Ancient Desires: Can The Ancient Greeks Teach Us to Drink?

By Margaret Ann Fetting 02/25/16

Plato and Hippocrates weigh in on abstinence vs. moderation.

Ancient Desires: Can The Ancient Greeks Teach Us to Drink?

The field of addiction treatment has long been polarized by competing viewpoints on the best approach to managing substance use. Although the abstinence model has long been dominant, many contemporary clinicians believe that moderation is the optimal approach. Margaret Fetting, a clinician who has been teaching, treating and writing about addiction for almost three decades, has a perspective that is informed by her experience of living and working in both the United States and Greece. She has studied the Ancient Greeks’ approach to drinking, which was highly structured, instructive and communal. Did the ancient Greeks get it right? Please share your views by leaving a comment after the article…Richard Juman, PsyD

As soon as I began teaching and clinically practicing in the field of addiction, I found myself intuitively inclined to consider an individualistic approach with persons struggling with their alcohol and other drug (AOD) habits. While I have always appreciated Alcoholics Anonymous and its encouragement of abstinence for some, I was early on drawn to take seriously my own, my patients’, and my students’ ideas about considering different perspectives when working with troubles with AOD. Over two decades, I developed 16 clinical sketches of unique relationships with these substances of pleasure. These include use, experimental use, voluntary nonuse, social use, problematic use at a problematic time, solitary use, watchful use, addiction, and discontinued use. This post emphasizes our ancient desire for intoxication and focuses on 2 of the 16 clinical sketches, experimental use and watchful use.

Experimental Use  

To experiment is to undertake, to discover something not yet known, to try out something, to find out whether or not it will be effective. To experiment is to test something out, to tentatively explore (Guralnik & Friend, 1968, p. 512). Unfortunately, our contemporary AOD culture is predominately filled with slogans such as “Just say no,” or “Stick with the Winners.” We have made experimentation into something dreadful and foreboding. I would like to think that this cultural message is evolving into a more accepting and open view of testing out our ancient desire for pleasure, relaxation and relief.  

Most of us associate experimentation with adolescent and young adults’ explorations in seeking intoxication. In the last ten years, I have noticed a developing trend with middle-aged adults in the area of experimentation. More and more individuals are seeking out counseling, psychotherapy or groups such as Moderation Management to explore resumption of this pleasure after a period of short- or long-term abstinence. They are experimental users, not necessarily relapsers, seeking a vigorous and robust experimental environment to find out what may or may not work for them.  

Clinical Case

Connie, in her early 50s, decided that her 2 to 3 glasses of nightly wine needed a change. She is a gourmet cook, and began her daily dinner preparations with a glass of chardonnay and stopped “sipping” as she cleaned up after the family meal. She rarely got intoxicated, never drank and drove, and kept on top of her family and parental responsibilities. She looked forward to her wine, but wondered: “If something was wrong with my habit.” She joined a group of friends in an enthusiastic New Year’s resolution to discontinue drinking for at least a year. She was committed, remained alcohol-free, and signed up for another year. Connie felt proud of her clear-headedness and decision-making, and her psychological growth in her ability to self-sooth. Connie only struggled briefly during a month in Europe, but chose to remain sober.  

After two years, she had a glass of wine one evening, and sheepishly shared this with me in our next session. We explored her reasons for returning: “I love the taste of wine. I adore the warm and relaxing effects. It is a pleasure that feels so good, and transitions me from the day’s demands into evening relaxation.”

The Ancient Greek Symposium

My approach to working with individuals in this category is very much influenced by the ancient Greek philosophies about drinking. Drinking alcohol was seen as ordinary, natural, and a right belonging to each individual. The Greeks considered wine to be a gift to humanity, having great potential powers including pleasure, chaos, and madness. As drinking was seen as an inherently pleasurable activity, it was understandable that people wanted to indulge in it as much as possible (Allhoff, 2007).

The Greek Symposium (very much akin to our contemporary harm reduction approach) was considered the appropriate place for exploring the pleasures of wine while minimizing the risks. The strict rules and guidelines of the symposium were based on the philosophical doctrine of temperance. For Plato, this meant subordinating (not extinguishing) the desire for pleasure to the dictates of reason, using will and discipline to avoid overindulgence and indiscriminate drinking. A philopotes, a “lover of drinking sessions,” bore no stigma. Yet, Greeks felt strongly that one must separate pleasure from overindulgence and learn to “tipple wisely.” For a small number of persons of “master passions,” Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, cautioned, “Should a patient be suffering from an overpowering heaviness of the brain [mind], then there must be total abstinence from wine” (Gately, 2008, p. 13).   

Early philosophers and playwrights concluded that wine should never be thrown out because of its potential dangers; rather it should be used for the better like any other power (Euripides, 1960). The Greek Symposium philosophers believed that “deciding what constitutes temperance or moderate drinking is a fact-intensive and individualized inquiry that depends on a number of complex factors” (Allhoff, 2007, p. 76-77). 

Back to Clinical Case-Watchful Use

Connie has been experimenting with alcohol in the last year. She wants alcohol in her life, but is haunted and conflicted by our protestant ethic cultural inclination of abstinence for all nature of AOD problems. She and I have tried to steer away from a good-bad paradigm. She is increasingly appreciating that she never spent time in her young life experimenting and learning about her own desires and impulses, “I needed to be a good girl at all times.” I think of our work as an introduction into befriending her impulses, as well as a re-education into the pleasures of mastering them. Connie can “diet,” restrict, or try to extinguish these desires, or she can accept her sometimes destructive impulses and work at the business of struggling with them, thereby reducing the amount of time she is at the mercy of them.  

In the last year, Connie has moved back and forth from daily evening drinking to interim days off during the week, to longer stretches of abstinence, often thinking that the latter is ultimately her best option. She is what I would call a watchful user, someone who chose abstinence for a period of time and decided to experiment and resume drinking with an attentive eye. It is likely her future drinking will require scrutiny throughout her lifetime. This vigilance is not a sign of pathology, but a part of the healthy management of a natural and pleasurable appetite.  

Connie is now much more reflective about her emotional state of mind preceding her decision to drink. She is vigilant these days about whether her choice to drink is a healthy habit or a problematic one. She connects being out of “my balance state when I overdo it, when I finish a bottle of wine when I really don’t need to.” Connie has slowly embraced the notion of her struggle with her impulses as a part of existence. She has increasingly let go of the Calvinistic expectation that one day, “I will eat and drink perfectly.” Her more relaxed mindset has allowed her to gently work with any of her destructive tendencies, accept them, and learn from her experiences. She is slowing gaining confidence. 

Her central struggle is inside her—“Is my desire for enjoying wine every night during cooking and dinner a healthy one for me? Can I live with the enjoyment of this desire without guilt and shame? Or, will I discover that it is best for me to be alcohol-free?”

The ancient Greeks and most contemporary Europeans would affirm that indeed enjoying wine is a lovely pleasure in life. However, it involves art, discipline, willpower, and skill, to learn to “tipple wisely.” Time will tell with Connie, but for now she is actively engaged in the struggle of determining for herself what is a healthy relationship with her ancient desire for intoxication and what is a destructive one.

Margaret Fetting has been practicing, teaching and writing in the Addiction and Substance Use Disorders field for nearly three decades. She resides and works in both the United States and Europe, with long-term affiliations at The University of Southern California, UCLA and The American College of Greece in Athens. Her most recent book, Perspectives on Substance Use, Disorders and Addiction was published by SAGE, Publishing, Inc, in October, 2015.

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Margaret Ann Fetting, PhD, is a clinician, educator, and writer in the field of substance use disorders and addiction. She is the author of, Perspectives On Addiction. Dr Fetting has a long-term affiliation with the University of Southern California, and her private practice is located Santa Monica, California. Dr. Fetting is also a regular guest lecturer at the Los Angeles Institute and Society for Psychoanalytic Studies, and can be reached at [email protected].