Being Right

Albert Einstein once said “pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgement in all human affairs.” Famous pipe smokers abound: aside from Einstein, there’s General Douglas MacArthur, Humphrey Bogart, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien.

And, of course, Popeye the Sailor Man.

Intellects have long waxed poetic on pipe smoking’s differences to lighting a cigarette. Or even cigars.

David Russel Mosely notes the soulful contemplativeness of pipe smoking: “There is a rhythm to pipe smoking, a ritual even, one that allows you, if you let it, to enter into a state of contemplation. You must pack the pipe first, and pack it well, else you will have an uneven smoke, causing the pipe either to burn out too quickly or not to stay lit. Then, once properly packed, you must light it. And this too is a ritual. The first light chars the tobacco on top, the second causes the ember to reside deep within the bowl. Once the ritual of packing and lighting is completed comes the smoking. This too must follow some kind of rhythm. Smoke too quickly and you may end up burning a hole through your pipe. Too slowly and you’ll constantly be relighting. But if you can find that sweet spot, that right rhythm, then you can puff away thoughtfully.”

There are the inevitable questions about probable health effects. But pipe smokers insist that since indulging in the pipe bowl doesn’t involve smoke inhalation, nicotine absorption is minimized.

And believe it or not, pipe smoking isn’t just for the rich. Decent pipes can be had for very reasonable prices. Corn cob pipes (the kind that General Douglas MacArthur used) can be bought for less than P500 (not counting shipping costs from the US, for example). Tobacco is also relatively cheap, and a pouch (or tin) can last a pipe aficionado for a long while. (Well, depending ultimately on the level of smoking intensity)

There’s indeed something undefinable about pipe smoking that lures one to the spiritual. G.K. Chesterton was once moved to say: “In Catholicism, the pint, the pipe and the Cross can all fit together.”

Speaking of Catholicism, even the act of “packing” makes allusions to the traditional family.

Packing is the process of putting tobacco into the bowl and one does that — since time immemorial — by a three step process known as the Child, Mother, and Father: place a heap in a bowl and tamp it down lightly (as a child would), then put some more tobacco and tamp it down with a little more force this time but still gently (like a mother), and then finally put another heap and tamp it down firmly as a father would.

Then there’s the lighting: purists engage in tons of debate on the use of lighters (and what kind; Zippo apparently is preferred) and matches (the long version). Assuming matches are used, there’s apparently a technique to it so that the phosphorous doesn’t taint the flavor of the tobacco.

Then there’s the “false light,” a term quaintly elegant as “like the dew fall” one hears during Catholic Mass. It refers to the first charring of the bowl’s upper layer of tobacco. This expands the tobacco and is immediately tamped down to settle it better into the bowl. Presumably, this makes for a better and smoother draw when the “true light” is made.

And the smoking itself needs care: draw too much and the pipe gets hot, the mouth uncomfortably warm; too little and the burn elicits little flavor and eventually goes out.

In the end, pipe smoking is really an art form. Forget what the experts say and just enjoy yourself.

As Mosely wrote insightfully, pipe smoking done right “forces you to slow down, take you out of the noise and distraction of the world. You cannot attend to many things while trying to pack and light a pipe. And while you can attend to many things while smoking, the ideal circumstance is one where after the process of packing and lighting has slowed you down, your mind stays in that contemplative space. You can stare off into the middle-distance and think, or even just be, focusing on nothing but the rhythm of your breathing, stopping occasionally to tamp down the ashes.”

It’s no accident then of the pipe’s association with thinkers. See Sherlock Holmes.

For Michael Foley, writing for First Things (“Tobacco and the Soul,” 1997): the relative rarity of pipe-smoking is a telling sign of the “current intellectual crisis. If the pipe epitomizes the intellectual way of life, then is it any surprise that it cannot be found where schools substitute politically correct ideology for real philosophy, or where the intelligentsia, instead of engaging in serious thought, pander to the latest activist fads?”

Perhaps in todays somewhat disjointed and hysterical public discourse, one small solution could lie in something as old, quiet, and as countercultural as simply lighting a pipe.


Jemy Gatdula is a Senior Fellow of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations and a Philippine Judicial Academy law lecturer for constitutional philosophy and jurisprudence.

Twitter @jemygatdula