The complete* world history of binge-drinking
With the current kerfuffle about binge drinking, you might be inclined to think that drinking copious amounts of alcohol is a fairly recent phenomenon. The truth is that the history of Western civilisation is soaked in alcohol.
In the spirit of informing the current debate — and helping policy makers and public health officials to see what they’re up against — The Punch presents the following comprehensive* history, spanning over 2500 years of drunkeness.
360 BC — Plato. The history of binge drinking in the West begins in Ancient Greece with the philosopher Plato who compared drinking parties to going to the gym. Just as going to the gym temporarily weakens you but makes you stronger in the long-run, drinking parties, he argued, can make you stronger.
In Books One and Two of The Laws written in 360BC, which is a long dialogue between an Athenian, a Cretan and a Spartan, about the foundation of law, the Athenian, who essentially supplies Plato’s views in the dialogue, defends drinking parties.
As you might expect, there’s a catch. Plato only defended drinking parties to the extent that they have educational value. According to Plato, drinking parties are a fine way to test and teach the young about both the pitfalls of over-confidence and the value of modesty.
Plato called this ‘examination by recreation’. In his estimation, watching how someone behaves when they’re pissed can, under the right conditions and given certain precautions, provide a relatively harmless way of getting insight into how they might act in other situations.
Incidentally, Plato had a dim view of poetry, believing that it had harmful effects on the young. No doubt he formed this view when he went out for a bender and turned up to the pub only to find some spotty 19-year-old on stage spewing out his soul as part of an open-mic night.
1592 — Eight types of drunks identified, described
Drunkeness starts to become a problem during this period. English pamphleteer Thomas Nashe makes great strides in the study of drunkeness, outlining the eight types of drunks in his work Pierce Penilesse.
The Ape drunk — dances and sings when drunk. Natural habitat: Melbourne Spring Racing Carnival.
The Lion drunk — foul-mouthed, breaks things; natural habitat: Melbourne’s King Street and surrounds.
The Swine drunk — becomes sleepy when drunk. Natural habitat: Parliament.
Sheep drunk — becomes arrogant when drunk, even when can’t string two words together. Natural habitat: ALP branch meetings.
Maudlin drunk — weeps and declares ‘I jus’ wan’ to say, you know, that I love youse guys’. Natural habitat: bucks’ nights, end of footy season parties.
The Martin drunk — drinks till sober again. Natural habitat: newsroom.
The Goat drunk — becomes lecherous. Natural habitat: advertising, politics, academia.
The Crafty drunk — bargains only when drunk. Natural habitat: real estate
1638 — Tobias Whitaker publishes The Tree of Humane Life, or, The Bloud of the Grape
English physician Tobias Whitaker writes a book arguing that wine is ‘more pure and better concocted then any other juice, either of milk, eggs, corn, fruits, or the like’. He further claimed that it was possible to live ‘from infancy to extreme old age without any sickness’.
Whitaker described wine drinkers as ‘fair, fresh, plump, and fat’ in contrast to those who confined themselves to low-alcohol beer or water who ‘look like Apes rather than men’.
Whitaker’s enthusiasm for wine was tempered with a caution that overindulgence would lead to disease.
Late 1600s–1750s — The Gin Years
Clearly nobody bothered to read or was interested in the second part of Whitaker’s message — or that the purported health benefits of alcohol were confined to wine.
The decades following the publication of his book saw steady increases in the consumption of spirits, particularly gin, culminating in the English Gin Epidemic in the first half of the 1700s.
In 1736, in response to the increased consumption of gin, the English government increased taxes on gin. As with similar, modern efforts to control drunkeness through tax, it was a rip-roaring failure and all but abandoned in 1743.
1989 — Ashes Tour
A modern-day student of Plato, Boonie cemented (or should that be plastered?) his place in drinking history by sinking 52 cans of beer on a flight from Sydney to London for the 1989 Ashes tour, smashing the record set previously by Rod Marsh.
Boonie’s exploits did little to affect his on-field performance. The Australian cricket team won the Ashes that year. One measure of how deep the culture of binge drinking is in Australia is how carefully the details of Boonie’s drinking exploits have been lovingly recorded on his Wikipedia entry.
So there you have it. Binge drinking predates the arrival of alcopops by a several thousand years and has been endorsed by pillars of Western civilisation from Plato to Boonie. Anyone wishing to curb the current spate of binge drinking has their work cut out for them.
* Restrictions on space have meant that one or two details have been omitted.
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