Exploring the Greek Paradigm of Pleasure: The Intersection of Drinking and Thinking

By | 8 March 2024

From the archive, a vintage review of Oswyn Murray’s The Symposion: Drinking Greek Style: Essays on Greek Pleasure 1983–2017.


Stuart Walton

As part of a season of Hellenic-themed pieces, we have gone back to the archives for a book review first published in WFW63 in March 2019, in which Stuart Walton reveled in a magnificent compendium of scholarship on the subject of the symposion in Ancient Greece.

The fact that the symposion, the male drinking party that has come down to us through the texts of Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, and others, has become such a key feature of cultural studies of Greece in the archaic and classical periods is due in no small measure to the researches of Oswyn Murray and a growing band of like-minded scholars of antiquity. It is, to be sure, insistently present from depictions in texts such as the classic Symposium of Plato or, indeed, from the ruminations on its social significance to be found in the same writer’s Laws and in Aristotle’s Politics, but it is only over the past 40 years or so that it has assumed a pivotal role in a fully rounded understanding of ancient Greece.

Evidence for its structure, its ceremonial tone, and the behaviors it licensed and encouraged exists not just in the remaining literary sources but also in black- and red-figure pottery. This shows us the physical dispositions of the participants, their emotional moods, their levels of drunkenness, their likely moments of gastric discomfort, and their sexual behavior as well. Despite being seen in classical historiography primarily as a symptom of the rowdy self-indulgences that a specific class of lustful males in Athenian society allowed themselves, Murray’s reappropriation of the symposion as an institution reestablishes it as central to harmonious social organization. This was a function that the philosophical writers of the era had long been trying to communicate.

The remote origins of this phenomenon are found in the development of culture itself, through the unequal distribution of surplus resources, primarily agricultural. When fruit and grain could be converted into alcohol rather than used as solid sustenance for the entire community, it created a social class that could afford to indulge in it. In the heroic age, namely the world of Homeric legend in the 8th century BC, such consumption became a ritual in the form of victory feasts for warriors. It served as a reward for battlefield success and assisted in strengthening the bonds of military brotherhood among participants. Influenced by cultural practices from further east, specifically the Persians, the feast adopted an air of oriental luxury. A significant symbolic marker of this shift was the transition from sitting at a banquet table to assuming a more regal reclining posture.

By the height of Athenian culture, the symposion had adopted a fully developed set of ritual practices. It occurred in a designated domestic space—the andron, or men’s room—located near the house entrance and equipped with couches on all sides and low tables in front of them. The symposiarch or host would dictate what was consumed, including the precise ratios of wine to water, its blending in the krater, and the overall quantity that would ideally be consumed.

A range of activities including sung poetry, speeches, disputes, and discussion were planned, proceeding in a convivial atmosphere until overconsumption led to noisy discord. Each couch accommodated two individuals, usually a young nobleman and his elder companion, often his lover. The wine was served by nude slave boys, who besides pouring drinks, also had to tolerate the drunken advances of the guests and take care of their needs during intoxication.

Following the symposion, the attendees would move to the streets in a state of drunken disarray, causing disturbance and damage. Despite these reckless actions, deemed the komos, leading to legal repercussions, they were considered necessary demonstrations of upper-class authority. The senselessness of such behavior justified itself as: “We can break down your door because we have the power. Also, we’re blind drunk. Your move?” This ritual, apart from its class-exclusive nature, aligns with male drinking habits throughout history.

In his studies, Murray stands by situating the symposia within the history of mindsets, particularly pleasure. Michel Foucault’s seminal work History of Sexuality (1976–2018), which talks extensively about the hedonistic practices of the Greco-Roman world, has been a significant influence. Murray’s work, though, deserves credit for integrating numerous aesthetic and philosophical aspects of that world to provide a more detailed image. Some might question his assertion of culture’s development being independent of its political and economic backgrounds. Yet Murray subscribes to Jacob Burckhardt’s belief that culture represents the fluctuating, spontaneous facets in human affairs, hence largely separate from general historical process. He also draws from Ernst Gombrich’s idea that the human tendency for order is evident in cultural outputs of different eras, akin to their civil arrangements.

Murray essentially places the history of enjoyment against the backdrop of moral evolution. There is no genuine pleasure devoid of societal disapproval. Pleasure, in fact, derives much of its intensity from this. In a subtle dialectical observation rare even amongst thorough materialistic thinkers, he infers that guilt, imposed eventually by Christianity on hedonistic indulgence, adds exactly to the pleasure by heightening the sense of sin. All said, Christian mystical practices were not entirely ignorant of God’s presence being the ultimate ecstatic experience. This thought can be traced back to the Orphic concept of eternal intoxication in the afterlife. Consequently, the morning-after guilt post symposion would become a real symbol of regret, though the hangover would indeed find its spot in the spotlight in the poems of Zhou Dynasty China.

Murray delicately uncovers from the ancient texts the difference between direct sensual joy and the emotional condition it instigates and upholds. The Greek Euphrosyne—a sensation combining active pleasure and a profound satisfaction with the world—is not inherent in feasting or drinking themselves, but in the mental state brought about by these activities. Notably, the symposion remains the paramount model for the pleasurable life in Greek thought, excluding any other depiction until Aristotle. Even in his writings, it persists as the leading paradigm. Plato may strive to differentiate between the physical and spiritual sources of virtue, but almost every pleasure metaphor in his work is derived from the symposion and its associated activities of eating, drinking, sex, poetry, music, dance, and camaraderie.

Social division in our times is typified by the egalitarian camaraderie established through alcohol, primarily in gender-specific groups. This continual exemplification of Murray’s observation reveals how the medical and sociological perspectives on alcohol view its usage as an indication of social dysfunction. In contrast, anthropologists acknowledge alcohol’s extensive presence in almost all societies, substantiating social equilibrium while also facilitating consciousness shifts that assist individuals in reconciling with a world otherwise steadfast in not conforming to their wishes. As per Murray’s study, the Greek symposion’s protocols do not suggest that it epitomized an ideal polis, contrary to some historians’ assertions. This is because societal stability relies on alternative release methods rather than replicating an orderly society.

This impressive collection assembles nearly 35 years of work. Even though the reader may find recurring arguments and references through its 400 pages—mostly due to the diverse original settings of these pieces—these repetitions accentuate the significant historical points rather than seeming unnecessary. Hence, there is a continued revelation of fresh perspectives on wine consumption, its applications, and the parallels drawn from cultural practices to current investigations into the history of joy—or indeed, the histories of pleasure as Murray suggests. The publication is a beautifully compiled tribute to rigorous lifelong scholarly work, and a celebration of the author’s retirement into a peaceful countryside life of cider-making in North Oxfordshire, rather than an idle retirement. An echo of Athenian merrymakers is a distant but audible applause from a bygone era, in a contrasting corner of the universe.

The Symposion: Drinking Greek Style: Essays on Greek Pleasure 1983–2017

by Oswyn Murray

Published by Oxford University Press 480 pages; $124.95 / £90

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