Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable. Never drink when you will be wretched without it, or you will be like the grey-faced gin-drinker in the slum; but drink when you would be happy without it, and you will be like the laughing peasant of Italy. Never drink because you need it, for this is rational drinking, and the way to death and hell. But drink because you do not need it, for this is irrational drinking, and the ancient health of the world…
There are a great many things to be said against the spirit of [Omar Khayyam’s] Rubaiyat, but one matter of indictment towers ominously above the rest… This is the terrible blow that this great poem has struck against sociability and the joy of life. Some one called Omar ‘the sad, glad old Persian.’ Sad he is; glad he is not, in any sense of the word whatever. He has been a worse foe to gladness than the Puritans…
Omar Khayyam’s wine bibbing is bad, not because it is wine bibbing. It is bad, and very bad, because it is medical wine bibbing. It is the drinking of a man who drinks because he is not happy. His is the wine that shuts out the universe, not the wine that reveals it. It is not poetical drinking, which is joyous and instinctive; it is rational drinking, which is as prosaic as an investment, as unsavory as a dose of chamomile.
Whole heavens above it, from the point of view of sentiment, though not of style, rises the splendor of some old English drinking song—Then pass the bowl, my comrades all, and let the zider flow—For this song was caught up by happy men to express the worth of truly worthy things, of brotherhood and garrulity, and the brief and kindly leisure of the poor…
Once in the world’s history men did believe that the stars were dancing to the tune of their temples, and they danced as men have never danced since… Dionysius made wine, not a medicine, but a sacrament. Jesus Christ also made wine, not a medicine, but a sacrament. But Omar makes it not a sacrament, but a medicine. He feasts because life is not joyful; he revels because he is not glad. “Drink,” he says, “for you know not whence you come nor why… Drink, because there is nothing worthy trusting, nothing worth fighting for. Drink, because all things are lapsed in a base equality and an evil peace…”
And at the high altar of Christianity stands another figure, in whose hand also is the cup of the vine. “Drink,” he says, “for the whole world is as red as this wine, with the crimson of the love and wrath of God. Drink, for the trumpets are blowing for battle and this is the stirrup-cup. Drink, for this is my blood of the new testament that is shed for you. Drink, for I know of whence you come and why. Drink, for I know of when you go and where.”
GK Chesterton, Heretics
Reflection – Now this whole chapter is well worth the price of the book, and I had a hard time confining myself to the bits and pieces I quote here. It is an absolutely magnificent testimony to the essential goodness and beauty of the world, the joy that lies at the heart of the cosmos, and a hymn of praise to human joy, festivity, and (yes) wine drinking that flows freely from this basic instinctive apprehension of joy and goodness.
Of course, we have to say that GKC here is not addressing in the slightest the specific affliction of alcoholism, about which little was understood in his day (AA was ten years away from its founding when he wrote this). But while the Rubaiyat is pretty passé these days, the central mistake it makes, which he is deploring here, is still rampant.
Namely, that we should celebrate and have a good time because, essentially, the world is a dark and grim place. We should crank up the tunes and let the booze flow freely (and other substances of mind altering natures) as a refuge from a cold, pitiless world. We should plunge into bacchanalian blowouts as a sort of secular exorcism, as a casting out of the spirit of darkness and sadness, as a flight out of reality into spurious and short-lived joy.
I think this is still a widespread, if only partially conscious, attitude. I have certainly seen it in many, many people. And it is ugly, ultimately utterly joyless, with an underlying anger and bitterness of spirit to it, just below the surface. This is why so many parties—we all know it well—end with fights breaking out – this would not happen if the drinking and carousing were occurring in a true spirit of joy and delight. Too many people today, and young people in particular, drink and drug and party the night away because they are deeply unhappy about life.
True celebration, not only Christian but deeply human, is on the other hand this wonderful entry into fellowship and song and flowing zider. And there is a sacramental quality to that, even before Jesus Christ touches and utterly transforms it. It is a visible sign of an invisible reality—the joy of the party, the festive flow of zider and zong. And the invisible reality is this, simply: And God looked upon all that he had made, and lo, it was very good. And because it is all, ultimately and deeply in its divine origin and end, very good, let us raise a glass to it, L’chayim - to life, to the world, to humanity, to every good thing, which is in the end everything. We don’t need to do it, and that is why we should.