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EXUBERANCE AND MODERATION
Imagine that technology is like alcohol: it is best when consumed in small doses in the company
of others. When consumed in massive doses in solitude, life just becomes ugly. This lesson is
about knowing what the right amount is. Because the right amount determines the nature of the
things in play. The things – alcohol or technology, for examples – doesn’t have an intrinsic
meaning on their own, apart from how they are used. But you will note that society teaches us
exactly how to use things in accordance with its interests. Its interests can be as banal as selling
more of a product, and therefore getting people to really want to use it, or consume it more, or
they can be as nefarious as rendering people passive and docile before an object (the computer),
whose overuse becomes a refined mechanism of social atomization. Imagine that a healthy
society needs healthy people – and this doesn’t mean making everyone over use the gym. It
means preserving a sense of balance and proportion in all things. Nothing too much – not even of
a good thing, otherwise it will become bad. Not even money, imagine that.
In this lesson I want to bring your attention to the way in which the ancient Romans, and the
ancient Greeks too, taught people to relate to things. Specifically alcohol. How did the Greeks
and Romans conceptualize the best way of drinking? Their point was that if a person learns how
to drink properly, they also learn how to do other things properly: according to the same
principle of moderation. Because moderation was equivocal with the good itself in these ancient
societies. Moderation is in the middle. To one of its sides is the extreme of abstinence, and to
the other the extreme of excess.
The other word in this lesson’s title, besides moderation, is exuberance. This word we have
encountered before, in the lesson regarding mythology. I put these two words together,
exuberance and moderation, to form a set of ideas about the relation to alcohol and drugs, which
I imagined would be something of relevance to university students. This concept of this lesson is
to ask you to think about how you relate to these things, and also how you relate to the feeling
that these things provoke, or rather, simulate. Perhaps you can think about these things and
feelings as you read what the ancients had to say about them. For they were young once too.
Let us go ahead and read the poem “The Sacred Vine” written by the Roman poet Horace in the
first century BC.
Plant no tree, Varus, before the sacred vine,
all around Catilus’ walls in the gentle soil of Tivoli.
For the god has ordained that life should be hard for those who abstain,
and there is no other way to dispel the worries that gnaw at the heart.
After drinking wine, who laments the hardships of war or poverty?
Who does not rather talk of you, Bacchus, and you, lovely Venus?
Yet you must not abuse by excess the gifts of the moderate God of Freedom.
That is the lesson of the drunken brawl between Lapiths and Centaurs that ended in war.
And that is the lesson of the woe-begotten Thracians,
who in their eagerness for sex drew too fine a line between right and wrong.
As for me, I shall never stir you, radiant Bacchus, against your will,
nor shall I rudely expose to the daylight things you keep hidden under multicolored leaves.
Silence now the wild tambourines and the swirling Berecyntian pipes –
they arouse blind Self-love and Glory that holds her empty head far too high,
and Trust that lavishly gives away her secrets, more utterly transparent than glass.
Translation by Niall Rudd
What does Horace say? He addresses himself to his friend Varus, who lives in the city of Tivoli
close to Rome. You understand, of course, that the sacred vine is the grapevine, which is used to
make wine. In the first couplet he says: plant the grapevine first in Tivoli, before anything else.
What a statement. Why is the grape, used to make wine, so important? Because something of
far-reaching value can be learned from understanding how to relate to this mystical, paradoxical
thing, wine, which might be of greater value to people than food itself. What is that something
so important that can be learned? How to relate to things. Or more specifically, how to relate to
them the right way, which is moderately – which is right, according to our ancient friends,
because only moderation leaves you free (and not consumed by nor afraid of the thing in
question). “Plant no tree, Varus, before the sacred vine, all around Catilus’ walls in the gentle
soil of Tivoli.” – He says: plant the grape vine all over the walls of the city (Catilus’ walls).
Decorate the city with the grapevine. Perhaps you have seen a picture of grapevines on the
internet, since no walls in Orange County are decorated with them. Perhaps you have seen other
parts of the world than this one. Perhaps you can imagine that the grapevine, when hung over
head, provides shade from the sun.
“For the god has ordained that life should be hard for those who abstain, and there is no other
way to dispel the worries that gnaw at the heart.” Here Horace begins to speak about the good
parts of drinking. Life will be hard for he who abstains – for he who does not drink at all. What
do you make of Horace’s statement? Life will be hard because there is no other way, except
through the forgetting that drinking makes possible, to dispel the worries that gnaw at the heart.
Regardless of the fact of wine, here Horace indicates the value of forgetting one’s worries and
problems. Which implies that the worries and problems themselves can never be solved or
resolved. They can only be forgotten for a while. And what do you make of this idea?
“After drinking wine, who laments the hardships of war or poverty? Who does not rather talk of
you, Bacchus, and you, lovely Venus?” To forget life’s hardships, and most of all poverty, to
imagine oneself happy for a while. Bacchus is the Latin name for Dionysus, the Greek god of
ecstasy, more commonly referred to as the god of wine. To talk of Bacchus, and of Venus too
(the goddess of beauty) means to feel the spirit of ecstasy (exuberance) and be in tune with
beauty. Certainly it means also to be aroused. In this couplet, and also the last one, Horace
indicates the good things that wine can do: it can induce a feeling of serenity (the forgetting of
hardships) and it can induce also longing for bliss (the talking of, or feeling of Bacchus and
Venus). But this is not a commercial. It is a poem by a Latin poet. And so now, Horace turns to
the bad, or what can wrong if this sacred, mystical object (wine) is not related to properly.
“Yet you must not abuse by excess the gifts of the moderate God of Freedom. That is the lesson
of the drunken brawl between Lapiths and Centaurs that ended in war.” This first sentence of
this couplet is the most important of the entire poem. You must not abuse by excess. But also the
moderate God of Freedom. The god he is referring to is Bacchus, the god of wine. Why is the
personification of wine (Bacchus) called the moderate God of Freedom? Is Bacchus the god of
freedom because wine makes you feel free when you are drunk? – Forgetting all worries that
gnaw at the heart, and enjoying instead the spirit of Venus? Or is Bacchus called specifically the
moderate God of Freedom because freedom consists in knowing how to master this thing (wine)
that has the potential to master you? Is freedom being drunk, or is freedom self-mastery? A
self-mastery that is dynamic, and knows how to walk along an edge – the edge over which it
might fall into an abyss. The moderate God of Freedom is the one that teaches you how to be
moderate and dynamic: the location of freedom is in your conscious decisions, not just in your
immediate feelings. But be careful, pulling to one extreme or the other (abstinence or excess) is
a drag. Can you stay balanced? We, dear students, are modern yet not moderate. Nothing in our
society’s concept of itself establishes moderation as a virtue. Everything is intended to be taken
to an extreme today. Even piety. Even its opposite.
The second line of the couplet, “That is the lesson of the drunken brawl between Lapiths and
Centaurs that ended in war” refers to a mythological episode. The Lapiths and the Centaurs
drank too much and ended up fighting, and then going to war. This raises the demonstrable fact
that when abused by excess alcohol does not induce a feeling of serenity (alleviating the worries
that gnaw at the heart, as mentioned in the earlier couplet) – instead, it induces the opposite
feeling of serenity, which is violence. Anger, rage, violence, such ugly things. How is it
possible that the same thing, wine, can induce serenity and also violence? It is a mystery whose
solution is not to be discovered under a microscope. It is a mystery to be enshrined as a myth, as
a form of sacredness. Sacredness indicates something greater than what humans can directly
control. Before something sacred, a person is only left to control himself. This sacred object,
wine, can induce either serenity or rage – its definite outcome depends not on it, but on you. Do
you know when to stop? Do you have self-control? These are age-old questions indeed. Notice
that in the clichéd version of university life, which is nothing but a preparation for a clichéd
version of working life, the model to follow is to work (because school is regarded simply as
work) and to drink (or do something else equivalent to this) excessively. Cramming and binging.
Working too much, like a slave, and then obliterating yourself too much, like another slave (a
slave to one’s own caprices). So always a slave, only to different masters (work and “pleasure”)
– yet lo and behold, these two masters work together and are really just one. How do you find
your way out of this labyrinth, dear dreamer?
“And that is the lesson of the woe-begotten Thracians, who in their eagerness for sex drew too
fine a line between right and wrong.” In this couplet Horace continues to speak about the bad
effects of wine’s excessive use. He refers to another mythological story, that of the Thracians,
who after having drunk too much had sex that maybe wasn’t so good. “In their eagerness for
sex” – this you understand, they “drew too fine a line between right and wrong.” A line that is
too fine, which means too thin, can barely be seen. In other words, they couldn’t tell the
difference between right and wrong anymore, in their drunken state. But you remember from the
earlier couplet that wine can make one “talk of lovely Venus.” It can induce a state of desire, it
can make you want to have sex. And this Horace retains as a good. But, he adds here, it can also
– when taken to excess – lead to unsound actions. Not decisions, but simply actions. So you
see, Horace presents both the good and the bad, which is something that people today rarely do,
as we are a society of extremes, and coagulate our thoughts around either one or the other: it is as
though we are stupid. Something is both good and bad, or both potentially good and bad,
depending on you and how you use it. Wine can invoke serenity when drunk moderately, but it
can also invoke violence when drunk to excess. Wine can stimulate an amorous mood when
drunk moderately, but it can also stimulate rash actions when drunk to excess. But the notion of
these statements – which is the notion of moderation – applies to all things. To food, which can
be enjoyed, but also drowned in. To technology, which can facilitate certain “forms of
communication,” yet can also reduce life to a miserable form of dependency lived in solitude.
To everything. Everything can appreciated in moderation, and suffered in excess. What is the
secret of living moderately? Perhaps it is to have many things in your life, and not just one or
two, so that your attentions and energies are always drawn away from the magnetic abyss of one
things’ over use.
“As for me, I shall never stir you, radiant Bacchus, against your will, nor shall I rudely expose to
the daylight things you keep hidden under multicolored leaves.” He says: I will never drink you,
dear wine, when you don’t want to be drunk.” Imagine that wine is intelligent, and knows
himself. He knows when he should be drunk. If you drink him “against his will” then you are
not listening, you are not respectful. You lose. Listen to wine. This is of course a mythical
proposition. Wine knows the right time for it to be drunk, when it can produce the right effects.
And this is different from the wrong time, when out of spite – for not being listened to – it will
produce the wrong effects. And he goes on: “I will not rudely expose to daylight the things you
hide under multicolored leaves.” Grapes’ leaves are multicolored. What does drinking with
other people leave in its wake that needs to be metaphorically hidden under multicolored leaves?
When drinking people say all kinds of silly things sometimes, don’t they? But that stays
between us. Don’t rudely expose to others (to daylight) what is said here, in our ritualistic space.
This is another invocation of sacredness and respect for sacredness. Don’t run your mouth,
know how to keep secrets, know how to let things be hidden. What do you think of this advice
from Horace? It goes contrary to the prevalent notion of making everything known, of always
trying to announce shocking things for the sake of superficial attention. And it indicates another
form of self-control: knowing when to say what. Perhaps if someone doesn’t possess this form
of self-control (knowing when and when not to speak of certain things), he probably doesn’t
possess either the self-control to drink in proper moderation. Ditch him, he is an idiot.
“Silence now the wild tambourines and the swirling Berecyntian pipes – they arouse blind Selflove and Glory that holds her empty head far too high, and Trust that lavishly gives away her
secrets, more utterly transparent than glass.” The final crescendo. He says: turn down that wild
and swirling music of the tambourines and pipes (music is never far from wine). Turn it down,
he says, because now he is aware that he is about to drink too much. Turn it down means to pull
back from the desire to drink more. To pull back. Do you know how to pull back? Horace
advices the spirit of wine (music) to stop because it arouses “blind Self-love” – meaning inflated
ego tripping – and “Glory that holds her empty head far too high.” What a brilliant phrase: to
hold an empty head far too high. He is referring here to the stupid things that people say and do
when they are drunk. He is indicating the tendencies to arrogance and buffoonery that result
from wine’s abuse. And finally, he adds a third error: “Trust that lavishly gives away her secrets,
more utterly transparent than glass.” Here again he is regarding what is said in when drinking
with others. Previously he had mentioned the need to not disclose to other people what someone
told you when they were drinking. Now he advises you (through himself) to not give away all of
your own secrets when you are drinking: “Trust that lavishly gives away her secrets.” Why all of
these imperatives to secrecy? Ask life this question, it will tell you the answer.
Horace’s poem “The Sacred Vine” shows you the spectrum: from enjoyment to regret. From
moderation to excess. These same qualities are depicted on the vases that the ancient Greeks and
Romans drank from. Kylix is the name for the specific vase that they drank from. It is like a
soup bowl with handles, not at all like a glass or a cup. Imagine a soup bowl with two handles,
and there you are. At the bottom of kylixes were painted images – images you could only see
when the kylix had been emptied, when all the wine in it had been drunk. Here are two images
from the bottom of kylixes from ancient Greece.
That is Dionysus, who sails lightly on a ship like the spirit of gliding that wine can induce. The
sacred vine, the grapevine, has sprung from the ship’s mast. This image shows you wine’s
Here we see a drunk man about to vomit into a bedpan, while a woman holds his head. The
loosing of self-respect is never a pleasant discovery, and always a bad habit.
And there is one more image, from the sixteen hundreds. It is by the Italian artist Caravaggio.
The painting is called Young Sick Bacchus.
He loves the thing that makes him sick. He holds it in a gesture of love. The grape. He is happy
to be sick. He is even attractive in his sickness. The artist, Caravaggio, defied conventions and
certainly also the advice given by the ancient poet Horace. Yet maybe the young sick Bacchus
will grow up one day to be a mature healthy Bacchus. Who knows? Anything is possible when
you imagine the afterlife of paintings.
You are often told to drink responsibly. But how often are you told to work responsibly? – that
is, with the same spirit of moderation? Once upon a time you were told that you, dear young
people, look at screens too much. Now you are required to look at them in an obsessive amount.
Confusion must prevail in many a mind. My hope is that this lesson may help you walk away
from that confusion for a while. Because even confusion is something that is only good in
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