Saturday, January 06, 2007

Independent Collegian Column: The Virtue of Alcohol

The virtue of alcohol

Patrick Beeman

Allison Dow is a puritan. Certainly you've read her column in these pages and may have got the impression that she has more in common with Margaret Sanger than, say, the Pilgrims who so thankfully gave us our most recent holiday. I would aver that her allegiances lie more closely to those in America, who are often disavowed as "puritanical" (which conveniently rhymes with "tyrannical") than she would like to admit. George W. Bush, for instance, is officially a Methodist; and as we all know historically and notoriously, those Methodists could be quite a teetotaling bunch. But I get ahead of myself.

Last week, I had the pleasure of drinking some coffee with Allison and the rest of The IC columnists. In response to my innocent remark, "too bad we aren't sipping draught Strongbow cider right now," she accused me of being an alcoholic. Now being the rather reflective medical student that I am, I immediately began thinking about the meaning of the virtue of temperance and its relation to drink.

As you well know, according to the Western tradition, there are four "cardinal" virtues. The word "cardinal" comes from a Latin word meaning "hinge." Hence, there are four virtues upon which a well-lived life swings, as it were. They are given as Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. Let's consider the last.

Temperance as a word has taken on a rather soft meaning as of lately. Normally, it is associated solely with moderation in food or drink. One thinks of the prohibition or temperance movements of time past. However, in his marvelous little work, "The Four Cardinal Virtues," the German philosopher, Josef Pieper, observes that temperance is the virtue of "selfless self-preservation." That is, temperance is a virtue which gives man the ability to rightly order himself with respect to the goods of the material world in way that is at once pleasurable without being hedonistic and restrained without being austere.

A person who has temperance enjoys, to the fullest, all aspects of life: sex, drink, food, etc. Yet there is a caveat; enjoying the material world "to the fullest" necessarily means not being enslaved to the joy of sex or the pleasure of drink or what have you. There is a certain apposite context for enjoying each of these things outside of which they lose their proper meaning. No doubt, we all recognize that Jared after the "Subway diet" is in a better position to enjoy life to its fullest than the man who actually fit into those gigantic pants he so smugly holds up in every commercial.

Temperance is a virtue which we need in order to make life something exciting - kind of like an adventure. Alcoholics and teetotalers have one thing in common: they both lack the virtue of temperance. The alcoholic cannot say no. The teetotaler cannot say yes. Both are vicious (i.e. having to do with vice). As Aristotle observed, a virtue is the habit of choosing readily, reasonably and joyfully the excellent middle ground between two extremes of action, one with respect to excessive action (drinking too much), and the other with respect to defect (not drinking at all).

I often quip that I converted to Catholicism so I could enjoy beer, as opposed to some modern forms of Christianity which are teetotaling (a markedly un-Christian idea, if you ask me). In all seriousness though, one thing certain about the Catholic Church is her ability to affirm the pure joy and goodness of redeemed creation. Look at her saints - St. Francis of Assisi (a joyful ascetic if there ever was such a thing), St. Pierre Giorgio (one can't find a picture of this saint without a mug of beer in his hand or cigar in his mouth) or G.K. Chesterton (not officially a saint, but a person with a real joie de vivre if there ever was one). Or consider this prayer from the Rituale Romanum: "Bless, O Lord, this creature beer, that Thou hast been pleased to bring forth from the sweetness of the grain: that it might be a salutary remedy for the human race: and grant by the invocation of Thy holy name, that, whosoever drinks of it may obtain health of body and a sure safeguard for the soul, Through Christ our Lord. Amen."

Religion has some powerful arguments for enjoying the goodness of drink. But it is the puritans whom we need to watch with care. For as the Psalm reads, "You bring bread from the earth, and wine to gladden our hearts (104:14)." Pace, Allison.

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