The Greek Rule
September 6, 2016 (Fault Lines) – From college kids to Saudi royalty, people like to drink. We always have. For over ten thousand years, we’ve been fermenting nearly anything we could get our hands on. The cultivating effect of booze is often underestimated: there’s evidence to suggest the invention of beer coincided with the rise of the first great civilization, Sumer.
The ancient Greeks, who attached an elaborate mythology to wine, put getting drunk at the heart of the most important event in aristocratic society, the symposion. The god of wine, Dionysus, was also the god of revels and transgressions; on vases, his celebrated female followers, known as maenads, are shown as Greek noblewomen who forget their upbringing under the influence and party so hard they go crazy, willing and able to tear animals to shreds with their bare hands.
This basic concept – the normal rules don’t apply when you’re drunk – comes up again and again in Greek culture. Sometimes, it’s clear that the Greeks approved. The symposion, for example, was closed to everyone but aristocratic men and the “entertainers” of both genders, all ages and every conceivable background that were fixtures at these parties, whether paid for by the host or brought along as escorts by the guests.
Outside the symposion, if a Greek nobleman wanted a whore, his peers would expect him to hire a hetaera, one of the elegant, cultured, musically and conversationally gifted girls that made up the highest ranks of prostitute. (Many of these girls were great beauties, some were models, and a few were powerful businesswomen and celebrities in their own right.) But thanks to the magic of booze, there was no stigma attached to choosing an older and coarser porne at the party, as long as you did it in the presence of your friends. Indeed, your friends sometimes participated; some of the most famously un-Victorian scenes in Greek art come from symposion pottery.
On the other hand, while booze and setting counted for a lot, just getting shitfaced at an aristocratic party wasn’t good enough if you wanted to transgress. To the Greeks, controlled drinking* was a cardinal virtue; they refused to drink wine without mixing it with water, and the most important person at the symposion was the symposiarch, in charge of adjusting the wine/water ratio to ensure people got drunk at a steady rate. Four Loko-style drinking was a sign of barbarism and madness.
And it seems not all transgressions were created alike. For instance, while there are a couple of scenes where drinkers longingly eye the naked wine-boys or share a couch and stare into each other’s eyes, there’s at most one explicitly gay scene in symposion art. There were elaborate rules for when Greek men could have gay relations, and with whom; a speech by Aeschines, Against Timarchus, shows the political and even legal ramifications of breaking them.
Blasphemy was another big no-no. Alcibiades, one of the great figures of the Peloponnesian War and a guest star on several Socratic dialogues, was accused of impiety by his enemies. Plutarch says that in addition to shenanigans like breaking the penises off a bunch of statues of Hermes, Alcibiades and his friends were alleged to have gotten drunk at the symposium, dressed up as priests and reenacted scenes from the Eleusinian Mysteries, the most secret and sacred cult of Ancient Greece. Interestingly, the Mysteries were themselves a drunken party of sorts, where aristocrats hauled pigs around on their backs and people took kykeon, a psychedelic drink made with mint, barley, pennyroyal and magic mushrooms.**
If you wanted to tease out a general rule, it’s that the combination of drink, setting, who you are and the company you’re in determines whether you can bend the rules. Of course, that was long ago, in a very different culture, and it’s doubtful whether it would apply to us.
Compared to the charming complexities and internal contradictions of ancient Greece, our modern attitude to things like drink seems a little stale. In our curiously Victorian atmosphere of silly facial hair, cyclical crime panics, anti-vice movements, fear of getting buried alive terrorism and infantilizing women, is it any wonder that tolerance for departures from the norm is at an all-time low?
Never mind that America’s safer than ever before. Crime is bad, and must be severely dealt with. Because vice is also bad, when crime and vice intersect, concerns like proportionality or reason are especially likely to be trampled underfoot in the headlong rush to impose as harsh a punishment as possible. Drug warriors and the sex-worker prohibitionists that claim to be fighting “human trafficking” thrive in this kind of environment.
But even in this joyless and puritanical place, the Greek Rule found a way to survive. It turns out that, MADD notwithstanding, “Thou Shalt Not Drink and Drive” applies a lot less forcefully if you’re a prosecutor in the company of cops. Alternatively, if you’re a drunken cop in the company of prosecutors, you can get away with rule-bending up to and including “Thou Shalt Not Brutalize Random Security Guards While Holding a Baby.”
And like Alcibiades, who (allegedly) went too far when he drunkenly profaned the Mysteries, it’s possible for an intoxicated cop to do something so heinous he just has to be condemned. When, on August 23, an off-duty NYPD cop who had been watching Monday Night Raw at the Barclays Arena passed out drunk in the street, he was suspended, and the New York Post stopped its unwavering support of the police long enough to write an article gleefully condemning him. Why? While he was passed out, the cop’s gun was exposed, and in New York, a gun not fully under the control of an authority figure represents a sin worse than breaking the dicks off any number of statues.
If we’re going to be Victorians, we should at least do away with the hypocrisy of that society. Better to emulate the Greeks, who melded a strict caste and slavery system with the ability to have fun once in a while. What we’ve got going here is the worst of both worlds.
*This is the original meaning of the word “temperance.” Prohibitionists take note.
**That’s one theory, anyway.