Southwest Brewing News

In Vino Veritas
Pompous Hypocrisy by Richard Vang
Southwest Brewing News. (Austin, TX) 1994, 2:5

Presented by the Upstate Chunk & Paradigm Company


As you know, good readers, the Great American Beer Festival is coming soon.  You also know that there is no better place to drink beer, network with other zymurgists, and discuss the virtues of your favorite brew.  With such a lengthy and decadent event, however, the tendency to get out of hand is quite common, and while your bodies might be going to hell in a hand basket, you try to keep your minds sharp by sharing philosophia with fellow drinkers, intent on solving the world's problems.  While engaged as such, you all think that you invented this activity in your basement or at your local bar, each of you believing yourself to be the Prime Mover of both wit and discourse.  But the fact is, my friends, that the ancient Greeks were engaging in such symposia over 2500 years ago.

The following passage is from Plato's Symposium (The Works of Plato, Modern Library, 1956), and is an accurate example of just how far you, as drinkers,  have not evolved. In our story, several companions are celebrating at the house of Agathon, who has recently won the prize with his first tragedy, on the day after his sacrifice to victory.  They are joined by Socrates, who has come in late. 

Socrates took his place on the couch, and supped with the rest; and then libations were offered, and after a hymn had been sung to the god, and there had been the usual ceremonies, they were about to commence drinking, when, Pausanias said, And now, my friends, how can we drink with least injury to ourselves?  I can assure you that I feel severely the effect of yesterday's potations, and must have time to recover; and I suspect that most of you are in the same predicament, for you were of the party yesterday.  Consider then: How can the drinking be made easiest?

I entirely agree, said Aristophanes, that we should, by all means, avoid hard drinking, for I was myself one of those who were yesterday drowned in drink.

I think that you are right, said Eryximachus, the son of Acumenus; but I should still like to hear one other person speak: Is Agathon able to drink hard?

I am not equal to it, said Agathon.

Then, said Eryximachus, the weak heads like myself, Aristodemus, Phaedrus, and others who never can drink, are fortunate in finding that the stronger ones are not in a drinking mood.  (I do not include Socrates, who is able either to drink or to abstain, and will not mind, whichever we do.)  Well, as none of the company seem disposed to drink much, I may be forgiven for saying, as a physician, that drinking deep is a bad practice, which I never follow, if I can help, and certainly do not recommend to another, least of all to any one who still feels the effects of yesterday's carouse.

I always do what you advise, and especially what you prescribe as a physician, rejoined Phaedrus the Myrrhinusian, and the rest of the company, if they are wise, will do the same.

It was agreed that drinking was not to be the order of the day, but that they were all to drink only so much as they pleased.

Then, said Eryximachus, as you are all agreed that drinking is to be voluntary, and that there is to be no compulsion, I move, in the next place, that the flute-girl, who has just made her appearance, be told to go away and play to herself, or, if she likes, to the women who are within.  To-day, let us have conversation instead . . .

At this point, the companions take turns making speeches on the various natures of love, ending with Socrates.  But soon, as often happens with such gatherings, an uninvited guest arrives.

When Socrates had done speaking, the company applauded, and Aristophanes was beginning to say something in answer to the allusion to his own speech, when suddenly there was a great knocking at the door of the house, as of revellers, and the sound of a flute-girl was heard.  Agathon told the attendants to go and see who were the intruders.  "If they are friends of ours," he said, "invite them in, but if not, say that the drinking is over."  A little while afterwards they heard the voice of Alcibiades resounding in the court; he was in a great state of intoxication, and kept roaring and shouting "Where is Agathon?  Lead me to Agathon," and at length, supported by the flute-girl and some of his attendants, he found his way to them.  "Hail, friends," he said, appearing at the door crowned with a massive garland of ivy and violets, his head flowing with ribands.   "Will you have a very drunken man as a companion of your revels?  Or shall I crown Agathon, which was my intention in coming, and go away?  For I was unable to come yesterday, and therefore I am here to-day, carrying on my head these ribands, that taking them from my own head, I may crown the head of this fairest and wisest of men, as I may be allowed to call him.  Will you laugh at me because I am drunk?  Yet I know very well that I am speaking the truth, although you may laugh.   But first tell me; if I come in shall we have the understanding of which I spoke?   Will you drink with me or not?

The company were vociferous in begging that he would take his place among them, and Agathon especially invited him. . . .

Then he said: You seem, my friends, to be sober, which is a thing not to be endured; you must drink--for that was the agreement under which I was admitted--and I elect myself master of the feast until you are well drunk.  Let us have a large goblet, Agathon, or rather, he said, addressing the attendant, bring me that wine-cooler.  The wine-cooler which had caught his eye was a vessel holding more than two quarts--this he filled and emptied, and bade the attendant fill it again for Socrates.   Observe, my friends, said Alcibiades, that this ingenious trick of mine will have no effect on Socrates, for he can drink any quantity of wine and not be at all nearer being drunk.  Socrates drank the cup which the attendant filled for him.

Eryximachus said: What is this, Alcibiades?  Are we to have neither conversation nor singing over our cups; but simply to drink as if we were thirsty?

Alcibiades replied: Hail, worthy son of a most wise and worthy sire!

The same to you, said Eryximachus; but what shall we do?

That I leave to you, said Alcibiades.  "The wise physician skilled our wounds to heal" shall prescribe and we will obey.  What do you want?

Well, said Eryximachus, before you appeared we had passed a resolution that each one of us in turn should make a speech in praise of love, and as good a one as he could: the turn was passed round from left to right; and as all of us have spoken, and you have not spoken but have well drunken, you ought to speak, and then impose upon Socrates any task which you please, and he on his right-hand neighbor, and so on.

That is good Eryximachus, said Alcibiades; and yet the comparison of a drunken man's speech with those of sober men is hardly fair; and I should like to know, sweet friend, whether you really believe what Socrates was just now saying; for I can assure you that the very reverse is the fact, and that if I praise any one but himself in his presence, whether God or man, he will hardly keep his hands off me.

For shame, said Socrates. . . .

Here Alcibiades relates events similar to those for which Socrates was later accused of corrupting the youth.

All this may be told without shame to any one.  But what follows I could hardly tell you if I were sober.  Yet as the proverb says, "In vino veritas," whether with boys, or without them; and therefore I must speak.  Nor, again, should I be justified in concealing the lofty actions of Socrates when I come to praise him.

Lest ye forget, however, such "manly" relationships were virtuous to the Greeks, and since Socrates was an exemplary Greek, Alcibiades praises him in the end. (No pun intended.)

All this happened before he and I went on the expedition to Potidaea; there we messed together, and I had the opportunity of observing his extraordinary power of sustaining fatigue.  His endurance was simply marvelous when, being cut off from our supplies, we were compelled to go without food--on such occasions, which often happen in time of war, he was superior not only to me but to everybody; there was no one to be compared to him.  Yet at a festival he was the only person who had any real powers of enjoyment; though not willing to drink, he could if compelled beat us all at that,--wonderful to relate!  No human being had ever seen Socrates drunk; and his powers, if I am not mistaken, will be tested before long. . . .

Alcibiades, by now completely intoxicated, has revealed his true admiration for Socrates, but he is rebuked in favor of Agathon.  But as parties go, more uninvited guests arrive, and things really get out of hand.

Agathon rose in order that he might take his place on the couch by Socrates, when suddenly a band of revellers entered, and spoiled the order of the banquet.  Some one who was going out having left the door open, they had found their way in, and made themselves at home; great confusion ensued, and every one was compelled to drink large quantities of wine.  Aristodemus said that Eryximachus, Phaedrus, and others went away--he himself fell asleep, and as the nights were long took a good rest: he was awakened towards day-break by a crowing of cocks, and when he awoke, the others were either asleep, or had gone away; there remained only Socrates, Aristophanes, and Agathon, who were drinking out of a large goblet which they passed round, and Socrates was discoursing to them.  Aristodemus was only half awake, and he did not hear the beginning of the discourse; the chief thing which he remembered was Socrates compelling the other two to acknowledge that the genius of comedy was the same as that of tragedy, and that the true artist in tragedy was an artist in comedy also.  To this they were constrained to assent, being drowsy, and not quite following the argument.  And first of all Aristophanes dropped off, then, when the day was already dawning, Agathon.   Socrates, having laid them to sleep, rose to depart; Aristodemus, as his manner was, following him.  At the Lyceum he took a bath, and passed the day as usual.   In the evening he retired to rest at his own home.

From this story, I am inclined to think that when that great philosopher said "All things in equilibrium," he meant not that we should enjoy only a little bit of everything, but that indulgence should be offset by abstention, as the situation allows.  But I am afraid, good readers, that the road to inebriation is paved with good intentions, and while some of you may go overboard on the first night of the GABF, you will be compelled to do so again on the next day, despite your appeals to the gods that you'll "never drink again."  There is no doubt that some of you, when you put your "beer-togas" on, often think that you have a constitution equal to Socrates', yet, when the scene which we have just witnessed is re-enacted in your hotel rooms, you will drop off as feebly as Aristophanes or Agathon.  This should lead you to believe that, like History, we study Philosophy to learn from the mistakes of the past.   Unfortunately, as the gods well know, some people just never learn.


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