Book of the Week: A Short History of Drunkenness

21 May|Mark Forsyth

A Short History of Drunkenness is a rollicking and highly amusing survey of mankind’s relationship with booze from the ancient Egyptians to modern day. Ahead of author Mark Forsyth‘s appearance at the Idler Dinner on Wednesday 30 May, we reproduce an extract below.

The Greeks didn’t drink beer, they drank wine; but they watered it down by a ratio of about two or three parts water to one part wine, which made it almost exactly the same strength. That’s the funny thing about the Greeks: they had to complicate everything. Still, this allowed them to indulge in their very favourite pastime, because more than anything else, more than philosophy or pederasty or drinking or sculpture, the Greeks loved being sniffy about foreigners.

The Persians drank beer; that made them barbarians. The Thracians drank undiluted wine; that made them barbarians. The Greeks were the only people who had it just right, according to the Greeks.

Given the Greek penchant for cocking a snook at those who dared to be not-Greek, it’s a little surprising that their god of wine, Dionysus, was usually said to be a foreigner. He was born on Mount Nysa, which was in either Ethiopia or Arabia, or sometimes India, and he had travelled to Greece from the East with a horde of exotic animals and dancing humans and centaurs and other mythical creatures.


Dionysus didn’t like teetotallers. This is unsurprising for a god of wine, but Dionysus being Dionysus he tends to kill them cruelly. The most famous example is a play by Euripides where the King tries to outlaw maenadism [meanads were women who worshipped Dionysus] so Dionysus makes his maenads believe that the King is a lion and they rip him limb from limb (the group is led by the King’s mother). There’s another story about Orpheus wandering the countryside. His wife has died and he wants to have a good cry. Unfortunately, he comes across a group of maenads who are all getting plastered and want him to join in. Orpheus politely declines and they rip him limb from limb as well.

There are a lot of stories like this and they all end the same way. The moral is pretty clear: you should recognize that drinking is dangerous and that it might turn you into a wild beast, but you should still drink. Never turn down an invitation to a party. Do not, whatever you do, try to ban drunkenness.

Greek mythology has a funny, rather wary relationship with drunkenness. The Sumerians saw it as a pure and jolly communal good, the Egyptians saw it as an extreme sport, but the Greeks stood back and stroked their beards and pondered. They developed theories and employed strategies. The Spartans, who were a nasty bunch, would force their slaves to get drunk in front of the children, in order to put them off the idea. The Athenians, who were a trifle less sadistic, decided to philosophize over exactly how drunk you should get and how you should behave when drunk.

Plato, quite specifically, says that getting drunk is like going to the gym: the first time you do it you’ll be really bad and end up in pain. But practice makes perfect. If you can drink a lot and still behave yourself, then you are an ideal man. If you can do this in company, then you can show the world that you are an ideal man, because you are displaying the great virtue of self-control even under the influence.

Self-control, said Plato, was like bravery. A man can only display bravery when he’s in danger. A man can only display self-control when he’s drunk a lot of wine. Bravery can be learnt. A chap who spends his days fighting battles can train himself to be brave. A man who spends his evenings getting drunk can train himself to ever higher levels of self-control.

What is better adapted than the festive use of wine, in the first place to test, and in the second place to train the character of a man, if care be taken in the use of it? What is there cheaper, or more innocent?

Basically, Plato thought that if you can trust a fellow when he’s drunk, you can trust him anywhere. Moreover, the drinking test has no real downside. If you get into a business deal with a man and then find out that he’s dis-honest, you lose money. But if you get drunk with him first you get to see his true character, without putting anything at risk.

All of which leads to the logical conclusion that you can’t trust a teetotaller.

Mark will be speaking at the next Idler Dinner on Wednesday 30 May. Buy tickets here. A Short History of Drunkenness by Mark Forsyth is publishing by Viking.