So, does being a stoic mean that you have to avoid drinking? It’s an interesting question – if you’re going to willfully endure the worst that the world has to throw at you, does that provide space for lowering your guard – and when is it appropriate to do so?
I had never come across this passage from Plato before, but according to Montaigne, he believed that you should have to turn 40 before you can get drunk:
Plato forbids young people to drink before the age of eighteen and to get drunk before forty. But men over forty he tells to enjoy it and to bring copiously into their banquets the influence of Dionysius, that kind god who restores gaiety to grown men and youth to the old ones, who calms and softens the passions of the soul just as iron is softened by the fire.
Having passed that threshold five years ago, I suppose that I’m entitled to fall under the influence of Dionysius. It’s hard for me to grasp what the ancients and Montaigne are getting at when they reference age. Montaigne retired to his writings at 48, but he takes a somewhat contradictory stance that people should basically work until they die.
But I’ll put the age issue aside for now and go back to the bottle. Montaigne isn’t entirely clear on this subject and I get the sense that he’s trying to come to an understanding with drinkers in this essay. He starts out with a moralistic view of alcohol abuse:
Now drunkenness, considered among other vices, has always seemed to me gross and brutish. In others our minds play a larger part; and there are some vices which have something or other magnanimous about them, if that is the right word. There are some which are intermingled with learning, diligence, valour, prudence, skill and finesse: drunkenness is all body and earthy. Moreover the grossest nation of our day is alone in honouring it. Other vices harm our intellect: this one overthrows it; and it stuns the body: The worst state for a man is when he loses all consciousness and control of himself.
That sounds like Montaigne and given his strong belief in self-control and willpower, not at all surprising. But he’s not entirely comfortable with the moralism that goes with this stance and looks to the stoics for some guidance:
Even among the Stoics there are those who advise you to let yourself drink as much as you like occasionally and to get drunk so as to relax your soul: They say that Socrates often carried off the prize in this trial of strength too.
But even though the ancients were accommodating of the drink, Montaigne still has an aversion to it:
Leaving aside the fact that I readily allow my beliefs to be captive to the Ancients, I find this vice base and stultifying but less wicked and a cause of less harm than the others, which virtually all do more direct public damage to our society. And if, as they maintain, we can never enjoy ourselves without it costing us something, I find that this vice costs our conscience less than the others: besides it is not a negligible consideration that it is easy to provide for and easy to find.
So he comes to a form of internal compromise – he doesn’t like it, but considering all of the vices in the world, those that do harm to others are more serious. Having settled that, he lets fly one of the best quotes in all of his essays:
If you base your pleasure on drinking good wine you are bound to suffer from sometimes drinking bad. Your taste ought to be more lowly and more free. To be a good drinker you must not have too tender a palate.
A better retort to a wine snob I cannot find. Next, Montaigne theorizes that people don’t drink as much in his day because they are too busy with lechery:
Like shop-apprentices and workmen we ought to refuse no opportunity for a drink; we ought always to have the desire for one in our heads: it seems that we are cutting down this particular one all the time and that, as I saw as a boy, dinner parties, suppers, and late-night feasts used to be much more frequent and common in our houses than they are now. Could we really be moving towards an improvement in something at least! Certainly not. It is because we throw ourselves into lechery much more than our fathers did. Those two occupations impede each other’s strength. On the one hand lechery has weakened our stomachs: on the other, sober drinking has rendered us vigorous and lively in our love-making.
For all of the moral preachings early in the essay, Montaigne’s humanity eventually shines through, with this:
A man can be as wise as he likes: he is still a man; and what is there more frail, more wretched, more a thing of nothing, than man?
To close, Montaigne gives us a nice little synthesis of Aristotle and Erasmus by contrasting reason with folly in this highly economical paragraph:
Aristotle says that no outstanding soul is free from a mixture of folly. He is right to call folly any leap – however praiseworthy it might be – which goes beyond our reason and our discourse. All the more so in that wisdom is a controlled handling of our soul, carried out, on our Soul’s responsibility, with measure and proportion.