Platonic Plonk

Plato attempted to divorce wine-drinking and pleasure and to conscript wine to “worthy” purposes. Thank goodness no one listened to him


Although in the Phaedrus Socrates praises drunkenness (alongside other ecstatic states), in general Plato’s philosophy seems to be implicitly hostile to wine. The central teachings of Platonism — the denial of primacy, even perhaps of reality, to the material world, and the insistence that the senses offer us no access to reality-these doctrines are surely not encouragements to the consumption of so earthly and sensuous a thing as wine.

Yet in that strange late work which is also the longest of the dialogues, The Laws, Plato — or at least the figure in the dialogue who seems to represent Plato’s views — discusses the role of wine in society, and seems at first glance to view it in a positive light. The subject of wine arises when the main figure in the dialogue, the Athenian stranger, is discussing with his Spartan and Cretan companions the need for men to be able to resist pleasures as well as to endure pains. The Athenian argues that, in a well-ordered state, the laws will pay attention to wine drinking in the context of training its citizens in the ways of pleasure: “If our citizens grow up from their youth unpractised in the greatest pleasures, the consequence must be that, when they find themselves amongst pleasures without being trained in the duty of resisting them and of refusing to commit any disgraceful act, because of the natural attractions of pleasures, they will suffer the same fate as those who are worsted by fears: they will, that is to say, in another and still more shameful fashion be enslaved by those who are able to hold out amidst pleasures and those who are versed in the art of pleasure-people who are sometimes wholly vicious.” 

In reply Megillus the Spartan defends his city’s practice in respect of wine, namely its complete banishment: “The rules about pleasures at Sparta seem to me the best in the world. For our law banished entirely from the land that institution which gives the most occasion for men to fall into excessive pleasures and riotings and follies of every description; neither in the country nor in the cities controlled by Spartiates is a drinking-club to be seen nor any of the practices which belong to such and foster to the utmost all kinds of pleasure. Indeed there is not a man who would not punish at once and most severely any drunken reveller he chanced to meet with, nor would even the feast of Dionysus serve as an excuse to save him.”

The Athenian then asks whether or not drunkenness should be tolerated, or perhaps even in certain ways encouraged, rather than being driven out of the ideal state, in the Spartan manner; and he goes on to explain why convivial gatherings, or drinking parties, might be an important element in the education of a citizen. Postulating that “we must cultivate in our soul two things— namely, the greatest possible confidence, and its opposite, the greatest possible fear”, the Athenian argues that “for the purpose, first, of providing a cheap and comparatively harmless test of these conditions, and, secondly, of affording practice in them, what more suitable device can we mention than wine, with its playful testing-provided that it is employed at all carefully?”

The Spartan and the Cretan are not greatly persuaded by this justification of wine-drinking, so the Athenian tries another line of argument. He begins by defining the art of politics as the skill of discovering the nature and condition of men’s souls, and then asks “whether the discerning of men’s natural dispositions is the only gain to be derived from the right use of wine-parties, or whether it entails benefits so great as to be worthy of serious consideration.” 

One such benefit, he suggests, flows from the power of wine to suspend, temporarily, the effects of age. As men grow less willing to join in the dances and choric songs which are important to the state, so they should drink wine, which will in a manner transport them back to the time of their youth, when they were eager to do such things. The Athenian therefore proposes rules of drinking related to age. Those under 18 should be forbidden to touch wine at all. Those under 30 may be allowed to drink in moderation, but must still avoid intoxication and heavy drinking. But when a man has reached the age of 40, 

he may join in the convivial gatherings and invoke Dionysus, above all other gods, inviting his presence at the rite (which is also the recreation) of the elders, which he bestowed on mankind as a medicine potent against the crabbedness of old age, that thereby we men may renew our youth, and that, through forgetfulness of care, the temper of our souls may lose its hardness and become softer and more ductile, even as iron when it has been forged in the fire.

This therapeutic defence of wine-drinking allows the Athenian to dispute the mythological origins of wine. The myths tell us, says the Athenian, that wine was given to men as a punishment to make them mad. But this cannot be true: “our own account, on the contrary, declares that it is as medicine given for the purpose of securing modesty of soul and health and strength of body.”

But this Platonic toleration of wine is based on one strict condition: “If . . . this institution is regarded in the light of play, and if anyone that likes is to be allowed to drink whenever he likes and with any companions he likes, and that in conjunction with all sorts of other institutions — then I would refuse to vote for allowing such a State or such an individual ever to indulge in drink.” Here, surely, Plato shows his hand. The Laws mounts no true defence of wine-drinking, which — if it is anything — must be a matter of pleasure and freedom. In this ideal Platonic state, the substance which is wine may be permitted to exist, but only on conditions which utterly denature it.

When Nietzsche wrote his brilliant, controversial account of Hellenic culture, The Birth of Tragedy, he framed it as an elegy. The story he told described how the Dionysiac component in Hellenism was driven out by Socratism, and by Socrates’s puppet, the dramatist Euripides, who was for Nietzsche “the poet of aesthetic Socratism”. For Nietzsche, the immediate result of Socratism (of which Plato was the fervent disciple) was the destruction of Dionysiac drama. In its place was installed the idea that wisdom in its fullest and best form — what the Greeks called sophrosyne — was derivable from dialectic, and hence was teachable. This for Nietzsche was but a pale shadow of the true Dionysiac, which changes us not by convincing us of certain propositions, or by appealing to utilitarian outcomes, but rather by altering our very being directly. In The Laws we see Plato trying to turn wine into a handmaiden of Socratism. History suggests that he failed-and may such attempts to emasculate wine by conscripting it to ostensibly “worthy” purposes always fail. A very happy New Year to you all!

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