Wine as a Force for Good and Evil Hot

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Dionysus, Greek God of Wine, Roman Copy of Greek Original, late 4th century BCE

Dionysus, Greek God of Wine, Roman Copy of Greek Original, late 4th century BCE
Photo © thisisbossi

Wine is a potent drink and in modern society anything potent is likely to be feared for the harm it can do. Is wine truly so potent that it must be feared, though? What we should understand about potency is that the power to cause harm is generally balanced by the power to do good as well. Thus the harm which some people fear wine can cause is balanced by the potential good it can do when used correctly. The question is, how do we best develop wine's potency for good without risking harm?

This is ultimately a philosophical question about the nature and use of wine, so the first place to look for answers would be with those who first philosophized about wine and who used wine in their philosophical investigations: the ancient Greeks. The Greeks weren't the first to develop a wine culture, but we know more about theirs than that of any earlier civilization and we can also see how it developed.

One important aspect of Greek wine culture was incorporating wine and other pleasures in their philosophy. Among the philosophical questions explored by the Greeks in which wine played a role was that of moderation: how much of a thing was good for you and how much was bad for you? Wine, many decided, was very good in the right quantities and the right situations even if it had the power to cause problems as well.

Modern socially aware societies very often take fright at anything with potency (e.g., nuclear power, genetic manipulation, and politicians in a hurry), because they bring with them potential dangers. Nobody can deny that alcohol has been throughout its history a potentially disruptive force, with the power to wreck seemingly worthwhile lives.

The philosophy of the nanny state, however, by which we are all protected whether we like it or not from anything we could seriously abuse, was not a phenomenon that the Greeks knew much about. The dangers of their world were in any case so great, and life expectancy sufficiently low, that the risks seemed less significant. Plato at least was strongly inclined to regard power as a double-edged sword, whose potential for ill exactly matched its potential for good, for even the actions that power led to were not good or bad in themselves, only in relation to the benefit or harm they could result in (Gorgias 467c–8e).

Consequently, while autocracy was according to the Statesman the recipe for the most power to achieve good, it was also the recipe for the most evil; correspondingly, whereas democratic government had the least power for evil, it also had the least power to achieve good. That message is reinforced in the Crito (44d), where Crito’s warnings about the power of Athenian democracy to harm him are answered by Socrates’ expression of regret: unfortunately their power to harm is rather slight, which means that their power for good is rather slight too.

So wine’s power to harm should, according to the same principles, be exactly balanced by its power for harm.

Source: Fritz Allhoff, Wine & Philosophy: A Symposium on Thinking and Drinking

It's surely not a coincidence that there have been so many different attempts by "nanny state" governments to control and regulate not just wine but all alcoholic beverages because of their potency for causing harm. This is not, however, something limited to just the much-maligned nanny states of the modern era. Religious governments have sought to control, regulate, and even ban alcohol for precisely the same reason: they are potent substances which can cause great harm.

If Plato and other Greek philosophers were right, though, restrictions which successfully limit the potential harms of wine also necessarily limit the potential good which can come from wine. This means that people are being denied important goods simply because they might misuse wine in ways that cause harm. Wouldn't it make more sense to help teach people to make better decisions so they can benefit from the good which potent substances have to offer?

Looked at in this way, the potency of wine, whose double-edged powers were already brilliantly contrasted in Euripides’ Bacchae, should never be something to be thrown out unthinkingly because of its dangers, but rather something to be used for the better like any other power.

Using anything for the better requires expertise, both a general grasp of social ethics and a more technical expertise relating to the thing being used. Plato notes at Protagoras 319c how nonexperts are not tolerated by the Athenian people if they try to advise on any subject permitting expertise.

Part of what it means to be human — and one of the values of human civilization — is the ability to control potent substances in order to use their power for our benefit and not have to passively suffer from the harms they may cause. Other animals have few options but to run from fire or raging waters, but humans also have the ability to harness the potency of fire and water. We are not immune from the harms they cause, but unlike other animals we build social systems which help us harness that power for good as well.

Wine was no different in the eyes of the majority of Greek philosophers including Plato, something to be used with both an understanding of society’s needs and an expertise in the specific capabilities of the substance itself. In short, one might expect experts on wine to be required to advise the nation on all policy relating to wine.

Their advice must take full account of the goals of society at large (upon which other expertise may be sought), but any teetotaler who stood up before the Assembly of ancient Athens, seeking to advise the people on matters concerning wine, would expect to be hissed and booed until he stood down. Let us not, then, allow ourselves to be advised by such persons today!

Aristotle and other Greek philosophers regarded moderation as a virtue, but not temperance — complete abstinence from something like wine is no better than over-indulgence. What made moderation a virtue was not so much that it tried to balance two ends of a spectrum, but rather that it required the careful attention of the person who was trying to strike that balance. You can't achieve virtuous moderation passively or on autopilot; instead, you have to pay attention to the features of an activity which make it good, the features which make it a problem, and of course to your own behavior as you try to emphasize the good without straying too far into the problems.

When it comes to drinking wine, virtuous moderation would entail thinking about and paying close attention to features like the good experiences with friends and family, the power of wine to inspire or encourage increased socialization, and so forth. It also means paying enough attention that you don't pass out drunk while still in your chair, throw up on the person next to you, and other unpleasant things that you're sure to regret the next morning. In all cases, the point is for you to be thinking about what you're doing and why, to be reflecting on your experiences and what they mean.

The Apostate offers some valuable insights:

I’m a social drinker. In fact, I LOVE drinking socially. I wouldn’t enjoy socializing half as much if alcohol wasn’t part of the deal. It’s a lubricant. It makes everyone more interesting. It makes me even more effusive and bubbly than I am when sober. I laugh more, I talk more, I am happier and gentler and at the end of the evening, I sleep better.

But one of the things that makes drinking fun for me is that it’s a shared activity. A party can never be boring if people are drinking, and nothing is more boring than a party that doesn’t serve alcohol. I actually have never been to such a party in the US; I would refuse to go if such a bizarre thing were suggested. It’s just not the done thing. We are a drinking society. Most of us – being puritanical and uptight moralists – object to people drinking too much alone, but most of us like to indulge in a little mind-and-mood-alteration when we’re surrounded by other people doing the same. It’s companionable. It’s disinhibiting. It tastes good.

...I guess that’s the root of my resentment of people who don’t drink to keep you company. If I’m going to shed some dignity, I’d rather we all did it together, so I have something embarrassing to hold against you if you caught me being drunkenly stupid. By not drinking, the teetotalers climb onto this undeserved moral high ground, from which spot they can condescendingly look down on you exposing your unmasked self and even preserve a crystal clear memory of it afterward. That’s just uncharitable, you know? Also, I actually can’t take my fellow humans – even if I like them – in large doses. I need a drink (or two) just to be able to stand them, and by the same token, I hate to inflict myself on them without the ameliorating influence of alcohol making me seem pleasanter and more interesting than I actually am. If they aren’t drinking, they must see me with disconcertingly sober clarity. How completely cringe-inducing.

Another unpleasant aspect of non-drinkers is, they remind me of abstinence advocates. I am not a huge fan of cutting any pleasure out of one’s life unnecessarily. There are few good reasons to not fuck, and similarly, there are few good reasons to not drink. Are they setting themselves up as holier-than-thou, a superior grade of human, by being self-punishing ascetics? Because if they say they just don’t enjoy either activity, I’m going to suspect there’s something wrong with them. And if they have a good reason to stay sober while all about them lose their senses, I want to know what it is so I can forgive them.

Some might object that shedding a little dignity is failure of moderation, but I would suggest just the opposite because it's easy for people to take themselves too seriously. Attempts to preserve a serious image translates into attempts to preserve our outward dignity, even at the expense of living in a truly authentic manner. Thus shedding a little dignity — letting one's hair down, laughing at things that would otherwise be a bit embarrassing — is a useful experience because it forces us to pull away from an excess of seriousness, self-absorption, etc.

To be fair, there are very good reasons for not drinking alcohol at all. Some people are allergic. Some people come from families with a lot of history of alcoholism or other substance of abuse. Some people just can't digest or process the alcohol. I suspect, though, that the numbers of people with such good reasons may be smaller than the numbers of those who — as Apostate wonders — may simply be trying to set themselves up as superior based solely on the fact that they are abstaining from a physical, social pleasure. Since when is that a virtue?


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