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Ancient Desires and Modern Day Symposiums

Ancient Desires and Modern Day Symposiums

This article explores in greater detail one of the philosophical cores of my work in the substance use disorders (SUDs) and addiction field; specifically, the desire for enjoyment and relief through alcohol and drugs is an ancient and natural part of the human experience. This ancient and benign orientation toward drinking has repeatedly confirmed and supported my developing perceptions that, in America particularly, we have exaggerated the nature and the prevalence of true addiction. We have much to learn from these early attitudes about the natural place of alcohol and other drugs (AOD) in our lives. These attitudes may help us develop more realistic responses for individuals concerned about their drinking and drugging habits.


The content, tone, and spirit of this article invite the reader on an expedition in the substance use, disorders, and addiction field that is exploratory-based, not pathology-based; its focus is philosophical and clinical, not scientific; it is preventative, not reactive; it is educational, not formulaic; it encourages individual discovery, not predetermined solutions; it leads to well-being, not necessarily to abstinence. A symposium approach to treatment, developed from ancient philosophies as well as the current DSM-5 spectrum, is briefly presented in this article (APA, 2013). Readers are asked to consider the adoption of this clinical and philosophical approach in their treatment practices.


Many of us like the experience of being intoxicated, and that desire creates enjoyments for most, problems for some, and devastation for a few. As a global citizen, I’ve become enriched by alternative attitudes of thinking about our relationship with AOD, our enjoyments, and our troubles.  


Consequently, I have undergone an energetic evolution in my philosophical and clinical approach to substance use and its disorders since writing my first textbook, Perspectives on Addiction, six years ago. At that time, I began living and working in Europe, and this resulted in my developing a broader conceptualization of the place of drinking and drugging in our lives, including more flexible responses to problematic or excessive use.


The European approach to drinking piqued my curiosity, which led me to study the place of alcohol in ancient Greek culture. What I discovered was enlightening and seemed a particularly useful perspective for challenging some of the rigidity that exists in the field today. In the rough-and-tumble of polemics and politics, we have lost an appreciation of the basic fact that human beings like to escape consciousness and reality with the help of AODs. This desire is benign, yet full of the complications involved with our personal negotiations with any pleasure. This desire is neither sinister nor sinful; and its excesses are not necessarily pathological. Help or assistance with problems can be convivial and, at the same time, exact responsibility for our countenance. 


Other forces influencing my evolution in thinking include the following developing perceptions: 


  • That we have overvalued the prevalence of true addiction in this country and undervalued the universal desire to escape reality with AODs
  • That as a culture we seem to have compulsively adopted the disease model of thinking and are having a hard time accepting and integrating more wide-reaching, inclusive, and flexible approaches
  • That we have underappreciated the fact that people will naturally have problems managing something so pleasurable and have oversold the universal prescription of abstinence for all nature of problems
  • That the DSM-5 spectrum approach to diagnosis introduced a radical shift in our conceptualization of problems with AODs
  • That we have neglected to integrate the thinking and experiences of other parts of the world that have a decidedly different orientation toward alcohol, drugs, pleasure, and excess
  • That we have not yet linked the rising rates of addiction with our individual and cultural attempt to self-medicate anxieties generated from the impact of our twenty-four-hour globalized world


As long as I can remember, I have been passionately curious about our ancient desire for relief, relaxation, as well as escape from human discomfort with AOD. During the last two and a half decades of clinically practicing, teaching, and writing in the SUD field, I have become equally intrigued by our disregard of history, specifically our ancient civilizations’ appreciation of both the human necessity for a “spirited” release as well as the human necessity for education on the management of these potent pleasures. Reconnecting to our earliest appreciations and concerns about the elixirs may make room for a perspective that allows us to step away from our cultural obsession with searching for pathology in our AOD habits.


This article first asks readers to return to the ancient Greek days of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, when Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle laid the foundations for what would become Western culture, and where the young and inexperienced learned about the pleasures and disciplines of drinking in the convivial and educational environment called the “symposium.” This word means “drinking together,” but also implies a specific form of communal drinking that forges bonds around drinking’s shared pleasures and escapades, and allows neighbors to discover each other’s opinions on subjects from the serious to the banal (Lynch, 2007, p. 247). Plato said that the proper forum for young adults to learn to “tipple wisely” was in this symposium, a formal but hospitable drinking party with precise etiquette and an abundance of strict rules about the number of guests, the ration of water to wine, and how to set a limit on the quantity to be consumed (Gately, 2009, p. 14).


Drinking alcohol was seen as ordinary, natural, safer than water, 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 (Allhoff, 2007, p. 25). The symposium was considered the appropriate place for exploiting the pleasures of wine while minimizing the risks. Philosophers in the symposium led discussions designed for exploring the individual’s “felt sense” of his values, ethics, and responsibilities about his drinking patterns and habits. A major topic of Greek ethics was pleasure, and early Greeks were careful to separate enjoyment from indulgence (Gately, 2009, p. 15–25).


Let us take a stroll through more of the ancient vocabulary used in and around the symposiums. “Ordinary passions” were referred to as healthy devotions, habits or preoccupations that took place in ordinary societies, families or communities of people. The Greek word for the drinker, philopotes—literally, a “lover of drinking sessions”—bore no stigma. As drinking was an inherently pleasurable activity, it was understandable that people would want to indulge in it as much as possible, and those who succumbed too often did not do so out of dependency, but rather from an inability to resist an entirely natural impulse. They were considered weak, not wrong (Gately, 2009, p. 15).


Philopotes—or likely today’s conceptualization of misusing or problem drinkers—were encouraged to harness this natural power through gentle drinking, always mixing their nectar with water; taking a break or temporary temperance; adhering to the rules of moderation; using wine to facilitate one’s goals, not hinder them; and avoiding intoxication, particularly when suffering from yesterday’s hangover! The symposiums considered that the consumption of unmixed wine was not only uncivilized, but also perilous (Gately, 2009, p. 14–5).


Philosophers of the symposiums believed that the philosophical doctrine of temperance promoted healthy drinking habits. These ancient philosophers bequeath an important caveat to our contemporary treatment providers: “Deciding what constitutes temperate or moderate drinking for any particular individual, however, is a fact-intensive and individualized inquiry that depends on a number of complex factors” (Allhoff, 2007, p. 76–7). For Plato, temperance meant subordinating the desire for pleasure to the dictates of reason, using will and discipline to avoid overindulgence and indiscriminate drinking. The doctrine of temperance is closely related to the concept of balance. Balance occurs naturally when an individual is interested in other things besides intoxication. It is the stable state between the extremes of overindulgence and abstinence (Allhoff, 2007, p. 1–65). No wars were waged during these early drinking days—neither a war on drugs nor a war on human desire.


Early philosophers and playwrights concluded that wine should never be something that is thrown out unthinkingly because of its dangers; rather, it should be used for the better, like any other power (Euripides in Gately, 2009, p. 19). Allhoff states that “using anything for the better requires expertise, both a general grasp of social ethics and a more technical expertise relating to the thing being used” (2007, p. 27–8).


Socrates used the term “master passions” to describe the very small minority of people who regularly and destructively use in excess. A person under the tyranny of his passions is one who is consumed with wine and its abundance. The loss of dignity, respect, and love; the loss of work and income; and the loss of psychological and physical health are some of the devastating repercussions that follow. The life of a person ruled by a master passion is a life in ruins. These descriptions are likely similar to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that found that 30 percent of the population were excessive drinkers, and approximately 3 percent of the population were truly dependent on alcohol (CDC, 2014).


People of master passions seemed unable to benefit from the ancient symposiums’ cautions, behavioral suggestions, and wisdoms. These lovers of drinking were not able to achieve temperance. Were they slaves of impulsivity, characterologically weak, captured by a lifestyle or devoted to sensual pleasures? Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, decisively responded to this question: “Should a patient be suffering from an overpowering heaviness of the brain [mind], then ‘there must be total abstinence from wine’” (Gately, 2009, p. 13).


Hippocrates’s early and simple admonition for abstinence for the small number of heavy-minded drinkers has much to teach us today about the unique, distinctive, and highly idiosyncratic selection of abstinence as a way of life. His words suggest that some of us may need abstinence not because of an uncontrollable disease or brain disorder, but because of unbearable, nameless suffering in a human mind that will never be satisfactorily soothed by drink. These individuals live with an unquenchable thirst in search of relief. Once the elixirs touch their tongues, their thirst can only uncontrollably demand more.


Just a handful of “symposiums” (i.e., treatment centers) currently exist across the country that embrace the philosophies, concepts, and vocabularies of these early symposium days. They educate with temperance tools for drink, and leave the decision about moderate drinking or abstinence to the individual. We need more than a handful to get closer to our nature and also support our intuitive desire to regulate ourselves if helped.


Hopefully, this article will serve as a passionate contribution to our contemporary conversations on the philosophically and clinically complex field of substance use, substance use disorders, and addiction.


Acknowledgements: This work is adapted from Perspectives on Substance Use, Disorders, and Addiction (2015). Reprinted by permission of Sage Publications, Inc., Los Angeles, California. All rights reserved.  





Allhoff, F. (2007). Wine and philosophy: A symposium on thinking and drinking. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell. 
American Psychiatric Association (APA). (2013) Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2014). Most people who drink excessively are not alcohol dependent. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2014/p1120-excessive-driniking.html
Fetting, M. (2012). Perspectives on addiction: An integrative treatment model with clinical case studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Gately, I. (2009). Drink: A cultural history of alcohol. New York, NY: Gotham Books.
Lynch, K. M. (2007). More thoughts on the space of the symposium. The British School of Athens Studies, 15, 243–9.