The injunction to “Know thyself,” which most famously appears inscribed at the entrance to the Oracle of Delphi in ancient Greece, became the great clarion call of Socrates and of all philosophy in his wake. Christianity was quick to follow suit; the French scholar Pierre Courcelle once assembled, in three hefty volumes, all the references he could find to this aphorism from Socrates to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the bulk of which were from the Church Fathers.
“Know thyself” is also an important component in healthy drinking. Every virtue relies to a certain extent on self-knowledge because every virtue requires consistently hitting the mean that is relative to me. And how can I know what is relative to me if I don’t first know myself or certain things about myself?
So what does self-knowledge look like with respect to alcohol consumption? It entails having a basic knowledge of how you are going to react to alcohol based on factors such as:
- Your Weight. Big folks tend to be able to hold their liquor better than smaller because their bulk can better absorb the impact. This is especially true if that bulk consists of muscle rather than fat (see below under Sex).
- Your Metabolic Rate. Faster metabolism means faster neutralization of alcohol. Metabolism typically slows down with age, especially after the age of forty, so in order to continue to know thyself, you will need to recalibrate your self-knowledge over the course of your life.
- Your Genetic Makeup. According to some, your race can be a factor. It has been suggested, for example, that Native Americans have the highest rate of alcoholism in the world because they lack an enzyme that helps to break down alcohol in the stomach; and Asians are believed to be more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol for a similar reason. That said, don’t think of yourself as invincible just because you have no Cherokee or Japanese blood.
- Your Level of Fatigue or Dehydration. Greater fatigue means greater chances of intoxication, and the same goes if you are dehydrated. Indeed, staying hydrated, both before and during the time you consume alcohol, is crucial to avoiding inebriation. And remember: there are many ways to become dehydrated. Sitting in a jacuzzi, for example, draws huge amounts of water out of the body, which is why hot tubs and scotch do not mix. I will spare you the painful details about how I know this to be true.
- How long it has been since your last meal. Food in the tummy cushions the blow, so never drink on an empty stomach. Besides, we’ve already preached that sacramental drinking typically involves pairing food and drink.
- Your Sex. Muscle tissue absorbs alcohol more rapidly than fat, with the result that less alcohol finds its way into the bloodstream to cause intoxication. Women therefore tend to be more affected by alcohol than men because they tend to have more body fat and less muscle tissue.
Know What Thou Art Drinking
You should also have a basic knowledge of alcoholic drinks and alcohol metabolism. For example:
- A shot of whiskey (one and a half ounces) can contain as much alcoholas a five-ounce glass of wine and a twelve-ounce glass of beer.
- Not all beers are created equal. Especially with the advent of micro brewing, beers can vary in alcoholic content from 2-4% to as much 12%. I recently had a single pint of scotch ale, for instance, that was delicious but practically knocked me off my chair!
- Carbonated alcoholic beverages like a gin-and-tonic or a glass of champagne can make you more intoxicated because carbonation increases pressure on the stomach lining, enabling the alcohol to pass through to the bloodstream more quickly.
- Be cautious with sweet drinks. They hide the taste of alcohol, thereby encouraging the unsuspecting to drink fast and drink more.
Know Thyself, Last Call
Some scholars speculate that the “Know thyself” aphorism at Delphi meant for the ancient Greeks to “Know thy place” or “Don’t get hubristic.” To put that in more modern terminology, think of Dirty Harry’s second-most famous line: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Somewhat similarly, we have been treating “know thyself” in this essay as if it meant “know thy body and its changing and often peculiar limitations,” which it does to a certain extent. But we must hasten to add that this is not all that knowing thyself entails. Equally if not more important when drinking is moral self-knowledge, that is, knowing what circumstances or stimuli are morally dangerous to your soul (some of these circumstances may be fairly predictable, others less so).
Lastly, there is the self-knowledge of knowing that we are made in the image and likeness of God—specifically, that our mind, the highest part of your soul, is somehow a reflection of and participation in the very life of the Holy Trinity. Being stamped with this incredible dignity is the ultimate motivation for wanting to know our limitations at the bar and avoiding any state or condition that tarnishes the luster of this great honor.