The Athenian Stranger has hinted that the symposium, if properly run, has a legitimate place in the education of the young. Cleinias is intrigued and asks for further consideration of the topic. The Athenian first gives a hint of an aspect of the drinking party he will return to later in the dialogue when he notes that the drunkard “reverts to the mental state he was in as a child” (645e). We’ll see more on how alcohol can enable one to be “born again” in a few weeks.
Here, the Athenian makes a different argument: viewed and practiced properly, drinking can be the spiritual and emotional equivalent of going to the gym. That is, although it can temporarily weaken us, over the long term it makes us stronger as it enhances our senses. And as with going to the gym, it must be done in the right way and at the right times in balance with an overall well-ordered lifestyle.
The idea is that alcohol intensifies the passions that drive us, even as it wipes out our internal restraints constructed through “sensations, memory, opinions, and thought” (645e). At first glance, this would seem to be paving the way for the tyrant of the Republic and hence opposed to everything Plato stands for. Plato even points out that the virtuous man will realize this and so be tempted to eschew at least drunkenness, if not alcohol all together.
But! With the proper guidance by a wise legislator (presumably in this case also the guy throwing the party), alcohol becomes a tool in the service of virtue rather than a roadway to self-destruction. We can see this when we realize that the passions which come to dominate the drunk are not inherently wicked but rather have an appropriate role to play in the virtuous life. Taking the example of fear, the Athenian notes that cowardice and shamelessness are both kinds of fear that need to be offset by the virtues of courage and modesty. In other words, cowards have too much fear, while the shameless have too little. Both need to exercise their virtue just as an athlete exercises his body for a race.
Obviously one way to exercise these virtues would be to throw the individuals into the situations where they are required. We could just throw the coward into combat or put the shameless person under intense public shaming. But wouldn’t it be better, the Athenian asks, if we could devise a test that lets people practice without any actual danger to themselves or the state? (648b) This is where alcohol comes in, for it has a role to play both as the test itself and in the development of virtue. In terms of the latter, alcohol reduces men to a childish state and gives us some sort of practice at facing our vices and trying to overcome them. (Plato will have more to say on this later.) In terms of the former, alcohol reveals the naked soul.
In normal circumstances we may not be able to tell whether one person is a coward and another is shameless until the one is thrown into combat and runs away, and the other publicly disgraces himself at the theater. For that matter, both the coward and the shameless man may have even been unaware of their own vices. Alcohol, on the other hand, brings those vices to the forefront and reveals them to themselves and to others.
So this insight into the nature and disposition of a man’s soul will rank as one of the most useful aids available to the art which is concerned to foster a good character—the art of statesmanship. (650b)
After all, the Athenian asks, isn’t it better to know about a man that he is a lecher before we ask him to babysit our daughters? Isn’t it better to find out that someone has a temper while we’re out drinking together, rather than after we’ve signed a business agreement?
All this to say, given our goals in education, we shouldn’t write off a tool that might help us understand how any given individual can best be taught. Which is going to lead Plato back into the nature of education, which in turn will lead him back to alcohol.
As an ending note: if the folks who think that the Laws and the Republic are doing the same thing are correct (and they may very well be), then this section on alcohol is a depressing one, as it would appear that the elderly Plato is throwing his hands up in the air and saying “you know what, fine. You people clearly can’t understand the myth of the metals or the myth of Er, so you know what great philosophy is like? Booze, that’s what.” A more charitable interpretation might be that Plato had been spending the intervening years between the two works reflecting on how one might exactly determine the content of one’s soul, given that most people might not want the brutal process of elimination outlined in the Republic. Drinking, on the other hand…
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.