Standing on ceremony (Dec - 2009)

The consumption of alcohol has been demonised because we have lost the art of the ritual, argues writer and philosopher Roger Scruton

In the ancient world, wine was revered and feared as a god. As with all the gods, it had to be managed through ritual. The symposium (or ‘drinking together’) invited Dionysus, god of wine, into a ceremonial precinct. Guests, garlanded with flowers, would recline two to a couch, propped on their left arm, with food on low tables before them. Decorous slaves filled their cups from a communal mixing bowl, in which the wine would be diluted with water, so as to postpone for as long as possible the moment of inebriation. Manners, gestures and words were as strictly controlled as at a Japanese tea ceremony, and guests would allow each other time to speak, recite, or sing, so that conversation always remained general. One such event, recorded and embellished by Plato, is familiar to all lovers of literature as the scene of the encounter between Socrates and Alcibiades. Plato’s Symposium is designed as a tribute to Eros. It is really a tribute to Dionysus (or Bacchus, as the Romans called him) and illustrates the ability of wine, when properly used, to set love and desire at a distance that makes them discussable.

The Greek symposium was exclusive and highly privileged – only men could participate, and only men of a certain class. But the principle applies more widely. Wine is an addition to human society, provided it is used to embolden conversation, and provided conversation remains civilised and general. We are appalled by the drunkenness in our city streets, and many are tempted to blame alcohol for the riot, since alcohol is part of its cause. But public drunkenness, of the kind that led to Prohibition, arose because people were drinking in the wrong way.

The answer is not to prohibit drink, but to follow the Greeks in ritualising it. We English used to have our own rituals to match those of the symposium. Wealthier people would circulate wine after dinner, so ensuring that each guest could refill his glass, but only when the decanter came round, devoting himself meanwhile to general conversation. A similar ritual controlled drinking in the pub. The round of drinks was, for the poorer members of society, both an affordable form of hospitality, and a way of ensuring moderation.

All such rituals are disappearing from our society – driven from the pub by so-called music, and from the private dinner party by the habit of drinking before, during and after the meal. Yet the Greeks were right: without ritual of some kind, Dionysus is dishonoured, and takes his revenge by making us mad. The answer to drunkenness, therefore, is the reinvention of ritual. To boozers of the Kingsley Amis sort, there is something precious in the sniffing, commenting and metaphor-hunting that frame the drinking of wine. For the wine lover, however, they are an essential part of the enjoyment – ways of postponing pleasure, and thereby enhancing it. Even for our sceptical and secular age, wine has remained a partly spiritual product, a bottled memory of some much-loved patch of earth.

Properly introduced, therefore, a good bottle draws all attention to itself. Egoists are silenced, ignoramuses shamed, and seducers distracted, as the aroma is swirled before the assembled faces. This ritual is the signal for a general discussion, in which each person tries to say something that will interest the others. Wine, properly appreciated, encourages both temperance and conversation – the two great casualties of our binge culture.

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