Round, round with the glass, boys, as fast as you can,
Since he who don’t drink cannot be a true man.
For if truth is in wine, then ’tis all but a whim
To think a man’s true when the wine’s not in him.
Drink, drink, then, and hold it a maxim divine
That there’s virtue in truth, and there’s truth in good wine!
— Benjamin Cooke
Rebuilding Western civilization is going to require a lot of hard work. A significant part of that work is going to lie in simply figuring out what exactly needs to be done. In other words, the work is going to lie in designing social technology, a very useful concept that Hadley Bishop goes over in a classic article linked here. I recommend everyone read (or re-read) it, but the gist is that the norms, customs, rituals, habits, expectations and social structures (collectively known as “social technology”) that allowed Western civilization to flourish in the past are degrading under changing material conditions, and there are no social entrepreneurs taking up the task of designing new social technology.
Bishop’s example of figuring out what norms should be established around smartphone usage to encourage healthy outcomes for civilization is small-scale but important. When the iPhone came out in 2007 or so, my impression of the thing was that it was a cool novelty toy that would entertain people. I was right, but so narrowly right I may as well have been catastrophically wrong. The iPhone is that, but it is also much more, and the vast majority of its effects are in the 99% of effects besides “entertaining people on the go with funny videos.”
One of those unforeseen effects was the effective disappearance of deep conversation among those prone to heavy smartphone use, a demographic that more and more people are involuntarily joining as time goes by. When I have dinner with someone nowadays, if one of us doesn’t check their phone over the course of the meal and conversation, they have to bring it up like it’s an accomplishment afterwards. This is quite a reversal from the norms I remember before smartphones (not even a decade ago), when phones were for emergencies and coordinating social activities – if you were at a dinner or social gathering, your phone had presumably already fulfilled its purpose, and there would have been little reason to take it out, thereby leaving you free to deeply engage, learn from, and form relationships with the people around you.
Not so anymore, though the need for deep conversation hasn’t disappeared – we’ve just lost the social technology necessary to provide it efficiently. Today’s college students grow up on a smartphone IV drip of dopamine, and then lobby their colleges for more free college psychiatrists and psychologists, while they treat their peers as dispensaries for sex and drugs. Not an efficient solution, but what is? How do we establish norms around smartphone usage that let us reap the benefits while regaining what we lost? Is that even possible?
A winding introduction, but I don’t have an answer to that one. That’s the bad news. The good news is that some social technologies are much easier to identify and use productively. One of those is the consumption of alcohol. In vino veritas – in wine, truth.
The effects of alcohol should be well-known to everyone, although the ways those effects can be used are often lost on most people. People such as the National Institutes of Health(NIH):
You’re chatting with friends at a party and a waitress comes around with glasses of champagne. You drink one, then another, maybe even a few more. Before you realize it, you are laughing more loudly than usual and swaying as you walk. By the end of the evening, you are too slow to move out of the way of a waiter with a dessert tray and have trouble speaking clearly. The next morning, you wake up feeling dizzy and your head hurts. You may have a hard time remembering everything you did the night before.
Not technically wrong, and yet much like the iPhone is so much more than portable entertainment, alcohol is so much more than a pointless intoxicant. The NIH is about as official of a source as we can get for USG’s position on alcohol. Here’s a slightly different official view of the whole alcohol situation from the mid-1500s:
[He who] saith, that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denieth that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood – the species only of the bread and wine remaining – which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation, let him be anathema.
There’s quite a gap between pointless intoxicant and the literal blood of the Son of God, and I am tempted to think the 16th century Catholic Church was closer to the truth than 21st century Big Med slash Big Government. Alcohol has been around since the dawn of settled civilization, and my understanding is that that is because alcohol is a powerful social lubricant and genuine truth serum that has proven indispensible to the maintenance of complex societies.
The Wiki page for “In vino veritas” is interesting enough, as it apparently records similar folk wisdom among Romans, Greeks, Teutons, Russians, Chinese, Persians, Hebrews and even Bantu Africans, who have a typically African version of the saying: “Brew beer and you will hear what killed your mother.” I personally prefer the Latin rendition. Tacitus’record of Germanic feasting norms is noteworthy:
Drinking-bouts lasting all day and all night are not considered in any way disgraceful. The quarrels that inevitably arise over the cups are seldom settled merely by hard words, but more often by killing and wounding. Nevertheless, they often make a feast an occasion for discussing such affairs as the ending of feuds, the arrangement of marriage alliances, the adoption of chiefs, and even questions of peace or war. At no other time, they think, is the heart so open to sincere feelings or so quick to warm to noble sentiments. The Germans are not cunning or sophisticated enough to refrain from blurting out their inmost thoughts in the freedom of festive surroundings, so that every man’s soul is laid completely bare. On the following day the subject is reconsidered, and thus due account is taken of both occasions. They debate when they are incapable of presence but reserve their decision for a time when they cannot well make a mistake.
I have heard stories of KGB agents doing a similar thing to check for spies, moles, informants, and double agents. Intoxication in a social setting is an irreplaceable trust check, and it is no less useful for everyday people than it was for the KGB.
All productive human relationships are based on some degree of trust, and this basic degree runs through the fabric of civilization and makes civilization possible. However, trust is expensive. It is difficult to gain and difficult to maintain – if it weren’t, it wouldn’t be trust. Alcohol makes the task of building and maintaining trust – which makes all other higher relationships possible – significantly easier, and the gain in efficiency is practically vital for a large civilization – a Western one, at least.
Alcohol makes complex thinking more difficult, and the result tends to be that deception is more difficult as pent-up emotions and views come bubbling out – positive or negative. In a group setting where everyone is intoxicated, this provides deep emotional and social catharsis for everyone involved. It’s just as much fun to hear someone else vent the truth as it is to vent it yourself, whether the truth is “I really love you man” or “I really hate you man.” Alcohol accelerates the social selection and calculation process; the truth comes out inevitably, alcohol ensures it comes out earlier. This saves time and psychic energy for everyone who is dissembling or trying to keep track of others’ dissembling.
Complex organisms accumulate complexity until they are too complex to function, at which point they collapse. Alcohol allows for the accumulating complexity in the social relations of a group to be safely discharged before it destroys the group itself.
Alcohol allows for what we might call “social deception load” to be discharged as waste, rather than build up until the social machine stops working. People deceive each other almost instinctively if the opportunity arises, since there are always bound to be even tiny information asymmetries that benefit one at the expense of another. This is true of friends as well as enemies. Accumulating deceptions cause the social organism as a whole to function less truthfully (and therefore less efficiently) since people are operating with misinformation. This increasing load needs to be dealt with – one solution is to drink regularly and allow the truth to come out and reset everybody’s social deception meters–another is to increase the cost of trust significantly (which results in what is otherwise known as a “low trust society”).
Norms and customs set up around alcohol use provide not only an approximation of a truth serum, but a convenient focal point for frequent community contact, information exchange, and dispute resolution. The total package of alcohol consumption in a ritualized social setting results in a deeply powerful community glue. The result is a perfect substrate for complex organic civilization.
Despite the many attempts of the CIA and other intelligence agencies to formulate a perfect truth serum, it is unlikely that – at least for non-nefarious purposes – there exists a better candidate than alcohol. My only caveat would be that its use has to be limited to activities within the Mannerbund. It is men who need to build trust between each other to function with a single mind to survive, not women, and therefore the feasting should be limited to men.
With the usual restraints of moderation and virtue in mind, there is not much one can do wrong by drinking with friends. You might hurt your liver, but you’ll definitely help civilization.