Our Puritan legacy, which sees pleasure as the doorway to vice, makes it difficult for many people to understand this difference. If alcohol causes drunkenness, they think, then the sole moral question concerns whether you should drink it at all, and if so how much.
However, what Aristotle said about anger applies equally to drinking. It is not right to avoid anger absolutely: we must acquire the right habit — in other words, school ourselves to feel the right amount of anger towards the right person, on the right occasion and for the right length of time. The same goes for drinking. It is not just the right amount that is important, but the right context, the right company, and the right drink.
Properly used, alcohol is a stimulus to conversation, a solvent of awkwardness and a reminder that life is a blessing, and other people, too. There is a thin line between this benevolent and insightful state of mind and the phoney sentimentality to which incautious drinking so easily leads. And the ancient adage in vino veritas is as false of drunkenness as it is true of those first moves towards it. Drunken declarations of passion are infected by a dangerous falsehood, and are the fruit of vicious drinking.
Here then is my recipe for virtuous drinking. First surround yourself with friends. Then serve something that is intrinsically interesting: a wine with roots in a terroir, which reaches out to you from some favoured place, which invites discussion and exploration, and which takes attention away from your own sensations and bestows it instead on the world. Share each memory, each image and each idea with the company; strive for a sincere and relaxed affection; most of all, think of the others and forget yourself.
Alas, such occasions need organising. The urgent question, therefore, is how to drink virtuously while alone. Some advice was given by the great Chinese poet Li Po (701-762):
A cup of wine, under the flowering trees;
I drink alone, for no friend is near.
Raising my cup I beckon the bright moon,
For he, with my shadow, will make three men.
The moon shines now through my darkened window, and I raise a glass of Mâcon Solutré — which has the starched white simplicity of the moonlight itself — to my shadow on the floor.