Plato and the Ancient Politics of Wine (2)
Part B. The Test of the Wine
18 minutes read - 3755 words
This is the second part of a two-part article. Read the first part here.
As argued in Part A of this exposition, Plato’s use of drunkenness, mainly in the Symposium but also in the Phaedrus, is a metaphor designed to defend Socrates’ philosophical inspiration and its civic benefits, drawing on Euripides’ Bacchae and on Solon’s political poetry.
On the one hand, Plato must have felt encouraged to use this daring metaphor by Euripides’ influential description of genuine Bacchic experience which, as he explicitly states, does not involve actual drunkenness (Bacch. 76-77).
On the other hand, correct sympotic behavior was a perfectly suitable comparison for a well-ordered city, able to instill the virtue of sōphrosynē to its citizens, a comparison systematically promoted in Solon’s elegies (poem 4.9-10).
Thus, Plato hoped that his audience would readily differentiate between the drunken antics of Alcibiades, graphically described in the Symposium (for example, 212d-213b; 213e-214d), and the intoxicating passion of the philosopher who enthuses his audiences in his obsessive search for the truth.
Plato underlines the metaphorical value of Socratic baccheia with a plethora of words that mean “like, resembling, similar to” (as in Symposium 215b1, 5-6, and 8; 216c8-10), clearly meant to enhance the effect of Socrates’ comparison with Dionysus’ worshippers while declaring its fictional nature. Socrates used the same technique in the Phaedrus where he admits that he described erotic mania (employed in its pederastic context) in a figurative manner, as a metaphor for philosophical ardour (Phaedrus 265b-c). Therefore, it makes sense for Plato to revisit the metaphor of drunkenness in the Laws, his last dialogue that debates the constitution of a new colony (Magnesia); Plato revises here the subjects of civic ethos and civic education, including the roles of philosophy and poetry in the ideal city, in his most mature phase.
Yet, in the Laws, Plato seems to undermine the metaphorical understanding of drunkenness as analyzed thus far by recommending to the citizens of Magnesia the so-called “Test of the Wine” which involves actual wine drinking. Furthermore, he rejects the Bacchic ecstasy of those “who imitate in their drunken state the so-called Nymphs and Pans and Silenoi and Satyrs” — a description which evokes Socrates’ comparison with the Silenoi and Marsyas in the Symposium, as “unsuitable for citizens” (815d2).
Thus, in what follows, I explore Plato’s references to the Test of the Wine to outline the various metaphors about wine and drunkenness employed by Plato in the Symposium and the Laws, aiming to reconcile their seemingly contradictory applications.
Virtue and the Test of the Wine
In the Laws (649d6-9), drinking too much is listed as one of the excesses associated with lack of self-control and emotional indulgence, while the spectacle of a drunken man who “is moved and moves everywhere, raging both in body and soul” (775c4-d3) is rejected outright. Nevertheless, Plato recommends the “playful basanos = (Test) of the Wine” (649d11-e1) as the ultimate test of civic ethos. It is, he insists, a cheap and harmless tool (649d9-e1) by which — provided it is used carefully (649e2), we can examine and exercise (649d11) the disposition of one’s soul (650a4-5).
In the Laws, drinking too much is listed as one of the excesses associated with lack of self-control and emotional indulgence.
Plato recommends the Test of the Wine in the context of a discussion about civic virtue which sees him employ a series of metaphors, including that of humans as divine puppets tossed over the imaginary line that divides goodness from wickedness and the metaphor of the soul as a city.
Informed by contemporary medical theories, which appreciated health as the balance of opposing elements in the body (to which I return later in the piece), Plato advocates an understanding of virtue as the attempt to find equilibrium between the experiences of pleasure and pain.
He elaborates this concept with an example that everyone can relate to, that of partaking in wine-drinking sessions and debating the correct use of wine in them (652a5). As such, he returns to the topic that the guests of the Symposium were asked to debate at the start of Agathon’s dinner party, namely what would be the best way to go about their drinking.
By allowing citizens to experiment with wine, the city follows a regime which uses wine as a training substance (Laws 646d11; cf. 648d; 649a-b; 649e; 650a-b). Wine is here described as a drug or potion (a pharmakon) able to induce fear (of its potential impact) even in the bravest of men (647e1; 648al-2). By becoming aware of their weaknesses as drinkers, citizens are prompted to behave responsibly out of their deep-seated fear of suffering public humiliation; thus, someone unsure of whether he could control heavy drinking is likely to leave a banquet before it is too late. On this occasion, the citizen in question would be acting in accordance with sōphrosynē (648d-e). Thus, the Test, described as Dionysus’ theōria (spectacle, 650a1), secures the city and its members a vantage point for monitoring their ability to apply sōphrosynē, the core civic virtue associated with sound thinking and moderation among other meanings.
At this point, we need to aim for a better understanding of sōphrosynē and its civic importance before explaining how the Test of the Wine enables us to acquire it.
Surprisingly, although sōphrosynē is discussed at length throughout the Platonic corpus, arriving at a single definition is rather challenging. Plato offers many descriptions of sōphrosynē in his dialogues, especially in the Charmides which examines precisely on the nature of sōphrosynē: here, sōphrosynē is described as “minding one’s own business,” as “knowing oneself,” as a “science of itself and of other things,” and as “knowledge of knowledge;” yet, none of these definitions can explain how being sophron is likely to make us happy, which is our essential drive for pursuing virtue. Given Plato’s reluctance to push the discussion further in the Charmides, perhaps we ought to turn our attention to his description of sōphrosynē in the Phaedrus (237e-238a1), where we read:
We must understand that in each of us there are two ruling and leading principles, which we follow to wherever they may lead: one is our innate desire for pleasures, the other an acquired opinion which stives for the best. These two sometimes agree within us, and sometimes they are in conflict; and sometimes one is dominant and sometimes the other. Hence, when opinion leads through reason toward the best and is greater in its power it is called sōphrosynē. (trans. H.N. Fowler. 1914. Plato. Euthyphro. Apology. Crito. Phaedo. Phaedrus. Loeb Classical Library 36. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press)
Hence, sōphrosynē poses as the force by which we balance our desire for pleasures, clearly the utmost quality for citizens expected to focus on the collective good, beyond their personal gratification. From this perspective, we can appreciate how being of sound mind entails being moderate, a concept that Plato also employs in the Symposium, where sōphrosynē is described as “exercising control over pleasures and desires” (196c4-5), an ability that Socrates possesses par excellence (216d7) despite his manic appearance.
Hence, sōphrosynē poses as the force by which we balance our desire for pleasures.
Notably, in his Laws, Plato also claims that sôphronein (to act with sōphrosynē) is an essential part of the virtue which belongs to the gods (900d5-9) and traces of which reside in humans too. In a universe inhabited by good things and their opposites, humans, described as “the possession of the gods and daemons,” are called to actively ally with divine sōphrosynē and wisdom (906a3-b4). According to Plato, the best way to exercise the citizens in sōphrosynē is by allowing them to taste its opposite, that is frenzy and giving in to pleasure, in a controlled environment. That is why the Test of the Wine is ideal.
Here several observations can be made:
First, imbibing wine in an everyday real-life scenario differs significantly from encouraging drunkenness, as Plutarch, a first/second-century CE keen Platonist, pointed out (see quaestiones convivales 715d1-5). Wine drinking is expected to make us aware of our limits and help us actively anticipate its outcomes, thus avoiding drunkenness.
Second, actual wine drinking was also involved in Plato’s Symposium where the speakers’ ability to cope with wine was compared their ability to construct robust arguments, both symptomatic of their ethos. For example, young Phaedrus, one of the weak drinkers especially given his young age, is portrayed as getting confused in the details of the myths he cites, making unsubstantiated connections which undermine his argument: the gods, he claims, prefer the paidika (179b4-d2) because lovers are willing to die for another, just like Alcestis, the wife (!) of Admetus, did. Thus, the Symposium offers an example of the Test of the Wine in practice.
Third, given that drinking sessions tend to become boisterous (671a6-7), as the speakers in the Laws know well (671b1), Plato includes a proviso for a sober symposiarch at drinking bouts (640d4-7) — a figure strikingly different to the thoroughly soused Alcibiades and his brazen self-proclamation as a symposiarch at Agathon’s party. Notably, Alcibiades’ ambition to emulate the profligate lifestyle of the Sicilian tyrants (Thucydides 6.15.3-4) is reflected in his penchant for excessive wine-drinking. Thus, the Test of the Wine is not just a way of safeguarding the moral constitution of individual citizens but also of assessing the city’s reflexes against political corruption and tyranny.
Fourth, although philosophical inquiry is clearly a passionate affair, as seen especially in the Phaedrus, it is constant training that enables humans to channel their passion so as to align themselves with divine virtue, and this is the only application of sōphrosynē that produces justice and makes us happy (Laws 660e-664b). Accordingly, in his Timaeus (71e4-72a) Plato defends philosophical frenzy, which here he compares to divination, arguing that although “no man achieves true and inspired divination when in his rational mind”1, it belongs to a man when in his right mind to recollect and ponder both the things spoken in dream or waking vision by the divining and inspired nature, and all the visionary forms that were seen, and by means of reasoning to discern about them all wherein they are significant and for whom they portend evil or good in the future, the past, or the present. […]; for it was well said of old that to do and to know one’s own and oneself belongs only to him who is sophron”. Importantly, sōphrosynē lies at the heart of the Socratic elenchos, his famous form of cross- or self-examination; the dialectical form of elenchos aptly reflects the effect of becoming conscious of oneself to the point of being able to have a discussion with the Self — thus, in this sense the Socratic elenchos is the method of achieving ec-stasis (literally standing beside/outside oneself). It follows, then, that the Test of the Wine is a form of introducing the average citizen (and eventually the city as a collective) to the Socratic elenchos.
Fifth, it seems that sōphrosynē is identified as a means of achieving sobriety. Thus, in the Republic (439c5-d2) Plato notes that certain individuals can suppress their urge to drink by the power of reason and thus overcome the afflictions and illnesses that threaten the soul. In this context, those who use actual drunkenness, as in Laws 815d, to claim religious or philosophical insight are reckless impostors and have no place in the ideal city.
Thus, appreciating the metaphorical value of drunkenness and how it functions in the Symposium and the Phaedrus is paramount for discerning between real and fake inspiration. To the extent that drunkenness is avoided, the presence of actual wine in the Laws, and similarly in the Symposium, does not destroy its metaphorical value: in the Laws our control over wine is compared to our control over other passions, which can make us “drunk with pleasure” (649d6-7), while in the Symposium the metaphor focuses on the difference between appearance and essence, drunkenness and true inspiration, and how the application of Socratic sōphrosynē can have a life-altering effect on his audiences (securing them happiness).
This last observation, however, leads to a further question that begs for our attention: since, as Plato often admits in his dialogues (for example, Euthyphron 3c; Theaetetus 173c-e), philosophical reasoning makes the wise man appear as a drunkard and/or madman to his fellow-citizens, how can the philosophical ideal of sōphrosynē be applied in the civic context without undermining the coherence of the city? After all, the philosopher is explicitly said in the Theaetetus (173d4–6) to not even dream about “the fuss and meetings of political clubs for offices, banquets and revels with singing girls.”
Philosophical Sōphrosynē and civic soberness
In the Laws, Plato discusses symposia under the rubric of “right education” and its role in the new city (653a1-2). We have our first taste of education, Plato claims, when as children we learn to distinguish pleasure from pain (653a6-7); however, we ought to cultivate this first sense of judgement as we grow up, hoping to acquire wisdom and true opinions only by the time that we reach old age (653a9-11).
Only after reaching the age of forty, citizens are allowed “to join in the convivial gatherings and invoke Dionysus, above all other gods.”
Hence, while the educative character of the Test of the Wine is obvious, it is more suitable for re-affirming the sōphrosynē imbued to the citizens during their formative years, not the means of first acquiring it. Hence in Laws 666a1-c7 Plato stipulates that no children under eighteen should be allowed to touch wine since it is “wrong to pour fire upon fire either in body or in soul.” Young men under thirty are encouraged to take wine in moderation, but “totally abstain from intoxication and heavy drinking;” only after reaching the age of forty, citizens are allowed “to join in the convivial gatherings and invoke Dionysus, above all other gods.”
Furthermore, although philosophers are typically portrayed as undertaking a solitary journey to wisdom, based on their own free will, as stated in the Charmides (176b), a city requires a substantial number of its members to subscribe to the same values; this kind of conformity can be only achieved through a strictly regulated educational system (see Republic 439c5-d2 cited above). Thus, the Test of the Wine does not aim at producing a sublime state like that claimed by the worshippers of Dionysus in the Bacchae and the Symposium, but has a more limited scope focusing on practical applications of sōphrosynē. In Laws 653b1-c4 we read:
“Education,” then, I define as the virtue that first comes to children: for when pleasure and love, and pain and hatred are bred rightly in the souls of those who are yet unable to grasp things by reason, after acquiring reason, they consent in accordance with it that they have been rightly trained in appropriate habits; this consent, considered in its entirety, is virtue, while the part of it that is rightly nourished in respect of pleasures and pains, […], if you were to […] call it “education,” you would be giving it, in my opinion, its right name. (trans. R.G. Bury. 192. Plato. Laws, Volumes I and II. Loeb Classical Library 187 and 192. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press)
Taking start from our innate ability for “the pleasurable perception of rhythm and harmony” (653e8-9), musical education is paramount in the statesman’s agenda. Only the best citizens should be appointed to judge the criterion of music which is none other than pleasure (658e8-659a5).
In other words, only when citizens have a firm (and common) understanding of what pleasure is, acquired under the guidance of their educators, they can exercise sōphrosynē to achieve this sense of balance that Plato illustrates with yet another comparison, that of the State to a mixing-bowl of wine (773c8-d4). Here, “the sober deity of water” is praised for balancing the madness of wine when stirred in it appropriately. Similarly, in the Philebus, Plato illustrates our struggle for balance with the metaphor of the wine-pourer:
We are like wine-pourers, and beside us are fountains — that of pleasure may be likened to a fount of honey, and the sober, wineless fount of wisdom to one of pure, health-giving water — of which we must do our best to mix as well as possible. (61c5-8; trans. H.N. Fowler and W.R.M. Lamb. 1925. Plato. Statesman. Philebus. Ion. Loeb Classical Library 164. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press)
The metaphor expands on Plato’s ever-present analogy between a healthy body and a virtuous soul, prevalent in the Republic and advocated in the Symposium by Eryximachus, the doctor among the guests (18d9-e2). Notably, as mentioned above, contemporary medical views described the human constitution in relation to opposing elements in the body, a balance that wine could apparently influence. Thus, we should review these views in order to examine how they discuss the constitution of philosophers as opposed to that of the average person and their respective ability to control wine.
Wine and intelligence
The Hippocratic Regimen, an influential medical text dated around the end of the fifth century BCE, discusses human intelligence as the balance of fire and water in the soul (I.35.2-14 in LCL 150 = 6.512,21-514,7 Littré).
The text identifies fire and its menos (warmth), with the seed of intelligence, and discusses constitutions in which fire is more prevalent over the water element in the soul: exceeding primacy of fire in the soul results, we are told, in exceptional perception to the point that those who have such souls suffer from dreams and are called half-mad (hupomainomenoi). This state of near madness (I.35, lines 128-131 =6.520,19-522,2 Littré) can be triggered even from small inflammations “whether arising from intoxication, or overabundance of flesh, or eating meat.” Water should be the drink of choice for these people or soft white wine. This regimen, we are told, is expected to produce the most intelligent soul.
Hence, the warmth of the fire is associated with increased mental agility, and it can, when manipulated by wine or other certain foods, bring people closer to madness — or at least, make them appear as manic.
Accordingly, in Timaeus 60a6-7 Plato discusses oinos (wine) as a kind of fire-water which warms not only the body but also the soul, while in the Symposium Socrates is described as able to withstand not only the effects of wine on him but also those of cold: according to Alcibiades, Socrates amazed his comrades by walking lightly clad and barefoot in freezing conditions during the Potidaea campaign (Symposium 220a8-b10). In other words, Socrates’ exceptional intelligence, constantly exercised through philosophical inquiry, renders him impervious to both wine and cold — also, note that in the Phaedo (60e1-8) Socrates admits to having recurrent dreams about engaging with philosophy.
Socrates was likely aware of the medicinal properties of the wine and the ancient theory of intelligence, analyzed in the Regimen, because in Xenophon’s Symposium (2.24) he welcomes the opportunity to drink, since “wine does in fact ‘moisten the soul’ and lull our pains to sleep just as mandragora lulls people, at the same time awakening kindly feelings just as oil does a flame.”
Xenophon reiterates that Socrates could consume copious amounts of wine without ever getting drunk (cf. Symposium 214a5-6), while in the Memorabilia (1.3.6-8) he notes that Socrates maintained the balance of elements in his soul by paying attention to his eating and drinking habits.
In conclusion, although Socrates’ heightened perception renders him similar to a drunkard and/or a madman, wine can be used by the average citizen as a medicine, generously provided by Dionysus to humankind, for the soul (to help us acquire modesty) and for the body (to maintain it strong; 672d7-9). The wine metaphors used in the Symposium and the Laws expand on the difference between drinking and being drunk and draw on contemporary medical ideas of the soul as hot matter which can be manipulated by wine, represented in the Hippocratic Regimen. Thus, the Test of the Wine allows citizens to get a small taste of the elation of the philosopher (possibly inducing greater acceptance for wise men in the city), while safeguarding civic ethos both at the individual and the collective levels.
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N.B. The arguments summarized here are developed more fully and with ample supporting bibliography in chapters 1-3 of my forthcoming book on The History of Inebriation from Plato to Landino, completed under the auspices of the Australian Research Council (FT160100453; https://app.dimensions.ai/details/grant/grant.6444196). Other recent publications discussing ideas relevant to the project include:
Anagnostou-Laoutides, E. and Payne, A. 2021. “Drinking and Discourse in Plato,” Méthexis 33, 57-79.
Anagnostou-Laoutides, E. 2021. “Sócrates el sátiro sobrio y la posición de Platón respecto a la risa,” en J. Lavilla de Lera & J. Aguirre Santos (eds), Humor y filosofía en los diálogos de Platón, Anthropos, Barcelona (and UAM-Iztapalapa, just published).
Anagnostou-Laoutides, E. and Van Wassenhove, B. 2020. “Drunkenness and Philosophical Enthusiasm in Seneca,” Scripta Classica Israelica 39, 15-34.
Anagnostou-Laoutides, E. 2020. “Drunk on New Wine (Acts 2:13): Drinking Wine from Plato to the Eucharist Tradition of Early Christian Thinkers,” in K. Parry and E. Anagnostou-Laoutides (eds), Eastern Christianity and Late Antique Philosophy, Leiden: Brill, 81-109.
Anagnostou-Laoutides, E. 2020. “A Toast to Virtue: Drinking Competitions, Plato, and the Sicilian Tyrants,” in H. Reid, J. Serrati, T. Sorg (eds), Conflict and Competition: Agon in Western Greece: Selected Essays from the 2019 Symposium on the Heritage of Western Greece, Sioux City: Parnassos Press, 123-138.
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Eva Anagnostou-Laoutides is Associate Professor at the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University and Australian Research Council Future Fellow (2017-2021). Her research interests focus on the use of mythic and religious traditions in political agendas of the Hellenistic and Augustan periods; also, the reception of Greek philosophy in early Christianity. She is currently finishing a book on The History of Inebriation from Plato to the Latin Middle Ages and runs an Australian Research Council Discovery Project on Crises of Leadership in the Eastern Roman Empire, 250-1000 CE.