted that Aristippus prioritised a Minstrels of Wine dinner on the nearby island of Aegina over Socrates’s official funeral.

Aristippus’s legacy is not limited to the re-location of the Minstrels in 405 BC or the foundation of House Hedonist. He formalised the cycle of feasts and celebration days and was pivotal in the establishment of the examination now known as La Vendange (prior to 399 BC, applicants to the Minstrels had to demonstrate a commercial or diplomatic connection to the world of wine, but no tasting knowledge was required).

Today, House Hedonist is the favoured House of sommeliers, broadcasters, writers and practitioners of the performing arts. Many members are winemakers and the House has a particularly strong following within the Italian, Greek, Argentinean and Californian wine trade. House Hedonist is responsible for the social and administrative calendar of the Minstrels, including the organisation of La Vendange and Le Récital, and for maintaining the décor of Minstrel Hall.

House Hedonist has formal links with the following organisations:

 

Feria del Caballo

Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin

The Court of Master Sommeliers

Karoo Wine and Astronomical Society (link not available)

Santa Barbara Popes of Pinot (link not available)

Order of the Friars of St. Francis of Wycombe

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© 2020 by Peter Stafford-Bow