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Wine in Bordeaux, Beer in Bruges, and Contextual Temperance

By Realizingresonance @RealizResonance


Aristotle has left us with a theory of ethics based on morale and intellectual virtues. Morale virtues are instilled in us through habituation from practice, formulating our character, while intellectual virtues could be learned in a more academic sense, but you need both in order to live the good life. Aristotle identifies eleven morale virtues, each a mean between two extremes, opposing vices, excellence in the face of deficiency and excess, excellence in emotion and action. The right response to our emotions is the concern of Aristotle’s first two morale virtues, courage and temperance, with the remaining nine focusing on the right conduct in social circumstance.

While courage is the right response to one’s fear, I want to focus on its complement temperance, the right response to one’s pleasure. Sex, food, drink, video games, pick your poison, habitual indulgence in too much of a thing, no matter how good it feels, displays a lack of temperance, exhibiting licentiousness. On the other end the spectrum is the habitual abstention from pleasure, although this is the road much less traveled under the American ethic today, a synthesis of divine commands, sentimental empathy, and our ever dominant free will utilitarianism under a variable rule of law. Temperance, moderation is response to pleasure, appears a bit dusty these days, so I thought I would try to bring back its luster.

Temperance holds a special place in ancient Greek philosophy, to be adopted later on by Catholic theology, as one of the four cardinal virtues, along with courage, prudence, and justice. The vital role of temperance in regard to the other virtues is suggested by the notion that one cannot maintain any of the others if one cannot control one’s own behavior in the face of temptation. However, Aristotle indicates that we need prudence, the intellectual virtue of practical wisdom and judgment, in order to evaluate what is mean between vices in any given context, such that the temperate reaction needs to be appropriate to a particular situation. Thus it is not obvious what the mean response ought to be, at least for one who lacks prudence. I can illustrate the relative nature of temperance by recounting my Honeymoon, and two of my favorite excursions, an even exploration of wine, and an indulgent quest for beer.

When my wife Mary and I went on our Honeymoon in June 2009, we embarked on an amazing fourteen day cruise from Rome to Amsterdam, porting along the way at such splendid cities as La Spezia, Marseille, Barcelona, Cadiz, and Lisbon. After leaving Lisbon, we followed the Atlantic coast of the Hibernian Peninsula into the Bay of Biscay where we came ashore in France two more times, at the cozy Basque town of Hendaye, and then the beautiful city of Bordeaux, for which our ship had to navigate up the La Gironde and La Garonne Rivers in order to reach. Bordeaux is well known for its superior wines. The English philosopher John Locke visited the region in 1677 after being astounded by the excellence of the imported Haut-Brion he had sampled, and he wrote of the brilliance of the gravelly soil for quality wine production and taste. Thomas Jefferson was so impressed with Claret, the English speaking designation for Bordeaux wines in the 17th Century, that he made a failed attempt to plant some of the regions grape vines at Monticello. It was the legendary terroir of Bordeaux that led my wife and I to sign up for a wine tasting tour in the Médoc region on the left bank of the La Gironde, an area known for originating and producing Cabernet Sauvignon.

We traveled by bus along the river, through the French countryside, slowing down as we passed through each of the tiny villages, quite and seemingly deserted. Filling the spaces between this patchwork of sleepy villages lay vast rolling slopes of grape vines, strips of green lining the brown and gray pebbled earth. Majestic Chateaus stood guard over their vineyards, each more impressive than the next in a grand show of French bourgeois culture. Our destination was the Chateau Lynch-Bages, for an educational tour of their wine producing facilities, both the modern stainless steel vats currently is use and the antiquated wooden vats. As we walked through the latter section, we were treated to a magnificent display of private art, rustic scenes of French men, women, and children from centuries past, as we learned about their traditional methods of making wine from grape.

After our tour of the Chateau was complete we converged on the tasting room where we had the chance to sample two different Lynch-Bages vintages. Both Mary and I agree that these two red blends were equally outstanding, balanced, complex, and unrivaled by any Bordeaux we have tasted since. The occasion was noteworthy for its aesthetic and romantic significance, but was negligible in terms of intoxication. One does not open a Chateau Lynch-Bages Grand Crus Classé Pauillac for the mere purpose of getting drunk, but to admire the crimson hue, savor the aroma of blackberry and vanilla, sip slowly, and remark about the complexity of the flavors, the softness of the tannins, the length of the finish. Bordeaux wine has become a symbol of temperance for me. As the flavor of a high-quality Bordeaux blend is a rare balance, it commands the respect of balanced consumption.


After Bordeaux we cruised back down the La Gironde and out into the Bay of Biscay, turning north again. A day at sea, a stop at St. Peter Port on the Channel Island of Guernsey, a docking at Dover for a trek from Leeds Castle to Canterbury, and then it was a day before our cruise would be disembarking in Amsterdam. This was the day that we got to go on another drinking excursion, this time it was a beer tasting tour in Bruges, Belgium. As France is famous for its wines, Belgium is distinguished for brewing over 450 different beers, a triumphant endeavor for a country roughly the size of Maryland. The Belgian beer company InBev even owns Anheuser-Busch here in the US now. In the north of continental Europe, this small low country is nestled in between France, Germany, Netherlands, and the even tinier Luxemburg. Belgium is composed of the northern Dutch speaking region of Flanders, and the southern French speaking region of Wallonia. Independent from Netherlands since 1830, the linguistic, economic, and cultural differences of the modern Belgians have only recently resolved a political impasse that resulted in a government shutdown for over a year, with the potential partition of the country still looming.

Mary and I did not notice any national tension on our walk through Bruges. We were too busy being enchanted by the tall and narrow, homes with brown and red bricked walls and gables, the concentric canals which frame the city like an egg, and the enticing displays of Belgian lace, chocolate, and waffles. Bruges is a great city to wonder about on foot, especially with a guide as wonderful as ours, its legacy as a center of commerce during the Middle Ages preserved in its old medieval architecture. We strolled through the Church of Our Lady, admiring Michelangelo’s marble sculpture of Madonna and Child, a rare depiction of the toddler Jesus standing between his mother’s legs as she sits. We snapped eager photos of Bruges most compelling sight, the 13th century belfry with its 42 bells and tall octagonal tower standing against the skyline. This is a city that my wife and I highly recommend visiting, and we dream of getting back to ourselves.

At the end of our walking tour, we met another tour group at Bierbrasserie Cambrinus, a pub named for the King of Beer in Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany. It was time for a lesson in beer tasting. In stark contrast to the wine tasting in Bordeaux, in Bruges we were each given four full mugs of Belgian beer. The first mug was filled with the establishment’s own brew, a deliciously dark beer made with fudge. Next we drank down a mug of Hoegaarden, a light wheat bear infused with coriander, outstanding on tap with a wedge of lemon. Then we took on a rising trend in Belgium, black cherry beer, a fruity blend called Mystic. And to put us over the edge, a full mug of Wesmalle-Trappist, a beer made by monks in a Monastery, this potent concoction weighed in at 9.5%. Needless to say, the entire tour group was clearly inebriated on the way back to the bus. Bruges, in opposition to Bordeaux, represents excess over temperance. There was nothing moderate or balanced about giving our guides three exuberantly drunken cheers as we knocked back our fourth mug of Trappist beer.


Our excursion to Bordeaux demonstrates a situation in which the consumption of wine is light, done in an aesthetic context, in a social setting for which knowingly discussing the aromas and flavors is valued more than the intoxicating effects. Our excursion to Bruges demonstrates a situation in which the consumption of beer is heavy, each mug described by the taste but also its alcohol content, where the loud boasts of past exploits soon swallow any high minded discussion of flavors. Although I am painting two opposing pictures, it would be an overly simplistic account of temperance, at least in the Aristotelian sense, to suggest that my light wine consumption in Bordeaux is balanced and my heavy beer consumption in Burges is not. Remember Aristotle argues that the mean of any virtue is determined by the context, requiring prudence for its proper discovery.

While Bruges appears to be excessive, the excursion was a memorable Honeymoon experience for my wife and me, equally a rival to Bordeaux in its contribution to our happy memories, and thus the good life in my estimation. Perhaps it would be ok to consider Bruges temperate after all, in the sense that drunkenness is not a common occasion, but a rarity. Temperance, as a morale virtue, needs to refer to behavior in long run, in order to impart context for individual instances of excess or deficiency, such that rare instances of intemperance are still allowed for those with generally temperate characters, and in fact may be essential to developing this character. As one learns from mistakes, one develops prudence, the practical knowledge needed for recognizing the right actions for the right moments in the future.

In America, the notion of temperance as a character virtue is a bit confounded by the Temperance Movement, which brought about Prohibition of alcohol in the US from 1920 until 1933. The American Temperance Society, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and the Anti-Saloon League were among the many groups leading the charge for a government ban on the consumption of beer, wine, and spirits. The purpose of the Temperance Movement, at least in its later stages, was the complete eradication of insobriety in society, a goal of total abstinence. There are circumstances in which temporary abstinence from alcohol consumption is obviously called for, like when one is on the job or driving a car, just as there are circumstances in which total abstinence is necessary, as in the case of minors, expecting mothers, and addicts. An addict, or one with addictive potential, must abstain entirely and indefinitely in order to be a temperate person, because even one drink is enough to disable the prudence of an addict.

I would argue that the Temperance Movement as a whole was not acting temperate in the pursuance of prohibition, especially considering the actions of teetotalers like Carrie Nation, who raided saloons, chopping into barrels of beer with her axe, enforcing temperance through angry vigilantism. As Aristotle indicates, the virtuous path is a habit of finding the mean between two extremes within the context of a certain state of affairs, and this habit is maintained by having a virtuous character, along with a prudential form of situational awareness. One of the hallmarks of virtuous action for Aristotle is the notion that one must have knowledge of the virtuous, and that an action must be one that has not been compelled but a free choice. Under this view of temperance, by achieving prohibition and seeking to remove the personal free choice to consume alcohol from individuals, the Temperance Movement was also taking away the ability for individuals to establish a virtuous character in this regard, since virtue cannot be achieved from acting in the way one is already compelled to act. Temperance from the perspective of the Temperance Movement is in this way utilitarian and not based in virtue ethics.

Assuming one is not an addict, prone to alcoholism, or in the habit of excess consumption of potent drink, then moderate consumption of wine, say a Pinot Noir, can have beneficial effects. Cardiovascular disease, cancer, cerebrovascular issues, dementia, diabetes, kidney stones, gallstones, and liver disease are all made worse with heavy alcohol consumption of five or more drinks a day. However, moderated drinking of wine can reduce the risks from most of these health problems, notably cardiovascular disease, cerebrovascular issues, and diabetes. Frederick Adolf Paolo (77) has noted that the connection between wine and health is appropriately summed up by the philosophical virtue of temperance, since the health effects of wine follow a J-shaped curve, where no wine consumption is not as healthy as drinking a few of glasses, but after four the negative affects grow much greater than if one were to abstain. Therefore temperance in regards to alcohol does not suggest one need become a teetotaler, so long as one is capable of avoiding excess as well.

Wine had a special place in ancient Greek culture, with festivals to the God of wine Dionysus, and the wine drinking ceremony of the Symposium. Children began drinking wine at a young age, even using special kid sized wine cups called oinchose. Wine was prized for its ability to change one’s perspective through intoxication, remove cares and worries for a time, and instill mirth, and the statue of Dionysus even presided over the theatrical performances in Athens. However the Greeks were not simply a drunken culture, prone to intoxicating excess. They believed in temperance and moderation, and set themselves apart from the barbarous Celts by cutting their wine with water, usually diluting it by at least half, and adding flavor from spices and tree resin. A ceremonial vessel called a krater was used to mix water with wine, and a common symbolic representation of temperance is that of a lady pouring one jug of liquid into another, illustrating this process of water diluting the wine. In our contemporary democratic society, where in some respects our liberal freedoms resemble those of ancient Athens, it makes more sense to pursue a morale character through the personal embrace of virtues like temperance, than it does to pursue right action through utilitarian ethics.

Jared Roy Endicott

Wine in Bordeaux, Beer in Bruges, and Contextual Temperance
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Works Cited

Paola, Frederick Adolf. “In Vino SanitasWine & Philosophy: A Symposium on Thinking and Drinking. Ed. Fritz Allhoff. Madlen, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. Print.

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