One of My Very Favorite Chesterton Essays…

Speaking of drinking…

Wine When It Is Red

I suppose that there will be some wigs on the green in connection with the recent manifesto signed by a string of very eminent doctors on the subject of what is called “alcohol.” “Alcohol” is, to judge by the sound of it, an Arabic word, like “algebra” and “Alhambra,” those two other unpleasant things. The Alhambra in Spain I have never seen; I am told that it is a low and rambling building; I allude to the far more dignified erection in Leicester Square. If it is true, as I surmise, that “alcohol” is a word of the Arabs, it is interesting to realise that our general word for the essence of wine and beer and such things comes from a people which has made particular war upon them. I suppose that some aged Moslem chieftain sat one day at the opening of his tent and, brooding with black brows and cursing in his black beard over wine as the symbol of Christianity, racked his brains for some word ugly enough to express his racial and religious antipathy, and suddenly spat out the horrible word “alcohol.” The fact that the doctors had to use this word for the sake of scientific clearness was really a great disadvantage to them in fairly discussing the matter. For the word really involves one of those beggings of the question which make these moral matters so difficult. It is quite a mistake to suppose that, when a man desires an alcoholic drink, he necessarily desires alcohol.

Let a man walk ten miles steadily on a hot summer’s day along a dusty English road, and he will soon discover why beer was invented. The fact that beer has a very slight stimulating quality will be quite among the smallest reasons that induce him to ask for it. In short, he will not be in the least desiring alcohol; he will be desiring beer. But, of course, the question cannot be settled in such a simple way. The real difficulty which confronts everybody, and which especially confronts doctors, is that the extraordinary position of man in the physical universe makes it practically impossible to treat him in either one direction or the other in a purely physical way. Man is an exception, whatever else he is. If he is not the image of God, then he is a disease of the dust. If it is not true that a divine being fell, then we can only say that one of the animals went entirely off its head. In neither case can we really argue very much from the body of man simply considered as the body of an innocent and healthy animal. His body has got too much mixed up with his soul, as we see in the supreme instance of sex. It may be worth while uttering the warning to wealthy philanthropists and idealists that this argument from the animal should not be thoughtlessly used, even against the atrocious evils of excess; it is an argument that proves too little or too much.

Doubtless, it is unnatural to be drunk. But then in a real sense it is unnatural to be human. Doubtless, the intemperate workman wastes his tissues in drinking; but no one knows how much the sober workman wastes his tissues by working. No one knows how much the wealthy philanthropist wastes his tissues by talking; or, in much rarer conditions, by thinking. All the human things are more dangerous than anything that affects the beasts–sex, poetry, property, religion. The real case against drunkenness is not that it calls up the beast, but that it calls up the Devil. It does not call up the beast, and if it did it would not matter much, as a rule; the beast is a harmless and rather amiable creature, as anybody can see by watching cattle. There is nothing bestial about intoxication; and certainly there is nothing intoxicating or even particularly lively about beasts. Man is always something worse or something better than an animal; and a mere argument from animal perfection never touches him at all. Thus, in sex no animal is either chivalrous or obscene. And thus no animal ever invented anything so bad as drunkenness–or so good as drink.

The pronouncement of these particular doctors is very clear and uncompromising; in the modern atmosphere, indeed, it even deserves some credit for moral courage. The majority of modern people, of course, will probably agree with it in so far as it declares that alcoholic drinks are often of supreme value in emergencies of illness; but many people, I fear, will open their eyes at the emphatic terms in which they describe such drink as considered as a beverage; but they are not content with declaring that the drink is in moderation harmless: they distinctly declare that it is in moderation beneficial. But I fancy that, in saying this, the doctors had in mind a truth that runs somewhat counter to the common opinion. I fancy that it is the experience of most doctors that giving any alcohol for illness (though often necessary) is about the most morally dangerous way of giving it. Instead of giving it to a healthy person who has many other forms of life, you are giving it to a desperate person, to whom it is the only form of life. The invalid can hardly be blamed if by some accident of his erratic and overwrought condition he comes to remember the thing as the very water of vitality and to use it as such. For in so far as drinking is really a sin it is not because drinking is wild, but because drinking is tame; not in so far as it is anarchy, but in so far as it is slavery. Probably the worst way to drink is to drink medicinally. Certainly the safest way to drink is to drink carelessly; that is, without caring much for anything, and especially not caring for the drink.

The doctor, of course, ought to be able to do a great deal in the way of restraining those individual cases where there is plainly an evil thirst; and beyond that the only hope would seem to be in some increase, or, rather, some concentration of ordinary public opinion on the subject. I have always held consistently my own modest theory on the subject. I believe that if by some method the local public-house could be as definite and isolated a place as the local post-office or the local railway station, if all types of people passed through it for all types of refreshment, you would have the same safeguard against a man behaving in a disgusting way in a tavern that you have at present against his behaving in a disgusting way in a post-office: simply the presence of his ordinary sensible neighbours. In such a place the kind of lunatic who wants to drink an unlimited number of whiskies would be treated with the same severity with which the post office authorities would treat an amiable lunatic who had an appetite for licking an unlimited number of stamps. It is a small matter whether in either case a technical refusal would be officially employed. It is an essential matter that in both cases the authorities could rapidly communicate with the friends and family of the mentally afflicted person. At least, the postmistress would not dangle a strip of tempting sixpenny stamps before the enthusiast’s eyes as he was being dragged away with his tongue out. If we made drinking open and official we might be taking one step towards making it careless. In such things to be careless is to be sane: for neither drunkards nor Moslems can be careless about drink.

  • Sarah

    Marc, I really do like your blog a lot, but I gotta say, the frequent focus on prohibition and the greatness of sex rubs me a little the wrong way.

    Not because I disagree with you– I think Puritanism and prohibitionism are annoying, at best, and strongly misguided and ignorant at worst. In fact, I strongly support the legalization of weed.

    But I think a teenager promoting this so heavy-handedly, as a pet cause of sorts, seems kind of affected. Like, you know when you hear a group of kids talking about all the booze they drank at that party the other night and got so-totally-wasted and man-it-was-awesome? And you roll your eyes, knowing they probably had like, two wine coolers? That’s kind of what it sounds like. It just sounds like you’re trying a wee bit too hard.

    That of all Chesterton’s great work, the one singing the praises of drink– which is supposed to be so arbitrary, right?– is one of your favorites does not speak well for where your priorities lie.

    • Marc

      pssh, you think this shows how screwed up my priorities are? if you had to hang out with me you’d hate me altogether ( :
      but re-read the Chesterton essay, it is so, so, so, so, so much more than a mere praise of drink.

    • Rusty Shackleford

      People tend to care about those injustices most directly affecting them. I still find the drinking age and all forms of prohibition abhorrent, but I certainly was much more vocal about the drinking age when I was under 21.

      Speak up Marc, just don’t forget to keep caring after you turn 21.

      • Sarah

        Hey, don’t get me wrong; I’m only 20, and don’t live at home anymore where I could bum a beer from my dad. If I need something to help me relax after a long work week, I have to resort to buying a pack of cigarettes I probably won’t finish.

        So yeah, sometimes the 21 year age limit hits hard. But it’s not the most important thing ever.

        Like I said, I really do love this blog. Marc’s a great writer– but sometimes when he mentions how awesome things like sex and drinking are, he sounds like he’s trying to hard to sound relevant. He doesn’t need to resort to that.

        • Evan B.

          I think Marc’s post is more about giving an example of Chesterton’s deep understanding of the human condition, as well as his belief in a truly sacramental world, than about how cool it is to drink. “Certainly the safest way to drink is to drink carelessly.” Chesterton’s (and Marc’s, by way of agreement) point here is not the importance of drink, but rather its unimportance.

          And by looking at the Christian man’s treatment of alcohol in contrast with animals and Mohammedans, Chesterton is able to use something as trivial as drink to bring about something as profound as the conclusion that, “Man is an exception, whatever else he is. If he is not the image of God, then he is a disease of the dust.” But wait…I thought we were talking about Carling and Old Speckled Hen, not the truth’s of man’s very existence. See what he did there?

          As a student pursuing a medical career, I loved the essay for this passage, for which alcohol was not oracle or obstacle, but vehicle:

          “The real difficulty which confronts everybody, and which especially confronts doctors, is that the extraordinary position of man in the physical universe makes it practically impossible to treat him in either one direction or the other in a purely physical way.”

          As far as the general emphasis on alcohol and sex throughout the blog, if be there any, I think it makes sense entirely to talk about the things that society (especially Marc’s likely audience of, I assume, young Americans) often gets most wrong. As shown above, examining these superficial things can lead to meaningful thought towards deeper aspects of being human and being Catholic.

          Catholics are in this world, and not of it.
          But we’re still in it.

          (P.S. Sounds like you might be using alcohol/cigs “medicinally.” DANGERDANGERDANGER. You might want to read GKC’s essay once more.)

  • Patrick

    Actually, the discovery of Alcohol occured more or less in Salerno, in Sicily. There were a lot of Islamic doctors and early scientists there (it was something of a philosopher’s den), and many Latin scientific and medical terms came from Greek or Arabic speakers there. We should perhaps not be surprised that it didn’t spread into the Islamic world, wich was already reaching its Zenith and beginning a slow decline. The “scowling” Arab potentates didn’t have to scowl at this, because nobody was fool enough to suggest it to scowling potentates.

  • Jay E.

    ‘I suppose that some aged Moslem chieftain sat one day at the opening of his tent and, brooding with black brows and cursing in his black beard over wine as the symbol of Christianity, racked his brains for some word ugly enough to express his racial and religious antipathy, and suddenly spat out the horrible word “alcohol.”’

    LOL, that’s totally brilliant. And undoubtedly true.

  • Gracy

    Just wanted to say I had never read any of Chesterton’s writings until I read your blog. Thanks for the exposure to other writers


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