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Virtuous Drinking and States of Intoxication

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from John O’Brien, a Lecturer in Sociology at the Waterford Institute of Technology in Waterford, Ireland. His research has focused on alcohol policy, political leadership and social memory. In 2018 his book States of Intoxication, a historical sociology of alcohol and its place in state and society, was published. His recent work has focused on urban policy, examining the ‘creative city’ thinking, the growth of cultural quarters, and the expansion of the night-time economy. His current research projects focus on the secularization of addiction treatment services, alcohol-related public order offences in the night-time economy, and commemoration.

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Bernard Mandeville, in the context of the 18th Century gin epidemic (inspired by a revenue hungry British government) wrote: “Bare virtue can’t make nations live, In Splendour; they, that would revive, A Golden Age, must be as free, For acorns, as for Honesty”. In other words, private vices can be public virtues, and an emphasis on virtue can be a recipe for poverty. Vice – a going to the extremes, a failure to act in a proportionate manner, a disregard for tradition – can be beneficial, as it will generate economic vibrancy and fill the coffers. We could perhaps trace the genesis of Anglo-Saxon attitudes to alcohol and psychoactive substances involving the propensity to binges to this sharp utilitarian perspective. It is a dramatic contrast to the virtue ethics that had largely governed use previously, stemming from Platonic thought, which emphasised what was in due measure, embodied in the figure of Socrates who could not become drunk. The true philosopher could not become drunk because they were the embodiment of the measure, of ‘the good’.

Mandeville’s vision, which was so influential for Classical Economics, the philosophical bedrock of the revenue maximising British state, points to the way in which progression in political economy can come with a parallel process of social regression. The government stood on a more solid economic footing through the promotion of gin, one of the earliest mass consumer items, but concern about the effect this was having on the social body ran wild. The problem then, echoing through the ages to today, is not simply a promotion of consumption as this is not always government policy. The problem is also an absurd, almost comic picture of policy formation that goes in a cycle of promoting use and encouraging the market, to panicked regulation, to forgetful deregulation, to re-deregulation, to prohibition, to liberalisation and on and on. The effect is to create a topsy-turvey world where people can hardly be expected to know what the ‘measure’ is, what is in due proportion, what is virtuous drinking. It takes an individual years of practice to know how to drink wisely (with some never learning), and it may take societies generations to learn virtuous habits, as in the case of Mediterranean societies (who are incidentally in a process of forgetting as they look increasingly look to North European models of drinking).

The question of virtue is unfashionable, and particularly in relation to alcohol and other psychoactive substances it seems unwise in the context of moralising that has resulted in various harmful experiments with prohibition and barriers to providing effective treatment. Modernity is furthermore the age where ‘all that is solid melts into air’, so if virtue could be defined as the lessons of preceding generations passed down about how to constructively use psychoactive substances, surely these lessons have been lost to the churn and flux of our age.

The difficulty is that so much thought is modernocentric, taking its reference points from our times. Perhaps if we want to say something useful about virtuous drinking the best thing to do is to look outside of our own era to non-modern settings. The anthropologist of alcohol, Dwight B. Heath made the striking statement that ‘the idea that it is associated with problems is absent in many cultures, and the idea that it might be a major factor in the aetiology of a debilitating disease is highly unusual’ (Heath 1988: 398). There is an idea that runs through ethnographic research on non-modern societies that there are far fewer problems with alcohol in these societies. The relationship with drinking and psychoactive substance use of such small-scale societies on the fringes of the modern world, not yet fully drawn into it (and especially not devastated by the process like many indigenous groups have been) has a crucial difference with modern societies: these are not societies with states, and alcohol is not a source of revenue, and so the manner of drinking has not been subverted to the same degree by the logic of state formation. In these societies alcohol is a part of the ritual process, the cycle of festivities and networks of reciprocity that structures its use. In other words, traditions exist that protect against egoism and anomie by binding the activity within a communal setting, imposing obligations and limits through its ritualization.

That is a big generalisation, and its truth has been doubted by some who argue that the findings of these anthropologists have more to do with their bias to look for harmony and order where it may not exist, or their desire as liberals and progressives, to find examples of constructive use to present a contrast with the era of censoriousness and puritanism that their societies had previously passed through. Furthermore, maybe ethnography cannot make strong statements about what is healthy behaviour, as it cannot see population-level outcomes. However, it is a theme that runs strongly through the literature.

It does seem that throughout history the agent that we look to for protection and guidance on alcohol and other psychoactive substances has been a prime source of danger through its preoccupation on revenue and the absurd cycle of policy shift that disturbs virtuous traditions of use bedding in. Virtuous forms of use, meaning a safe and socially integrative manner of consumption, in reality can only come from real traditions.


Anderson, P. and Baumberg, B. (2006): Alcohol in Europe, London: Institute of Alcohol Studies, 2, 73-75.

Harrison, Brian (1971) Drink and the Victorians: The Temperance Question in England: 1815-72, Keele: Keele University Press.

Heath, D.B. (1988): “Emerging Anthropological Theory and Models of Alcohol Use and Alcoholism”, in Chaudron C.D. and Wilkinson, D.A. (eds) Theories on Alcoholism, Toronto: Addiction Research Foundation, 353–410.


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