You are sitting on the bus on your way home from work Friday evening. It’s been a long week.
You can’t help overhearing, across the bus aisle and behind your seat, an exchange going on between several unregulated, youthful voices. They’re talking about drinking. You say to yourself, “How old are these kids?” and discreetly glance behind you. High school, judging by the ungainly limbs and street-smart attire. Not just talking about drinking, they are purposefully setting out to get drunk. They’re laughing about what they don’t remember from last weekend. You feel a sinking sensation in the pit of your stomach. You think about your own children who are not yet out of grade school. You think about these teenagers’ parents….
Eventually, your stop comes and you wearily get off the bus.
On Saturday morning, your wife informs you, over your cup of coffee, that she wants you to clean up the corner of the pantry where you have your ‘bar’. She thinks the alcohol would be better kept in a cupboard in the basement; it’s cooler down there and out of the way (–her way, she might have said). You consider the pros and cons of this proposed scenario, but, rather than open negotiations before your coffee is fully drained, you acquiesce to your wife and only plea a few minutes more repose before tackling the transference of your liquor store.
As it turns out, you have more bottles than you knew. You immerse yourself in the task at hand and an inner dialogue commences: “Now where did this one come from? Oh, yes, Roger and Deb brought that over for Christmas…was that 2009? Hm. Should be pretty good by now.—Hey, I thought I had used up the last of the marsala at Easter. This is great! I can make that Italian custard for tomorrow…. Oh, I’d better not let Isabelle see how much scotch is left; she might not get me a new bottle for Father’s Day….”
In time, your musings bring you round to the group of teenagers on the bus. Why was it you felt so distressed when you associated them with alcohol, while here you are with a box in your arms—balancing yourself against the wall as you walk carefully down the unfinished wooden steps of your basement, trying to recall whether the light switch is on the left or the right side of the doorway—filled with bottles of wine and spirits, and a song in your heart as you remember occasions of festivity that you had not thought of in years? Same substance, different experience. Why?
Alcohol is the natural product of fermentation. Time out of mind, it has been utilized all over the world for manifold purposes. Anthropologist Dwight B Heath lists the key roles of alcohol “in different ways in various cultures”: “a tranquilizer, appetizer, disinfectant, anaesthetic, food solvent, and economic commodity, as well as a potent symbol”. Even a cursory glance at this list clearly indicates that this simple chemical compound has an ambivalent place in our society. Heath calls it a “biopsychosocial phenomenon,” meaning that it cannot be analyzed from one perspective only, but requires insight from biology, psychology, and sociology. We add a spiritual dimension to these more empirical modes of knowledge, for the soul of man is also affected by his use of alcohol. Indeed, we find the issue with alcohol in the heart of man, not the thing itself; for, if alcohol itself were intrinsically bad, Jesus would not have turned water into wine at Cana. While great scholars like Mr Heath tackle the manifold questions surrounding alcohol, we who live in the world need to establish common sense means of discernment in order to walk the line between the teetotaler and the lush. How can we distinguish between the negative ‘getting drunk’ and the positive ‘making merry’? How can we both militate against drunk driving and chink our wine glasses with a dear friend?
Blaise Pascal said, “Too much and too little wine. Give him none, he cannot find truth; give him too much, the same.” Let’s use this pithy statement as our guide along the narrow way.
Pascal highlights that the virtue of moderation—neither too much nor too little—is a means to truth. Alcohol (and all things) should facilitate the pursuit of truth, beauty, goodness. If one’s use of alcohol does not bring one farther along the way to truth, it is not moderate and must necessarily be vicious, leading away from truth.
The question of finding truth is best discerned in company: “Will this next martini clarify or cloud our conversation?” (It is significant that a serious sign of destructive alcoholism is drinking alone.) In a social setting alcohol can be a great enhancer of discussion because it tends to soften reserve and loosen inhibitions. We love to picture the Oxford Inklings filling the Eagle and Child pub with their debates and conversations that gave rise to some of the 20th Century’s greatest English literature. One Inkling reminisces,
…we sat in a small back room with a fine coal fire in winter…back and forth the conversation would flow. Latin tags flying around. Homer quoted in the original to make a point…Tolkien jumping up and down, declaiming in Anglo-Saxon.
Once at the point of ‘too much’, however, one’s higher mental functions become impaired, and there is little likelihood of saying anything really intelligent, and even less of remembering it. Which means you should probably take some strong coffee and go home to bed; this is real life after all, not Plato’s Symposium.
But we must not misunderstand moderation! This particular issue has led to many tragic contentions within society and within families. Pascal has given us the proper focus: moderation is a means to truth. Unfortunately, we commonly think of temperance, one of the four cardinal virtues, as repressing or curtailing a desire. Thus the ‘temperance’ movement of the early 20th Century that proved as ineffectual as it was unpopular. The real definition of temperance, however, implies not a limiting but an ordering of desire. To our surprise, Christian temperance is actually a passion—the passion for the perfect ordering of the human person toward happiness in the Beatific Vision. This sounds abstract, but, in fact, love of God is the motive force of all our life, not excluding that decanter of wine on your dining table.
Or perhaps tonight you will indulge in a glass of that scotch you had forgotten all about.
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