To quote Homer, alcohol is the “solution to all of life’s problems.” Contrary to this sage, however, Megillus lauds the Spartan law forbidding alcohol as evidence that his city has the best view of pleasure. You will never, he argues, see Spartans making fools of themselves while under the influence—unlike certain other cities we might name… Athens. Maybe we’re drunks, the Athenian Stranger replies, but at least our women can keep their legs together! And just when the conversation is in danger of getting ribald, the Athenian reminds us that we are supposed to be considering a specific topic: namely, the “merits and faults of legislators” (637d). And in having this discussion, we should note that there is a legitimate role for alcohol to play that has been overlooked.
What the Spartans have missed is the fact that it is drunkenness that is the vice, not drinking itself. (As someone with Baptist inclinations, I can sympathize with the error.) And when it comes to drinking, we see that there are all sorts of possible cultural practices and codes of laws that we could follow. Everything from the total temperance of the Spartans to the grandiose drunkenness of the barbarians is on the table.
Yet, Megillus retorts, the Spartans regularly defeat all of these folks on the battlefield. Does that not suggest their laws concerning alcohol, and by extension their entire code of laws and way of life, are the superior ones?
This discussion becomes a jumping-off point for the broader analysis of education. Because victory in war is no guide to whether or not a state has a good government—larger states with wicked constitutions conquer virtuous smaller ones all the time—we must, the Athenian argues, have some other explanation than the battlefield. But in order to get to that explanation, we have to set aside our presuppositions and judge based on the merits of the law under consideration. Failing to do so leads the Athenian to the best line so far in the book:
You might as well condemn cheese out of hand when you heard somebody praising its merits as a food. (638c)
That is, we don’t want to hear the word “drunkenness” and automatically be against whatever is being proposed. What’s more, our own experiences and observations cannot be the final and definitive guide. The fact that you have seen someone drunkenly vandalizing a storefront and I have seen someone enjoying a glass of wine over dinner are both ultimately poor foundations for a law.
This leads to a second point, in addition to setting aside our own prejudices, we have to examine the object under consideration at its best. That is, we should not judge the drinking party by the fraternity kegger that got out of hand and burned down the school; we should judge the drinking party by the one that has a host of consummate skill who manages the affair so well that by the end everyone has benefited morally and intellectually, if not also physically, from their attendance.
Under these conditions, we can see that drinking parties may be of great use to the state in advancing education. And once we’ve put it in those terms, we can all see the benefits:
The good education they [citizens] have received will make them good men, and being good they will achieve success in other ways, and even conquer their enemies in battle. (641c)
Though we do have to be careful—victory leads to arrogance, and arrogance can undermine the efforts of education.
But where, the Athenian is asked, do drinking parties fit in specifically?
…the genuinely correct way to regulate drinking can hardly be explained adequately and clearly except in the context of a correct theory of culture; and it is impossible to explain this without considering the whole subject of education. (642a)
And so the Athenian sets off on an extended reflection on the nature and purpose of training and raising up the young.
So what is the purpose of education? In the most specific sense, the point of education is to train an individual from childhood with the skills for and delight in “the occupation in which he will have to be absolutely perfect when he grows up” (643d). That is of course true on all of the smaller levels—carpentry, blacksmithing, etc. But in the context of the current discussion,
what we have in mind is education from childhood in virtue, a training which produces a keen desire to become a perfect citizen who knows how to rule and be ruled as justice demands. (644a)
When this is properly done, education becomes the path to virtue. If it is not properly done, it is our obligation to dedicate ourselves to correcting this flaw in the state.
What, then, does education that is properly put together look like? To help us understand, the Athenian gives us an allegory:
…let’s imagine that each of us living beings is a puppet of the gods… we have these emotions in us [pleasure and pain, confidence and fear, etc.], which act like cords or strings and tug us about… One of these dragging forces… demands our constant obedience, and this is the one we have to hang on to, come what may; the pull of the other cords we must resist. This cord, which is golden and holy, transmits the power of “calculation,” a power which in the state is called the public law… (644e–645a)
The job of education is to convince us to cling to this golden cord. By our educational training we are to learn both to recognize its gentle guidance and to truly enjoy the life lived according to its leadership. Where drinking parties specifically fit into this education scheme we will see in the next section.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.