Will the Wise Man get Drunk? An Ancient Philosophic Controversy

John Dillon

I propose to discuss a subject which attracted the attention of no less formidable a moralist than the philosopher Plato (c.428–347 BC), and which thereafter plainly exercised members of the various Hellenistic schools to an appreciable, but alas largely unobservable, extent, although it is plainly a question of some importance. This is the question of whether or not the wise man should indulge in wine-drinking.

The discussion will involve us in the study of two separate texts, one from Plato’s Laws, and the other from a work of the Platonising Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria (c.15 BC–AD 50), who here, as so often in other matters, serves as a repository for otherwise lost Hellenistic lore. This latter is the treatise On Noah’s Work as a Planter (Plant. 142–77), where, in the course of commenting on Genesis 9: 20-1 (“Noah began to be a husbandman, a tiller of the soil; and he planted a vineyard and drank of the wine, and became drunk.”), he announces that he is going to give us a survey of previous philosophical discussion on the subject of whether the wise man will get drunk (εἰ μεθυσθήσεται ὁ σοφός, 142).

The drunkenness of Noah, Giovanni Bellini, c.1515 (Museum of Fine Art and Archaeology, Besançon, France).

The first of these texts presents Plato’s views on the usefulness of symposia (evening drinking parties) and the use of wine, while the second is a rhetorical discourse, preserved by Philo, but probably to be credited to some unidentifiable Stoic philosopher,[1] that argues how the Sage (Stoic or otherwise) may properly indulge in wine, while of course stopping short of hooliganism. In both cases, the views expressed appear surprisingly broadminded for the authors in question, but, as we shall see, in each case there is a catch.

Near the beginning of Plato’s final dialogue, The Laws (1.637a ff.), in the course of a discussion of the proper aim that a lawgiver should have in mind for the state, the Spartan Megillus directs what must have been a favourite Spartan gibe at the Athenian, who has been accusing the Spartan constitution of being too single-mindedly concerned with military prowess, and not enough with the rest of virtue:

“The Spartan law relating to pleasures seems to me the best you could find anywhere. It has completely eliminated from our country the thing which particularly prompts men to indulge in the keenest pleasures, so that they become unmanageable and make every kind of fool of themselves: drinking parties, with all their violent incitements to every sort of pleasure, are not a sight you’ll see anywhere in Sparta, either in the countryside or in the towns under her control. None of us would fail to inflict there and then the heaviest punishment on any tipsy merry-maker he happened to meet; he would not let the man off even if he had the festival of Dionysus as an excuse. Once I saw men in that condition on wagons in your country, and at Tarentum, among our own colonials, I saw the entire city drunk at the festival of Dionysus. We don’t have anything like that.” (tr. Trevor. Saunders)

A Spartan drinking helmet, date uncertain (priv. coll.).

Normally, one would expect Plato to agree with Spartan criticisms of Athenian democratic licence. Here, however, he makes the Athenian (generally regarded as a mouthpiece for his own views) strike back. After adverting censoriously to the licentious behaviour of Spartan women, he raises the question of drunkenness to a more general level (637d–e):

“In fact, there is a great deal more we ought to say on the whole subject of drinking: it is a custom of some little importance, and needs a legislator of some skill to understand it properly. I am not talking about merely drinking wine or totally abstaining from it: I mean drunkenness (methē, μέθη). How should we deal with it? One policy is that adopted by the Scythians and Persians, as well as by the Carthaginians, Celts, Iberians, and Thracians – belligerent races, all of them. Or should we adopt your policy? This, as you say, is one of complete abstention, whereas the Scythians and Thracians (the women as well as the men) take their wine neat, and tip it all down over their clothes; in this they reckon to be following a glorious and splendid custom. And the Persians indulge on a grand scale (though with more decorum) in these and other luxuries which you reject.”

We must define more carefully, the Athenian continues, what we mean by indulgence in wine. There is a right way and a wrong way, and he declares that he has never yet seen a symposium conducted in an absolutely correct manner (639d). It emerges that the correct administration of symposia may be seen as intimately bound up with the whole question of the correct principles of education (642a), and this leads to an excursus on that subject which culminates in the striking image of man as a puppet of the gods (644d ff.). It is against this background that the discussion of wine-drinking is continued.

“Tell me now,” says the Athenian (645d), “if we give strong drink to this puppet of ours, what effect will it have on its character?” The answer is that it will intensify all its sensations, pleasures and pains, passions and lusts. Is there any reason, asks the Athenian, why a wise man should submit himself to such a situation (646a)? The answer is a qualified affirmative. Might he not do so, the Athenian suggests, in the same spirit as that in accordance with which people submit to drinking medicine, which in the short run they know will debilitate them, or to a hard work-out in the gymnasium, which they know will physically exhaust them? In either case they submit for the sake of some subsequent benefit. Could there, then, be any such benefit accruing from getting drunk?

Alcibiades’ entrance in Plato’s Symposium, etching by Pietro Testa, 1648.

The Athenian then presents a hypothetical situation to his auditors. Suppose there were a drug which induced symptoms of fear into those to whom it was administered, would it not be very useful to a lawgiver to administer this drug to the citizens, individually or in groups, to study their reactions under the stress of fear, and thus get a good idea of whom he should appoint to posts of danger and responsibility? Megillus and his Cretan host Clinias agree. Well, there is, unfortunately, no such drug as this, says the Athenian, but there is one, on the other hand, which induces fearlessness and overconfidence, namely wine (649a–b):

“And doesn’t this do just the opposite of what we described a moment ago? When a man drinks it, it immediately makes him more cheerful than he was before; the more he takes, the more it fills him with boundless optimism: he thinks he can do anything. Finally, bursting with self-esteem and imposing no restraint on his speech and actions, the fellow loses all his inhibitions and becomes completely fearless – he’ll say and do anything, without a qualm.”

The drunk Bacchus, woodcut by Hans Baldung, c.1520.

So then, to get a good idea of what vices or weaknesses may lurk beneath a man’s exterior, the thing is to get him drunk. If this is done at the official level, as in Plato’s ideal state of Magnesia, the result will be the weeding out of society, or at least of positions of responsibility, of those who under stress exhibit tendencies to moral weakness.

As I suggested at the outset, if we find Plato being apparently broad-minded, as here on the question of wine-bibbing, we must suspect that there is a catch. And of course there is. The catch is that, under the influence of Bacchus, one is likely to reveal one’s latent tendencies to the vigilant eye of the Guardians of the Laws, As the head of the NKVD (secret police) under Stalin, Lavrentiy Beria liked to maintain that “Everyone is guilty of something; the only problem is to find out what it is.” That seems to be the spirit of Plato’s proposals here, although he is suggesting a rather jollier means of finding out what it is than those favoured by Comrade Beria and his men.

Lavrentiy Beria with Stalin’s daughter, as Stalin reads in the rear, 1931.

In view of these hidden dangers, let us go on to raise the question, Will the wise man get drunk? This, as I said at the beginning, is the title of the treatise of which Philo has preserved for us the essence. It is rather academic and scholastic in form, and indulges in much verbal quibbling, exhibiting all the marks of a fairly dry school treatise, though amplified by Philo in his rather florid style.

The term methuein (μεθύειν), “to get drunk”, so the essay begins (Plant. 142), has two possible meanings. It may mean oinousthai (οἰνοῦσθαι), “to indulge in wine”, or it may mean lērein en oinōi (ληρεῖν ἐν οἴνῳ), “to babble in one’s cups” – or perhaps one might say, “drunk and disorderly”. This is an accepted Stoic distinction, as we can see from the texts cited in Note 1 below, and presumably the states that are being distinguished here are (a) that of being slightly potted, and (b) the foolish behaviour that may result from being in such a state. That is a valid enough distinction, we can all agree. Plainly the Sage will not get to the second stage; but will he even get to the first, or will he eschew the demon drink altogether?

Philo, engraving by André Thevet, from Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres grecz, latins et payens (Paris, 1584).

On this vexed question Philo lists at least two, and possibly three, opinions, all probably held by thinkers within the Stoic school. The first (143) maintains that the Sage will neither take strong drink to excess (ἀκράτῳ πλείονι χρήσεσθαι) nor give way to drunken babbling (ληρήσειν), since the latter is a sin (hamartēma, ἁμάρτημα), while the former is “productive of sin” (ἁμαρτήματος… ποιητικόν)[2] – and both of these are incompatible with the status of an achieved sage (katorthōn, κατορθῶν).

A second school of thought (144), however, while declaring “babbling” (ληρεῖν) to be unsuitable to the Sage, feels that indulging in drink (οἰνοῦσθαι) could well be suitable, since the Sage’s moral excellence would be capable of holding its own against any assault upon it. It is like the case of a strong swimmer being plunged into a torrent. His skill will get him to shore, while a weak swimmer would go under instantly.

Yet a third school of thought[3] (145–7) feels that the Sage, knowing the disastrous effects of excessive wine-drinking, will never voluntarily engage in it, except when there is some matter of great importance at issue, such as the salvation of one’s fatherland, or the preservation of one’s nearest and dearest. In that case, it would be like volunteering to take poison to save someone else.

Pythagoras advocating veganism, Peter Paul Rubens, 1618/20 (Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace, London).

The mind boggles at what precisely is being envisaged here. Are we to think, perhaps, of a mad tyrant threatening to destroy the native city, or murder the parents or children of a Sage unless the Sage agrees to get helplessly rat-arsed in his company? That is certainly the scenario suggested, and it is just dotty enough for a minor Stoic school philosopher to have thought it up, by way of a refinement on the previous positions.

At any rate, that completes what Philo designates as the preliminaries (prooimia, προοίμια) of the enquiry (149). He now turns to the argument proper in favour of the Sage’s getting drunk. The first point he makes, after a protracted preliminary discourse on the nature of homonyms and synonyms, is that there is really no difference, such as some previous thinkers were inclined to make, between oinousthai (οἰνοῦσθαι) and methuein (μεθύειν), just as there is no difference between the nouns oinos (οἶνος) and methu (μέθυ); they are simply synonyms, both meaning “wine”. So, contrary to what is claimed by the authority reported by Diogenes Laertius,[4] there is no difference between the Sage oinousthai and the Sage methuein: “if such a one becomes filled with wine (oinōthēsetai, οἰνωθήσεται), he will get drunk (methusthēsetai, μεθυσθήσεται), and he will be in no worse plight for being drunk, but in precisely the same state as he was brought to by being filled with wine” (155).

Boy with a glass and a lute, Frans Hals, c.1626 (City of London Corporation, Guildhall Art Gallery, London).

After this argument, which might be termed an argument ‘from definition’, we have two arguments ‘from etymology’. The first, after contrasting the morals and the customs of the ‘good old days’ with the depravity of the author’s own day, asserts (162ff.) that methuein may be etymologized as meta to thuein (μετὰ τὸ θύειν), “after sacrificing”,[5] since the wise men of old used to indulge in wine only after performing sacrifice:

Knowing, then, that, like other things, the use and enjoyment of wine needs great care, they took strong drink neither in great quantity nor at all times, but in such order and season as was befitting. For after having first prayed and presented sacrifices and implored the favour of the Deity, when they had cleansed their bodies by ablutions and their souls by streams of holy ordinances and instructions in the right way, radiant and gladsome they turned to relaxation and enjoyment, in many cases not after returning home, but remaining in the temples in which they had sacrificed in order that both the recollection of their sacrifices and their reverence for the place might lead them to celebrate a festivity in actual truth most holy, sinning neither in word nor deed.

The preposterous etymology on which this argument is based is necessarily that of Philo’s Stoic source rather than Philo himself, since the scenario of sacrifice envisaged is Hellenic rather than Jewish.[6] This is true likewise of a second etymological argument which follows (165–71). It is now suggested that methuein derives from methienai (μεθιέναι, to relax, or “let go”) and, it is argued, in a manner quite reminiscent of Plato’s defence of wine-drinking in the Laws, that “the wise man becomes a more genial person after indulging in wine than when he is sober, and accordingly we should not be in the wrong in asserting on this ground, as well as on those others, that he will get drunk.”

Marble bust of Plato, Roman copy of a Greek original from the 4th cent. BC (Vatican Museums, The Vatican).

Relaxation, then, will bring out the worst in foolish people, but in the wise it will bring out the best:

For strong drink is likely to intensify natural tendencies, whether good or the reverse, just as many other things do. Money, it has been said, is the cause of good things to a good man, of evil things to a bad man. Fame, again, makes the fool’s badness more conspicuous, while it causes a brighter glory to rest upon the virtue of the righteous man. On this principle, therefore, a lavish use of strong drink places the man who has given the rein to his passions more completely at their mercy, while it makes him who has cherished right feelings[7] more kindly and well disposed.

A true sage, then, will only be improved by the ingestion of strong drink, but a bogus sage will necessarily be unmasked; and that, I should say, is the catch in this case.

Roman sarcophagus depicting the triumph of Dionysus, 2nd cent. AD (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD, USA).

I will conclude by turning from these rather contrived Hellenistic arguments back to Plato. For Plato has another argument in the Laws in favour of wine, one which is rather more sublime and less sinister than his first.

The subject of drinking appeared to have been dropped at the end of Book 1 in favour of a general discussion of the aims and principles of education, but Plato returns to it again later in Book 2, in connexion with his insistence on the role of choral dance in education (665d ff.). Rhythmical motion of the body assists the harmonious and orderly activity of the mind, which in turn brings us into accord with the harmony of the cosmos, ordered as it is by the divine mind. Apollo and the Muses preside, very suitably, over this activity. But, like everything else in Plato’s ideal state, dance must be presided over also, and regulated, by some human authority. The problem is that the proper authority resides in those over 40, and the over-40s in Magnesia are liable to be men of such stately demeanour as to be indisposed, when sober, to indulge in song and dance. And yet to be proper instructors they must themselves dance.

Plato’s Symposium, Anselm Feuerbach, c.1869 (Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe, Germany); the later version used as the header of this piece dates to 1871/4 and now hangs in the Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany.

Plato’s solution is to form what he calls a “third chorus”, over and above those of the boys and men (which were familiar to the Greeks of real life), and to dedicate this chorus, not to Apollo or the Muses, but to Dionysus. I will end with the passage in which he proposes this (666a–c):

“So how shall we encourage them to be enthusiastic about singing? The first law we shall pass, surely, is this: children under the age of eighteen are to keep off wine entirely. We shall teach them that they must treat the violent tendencies of youth with due caution, and not pour fire on the fire already in their souls and bodies until they come to undertake the real work of life. Our second law will permit the young man under 30 to take wine in moderation, but he must stop short of drunkenness and bibulous excesses. When he reaches his 30s, he should regale himself at the common meals, and invoke the gods; in particular, he should summon Dionysus to what is at once the play-time and the prayer-time of the old, which the god gave to mankind to help cure the crabbiness of age. This is the gift he gave us to make us young again: we forget our peevishness, and our hard cast of mind becomes softer and grows more malleable, just like iron thrust in the fire. Surely any man who is brought into that frame of mind would be ready to sing his songs (that is, ‘charms’, as we’ve called them often enough) with more enthusiasm and less embarrassment?”

And that is the most enthusiastic endorsement of wine that we are going to get from Plato.

We can see here, I think, what begins as a somewhat whimsical treatment of the topic on Plato’s part (although in truth he is serious enough about it): it takes on, at the hands of philosophers of the Stoic school (and possibly others) in the Hellenistic era, all the trappings of a formal scholastic topos, before ultimately falling into the hands of that marvellous intellectual magpie, Philo, who turns it most ingeniously to his own purpose – which is to vindicate the wisdom of Moses in this matter, as in all others.

John Dillon is the Emeritus Regius Professor of Greek at Trinity College, Dublin. He was educated at Oxford (BA, MA) and the University of California at Berkeley (PhD), where he spent a dozen years in the department. His publications include The Middle Platonists, 80 BC to AD 220 (Cornell UP, Ithaca, NY, 1977, 19962), Alcinous: The Handbook of Platonism (Oxford UP, 1993), Iamblichus, De Anima (with John Finamore, Brill, Leiden, 2002), The Heirs of Plato: A Study of the Old Academy, 347–274 BC (Oxford UP, 2003), The Roots of Platonism: The Origins and Chief Features of a Philosophical Tradition (Cambridge UP, 2019) and Philo of Alexandria: On the Life of Abraham (with Ellen Birnbaum, Brill, Leiden, 2021). He also penned the foreword/warning to one of the world’s most important books.

Further Reading

For more on Plato’s Laws, see Malcolm Schofield and Tom Griffith, Plato: Laws (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, Cambridge UP, 2016) and Glenn R. Morrow, Plato’s Cretan City (Princeton UP, 1960). On Philo, see Peder Borgen, Philo of Alexandria: An Exegete for his Time (Brill, Leiden, 1997), and Michael E. Stone, Aryeh Amihay and Vered Hillel (eds.), Noah and His Book(s) (Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, GA, 2010). For a whistle-stop survey of how the ancients enjoyed their drink, perhaps try this article.


1 There is unfortunately no identifiable title by any of the Stoic philosophers that would indicate that they discussed this question, although it might have arisen in the course of some more general treatise on ethics. The form of the treatment of the question, however, seems distinctively Stoic, to the extent that Hans von Arnim was prepared to include portions of Philo’s text in his Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta (3.712). A short statement in Arius Didymus’ survey of Stoic ethics (cited in Stobaeus’ Eclogae 1 p.109,5ff. Wachs.=SVF 3.643), however, indicates that the question was discussed in Stoic circles: “It is not possible for one who possesses intelligence to get drunk (οὐχ οἷόν τε μεθυσθήσεσθαι τὸν νοῦν ἔχοντα); for drunkenness involves error, since it is definable as babbling in one’s cups (λήρησις… παρὰ τὸν οἶνον) and in no respect does the wise man err, by reason of the fact that (reading διὰ τὸ) he acts in all cases in accordance with virtue and the right reasoning (ὀρθὸς λόγος) emanating from this.” This may constitute a paradoxical claim that the Sage will not get drunk no matter how much he consumes (indeed Hermann Usener wished to lessen the apparent paradoxicality by reading οἷον δὲ for οἷόν τε, but this is not, I think, necessary); but it may simply be intended to mean that the Sage will not consume so much wine as will make him drunk. Again, in Diogenes Laertius (7.118=SVF 3.644) we find the bald statement: “the wise man will partake of wine, but he will not get drunk” (οἰνωθήσεσθαι μέν (sc. τὸν σπουδαῖον), οὐ μεθυσθήσεσθαι δέ), which would support the second, more moderate interpretation.
2 This term is reminiscent of the formulation hamartētikon (ἁμαρτητικόν) found in the Arius Didymus passage (=SVF 3.643) quoted in Note 1.
3 Francis Colson, in his Loeb translation (1930), is inclined to see this as a reference back to the first school of thought, since the position taken up is hardly distinguishable, but the οἱ δὲwith which it is introduced makes it sound much more as if Philo intends it to be a third, even if the point of differentiation is not easy to discern.
4 SVF 3.644, cf. Note 1. Plutarch, we may note, bears witness, in De garrulitate (On Talkativeness) 4.503e, to the fact that the question as to whether there was a difference between oinōsis (οἴνωσις) and methē (μέθη) was one debated by philosophers, and adduces the authority of Homer (Od. 14.463–6) in favour of there being a difference.
5 This etymology seems to have been first proposed by Aristotle, according to Athenaeus, Deipn. 2.40c (=fr.102 Rose).
6 I should perhaps, at this relatively late stage, defend my interpretation of this as an actual philosophic treatise, rather than a sophistic or rhetorical exercise, as Isaac Heinemann argues in the introduction to his German translation of the work (pp.150ff.), in which he is followed by Colson in the introduction to his Loeb edition (p.209). It must be admitted that Philo at §149 indicates that two opposing stances may be taken up on the topic, viz that the wise man will get drunk, and that he will not, and at the end of the treatise (175–7) he presents at least the beginning of a series of refutations of arguments for the latter position; but, on the other hand, Philo consistently speaks of this thesis as being dealt with by philosophers (143, 173 – in this latter passage he mentions the great number of treatises that have been composed On Drunkenness,of which, as I have noted, we have only this one surviving), and in the event, the arguments against the thesis are explicitly presented only “in order that a perfectly fair decision may be arrived at, neither side being condemned by default,” and in fact the one argument that is presented is immediately countered, so that the whole seems to me (as it did to von Arnim in his Quellenstudien zu Philon [Berlin, 1888]) quite consistent with Stoic authorship.
7 eupatheiai (εὐπάθειαι) as opposed to pathē (πάθη), a characteristically Stoic distinction.