Since its discovery, alcohol has been at the very heart of social gatherings in most countries around the world. In pre-history and into antiquity, it was actually worshipped. Some may say it still is in our modern world.
In fact, some theories suggest that the advent of agriculture in approximately 10,000BC was a result of the hunter-gatherer clans becoming more and more reliant on (read addictive) fermenting fruit and other naturally occurring drugs. 200
In pre-history, the social view of alcohol was derived from the religious/state view. Alcohol was given to us by the gods (Roman: Bacchus, Greek: Dionysus, Early Druid: Assasbel, Egyptian: Osiris). Alcohol was seen as mystical and magical; something from nature that could make you feel good, stronger, better. It was embraced as being a gift for the enjoyment and use of society.
From very early in historical texts and images, it becomes clear that wine and beer was a central part of life in the Mediterranean. Beer jugs from the Stone Age have been uncovered, and by 3000 BC beer making was flourishing in Mesopotamia with recipes for over twenty varieties of beer recorded on clay tablets. Both beer and wine were deified and offered to gods. Cellars and winepresses even had a god whose hieroglyph was a winepress. 201
The Romans were the first documented great lovers of alcohol. They adapted many aspects of classical Greek civilization including the symposium or convivium. The Symposium in the Graeco-Roman world was basically a drinking party that followed the dinner party. This drinking party was an arena for discussing ideas, philosophical insights and enriching friendships. Although an important part of the aristocratic social institution, it was also a convention of the ordinary and uneducated people. 202
As the Roman Empire grew, their love of wine was exported to Europe, where there was already a long love affair with beer, mead and cider. During this time there is an integration of drinking patterns between the north and south of Europe. This blended pattern of drinking saw the Nordic patterns of drinking to intoxication assimilated into the Mediterranean patterns of moderation. 203
By the first century BC, intoxication was no longer a rarity. 201
As the Roman Empire began to fall, alcohol use increased with drunkenness, peaking in Rome in about 500AD. The increase in abuse of alcohol through Italy and other European countries was a result of many things; stress and dislocation as the power status was changing, the introduction of new alcoholic varieties into new countries, and a new sense of individualism and freedom as a result of the new world order.
Economic recovery following the subsidence of the plague throughout Europe led to new standards of luxury and increased urbanization. This age witnessed unprecedented ostentation, gluttony, self-indulgence and inebriation. Europe, relieved to have survived the pestilence of the 14th century, went on what might be described as a continent- wide bender. Despite the negative effects of drunkenness and attempts by authorities to curtail drinking, the practice continued until the 17th century,
It’s important to note that this summary is concentrating on the area of Europe, as this is where the most changes can be seen as there is such a concentration of countries here. However, its important to note that other countries were also dealing with alcohol in various ways. China for instance has problems with alcohol abuse from antiquity onwards. Over the period of 2000 years, laws against making wine were enacted and repealed 41 times, prompting a wise governor to say “people will no do without beer. To prohibit it and secure total abstinence from it is beyond the power even of sages. Hence, therefore, we have warnings on the abuse of it”. 201
There were also critics of alcohol from early in history, but there were not many. In the 1st century BC, two Jewish nomadic groups; the Rechabites and the Nazarites, criticized the use of wine and practiced total abstinence. The advent of Islam in late antiquity changed the way people interacted with alcohol in the Middle East as it still does today.
Their criticisms were stymied by the continuing simple fact of the lack of safe alternatives. Hence, despite transitions in political systems, religions and ways of life, the West’s use of and opinion toward beer and wine remained remarkably unchanged for centuries.
In the early 1600’s, tea and coffee reached Europe and then on to England and America. These were new luxuries that only the rich could afford- redefining alcohol as something associated with the common man. These new drugs of course became more accessible once the costs came down from the use of slaves on large-scale plantations, advances in technology, better shipping and increased sophistication of trade networks. 204
Although alcohol was accepted and used in every part of daily life, this doesn’t mean that it was without its problems. Then, as now, social use of alcohol often lead to drunkenness. However, from a macrohistory view, alcohol was basically a well-regarded and well-liked form of social lubrication.
In 1777 Prussia’s Frederick the Great, whose economic strategy was threatened by the importation of coffee, stated: “It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects, and the amount of money that goes out of the country as a consequence. Everybody is using coffee; this must be prevented. His Majesty was brought up on beer, and so were both his ancestors and officers. Many battles have been fought and won by soldiers nourished on beer, and the King does not believe that coffee-drinking soldiers can be relied upon to endure hardships in case of another war.” 205
Throughout the 16th and 17th century, writers described widespread drunkenness from beer and wine among all classes. Many things contributed to the rise of alcohol abuse: economic dislocation, forced migration and urbanization. The poor drank both as an escape, and for the nutrition it afforded. The increased use of distilled drinks and their stronger alcohol content also added to the increase in drunkenness. Alcohol was tied to every endeavor and every phase of life. It was basically accepted as an integral part of life.
This attitude changed with the Reformation. The Reformation was a protest against the doctrines of the Catholic Church and the rise of nationalism. Rationalism, individualism and science became the order of the day. People were called on to be responsible for their own behavior. Thus begins the moral debate over alcohol. Once it was demonized by some sections of the church and society, the debate was no longer centered on moderation, but instead the rights and wrongs of it’s existence.
With the Industrial Revolution came another, greater wave of dislocation. The new urban environment replaced the tribal, communal gatherings of rural life. The results of this were an increase in personal choice and a loss of supervision and protection from a small, caring group of people that knew each other. Additionally, the new capitalism created the pursuit of happiness at all costs; laying the groundwork for a new wave of personal indulgence.
The rise of capitalism, the Protestant reformation and industrialization all added to the demonizing of alcohol. This separation of the object from the user created the conditions for creation of the concept of addiction. The medical profession’s attitude towards alcohol also changed about this time, influencing how society viewed alcohol. In the 20th century, doctors documented their concerns about the dangers of alcohol and its abuse:
“The resolution passed in June of 1917 at the annual meeting of the American Medical Association read as follows: Whereas, We believe that the use of alcohol is detrimental to the human economy and, Whereas, its use in therapeutics as a tonic or stimulant or for food has no scientific value; therefore, Be it Resolved, That the American Medical Association is opposed to the use of alcohol as a beverage; and Be it Further Resolved, That the use of alcohol as a therapeutic agent should be further discouraged.” 303
In the early 20th Century, the United States embarked on the “Noble Experiment” of Prohibition. (see also Prohibition in “Social-Cocaine”), Prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1933. Much has been written about this period in American history with wildly conflicting views on whether it was a success or a failure. Temperance movements had arisen in the US throughout the 18th century, becoming an important force in politics. These political forces were entho-religious in character while also representing a conflict between urban and rural values. There are many reasons for the failure of Prohibition, but what concerns us here is whether it changed the way people viewed and used alcohol.
A quote from a letter, written in 1932 by wealthy industrialist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., states:
“When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.” 207
We know there were also many unintended consequences of prohibition: Inefficient alcohol manufacturing industry; illegal marketeers targeting women as the new clients; diminished supply leading to a huge increase in illegal untaxed income among many others. Statistics show that Prohibition did reduce per-capita consumption of alcohol. 206
But did any of this really effect the social attitudes towards alcohol? If anything, Prohibition may highlight the fact that when looking at specific periods of time, we can see the pattern of extremes vying for power and dominance with their views of alcohol. However from a macrohistory view alcohol was still widely and whole-heartedly used throughout the 20th Century.
From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution through to the present, society has been trying to find the way back to moderation and a form of regulation that can deal with alcohol abuse on large, global scales.
The pattern that emerges for reform cycles in our macrohistory view of alcohol use is that with great changes to the way the world is ordered and people live their lives, comes a renewed period of individualism and alcohol abuse.
It may be that these large cycles hold shorter cycles within them.
For instance, one study has looked at the three social reform movements that have taken place in the United States in the past 200 years. These movements occur approximately every 70 years. The cycle consists of a 30year reform phase which sees opposition towards alcohol and drugs. Social problems are seen as the consequences of drug abuse. Public efforts are introduced to eliminate the problem. When these don’t work, alcohol is demonized. Calls for moderation are replaced by abstinence and public policy probation measures. These are ignored, alcohol consumption continues, causing other social problems forcing public policy to compensate. Most anti-alcohol counter measures have appeared within 20 years after the peak in per capita alcohol consumption during a period of decreasing consumption 207
From an even wider macro view of social attitudes towards alcohol, one could suggest that the first 11,000 years of our interaction with alcohol was a happy marriage. Alcohol was reliable, natural and a gift of help and companionship. The last 1,000 years has seen a troubled co-habitation with stop and start attempts at counseling along the way.