Wine with Plato

Winery in the Barossa Valley

Shall we begin by enacting that boys shall not taste wine at all until they are eighteen years of age?

afterwards they may taste wine in moderation up to the age of thirty, but while a man is young he should abstain altogether from intoxication and from excess of wine; when, at length, he has reached forty years, after dinner at a public mess, he may invite not only the other gods, but Dionysus (the Greeks believe this is the god of wine aka Bacchus by the Romans) above all, to the mystery and festivity of the elder men, making use of the wine which he has given men to lighten the sourness of old age; that in age we may renew our youth, and forget our sorrows; and also in order that the nature of the soul, like iron melted in the fire, may become softer and so more impressible

Excerpts From: Plato. “Laws.” iBooks.


Row of wine glasses on barrel in winery cellar

Regulations on the use of alcohol date back to antiquity as can be seen from the excerpts above. The reason for this as obvious as it seems is being lost on us, for aside from the age restrictions, there were other expectations on the use of alcohol. Unfortunately there is now more of alcohol misuse, than alcohol use. Unbridled advertisement of alcohol promotes excessive use, and one wonders if the addition of the statutory “drink moderately/responsibly” at the end of an advert that clearly communicated frequent and excessive use isn’t doing more harm than good; for it can be argued that the minds of the people are being manipulated to view excessive use as moderate. Furthermore adverts never specify what the healthy or “responsible” amount is. Most of the literature on guidelines for safe levels of alcohol consumption refer to “units of alcohol”, while most alcohol containers give information on content of alcohol as “percentage by volume”. There should be a standardized format of communicating alcoholic content with maximum recommended weekly limits for males and females. This should be communicated clearly as has been done in the case of the warnings on cigarette packs. Some developed nations are taking serious steps towards controlling excessive use of alcohol, by promoting research into effective ways of controlling it, and having  the units of alcohol and recommendations for consumption included on the packaging of alcohol (even though the warnings are still not as graphic as those of cigarette packs). The story is completely different in developing countries, where most of them seem oblivious to the problem. This may be because alcohol has been present since the earliest documented history in almost all cultures, however the obviously changing pattern of consumption which can be attributed to the effects of globalization, trade liberalism and the media should be a source of concern.

Alcohol misuse causes serious social and health problems. According to the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) estimates, alcohol is responsible for 4.0 per cent of the total burden of disease globally, as compared to 4.1 per cent for tobacco and 0.8 per cent for illegal drugs. Compare these estimates with the attention tobacco and illegal drug use are getting. Health problems that can be caused by alcohol include liver cirrhosis and cancers of the gastrointestinal tract and liver, and also mental health problems like addiction and depression; it also causes direct physical injuries from intoxication.

Bacchanalia, a wild and mystic festivals of the Greco-Roman god Bacchus vintage engraving. Old engraved illustration of the people taking part in the Bacchanalia festival.

This conversation from the Laws can give an insight to the origins of some social problems from excessive alcohol use:

ATHENIAN: “I should imagine that a drinking assembly is likely to become more and more tumultuous as the drinking goes on: this, as we were saying at first, will certainly be the case.

CLEINIAS: Certainly.

ATHENIAN: Every man has a more than natural elevation; his heart is glad within him, and he will say anything and will be restrained by nobody at such a time; he fancies that he is able to rule over himself and all mankind.

CLEINIAS: Quite true.

ATHENIAN: Were we not saying that on such occasions the souls of the drinkers become like iron heated in the fire, and grow softer and younger, and are easily moulded by him who knows how to educate and fashion them, just as when they were young, and that this fashioner of them is the same who prescribed for them in the days of their youth,”

Excerpts From: Plato. “Laws.” iBooks.

Those who use alcohol excessively will also do well to remember this:

…. calm and sober generals of the drinkers; and without their help there is greater difficulty in fighting against drink than in fighting against enemies when the commander of an army is not himself calm…”

Excerpt From: Plato. “Laws.” iBooks.

It is true that there are some positive effects of drinking alcohol, with the most important from a public health perspective being the potential for preventing cardiovascular disease, and this is often quoted by drinkers as a consolation for drinking. It should be noted however, that heavy drinking is also bad for the heart, and there are other effective ways of preventing cardiovascular diseases. Alcohol has also been used as medicine, for religious purposes and as a thirst-quencher. Indeed Plato himself had this to say:

Let us not then simply censure the gift of Dionysus as bad and unfit to be received into the State. For wine has many excellences, and one pre-eminent one, about which there is a difficulty in speaking to the many, from a fear of their misconceiving and misunderstanding what is said.

There is a tradition or story, which has somehow crept about the world, that Dionysus was robbed of his wits by his stepmother Here, and that out of revenge he inspires Bacchic furies and dancing madnesses in others; for which reason he gave men wine.

The other story implied that wine was given man out of revenge, and in order to make him mad; but our present doctrine, on the contrary, is, that wine was given him as a balm, and in order to implant modesty in the soul, and health and strength in the body.

Excerpts From: Plato. “Laws.” iBooks.

Dionysus Bacchus Wine statue portrait.

It would seem that moderation should be the watchword for those who cannot abstain.

There are several strategies available for minimizing alcohol related problems, and the Oxford Textbook of Public Health summarized them into some categories including: education and persuasion, deterrence, use of alternative activities, treatment for alcohol dependence, regulating availability and the use of social, cultural and religious movements. These have varying levels of effectiveness, and I would like to focus on two for developing countries. The first is deterrence, especially as regards to prohibition on driving after drinking and enforcing minimum age for drinking. These prohibitions have worked successfully in developed countries but are almost non-existent in developing countries. Although data is lacking on the incidence of road traffic accidents as a result of driving under the influence of alcohol, some available reports suggest this is increasing at an alarming rate in developing countries and no one seems to bother. Best practices from other countries must be learnt and applied here as a matter of urgency to curb this menace to society. The other regulation of interest is the application of higher taxes and price increases for alcoholic beverages; again this has proven to be effective even in high income countries, and for both heavy and light drinkers. Unfortunately this is where the negative effects of globalization on developing countries becomes apparent, as transnational companies are driving their agenda to expand their markets. These companies take advantage of the weak regulation in developing countries, and brutally use the expertise and sophistication they have acquired from operating in much better regulated markets on unsuspecting societies. Leaders in the developing world must sober up and realize the social and health consequences of their policies (or lack of policies) on alcohol, and not get drunk on the revenue they seem to be generating from these companies at the moment, the long-term must be considered.

I will conclude with this short quote:

“…and the sober would be the leaders of the drunken.

Excerpt From: Plato. “Laws.” iBooks.

Dr Ande Elisha

The Amateur Philosopher