According to the editor’s note preceding Montaigne’s essay “On Drunkenness”, drunkenness was at the time considered a form of ecstasy that separated body and soul, or at the least loosened the connection. This was a desirable thing, sort of like LSD in the 60s. Perhaps it is not surprising to find that Montaigne did not approve of excessive drinking. He considered bodily pleasures, unless it was sex, to be lesser to those of the mind.
“The worst state for a man is when he loses all consciousness and control of himself,” Montaigne warns. When you are in your cups you are likely to spill your most intimate secrets as well as the secrets of others with which you have been entrusted. And if you are a woman you may find yourself pregnant. He tells the story of such a woman who passed out in her own house from too much drink and was found by a field hand who decided to have his way with her.
Montaigne acknowledges that his beloved Ancients believed in drink and drunkenness, and because of that he allows that of all the vices, excessive drink is a lesser evil. If you are going to drink, then drink a lot and drink often, don’t go about it half-assed and don’t make excuses: “Like shop-apprentices and workmen we ought to refuse no opportunity for a drink; we ought always to have the desire for one in our heads.” Don’t claim you drink only fine wine because you will inevitably suffer a bad wine at some point. Instead, if you are going to drink, drink like the Germans who do not have tender palates and will drink virtually any wine. And don’t, as the French tend to do, claim you drink wine at meals for your health because it “is too great a restraint on the indulgence of god Bacchus; more time and constancy are required.” Still there should be some restrictions on drinking. If you are on a military expedition you should refrain from drink. Likewise if you are a judge or statesman in the midst of performing your public duties. Also there should be no drinking in the day time or at night if you “intend to beget children.”
If you must drink, then do it, but don’t be stupid about it. And if you expect to find ecstasy and enlightenment in a bottle, forget about it, you won’t. Montaigne asserts, “wisdom is a controlled handling of our soul, carried out, on our Soul’s responsibility, with measure and proportion.” I think this debate still continues, though it has moved on from alcohol to other forms of drugs. There is something to be said for losing oneself, most religions it seems advocate such a state is needed before true wisdom and enlightenment can be gained. I must agree with Montaigne however, that it won’t be found in a bottle (or a pipe or syringe or pill either). You can’t cheat your way to nirvana, you have to work for it and earn it.
Next week’s Montaigne essay: “How We Weep and Laugh at the Same Thing”