Heady cocktail of beer and brains pulls the crowds

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The tables were full of weary young professionals and cold beers were going down swiftly as a salve to the endless summer swelter. Someone was stifling a yawn. It was your usual, after-work downtown bar scene.

And then some guy at the other end of the room started banging on about Nietzsche, and about Nietzsche's views on the absence of universal constants, about Dionysian creativity, about the doctrine of eternal recurrence, about Nietzsche's book Thus Spoke Zarathustra and how power was the only real motivator. A waitress slipped effortlessly between the tables like an elegant ballerina, delivering more drinks from a finely balanced tray.

To be fair to Bradley Lewis, he was getting paid to bang on about Nietzsche and his influential, if somewhat distasteful, views on the world. This summer, the youthful Professor Lewis has been running a six-week series of after-work philosophy lectures in a Washington bar.

And if there is a point that tells you something about Washington and the I-Must-Better-Myself attitude of the lawyers and lobbyists who live in this city, it is this: the organisers thought maybe they would attract 50 people to the $195 "Philosophy on Tap" lectures. But 150 signed up.

"I think that it has worked worked well. It is a relaxed atmosphere," said Professor Lewis, a jovial assistant professor of philosophy at Washington's Catholic University. "People seem happy to listen. It is a great challenge to be discussing the topic in an hour. If I was teaching this normally I might spend two weeks on it." Professor Lewis's series has sought to define that most constantly relevant of questions: "What is the good life?" He has done so by looking at the work of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, J S Mill, Kant and finally those of that old belly-laughing, bon vivant, Friedrich Nietzsche, who eventually went mad and died at the age of 56.

But what has given the series a certain something else, beyond the original premise of discussing philosophy in bar, is the choice of the bar itself.

Washington's Brickskeller Saloon Bar is to beer what Imelda Marcos was to shoes, and even claims a place in Guinness World Records for stocking the widest selection of brews. (There were about 750 from around the world at the last count.) And so a certain formula has been hit upon for the evenings. While Professor Lewis stands at a lectern delivering his speech, waitresses deliver sandwiches and glasses of strong beers. It seems an ingenious combination and you wish you'd come up with it yourself.

This formula has had some interesting philosophical results. For example, Immanuel Kant's somewhat stern insistence that moral duty must come before personal happiness goes down much more palatably after digesting a glass or two of Hefeweizen. After a couple of draughts of a golden Belgian ale, you start believing that St Thomas Aquinas's Quaestio Disputata de Unione Verbi Incarnati [Disputed Question on the Union of the Word Incarnate] might make wonderful reading for the beach. Even in the original Latin.

And last week, just as Professor Lewis was referring to Nietzsche's belief in the absence of a universal constant, his point was underlined by one of the "students" who declared that a glass of much lauded Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout that had been placed in front of him "tasted like shit". You felt that Nietzsche might have approved.

The people who have been going to the lectures seem content with the series, organised by the Smithsonian Associates. And they seem a pretty ordinary bunch. You get the occasional geek, looking pleased with himself as he asks a "challenging question", you get the occasional question from someone who clearly hasn't grasped even the most basic of the points.

But most are happy to sit and listen, drink their drinks, think a bit and then go home – a pleasant alternative to the cinema or a night at the theatre, and certainly more worthy. And why not? As Professor Lewis has spent the past six weeks battling to explain, defining human happiness and the good life is no easy matter.