Drinking Wine with Friends: Plato’s Lesson for Contemporary Democratic Theory

The forthcoming article “Drinking Wine with Friends: Plato’s Lesson for Contemporary Democratic Theory” by Eno Trimçev is summarized by the author below.

Democratic citizenship is bound with a vision of small, face-to-face exchanges where everyone speaks and is listened to freely. And our democratic imagination calls on us to be engaged, informed, passionate, reasonable, willing to speak up, ready to listen, and militant or restrained as the case may be. But in real life we may find this difficult; the size of our republics, the structure of our societies, the technologies of our political communications, and our chastened sense of our selves make a mockery of the very ideals in which we most fervently believe.  

Surprisingly, Plato’s reflections on drinking wine with friends in the Laws can help us to reflect on this gulf. I argue that we are right to view democratic citizenship as a personal challenge to speak and act publicly in ways that fit the circumstances. This presents us with two problems however: not only are most citizens unable to share in the promise of free and equal citizenship, but also ours is the one regime that cannot train citizens according to a given substantive model of citizenship. We may quite reasonably be discouraged and bewildered as to what to do. Plato’s reflections, I argue, provide us with a model to think about the peculiar challenge of democratic citizenship and its practical implications. 

Democratic citizenship requires that we become mature, and the wine-fueled symposium provides an example of the sort of social practice that may help us achieve this. Somewhat counter-intuitively perhaps, by clouding our sober awareness of right and wrong, transgressing social norms, and intensifying our emotions at the expense of reason we become more mature over time. In the symposium we achieve maturity by continuously degrading it just as we strengthen our body in the gym by damaging our muscles. The symposium is the gymnasium of the psyche: do it enough times with due care and you will not only increase your strength, but also learn to use it responsibly.  

The political effectiveness of the symposium lies precisely in the fact that sympotic experiences are unlike political experiences: alcohol-lubricated discussions, after all, do not even approximate political deliberation. Nevertheless, the small size and intimate nature of the practice, the drinking of wine, and the friendship of participants stimulate our willingness to venture forth in speech and deed in the short run and the acquisition of individual maturity over the long run; precisely what we require for the exercise of democratic citizenship. At the same time, however, these experiences are free of the burdens of power, money, hierarchy, responsibility, and exclusion that plague political engagements; in contradistinction to most political action, drinking with friends is easier, more enjoyable, and far less risky. The symposium thus provides us with a practice where we can acquire the virtues necessary to democratic citizenship, but also enjoy the promise of that citizenship in the face of the likely impossibility of enjoying it in real political life. 

About the Author: Eno Trimçev is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Greifswald. Their research “Drinking Wine with Friends: Plato’s Lesson for Contemporary Democratic Theory” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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