The Voice of the Conservative Movement at Wabash College

Wabash and the Two Faces of Dionysus

by Dr. David Kubiak

I found it a great irony last semester that while the campus was meditating seriously on the dangers of drinking, every other happy memory of my late and much-lamented colleague Professor Placher seemed to involve a bottle of Scotch. But the irony is inherent in the nature of Dionysus himself. The Greeks understood that the god gives men joy and good will and relaxation from cares, but that his presence could also be darker: he is as well the god who brings violent madness, as Pentheus discovered too late. For a long time we have enjoyed the beneficent side of Dionysus at Wabash without too much thought; the terrible face of the god was revealed last Fall, and we are with good reason confused.

One of the most obvious changes in society – and in particular academic society – during the course of my life has been its increasingly negative attitude towards drinking. From the time I was about seventeen I was served wine without question when eating in restaurants with my parents. It never occurred to them that this introduction would do more than it in fact did, which was to turn French wine into a serious hobby. I am unclear when the drinking age was sensibly lowered to eighteen. Then it was Vietnam, today Iraq and Afghanistan that make it an absurdity for a young man to risk his life every day in battle and be unable legally to buy himself a beer at home. (The legal drinking age in France and Germany is sixteen.) As did most of my friends, I learned by experience the truth of what St. Thomas teaches about alcohol and morality, viz., that one may drink usque ad hilaritatem, “to the point of high spirits” without sin, but that after that point one’s behavior becomes potentially problematic. Binge drinking I don’t recall ever being an issue.

My time both in college and graduate school confirmed the fact that social drinking has been a highly visible aspect of academic life in the European tradition. And an old one. Those who have read Plato’s Symposium will know that the philosopher chose to make his most important statements about the nature of love at a drinking party. Even serious Cicero, arguably the most central figure in Western humanism, experienced a sense of mental exhilaration in bibulous conversation with a friend. He writes to the distinguished jurist C. Trebatius Testa: “You made fun of me yesterday when we were drinking because I had said that it was a point of controversy whether an heir can go to court over a theft on the basis of a theft previously committed. And so although I returned home late and quite tipsy, I nonetheless noted the section where this point is treated and sent you a copy” (Ad fam. 7.22). Dropping of pretense (in vino veritas), sharpening of verbal combativeness, confirmation of friendship shared – wine in an academic setting has always been associated with these good things.

I have had in my years at Wabash many experiences that correspond to the ancient symposium. The first was at a Faculty Delt dinner in 1979, and I continue to have only pleasant memories of that evening and those that followed. I had thought I was coming to a small college with distinctly rural ways, and was amazed when at dinner bowls of shrimp, plates of filet mignon, and bottles of classed Bordeaux appeared, thanks to the generosity of an alumnus of the house who owned a grocery business in northern Indiana. These evenings tended to be prolonged, and during them you could find students playing poker with their revered Dean Norman Moore. He might then invite the younger faculty back to his house for a nightcap. Some of the best and most enduring friendships I have enjoyed with students were solidified at occasions like this, and the contact affected positively the way I taught and the way the student learned. There is no more damning judgment one man can make about another than to consider him a prig, and once that suspicion, so easy for a student to entertain about a professor, has been dispelled, then comfortably interesting things can begin to happen in the classroom. There are certainly other ways to achieve this understanding than through sharing a glass of wine, but I would argue that it is one way, and a way sanctioned by a long and honorable tradition.

But it is equally a fact that no college can afford to maintain the unreflective ease of those earlier, and as it seems now, less complicated days. Two cultural reasons are uppermost: first, more students are coming to us who have already developed pathological drinking habits in high school, and second, many more students arrive who are being treated with psychotropic drugs that when mixed with alcohol produce unpredictable results. Drinking on campus must be monitored – as it always has been through the Gentleman’s Rule — although I am not personally taken with the suggestion that faculty assume the role of delator if they happen to see a sophomore with a beer in his hand. I hope, however, that we do not put too much faith in phobic organizations that specialize in alcohol education. There are certain physiological facts that all students need to know for their own safety, but anything that approaches the alcohol equivalent of Reefer Madness is bound to produce a reaction. Morality purely rooted in the secular is to me no morality at all, but simply fastidiousness masquerading as virtue. Different traditions put it in different terms, but to use Christian language, unless people respect their bodies as temples of the Holy Ghost, and realize that gross drunkenness is a sin against the Fifth Commandment of the Decalogue, changes in behavior will be forced and cosmetic. Students do not need another Just Say No program; they need a proper theology of the body.

Conversations about these matters will no doubt continue to go on in the future; opinions will differ. Let me end here by returning to those Delt dinners where mirthful Dionysus once presided, evenings that helped define early on for me the uniqueness of this place. I make no judgment on actions taken by the College last semester. Whether what was done was fair or not, necessary or alarmist, the fact is that the Delta Tau Delta fraternity is gone, and with it the spirit of those many faculty and student gatherings that remain so vivid in my memory; gone too is the generous volunteer work the fraternity consistently did for our community over the years. Without Delts on campus, both students and alumni, Wabash will never be quite the same college I knew. Shakespeare’s Marc Antony famously said “The evil men do lives after them; the good is oft interred in their bones.” It should not be so for the Delts. Someone should regret our losing them. They and all of us have learned a hard fact, one starkly set out by the German scholar Walter Otto in his book Dionysus:

Thus, of all that earth produces, the vine best mirrors the god’s two faces and reveals most clearly his miraculous nature –- both his endearing and his terrible wildness…the Greek of antiquity was caught up by the total seriousness of the truth that here pleasure and pain, enlightenment and destruction, the lovable and the horrible lived in close intimacy. It is this unity of the paradoxical which appeared in Dionysiac ecstasy with staggering force.

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