Drinking and Thinking

This is the eighteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XVIII: Modern English Drama

For as long as humans have consumed alcohol, its effect on thought, particularly creative thought, has been an important issue.

According to Herodotus, in Book I of his Histories, the Persians made alcohol an essential part of their decision-making. “Moreover,” he writes, “it is their custom to deliberate about the gravest matters when they are drunk; and what they approve in their deliberations is proposed to them the next day, when they are sober, by the master of the house where they deliberate; and if, being sober, they still approve it, they act on it, but if not, they drop it. And if they have deliberated about a matter when sober, they decide upon it when they are drunk.” There are several important features of this comment. In the first place, the Persians applied this practice for “the gravest matters”; the most important decisions require the most complete deliberation. Additionally, the order does not seem to matter; the initial deliberation can be either drunk or sober, so long as the decisions are reviewed in the opposite state. The ultimate decision making is not left exclusively to sobriety.

Two thousand years later, the notion of alcohol as an aide to thought was still common. In Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 comedy She Stoops To Conquer, the jokester Tony Lumpkin sings a drinking song that starts with the lines:

Let schoolmasters puzzle their brain
With grammar, and nonsense, and learning,
Good liquor, I stoutly maintain,
Gives genus a better discerning.

More important than intellectual training, Lumpkin declares, is the consumption of good liquor. Of course, it is not at all clear that this song should be taken at face value. The song meets with the universal approval of the barflies… a group whose decision making is, itself, questionable.

Shortly before our own day, we have come to better appreciate how alcohol adversely affects our mental processes. H. L. Mencken, although an avid tippler, never mixed alcohol and intellectual work. In his essay Giants at the Bar, he wrote,I never touch the stuff by daylight if I can help it, and I employ it of an evening not to hooch up my faculties but to let them down after work. Not in years have I ever written anything with so much as a glass of beer in my system. My compositions, I gather, sometimes seem boozy to the nobility and gentry, but they are actually done as soberly as those of the late William Dean Howells.”

Ultimately, it seems that different amounts of alcohol (from zero to tipsy) provide different mental effects. So for each individual, each mental task probably has its own optimal level of intoxication. (Many, if not most, of which are almost certainly stone sober.) I suppose that it would require years of dedicated study to determine how many beers are ideal for any given task. I’d better get to work.

Beer of the week: PC Pils – Founders Brewing Co. makes this “American hopped pilsner.” But PC Pils doesn’t strike me as very pilsner-like. For one thing, it is a bit hazy, while pilsners are most often clear and golden. And without the classic noble hops aroma and taste, it just doesn’t fit the bill. That said, I quite like PC Pils. Although the aroma is faint, it is nice and hoppy. The flavor is primarily of floral hops and a subtle hint of ginger. Whatever style they claim this is, Founders has done a great job with this summer seasonal.

Reading of the week: She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith – This scene sets up the primary story arc of the play. After performing the song introduced above, Lumpkin misleads some travelers into mistaking their destination. A series of misunderstandings ensues. More alcohol may have helped.

Question for the week: Is there any task, mental or otherwise, that you are better at after a beer or two?

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