The Essays of Montaigne/Book II/Chapter II

Chapter II. Of drunkenness. Edit

The world is nothing but variety and disemblance, vices are all alike, as
they are vices, and peradventure the Stoics understand them so; but
although they are equally vices, yet they are not all equal vices; and he
who has transgressed the ordinary bounds a hundred paces:

          "Quos ultra citraque nequit consistere rectum,"

          ["Beyond or within which the right cannot exist."
          —Horace, Sat., i, 1, 107.]

should not be in a worse condition than he that has advanced but ten, is
not to be believed; or that sacrilege is not worse than stealing a

         "Nec vincet ratio hoc, tantumdem ut peccet, idemque,
          Qui teneros caules alieni fregerit horti,
          Et qui nocturnus divum sacra legerit."

There is in this as great diversity as in anything whatever. The
confounding of the order and measure of sins is dangerous: murderers,
traitors, and tyrants get too much by it, and it is not reasonable they
should flatter their consciences, because another man is idle,
lascivious, or not assiduous at his devotion. Every one overrates the
offence of his companions, but extenuates his own. Our very instructors
themselves rank them sometimes, in my opinion, very ill. As Socrates
said that the principal office of wisdom was to distinguish good from
evil, we, the best of whom are vicious, ought also to say the same of the
science of distinguishing betwixt vice and vice, without which, and that
very exactly performed, the virtuous and the wicked will remain
confounded and unrecognised.

Now, amongst the rest, drunkenness seems to me to be a gross and brutish
vice. The soul has greater part in the rest, and there are some vices
that have something, if a man may so say, of generous in them; there are
vices wherein there is a mixture of knowledge, diligence, valour,
prudence, dexterity, and address; this one is totally corporeal and
earthly. And the rudest nation this day in Europe is that alone where it
is in fashion. Other vices discompose the understanding: this totally
overthrows it and renders the body stupid:

              "Cum vini vis penetravit . . .
               Consequitur gravitas membrorum, praepediuntur
               Crura vacillanti, tardescit lingua, madet mens,
               Nant oculi; clamor, singultus, jurgia, gliscunt."

     ["When the power of wine has penetrated us, a heaviness of the limbs
     follows, the legs of the tottering person are impeded; the tongue
     grows torpid, the mind is dimmed, the eyes swim; noise, hiccup, and
     quarrels arise.—"Lucretius, i. 3, 475.]

The worst state of man is that wherein he loses the knowledge and
government of himself. And 'tis said amongst other things upon this
subject, that, as the must fermenting in a vessel, works up to the top
whatever it has in the bottom, so wine, in those who have drunk beyond
measure, vents the most inward secrets:

                   "Tu sapientum
                    Curas et arcanum jocoso
                    Consilium retegis Lyaeo."

     ["Thou disclosest to the merry Lyacus the cares and secret
     counsel of the wise."—Horace, Od., xxi. 1, 114.]

     [Lyacus, a name given to Bacchus.]

Josephus tells us that by giving an ambassador the enemy had sent to him
his full dose of liquor, he wormed out his secrets. And yet, Augustus,
committing the most inward secrets of his affairs to Lucius Piso, who
conquered Thrace, never found him faulty in the least, no more than
Tiberias did Cossus, with whom he intrusted his whole counsels, though we
know they were both so given to drink that they have often been fain to
carry both the one and the other drunk out of the Senate:

          "Hesterno inflatum venas ut semper, Lyaeo."

     ["Their veins full, as usual, of yesterday's wine."
     —Virgil, Egl., vi. 15.]

And the design of killing Caesar was as safely communicated to Cimber,
though he would often be drunk, as to Cassius, who drank nothing but

     [As to which Cassius pleasantly said: "What, shall I bear
     a tyrant, I who cannot bear wine?"]

We see our Germans, when drunk as the devil, know their post, remember
the word, and keep to their ranks:

               "Nec facilis victoria de madidis, et
               Blaesis, atque mero titubantibus."

     ["Nor is a victory easily obtained over men so drunk, they can
     scarce speak or stand."—Juvenal, Sat., xv. 47.]

I could not have believed there had been so profound, senseless, and dead
a degree of drunkenness had I not read in history that Attalus having,
to put a notable affront upon him, invited to supper the same Pausanias,
who upon the very same occasion afterwards killed Philip of Macedon,
a king who by his excellent qualities gave sufficient testimony of his
education in the house and company of Epaminondas, made him drink to such
a pitch that he could after abandon his beauty, as of a hedge strumpet,
to the muleteers and servants of the basest office in the house. And I
have been further told by a lady whom I highly honour and esteem, that
near Bordeaux and about Castres where she lives, a country woman, a
widow of chaste repute, perceiving in herself the first symptoms of
breeding, innocently told her neighbours that if she had a husband she
should think herself with child; but the causes of suspicion every day
more and more increasing, and at last growing up to a manifest proof, the
poor woman was reduced to the necessity of causing it to be proclaimed in
her parish church, that whoever had done that deed and would frankly
confess it, she did not only promise to forgive, but moreover to marry
him, if he liked the motion; whereupon a young fellow that served her in
the quality of a labourer, encouraged by this proclamation, declared that
he had one holiday found her, having taken too much of the bottle, so
fast asleep by the chimney and in so indecent a posture, that he could
conveniently do his business without waking her; and they yet live
together man and wife.

It is true that antiquity has not much decried this vice; the writings
even of several philosophers speak very tenderly of it, and even amongst
the Stoics there are some who advise folks to give themselves sometimes
the liberty to drink, nay, to drunkenness, to refresh the soul:

          "Hoc quoque virtutum quondam certamine, magnum
          Socratem palmam promeruisse ferunt."

     ["In this trial of power formerly they relate that the great
     Socrates deserved the palm."—Cornet. Gallus, Ep., i. 47.]

That censor and reprover of others, Cato, was reproached that he was a
hard drinker:

                    "Narratur et prisci Catonis
                    Saepe mero caluisse virtus."

     ["And of old Cato it is said, that his courage was often warmed with
     wine."—Horace, Od., xxi. 3, 11.—Cato the Elder.]

Cyrus, that so renowned king, amongst the other qualities by which he
claimed to be preferred before his brother Artaxerxes, urged this
excellence, that he could drink a great deal more than he. And in the
best governed nations this trial of skill in drinking is very much in
use. I have heard Silvius, an excellent physician of Paris, say that
lest the digestive faculties of the stomach should grow idle, it were not
amiss once a month to rouse them by this excess, and to spur them lest
they should grow dull and rusty; and one author tells us that the
Persians used to consult about their most important affairs after being
well warmed with wine.

My taste and constitution are greater enemies to this vice than my
discourse; for besides that I easily submit my belief to the authority of
ancient opinions, I look upon it indeed as an unmanly and stupid vice,
but less malicious and hurtful than the others, which, almost all, more
directly jostle public society. And if we cannot please ourselves but it
must cost us something, as they hold, I find this vice costs a man's
conscience less than the others, besides that it is of no difficult
preparation, nor hard to be found, a consideration not altogether to be
despised. A man well advanced both in dignity and age, amongst three
principal commodities that he said remained to him of life, reckoned to
me this for one, and where would a man more justly find it than amongst
the natural conveniences? But he did not take it right, for delicacy and
the curious choice of wines is therein to be avoided. If you found your
pleasure upon drinking of the best, you condemn yourself to the penance
of drinking of the worst. Your taste must be more indifferent and free;
so delicate a palate is not required to make a good toper. The Germans
drink almost indifferently of all wines with delight; their business is
to pour down and not to taste; and it's so much the better for them:
their pleasure is so much the more plentiful and nearer at hand.

Secondly, to drink, after the French fashion, but at two meals, and then
very moderately, is to be too sparing of the favours of the god. There
is more time and constancy required than so. The ancients spent whole
nights in this exercise, and ofttimes added the day following to eke it
out, and therefore we are to take greater liberty and stick closer to our
work. I have seen a great lord of my time, a man of high enterprise and
famous success, that without setting himself to't, and after his ordinary
rate of drinking at meals, drank not much less than five quarts of wine,
and at his going away appeared but too wise and discreet, to the
detriment of our affairs. The pleasure we hold in esteem for the course
of our lives ought to have a greater share of our time dedicated to it;
we should, like shopboys and labourers, refuse no occasion nor omit any
opportunity of drinking, and always have it in our minds. Methinks we
every day abridge and curtail the use of wine, and that the after
breakfasts, dinner snatches, and collations I used to see in my father's
house, when I was a boy, were more usual and frequent then than now.

Is it that we pretend to a reformation? Truly, no: but it may be we are
more addicted to Venus than our fathers were. They are two exercises
that thwart and hinder one another in their vigour. Lechery weakens our
stomach on the one side; and on the other sobriety renders us more spruce
and amorous for the exercise of love.

'Tis wonderful what strange stories I have heard my father tell of the
chastity of that age wherein he lived. It was for him to say it, being
both by art and nature cut out and finished for the service of ladies.
He spoke well and little: ever mixing his language with some illustration
out of authors most in use, especially in Spanish, and among the Spanish
he whom they called Marcus Aurelius—[ Guevara's Golden Book of Marcus
Aurelius Antoninus.]—was ordinarily in his mouth. His behaviour was
gently grave, humble, and very modest; he was very solicitous of neatness
and propriety both in his person and clothes, whether on horseback or
afoot, he was monstrously punctual in his word; and of a conscience and
religion generally tending rather towards superstition than otherwise.
For a man of little stature, very strong, well proportioned, and well
knit; of a pleasing countenance inclining to brown, and very adroit in
all noble exercises. I have yet in the house to be seen canes poured
full of lead, with which they say he exercised his arms for throwing the
bar or the stone, or in fencing; and shoes with leaden soles to make him
lighter for running or leaping. Of his vaulting he has left little
miracles behind him: I have seen him when past three score laugh at our
exercises, and throw himself in his furred gown into the saddle, make the
tour of a table upon his thumbs and scarce ever mount the stairs into his
chamber without taking three or four steps at a time. But as to what I
was speaking of before; he said there was scarce one woman of quality of
ill fame in the whole province: he would tell of strange confidences, and
some of them his own, with virtuous women, free from any manner of
suspicion of ill, and for his own part solemnly swore he was a virgin at
his marriage; and yet it was after a long practice of arms beyond the
mountains, of which wars he left us a journal under his own hand, wherein
he has given a precise account from point to point of all passages, both
relating to the public and to himself. And he was, moreover, married at
a well advanced maturity, in the year 1528, the three-and-thirtieth year
of his age, upon his way home from Italy. But let us return to our

The incommodities of old age, that stand in need of some refreshment and
support, might with reason beget in me a desire of this faculty, it being
as it were the last pleasure the course of years deprives us of. The
natural heat, say the good-fellows, first seats itself in the feet: that
concerns infancy; thence it mounts into the middle region, where it makes
a long abode and produces, in my opinion, the sole true pleasures of
human life; all other pleasures in comparison sleep; towards the end,
like a vapour that still mounts upward, it arrives at the throat, where
it makes its final residence, and concludes the progress. I do not,
nevertheless, understand how a man can extend the pleasure of drinking
beyond thirst, and forge in his imagination an appetite artificial and
against nature; my stomach would not proceed so far; it has enough to do
to deal with what it takes in for its necessity. My constitution is not
to care for drink but as following eating and washing down my meat, and
for that reason my last draught is always the greatest. And seeing that
in old age we have our palate furred with phlegms or depraved by some
other ill constitution, the wine tastes better to us as the pores are
cleaner washed and laid more open. At least, I seldom taste the first
glass well. Anacharsis wondered that the Greeks drank in greater glasses
towards the end of a meal than at the beginning; which was, I suppose,
for the same reason the Germans do the same, who then begin the battle of

Plato forbids children wine till eighteen years of age, and to get drunk
till forty; but, after forty, gives them leave to please themselves, and
to mix a little liberally in their feasts the influence of Dionysos, that
good deity who restores to younger men their gaiety and to old men their
youth; who mollifies the passions of the soul, as iron is softened by
fire; and in his Lazes allows such merry meetings, provided they have a
discreet chief to govern and keep them in order, as good and of great
utility; drunkenness being, he says, a true and certain trial of every
one's nature, and, withal, fit to inspire old men with mettle to divert
themselves in dancing and music; things of great use, and that they dare
not attempt when sober. He, moreover, says that wine is able to supply
the soul with temperance and the body with health. Nevertheless, these
restrictions, in part borrowed from the Carthaginians, please him: that
men forbear excesses in the expeditions of war; that every judge and
magistrate abstain from it when about the administrations of his place or
the consultations of the public affairs; that the day is not to be
employed with it, that being a time due to other occupations, nor the
night on which a man intends to get children.

'Tis said that the philosopher Stilpo, when oppressed with age, purposely
hastened his end by drinking pure wine. The same thing, but not designed
by him, despatched also the philosopher Arcesilaus.

But 'tis an old and pleasant question, whether the soul of a wise man can
be overcome by the strength of wine?

               "Si munitae adhibet vim sapientiae."

To what vanity does the good opinion we have of ourselves push us? The
most regular and most perfect soul in the world has but too much to do to
keep itself upright, and from being overthrown by its own weakness.
There is not one of a thousand that is right and settled so much as one
minute in a whole life, and that may not very well doubt, whether
according to her natural condition she ever can be; but to join constancy
to it is her utmost perfection; I mean when nothing should jostle and
discompose her, which a thousand accidents may do. 'Tis to much purpose
that the great poet Lucretius keeps such a clatter with his philosophy,
when, behold! he goes mad with a love philtre. Is it to be imagined
that an apoplexy will not stun Socrates as well as a porter? Some men
have forgotten their own names by the violence of a disease; and a slight
wound has turned the judgment of others topsy-turvy. Let him be as wise
as he will, after all he is but a man; and than that what is there more
frail, more miserable, or more nothing? Wisdom does not force our
natural dispositions,

               "Sudores itaque, et pallorem exsistere toto
               Corpore, et infringi linguam, vocemque aboriri,
               Caligare oculos, sonere aures, succidere artus,
               Demque concidere, ex animi terrore, videmus."

     ["Sweat and paleness come over the whole body, the tongue is
     rendered powerless, the voice dies away, the eyes are darkened,
     there is ringing in the ears, the limbs sink under us by the
     influence of fear."—Lucretius, iii. 155.]

he must shut his eyes against the blow that threatens him; he must
tremble upon the margin of a precipice, like a child; nature having
reserved these light marks of her authority, not to be forced by our
reason and the stoic virtue, to teach man his mortality and our weakness;
he turns pale with fear, red with shame, and groans with the cholic, if
not with desperate outcry, at least with hoarse and broken voice:

               "Humani a se nihil alienum putet."

     ["Let him not think himself exempt from that which is incidental to
     men in general."—Terence, Heauton, i. 1, 25.]

The poets, that feign all things at pleasure, dare not acquit their
greatest heroes of tears:

          "Sic fatur lacrymans, classique immittit habenas."

     ["Thus he speaks, weeping, and then sets sail with his fleet."
     —Aeneid, vi. i.]

'Tis sufficient for a man to curb and moderate his inclinations, for
totally to suppress them is not in him to do. Even our great Plutarch,
that excellent and perfect judge of human actions, when he sees Brutus
and Torquatus kill their children, begins to doubt whether virtue could
proceed so far, and to question whether these persons had not rather been
stimulated by some other passion.—[Plutarch, Life of Publicola, c. 3.]
—All actions exceeding the ordinary bounds are liable to sinister
interpretation, for as much as our liking no more holds with what is
above than with what is below it.

Let us leave that other sect, that sets up an express profession of
scornful superiority—[The Stoics.]—: but when even in that sect,
reputed the most quiet and gentle, we hear these rhodomontades of

          "Occupavi te, Fortuna, atque cepi: omnesque aditus tuos
          interclusi ut ad me aspirare non posses;"

     ["Fortune, I have got the better of thee, and have made all the
     avenues so sure thou canst not come at me."
     —Cicero, Tusc. Quaes., v. 9.]

when Anaxarchus, by command of Nicocreon the tyrant of Cyprus, was put
into a stone mortar, and laid upon with mauls of iron, ceases not to say,
"Strike, batter, break; 'tis not Anaxarchus, 'tis but his sheath that you
pound and bray so"; when we hear our martyrs cry out to the tyrant from
the middle of the flame, "This side is roasted enough, fall to and eat,
it is enough done; fall to work with the other;" when we hear the child
in Josephus' torn piece-meal with pincers, defying Antiochus, and crying
out with a constant and assured voice: "Tyrant, thou losest thy labour,
I am still at ease; where is the pain, where are the torments with which
thou didst so threaten me? Is this all thou canst do? My constancy
torments thee more than thy cruelty does me. O pitiful coward, thou
faintest, and I grow stronger; make me complain, make me bend, make me
yield if thou canst; encourage thy guards, cheer up thy executioners;
see, see they faint, and can do no more; arm them, flesh them anew, spur
them up"; truly, a man must confess that there is some phrenzy, some
fury, how holy soever, that at that time possesses those souls. When we
come to these Stoical sallies: "I had rather be mad than voluptuous," a
saying of Antisthenes. When Sextius tells us, "he had rather be fettered
with affliction than pleasure": when Epicurus takes upon him to play with
his gout, and, refusing health and ease, defies all torments, and
despising the lesser pains, as disdaining to contend with them, he covets
and calls out for others sharper, more violent, and more worthy of him;

          "Spumantemque dari, pecora inter inertia, votis
          Optat aprum, aut fulvum descendere monte leonem:"

     ["And instead of timid beasts, wishes the foaming boar or tawny lion
     would come from the mountain."—AEneid, iv. 158.]

who but must conclude that these are wild sallies pushed on by a courage
that has broken loose from its place? Our soul cannot from her own seat
reach so high; 'tis necessary she must leave it, raise herself up, and,
taking the bridle in her teeth, transport her man so far that he shall
afterwards himself be astonished at what he has done; as, in war, the
heat of battle impels generous soldiers to perform things of so infinite
danger, as afterwards, recollecting them, they themselves are the first
to wonder at; as it also fares with the poets, who are often rapt with
admiration of their own writings, and know not where again to find the
track through which they performed so fine a Career; which also is in
them called fury and rapture. And as Plato says, 'tis to no purpose for
a sober-minded man to knock at the door of poesy: so Aristotle says, that
no excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness; and he has reason
to call all transports, how commendable soever, that surpass our own
judgment and understanding, madness; forasmuch as wisdom is a regular
government of the soul, which is carried on with measure and proportion,
and for which she is to herself responsible. Plato argues thus, that the
faculty of prophesying is so far above us, that we must be out of
ourselves when we meddle with it, and our prudence must either be
obstructed by sleep or sickness, or lifted from her place by some
celestial rapture.