Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 12.: Temperance - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1
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CHAPTER 12.: Temperance - Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1 
The Principles of Ethics, introduction by Tibor R. Machan (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1978). Vol. 1.
Part of: The Principles of Ethics, 2 vols.
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173. Such ethical, or rather proethical, sentiments as attach to temperance, have primarily like sundry of the associated proethical sentiments, religious origins. As shown in The Principles of Sociology, section 140, the bearing of hunger becomes in many cases a virtue, because it is a sequence of leaving food for the ancestor, and, at a later stage, sacrificing food to the god. Where food is not abundant, relinquishments of it involve either absolute fastings or stinted meals; and hence there arises an association in thought between moderation in eating and a subordination which is either religious or quasi-religious.
Possibly in some cases a kindred restraint is put on the drinking of liquors which are used as libations, since the quantities required for these also, restrict the quantities remaining for the sacrificers. If, as often happens, there is at every meal a throwing aside of drink, as well as food, for the invisible beings around, it tends to become an implication that one who exceeds so far as to become intoxicated, has disregarded these invisible beings, and is therefore to be blamed. It is true that, as we shall presently see, other ideas sometimes lead to contrary beliefs and sentiments; but it is possible that there may from this cause have originated the divine reprobation which is in some cases alleged.
Since the above paragraphs were written, I have found clear proof that the suspicion they express is well founded. From a people among whom ancestor-worship, and the habitual sacrificing to ancestors, have been through all known ages zealously carried on, we get evidence that moderation in both food and drink, pushed even to asceticism, is a consequence of regard for the dead, to whom oblations are constantly made. Said Confucius: “He who aims to be a man of complete virtue, in his food does not seek to gratify his appetite.” Here we have the virtue enunciated apart from its cause. But Confucius also said: “I can find no flaw in the character of Yu. He used himself coarse food and drink, but displayed the utmost filial piety towards the spirits. His ordinary garments were poor, but he displayed the utmost elegance in his sacrificial cap and apron.” Here we have the virtue presented in connection with religious duty: the last being the cause, the first the consequence.
Considered apart from supposed religious sanction, the virtue of temperance can of course have no other sanction than utility, as determined by experience. The observed beneficial effects of moderation and the observed detrimental effects of excess, form the bases for judgments, and the accompanying feelings.
Rational ideas concerning temperance–especially temperance in food–cannot be formed until we have glanced at those variations in the physiological requirements, entailed by variations in surrounding circumstances.
174. What would among ourselves be condemned as disgusting gluttony is, under the conditions to which certain races of men are exposed, quite normal and indeed necessary. Where the habitat is such as at one time to supply very little food and at another time food in great abundance, survival depends on the ability to consume immense quantities when the opportunities occur. A good instance is furnished by Sir George Grey’s account of the orgies which follow the stranding of a whale in Australia.
By and by other natives came gaily trooping in from all quarters: by night they dance and sing, and by day they eat and sleep, and for days this revelry continues unchecked, until they at last fairly eat their way into the whale, and you see them climbing in and about the stinking carcase choosing titbits . . . they remain by the carcase for many days, rubbed from head to foot with stinking blubber gorged to repletion with putrid meat. . . . When they at last quit their feast, they carry off as much as they can stagger under.
Living as the Australians do in a barren country, and often half starved, those of their number who could not fully utilize an occasion like this would be the first to die during times of famine. Proof that this is the true interpretation, is furnished by Christison’s account of a tribe of central Queensland. They are great eaters “only at first; but when they have become used to rations and regular meals, including bread or damper, they are very moderate eaters, perhaps more moderate than Europeans.”
In other cases what seems to us extreme and almost incredible excess, is due to the physiological necessity for producing heat in climates where the loss of heat is very great. Hence the explanation of the following story.
From Kooilittiuk I learnt a new Eskimaux luxury: he had eaten until he was drunk, and every moment fell asleep, with a flushed and burning face, and his mouth open: by his side sat Arnalooa [his wife], who was attending her cooking pot, and at short intervals awakened her spouse, in order to cram as much as was possible of a large piece of half-boiled flesh into his mouth, with the assistance of her forefinger and having filled it quite full, cut off the morsel close to his lips. This he slowly chewed, and as soon as a small vacancy became perceptible, this was filled again by a lump of raw blubber. During this operation the happy man moved no part of him but his jaws, not even opening his eyes; but his extreme satisfaction was occasionally shown by a most expressive grunt, whenever he enjoyed sufficient room for the passage of sound.
Another case, equally astonishing, comes from northern Asia. Mr. Cochrane says:
The Yakuti and Tongousi are great gluttons. I gave the child [a boy about five years old] a candle made of the most impure tallow, a second, and a third–and all were devoured with avidity. The steersman then gave him several pounds of sour frozen butter; this also he immediately consumed; lastly a large piece of yellow soap; all went the same road. . . In fact, there is nothing in the way of fish or meat, from whatever animal, however putrid or unwholesome, but they will devour with impunity and the quantity only varies from what they have, to what they can get. I have repeatedly seen a Yakut or a Tongouse devour forty pounds of meat in a day.
The following testimony of Capt. Wrangell shows the physiological results of this enormous consumption.
Even in Siberia, the jakuti are called iron-men, and I suppose that there are not any other people in the world who endure cold and hunger as they do. I have seen them frequently in the severe cold of this country and when the fire had long been extinguished, and the light jacket had slipped off their shoulders, sleeping quietly, completely exposed to the heavens, with scarcely any clothing on, and their bodies covered with a thick coat of rime.
And now observe the remarkable and significant fact that where survival primarily depends on this ability to eat and digest enormous quantities of food, this ability acquires an ethical or proethical sanction. According to Erman, a Yakut adage says: “To eat much meat and to grow fat upon it, is the highest destiny of men.”
175. Passing from this extreme instance of the way in which the necessities of life generate corresponding ideas of right and wrong, and coming to the ordinary cases meeting us in temperate and tropical climates, where something like an ethical sanction, as we ordinarily understand it, comes into play; we find no connections between temperance in food and other traits, unless it be a general association of gluttony with degradation.
Even this qualified generalization may be held doubtful. Cook described the Tahitians as each consuming a “prodigious” quantity of food. Yet they were physically a fine race, intellectually superior to many and, though licentious, were described by him as having sundry characteristics to be admired. Conversely the Arabs are relatively abstemious in both food and drink. But while in their sexual relations they are about as low as the Tahitians, since they are continually changing wives, and say of themselves, “Dogs are better than we are,” they are little to be admired in any respect: being fanatically revengeful and regarding skillful robbery as a qualification for marriage.
At the same time that the uncivilized at large present no definite relations between temperance or intemperance in food and their other traits, they display little or no sentiment in respect of one or the other which can be called ethical. Save in the above remarkable proverb quoted from the Yakuts, opinion on this matter has not taken shape among them.
In some ancient semicivilized societies, however, there had arisen the consciousness that excess in food is wrong. In the Code of Manu it is written:
The fact that in parts of the Mahabharata “heavenly blessedness” is described as without any kind of “sensual gratification,” implies reprobation of excess in eating. This is of course implied also in the ascetic life on which the Indian sages insisted. The Hebrews, too, displayed this consciousness: there was occasional advocacy of abstemiousness, as shown in the proverb: “Be not among winebibbers: among riotous eaters of flesh: for the drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty: and drowsiness shall clothe a man with rags” (Prov. xxiii 20–21). By the Egyptians gluttony was recognized as a vice, but was nevertheless deliberately practiced. On the one hand, excess in food was set down among the forty-two chief sins of the Egyptians, while on the other hand, at their
banquets the Egyptians do not seem to have been very moderate. Herodotus tells us (ii. 78) that a small wooden image of a mummy was carried round at their entertainments with the exhortion, “Look on this, drink and be merry. When dead, thou wilt be as this is!” This admonition was not without its results. ln the pictures on monuments we find not only men, but women, throwing up the surfeit of food and wine.
But the general aspect of the evidence seems to imply that with the rise of settled societies, and with the generalizing of experiences, there arose a utilitarian condemnation of excess in food.
176. Excess in drinking is a phrase which, though applicable to drinking of unfermented liquors in injurious quantities, yet practically applies to liquors which are either fermented, and therefore intoxicating, or are otherwise intoxicating. Opinion concerning the taking of them is determined mainly by recognition of the effects they produce–regarded here with approbation and there with reprobation.
It is a mistake to suppose that the state of intoxication is everywhere condemned. Whether produced by alcohol or by other agent, it has been in early times lauded, and still is so in some places. An interpretation is suggested by the remark of an Arafura, who, when belief in the Christian God was commended to him and he was told that God is everywhere present, said: “Then this God is certainly in your arrack, for I never feel happier than when I have drunk plenty of it.” The idea thus implied was distinctly and perpetually expressed by the ancient Indians in their praises of Soma-drinking. The god Soma was supposed to be present in the juice of the plant called soma; intoxication resulted from being possessed by him: and the exalted state desired, produced, and gloried in, was a state of religious blessedness: the gods themselves being supposed to be thus inspired by the god Soma. Says Max Müller:
Madakyut=such a state of intoxication as was not incompatible with the character of the ancient gods. . . . We have no poetical word to express a high state of mental excitement produced by drinking the intoxicating juice of the Soma or other plants, which has not something opprobrious mixed up with it, while in ancient times that state of excitement was celebrated as a blessing of the gods, as not unworthy of the gods themselves, nay as a state in which both the warrior and the poet would perform their highest achievements.
So, too, by the Greeks it was believed that the god Dionysus was present in wine, and that “the Bacchic excitement,” with its accompanying prophetic power, was due to possession by him. Hence there arose a religious sanction for drunkenness, as shown in the orgies. Nor are we without cases in our own times. The Dahomans, according to Burton, deem it a “duty to the gods to be drunk”; and the Ainos sanctity their intoxication under “the fiction of `drinking to the gods’": “the more saké the Ainos drink the more devout they are, and the better pleased are the gods.” Kindred ideas and sentiments exist in Polynesia, in connection with the taking of the intoxicating ava, kava, or yaqona. In Fiji the preparation and drinking are accompanied by prayers to the gods and chants, and participation in the ceremonies is regarded as honorable.
Evidently then, drunkenness, instead of having in all cases religious condemnation, has in some cases religious sanction; and thus comes to have a proethical sentiment justifying it. This is very well shown by the Ainos, who refuse to associate with those who will not drink.
177. Either with or without this kind of sanction, intemperance, under one or other form, is widely spread among the inferior races.
Of the Kalmucks, Pallas tells us that they are intemperate in eating and drinking when they have the chance. “The festivities of the Khonds,” says Campbell, “usually terminate in universal drunkenness.” Brett writes that the drunkenness of the natives of Guiana takes the shape of “fearful excess at intervals.” And we read of the existing Guatemalans that “the greatest happiness of these people consists in drunkenness, produced by the excessive use of . . . chicha.” These last testimonies respecting American peoples at the present day recall kindred testimonies respecting ancient American peoples. Garcilasso says of the Peruvians: “They brought liquor in great quantity, for this was one of the most prevalent vices among the Indians.” Of the Yucatanese, Landa says: “The Indians were very debauched, and often got drunk”; “the women got intoxicated at the banquets, but by themselves.” And Sahagun writes of the Mexicans that “they said that the bad effects of drunkenness were produced by one of the gods of wine. Hence it appears that they did not consider as a sin what they had done while being drunk.”
But intemperance is by no means universal among the uncivilized and semicivilized: sobriety being shown by some of the utterly primitive as well as by some of the considerably advanced. Of the Veddahs we read–"They do not smoke, and are very temperate, drinking water only.” Says Campbell: “Fond of fermented and spirituous liquors, the Lepchas are nevertheless not given to drunkenness.” Of the Sumatran of the interior, only partially vitiated by contact with the Malays, Marsden tells us: “He is temperate and sober, being equally abstemious in meat and drink.” Africa, too, supplies instances: “The Foolas and Mandingos very strictly abstain from fermented liquors, and from spirits, which they hold in such abhorrence, that if a single drop were to fall upon a clean garment, it would be rendered unfit to wear until washed.” And Waitz makes the general remark that “except where they have had much intercourse with whites the Negroes cannot be accused of being specially addicted to intoxicating liquors.”
This last statement, reminding us of the demoralization which Europeans everywhere produce in the native races whom they pretend to civilize, and reminding us more especially of the disastrous effects which follow the supplying of them with whiskey or rum, shows how cautious we must be in our inferences respecting the relations between drinking habits and social states. It is clear that in some cases, as in that of the Veddahs, sobriety may result from lack of intoxicants, and that in other cases insobriety does not naturally belong to the type or the tribe, but has been imported.
178. Perhaps among European peoples, with their long histories, we may with most chance of success seek for such relation as exists between sobriety and social conditions. This relation seems but indefinite at best.
Brutal as was their social system, the Spartans were ascetic in their regimen; and remembering the lessons which drunken helots were made to inculcate, it is clear that originally the Spartans reprobated drunkenness and were ordinarily sober. Meanwhile the Athenians, much more civilized as they were in their social state, and far superior in culture, were by no means so sober. Some scanty testimonies imply that among the European peoples who at that time were socially organized in but low degrees, excesses in drinking were frequent. Of the early Gauls Diodorus says: “They are so exceedingly given to wine, that they guzzle it down as soon as it is imported by the merchant.” And describing the primitive Germans, Tacitus tells us that “to pass an entire day and night in drinking disgraces no one.” Of course not much has come down to us respecting men’s drinking habits during “the dark ages”; but the prevalence of intemperance may be inferred from such indications as we have. One of the excesses occurring in the Merovingian period was that Bishop Eonius fell down drunk at mass; and we are told of Charlemagne that he was temperate: the implication being that temperance was something exceptional. Of France it may be remarked that even when intoxication was not produced, wine was taken in great excess during many later centuries. Montaigne, while saying that drunkenness was less than when he was a boy tells us that: “I have seen a great lord of my time . . . who without setting himself to’t, and after his ordinary rate of drinking at meals, swallowed down not much less than five quarts of wine.” Evidently, from the days of Montaigne down to those of the modern French, the majority of whom water their ordinary weak wine, the decrease of intemperance has been marked. And among ourselves there has taken place, though with much irregularity a kindred change. From old English and Danish times, when there was drunkenness among monks as well as others, down through the times of the Normans, who soon became as intemperate as those they had subjugated, and down through subsequent centuries, the excesses in drinks of the less potent kinds were great and general. At the beginning of the last century, when the consumption of spirits increased greatly, rising to nearly a gallon per head of the population annually and producing scenes such as Hogarth depicted in his Gin Lane, there came the remedial Gin Act, which, however, was soon repealed after having done mischief. Then during the rest of the century while “drunkenness was the common vice of the middle and tower orders,” wealthier people indulged so largely in wine for their entertainments, as not unfrequently to improverish themselves.
179. Evidently the relations between drinking habits and kinds of social life are obscure. We cannot, as the teetotalers would like, assert a regular proportion between temperance and civilization, or between intemperance and moral degradation at large. Says Surgeon-General Balfour, “Half of the Asiatic races–Arab, Persian, Hindu, Burman, Malay, Siamese . . . are abstinents”; and yet no one will contend that, either in social type or social conduct, these races are superior to the races of Europe, who are anything but abstinents. Within Europe itself differences teach us the same lesson. Sober Turkey is not so high in its social life as whiskey-drinking Scotland. Yet, on comparing Italy and Germany, do we see that along with the contrast between the small potations of the one, and the great potations of the other, there goes contrast between their moral states of the kind that might be looked for. Putting on the one hand the Bedouin, who, habitual robber as he is and displaying numerous vices, nevertheless drinks no fermented liquors, and cries “Fie upon thee, drunkard!” and on the other hand the clever English artisan, who occasionally drinks to excess (and the clever ones are most apt to do this) but who is often a good fellow in other respects, we do not find any clear association between temperance and rectitude.
Some relation may reasonably be supposed to exist between drunkenness and general wretchedness. Where the life is miserable there is a great tendency to drink, partly to get what little momentary pleasure may be had, and partly to shut out unhappy thoughts about the future. But if we recall the drunkenness which prevailed among our upper classes in the last century, we cannot say that wretchedness, or at any rate physical wretchedness, was its excuse. Ennui, too, seems often an assignable cause, and may have produced the prevailing inebriety throughout Europe in early days, when there was difficulty in passing the time not occupied in fighting or hunting. Yet we find various peoples whose lives are monotonous enough, but who do not drink. Manifestly various influences cooperate; and it appears that the results of them are too irregular to be generalized.
180. But we are chiefly concerned with temperance and intemperance as ethically regarded. That intemperance, whether in food or drink, is condemned by the ethical sentiment proper, which refers, not to the extrinsic but to the intrinsic effects, as injurious alike to body and mind, goes without saying. But it is otherwise with the proethical sentiment. We have many cases showing that there comes either approbation or reprobation or intemperance, according to the religious ideas and social habits.
Already we have seen that intoxication may be sanctified by certain theological beliefs; and here we have to note that prevailing excess in drinking, and the current opinion which grows up along with it, may result in a social sanction. One of the uncivilized races shows us that a habit of taking a toxic agent may where it is general, generate for itself not only a justification but something more. Says Yule of the Kasias:
In the people perhaps the first thing that strikes a stranger is their extreme addiction to chewing pawn, and their utter disregard of the traces which its use leaves on their teeth and lips. Indeed they pride themselves on this, saying that “Dogs and Bengalees have white teeth.”
In records of ancient civilized races we find evidence of a kindred pride in excesses. Apart from its religious sanction, the drunken elevation which followed Soma-drinking was gloried in by the Indian rishi; and among a neighboring people, alcoholic excess was by some thought the reverse of disgraceful, as witness the epitaph of Darius Hystaspes, saying that he was a great conqueror and a great drinker, and as witness the self-commendation of Cyrus, who “in his epistle to the Spartans says, that in many other things he was more fit than his brother to be a king, and chiefly because he could bear abundance of wine.” But modern Europe has yielded the clearest proofs that prevailing inebriety may generate a sentiment which justifies inebriety. The drinking usages in Germany in past times, and down to the present time among students, show that along with an inordinate desire for fermented liquor, and the scarcely credible ability to absorb it, there had grown up a contempt for those who fell much below the average drinking capacity and a glory in being able to drink the largest quantity in the shortest time. Among ourselves, too, in the last century kindred ideas and feelings prevailed. The saying “It is a poor heart that never rejoices” was used as a justification for excess. The taking of salt to produce thirst, the use of wine glasses which would not stand, and the exhortation “No heel-taps,” clearly showed the disapproval of moderation which went along with applause for the “three-bottle” man. There are some still living who have taken part in orgies at which after locking the door and placing a number of bottles of wine on the sideboard, the host announced that they had to be emptied before rising: the refusal to take the required share causing reprobation.3
But while, in past generations, there was thus a certain proethical sentiment upholding intemperance, in our own generation temperance is upheld both by the ethical sentiment, and by a proethical sentiment. Not only is drinking to excess universally reprobated, and to have been intoxicated even once leaves a stain on a man’s reputation, but we have now a large class by whom even moderate drinking is condemned. While in America water is the universal beverage at meals and the taking of wine is regarded as scarcely respectable.
[]The late Mr. John Ball, F.R.S., brought up in the neighborhood of Belfast, was, when young, though nominally a Catholic, intimate with a wealthy family of Protestants, at the head of which was an old gentleman looked up to with reverence by his descendants. Mr. Ball told me that this patriarch took a fancy to him; and one day when leaving the room after dinner led him aside and patting him on the shoulder said, “My good young friend, I want to talk to you about your wine. You don’t drink enough. Now take my advice–make your head while you are young, and then you will be able to drink like a gentleman all your life.”