Ernest Belfort Bax

Problems of Mind
and Morals

Chapter X
The Problem of Alcohol [1]

The question of the use and abuse of alcohol is one of those questions of the detail of social life in which fanaticism seems to me eminently out of place, and its presence to indicate the degeneration of legitimate opinion or conviction into a fad. By a “fad” (or a “crank”), as I think I have elsewhere explained, I do not mean an opinion (or the champion of an opinion), which I hold to be erroneous in itself, but rather an opinion, whether true or false, championed in a manner showing the lack of all sense of proportion as to its relative importance.

As regards the Alcohol Problem, I must plead guilty to adopting the tame and unheroic attitude of, while condemning the abuse, defending the use of alcohol, an attitude which, if tame and unheroic, strikes me as the only true and sane position. Alcohol may be a poison, but, somehow or other, mankind, as a whole, has got along well with it from prehistoric times up to the rise of modern capitalism, before which time distilled, as distinguished from naturally fermented liquors, were almost unknown. The rise of the later phases of capitalism and the spread of dram-drinking are practically synchronous. Not that I am prepared unconditionally to condemn the use of distilled forms of alcohol, under favourable circumstances and with due moderation. It is necessary to point out, however, that there is good evidence that a not inconsiderable difference obtains between the physical effects of these two classes of alcoholic liquors, and therefore it is essential to distinguish rather more carefully than do some of our teetotal friends between them in different cases. Again, no teetotal advocate that I have ever heard of has taken the trouble to discriminate to any extent worth speaking of between the action of pure alcoholic drinks of all classes and that of the adulterated products of latter-day unscrupulous capitalism. A rich man with his well-stocked cellar may indulge with impunity in a three or more times greater amount of alcohol than his poorer neighbour, who is ruining his constitution with the vile decoctions available at public-house bars. Even so, alcohol and its adulterations are by no means the only, or perhaps not even the worst poisons, eatable or drinkable, which the proletarian is forced to consume under present conditions. To my thinking the teetotal argument is completely vitiated by the indiscriminating and utterly unproven attribution to alcohol of all the bodily ills that modern flesh is heir to, and through the almost complete ignoring of the considerations just referred to.

My own “lay” observation leads me to the conclusions that while (1) there is a limit for every man beyond which he cannot continue imbibing alcohol without deleterious effects; (2) that this limit is subject to such wide individual variation that no hard and fast rule can be usefully formulated concerning it. Each man must find this out for himself by personal experience of the effects of alcohol on his own constitution. His duty is, of course, to see to it that he does not habitually exceed this limit, it being a social duty not only to avoid making a nuisance of himself to others, as regular “boozers” do, but in addition to maintain himself in his normal standard of efficiency. In my own case I have been commonly in the company of men who can take, without doing themselves any noticeable harm, three or four times the amount of alcohol that I can. These men, I consider, have a right, therefore, to indulge in this larger quantity, whereas it might well be deemed reprehensible on my part to follow their example.

Now, as to the theory of the absolutely poisonous nature of alcohol on which depends the present anti-alcoholic mania among doctors and others – we must not forget that the present is the day of the discovery of “death in the pot” everywhere. Time was when tea, as “the cup that cheers but not inebriates,” was held to be the most harmless of beverages, and indeed was often enough played off against alcohol as the sober poor man’s drink. Now tea is alleged by some of the self-same eminent authorities who condemn alcohol to be almost, if not quite, as deadly, while, in its very nature, more insidious. Some time ago a journal was published called Rational Food, the chief function of which was to demonstrate the fatal effects on the health of bread and potatoes! Many of us will recollect some years ago an eminent surgeon’s list of foods productive of appendicitis, which included, if I remember rightly, almost every article of diet with the exception of toast and water. We all know that to the vegetarian every form of flesh food is a highly baneful toxic in its physiological effect, and unsuited to the human constitution. If we combine the teachings of all the eminent authorities on the subject of meat and drinks, we shall find ourselves reduced in time to the nutriment afforded by the dead bodies of microbes contained in well-cooked London water, with, say, an occasional bite of digestive biscuit to add solidity.

The allegation that alcohol, as such, and in however small quantities, is a poison, is usually supported by two sets of arguments : firstly, the chemico-physiological argument, and, secondly, the statistical. As regards the former, a careful reading of the evidence fails to disclose to me any proof of toxic effects, save when alcohol is taken to excess. This excess, I readily admit, may obtain in some constitutions with an exceedingly small quantity of alcohol. On the other hand, there are plenty of constitutions where the evidences of toxic effect, and hence of excess, are only shown after the consumption of a relatively large amount. Of course we know that there are universally admitted poisons (e.g. arsenic) which may be taken without ill effects in small or graduated doses. This, therefore, does not prove that alcohol is not a poison. But all I can say is, that if alcohol is to be reckoned a poison, the range within which it may be taken with impunity is so immensely greater than in the case of the more undoubted poisons as, for all practical purposes, to take it out of the category of true poisons altogether.

The argument from statistics, in most questions an unreliable one, is especially so in the present. As an illustration of this I may quote some of the most recent figures on the subject. A few years ago some elaborate statistics furnished, if I mistake not, originally by Sir Albert Rollit, on the subject of drink and longevity were given in the daily press. Now mark the way in which the published report was put together so as to produce the effect desired. The accuracy of the figures themselves I am not in a position either to impugn or to corroborate. But the arrangement of the report is truly significant of the manner in which figures, let them be the most accurate in themselves, can, by a stroke of the pen, be made to prove just what is wanted.

As we all know, the “business end” of the present agitation is directed, not against drunkenness, but against moderate drinking. Accordingly we find that the author of the report referred to divides the population into three classes – total abstainers, moderate drinkers, and publicans. On this basis of the report he readily succeeds in proving that “publicans” have the shortest lives, “moderate drinkers” the next, and “total abstainers” the longest.

Now, it is obvious that publicans, as being a class specially liable to temptation, will be likely to contain a large percentage of excessive drinkers to the extent of ruining their health. We are not surprised, therefore, to find that publicans show up unfavourably in this respect as against total abstainers. It is in the second category that the tricky nature of the arrangement comes out. We need only note that men are not to be exhaustively divided in potatorial matters into publicans, moderate drinkers, and total abstainers. There are, on the contrary, a number of extremely immoderate drinkers who are not publicans by trade, any more than they are total abstainers by practice. Now, on this division, where do they come in? Obviously they are included under the second, vague and elastic, heading of “moderate drinkers.” In this way the second division, that of the “moderate drinkers,” swelled by all the non-publican drunkards and semi-drunkards, can, of course, easily be shown to present a higher death-rate, and a shorter average life, than that of the “total abstainers.” That’s the way it’s done,” and moderate drinking sought to be brought into disrepute.

On the other hand, was it not the then Sir Walter Foster who showed some time ago that the really moderate drinker, who carefully kept within the drinking capacities of his constitution, had a longer average life, not merely than the drunkard, but also than the total abstainer? Once more, the late Sir Wilfrid Lawson, a man for whose integrity in public affairs I always had a considerable respect, when on the anti-drink lay, was not always exempt from trickiness in argument. For instance, replying on one occasion to the allegation I have myself often heard medical men make to the effect that more persons kill themselves through over-eating than through over-drinking, Sir Wilfrid Lawson confined himself to making fun of the paucity of cases in which death is certifiable as being directly due to over-eating, omitting, of course, the thousands of cases in which the constitution is weakened and life is shortened by the habitual practice of guzzling two or three heavy meals a day. What would Sir Wilfrid have thought of a champion, say, of the Licensed Victuallers’ Association, who confined his argument to showing that the number of deaths directly certifiable as due to delirium tremens were comparatively few? Yet this is precisely the line he himself takes in endeavouring to minimise the evils of over-eating in order to maximise those of over-drinking.

In conclusion, one must not forget the role played in the temperance agitation by the morality of Puritanism and asceticism. This code of morals, belonging to what I have elsewhere termed “the introspective ethics,” having survived its theological sanctions, seeks to buttress itself up with appeals to self-sacrifice for its own sake. As if there were not plenty of occasions for the exercise of a self-denial issuing in real good to humanity or in real immediate services to one’s fellows, without seeking out opportunities for the display of objectless moral gymnastics such as delight the heart of the anchorite and the Puritan. Hence, not content in resting their ease on the good or bad qualities of alcohol as proved by experience, the votaries of this school are apt, in default of better arguments, to appeal to the motives of Simon Stylites. As regards strengthening and disciplining the will power, surely to practise the requisite moderation in drinking is more conducive to this end than weakly yielding to the fear of excess by total abstention. Surely the man who can stop at the right moment shows more character than the man who, from fear of not being able to do so, gives up drinking altogether.

A similar line may be taken as regards the argument from example so often trotted out by teetotallers. The man, probably the average man, whose constitution can stand a certain amount of alcohol and whose will-power is sufficient to pre-vent him exceeding the limits in this respect, prescribed by his constitution, ought, it is said, to forego the use of alcohol for the sake of the example offered by his doing so to the exceptional man who drinks to excess. Preachers of this doctrine forget that to be consistent they must give it a wider application than the alcohol question. For instance, I am recovering from a broken leg, or suffering from phlebitis, varicose veins, or some other malady, for which exercise is a bad thing; my inclinations, nevertheless, are to move about and thereby injure myself. It follows, therefore, that my healthy but high-souled neighbours, those with whom I am thrown in contact, ought to forego all walking exercise in order to set an example to me not to injure myself by the same.

The fact is, of course, that this theory of the duty of a healthy man to forego something which his constitution and temperament permit and, perhaps, even enjoin, as an example to some other weak or unhealthy person not to do the same things, because, in his case, the doing of them would be prejudicial to him, is fundamentally wrong. Not merely has no man a right to require another man to pander to his weakness, but the pandering itself is a direct encouragement to the cultivation of weakness of will in the individuals for whose sake this particular self-sacrifice of the healthy and normal man is made. The weak and abnormal man ought to learn to regulate himself off his own bat, so to say, without exacting from his neighbour a sacrifice on his behalf which is purely irrelevant and unnecessary. The high-souled Puritan who abstains from alcohol, not because it is bad for him or because he is likely to be tempted to take it to excess, but because some other person for whom it is bad, or who may be liable to drink too much, might conceivably be influenced by his example not to drink at all, is simply helping to promote moral backbonelessness in his weaker brother. A truly virile personal morality in alcohol, as in the other appetites, would strive for the maintenance of the juste milieu, as opposed alike to shrivelling’ in abstinence or wallowing in excess. What is really behind the abstinence movement is the old asceticism in a new guise, and for this reason, if for no other, it is to be distrusted.



1. This is a slightly edited version of Anti-Alcohol, by Bax in Social Democrat, Vol.9, no.5, May 1905, pp.461-467.


Last updated on 15.10.2004