Rugby and Ampleforth schools have decided to give their charges experience of sensible drinking by introducing a little alcohol, under close staff supervision, at dinner. But, as Plato realised, what they actually need is experience of senseless drinking.
Plato’s last work, Laws (c. 350 bc), depicts a new utopia, quite unlike that of the Republic with its philosopher-kings. Called Magnesia, it lays down a detailed code of laws which its inhabitants must obey without question because the code will inculcate moral goodness. A key feature of that is self-control, which the speaker (‘the Athenian’) proposes to achieve by means of symposia, or drinking parties. For, as the Athenian avers, ‘Drunkenness is a science of some importance… and I am not speaking about taking or abstaining from wine: I do mean drunkenness.’
Plato spoke whereof he knew. Symposia had a nasty habit of turning into drunken riots, the symposiasts rampaging through the streets in public displays of their excitingly daredevil defiance of conventional behaviour. What Plato was suggesting was that pupils under the influence of drink gave their teachers invaluable insights into their characters, especially their capacity to exert self-control or not. By putting pupils into situations where this capacity was tested to the limit, teachers could train them, by encouragement, threats and indeed by their own example, to become aware of their limits, resist temptation and so learn moderation. Since education for Plato was essentially a matter of training people in moral behaviour, symposia could therefore be used as a means of developing that self-awareness without which true virtue could never be attained. Drinking, properly regulated, thus became a means of safeguarding oneself against depravity.
Rugby and Ampleforth, meanwhile, are merely offering pupils something they probably get at home already. What conceivable educational value is there in that?
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