The Sober Curious in Past Times: Temperance Movements in the Ancient and Pre-Modern World
Introduction – Temperance Movements in the Pre-Modern World
People have never been more willing to abstain from alcohol of their volition for simple health or lifestyle reasons in the early twenty-first century. A term has even emerged to describe those interested in limiting their consumption of wine, beer and spirits, or abstain altogether for protracted periods of time: the sober curious. This differs considerably from the movements which emerged primarily in North America and Scandinavia in the second half of the nineteenth century to have alcohol banned altogether in countries like the United States, Canada, Norway and Finland.
Yet temperance movements, those which call for moderation rather than outright abstinence from alcohol consumption, are not as novel as we might imagine. Ever since ancient times there has been a multiplicity of such movements, largely tied to religions or philosophical schools of thought.
Pythagoras and Temperance
One of the earliest such temperance movements was associated with the followers of Pythagoras. This sixth-century BC philosopher from the island of Samos in the Aegean Sea is primarily remembered today for his mathematical theorem, but in ancient times he was far more revered as a philosopher and quasi-religious leader. Around 530 BC he travelled to southern Italy where he established an ascetic school at Croton in Calabria. Here Pythagoreanism was practiced by his followers for twenty or so years until they were persecuted and their schools burnt down by the local Greek rulers. [Text Box 1]
A key tenet of Pythagoras’s thought was that one should strive to maintain self-control in all aspects of their life. Thus, drunkenness was frowned upon amongst the Pythagoreans in southern Italy and the philosopher preached that wine should only be consumed in moderation. This was one of the earliest temperance movements amongst the Mediterranean civilizations that we have tangible evidence for, at a time when wine consumption was otherwise being spread far and wide by Greek colonies being founded all along the Mediterranean coast and into the far reaches of the Black Sea.
So prevalent was this ethos of drinking wine in moderation amongst Pythagoras and his followers that he is generally credited (probably spuriously) with the invention of the Pythagorean Cup, a drinking cup which, if filled too much, triggers a siphoning effect which causes the entire contents of the cup to begin draining out through the base.
Pythagoras was mirrored in his views by another quasi-religious school of philosophy which emerged in Greece in the early third century BC and went on to exert a significant influence over the Roman world. This was the Stoic school of philosophy, founded by Zeno of Citium, a Cypriot who began teaching in Athens at some stage in the 290s or 280s BC. Stoicism was centred on the idea of living according to logic and a virtuous life which was in harmony with nature. As such, Zeno and his many followers over the centuries, such as Epictetus, Seneca and the second-century Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, tried to live a life which did not place emphasis on material well-being.
The Stoics emphasised that people should aim to cultivate a strong will or prohairesis, a concept akin to a strong moral character. In line with this they advocated temperance in all things, including alcohol. Like the Pythagoreans, the Stoics were not advocates of complete abstinence, but moderation. The third-century AD Greek historian, Diogenes Laertius, from whose Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers most of our information on figures like Zeno is derived, noted of the Stoics that they would drink wine, but never allowed themselves to get drunk. Some prominent Stoics were not moderate in all things though. Marcus Aurelius was famously an opium addict.
Prohibitions on Wine and Beer in Ancient China
Temperance was not just being urged in ancient times within the Mediterranean civilizations. It was also an increasing factor in the Far East in ancient China. Grape wine was relatively uncommon here millennia ago, though not unheard of, while rice wine, beer and other alcoholic beverages made from everything from honey and plums to lychees and sorghum were also consumed. Alcohol was intrinsic to a wide range of social functions, including coronations, banquets, weddings and funerals.
By the late Bronze Age there were already drives towards limiting alcohol consumption. There were no less than forty imperial decrees issued against the production of wine in China in the two and a half millennia between 1100 BC and 1400 AD, as the Zhou, Han, Tang, Song and Yuan Dynasties, among others, attempted to curtail public drunkenness and the social problems which followed from excessive consumption of rice wine. This is an average of a prohibition every sixty or so years, but there were probably more proclamations to this effect than evidence has survived for. As such, there were constant calls for temperance or outright prohibition throughout the ancient history of China.
This more hardline approach to alcohol was soon being mirrored far to the west in Arabia. Here, following the rise of Islam, the societies of the Middle East, North Africa and adjoining regions in Transoxiana and the Sahel where Islam became a major religion began adopting a less permissive approach towards the consumption of wine and other types of alcohol, despite the decidedly ambiguous statements on alcohol in the Quran and other religious texts associated with Muhammad.
Yet even here there was what we might actually call a drift towards moderation and temperance, rather than outright prohibition. Certainly the sort of blanket prohibitions on alcohol which we see in many modern Islamic states today were not enforced in the Arab caliphate for much of the period between the seventh and thirteenth centuries. Even Saladin, one of the most revered of Islamic leaders, drank for much of his life and wine in particular was tolerated in many parts of the Islamic world during these centuries.
The Drunken Middle Ages in Europe
Not all times, places and religions produced temperance movements. A major instance is the binary opposite of the Islamic world during the middle ages, the world of Christian Europe. Here religion was intrinsically associated with alcohol, a result of the celebration of the Mass involving wine. Therefore the church authorities and the religious orders such as the Benedictines, Cistercians, Franciscans and Dominicans didn’t just countenance alcohol consumption, but they were effectively the viticulturists of Europe, with vineyards being planted next to monasteries all over France and other regions.
Indeed drunkenness for a time became equated with godliness in medieval Europe. Take the example of St Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth century scholar and Dominican friar whose scholarship made Scholasticism the pre-dominant intellectual movement of the late middle ages until it was replaced gradually by Humanism from the fifteenth century onwards. Aquinas argued that alcohol should be used to ‘cheer men’s souls’ and that people should ‘drink to the point of hilarity’. Many was the drunken friar or priest in medieval Europe.
Hinduism and Temperance
The same cannot be said of the subcontinent of India, where numerous scions of Hinduism emerged in the early modern period which either promoted the idea of very moderate alcohol consumption of else complete abstinence. This can be traced back to the Rigveda, one of the four canonical texts of Hinduism. In this the consumption of alcohol was one of the seven sins, along with such extreme crimes as murder. However, Hinduism does not have a centralised authority and other important texts within it, such as the Manusmriti simply stated that ‘There is no sin in the eating of meat, nor in wine’, while adding the caveat that ‘abstention is conducive to great rewards’.
As a consequence of all of this, there were many branches of Hinduism which called for total abstention in pre-modern times. A radical example was Swaminarayan Hinduism which emerged in the early nineteenth century based on the teachings of the Hindu yogi or ascetic Swaminarayan, a figure who was viewed by his followers as an earthly manifestation of the god Krishna. He emphasised the virtues of moral and personal betterment to improve society. This included prohibitions on many things, notably the consumption of drugs and the consumption of alcohol, wine included.
Unusually, Swaminarayan was even opposed to the consumption of wine and other alcohol even for medicinal purposes, thus being one of the most severe temperance and abstinence movements to appear anywhere in the world prior to the prohibitions imposed by national governments in North America and Scandinavia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
From Temperance to Prohibition
If there was a specific period during which significant numbers of people within European societies in Europe and the Americas began to favour temperance and then outright prohibition of alcohol then it was in the eighteenth century. A number of factors coalesced at this time to allow for this. Municipal governments in cities like London and Amsterdam began developing methods of sanitising their water systems which in turn made people less reliant on beer and wine for a source of sanitary hydration. Secondly, the Medical Revolution saw a developing awareness of the deleterious effects of excessive alcohol consumption.
Religious groups such as the Quakers, Methodists, Baptists and other Christian evangelicals were the primary drivers of the concept of temperance in the eighteenth century, often beginning to replace wine with non-alcoholic substitutes when celebrating the Mass. Then, in the nineteenth century the arrival of new anaesthetics and pain-relief drugs such as ether, opium and cocaine gave medical professionals options other than alcohol to ease pain from injuries and to facilitate surgery. It is not a coincidence that the Prohibition movements in North America and Scandinavia emerged forcefully into those societies from the mid-nineteenth century following these other societal developments.
Temperance and abstinence from alcohol are not entirely new phenomena that have emerged since the nineteenth century, although they have become more prevalent for the simple reason that people are less reliant on wine, beer and spirits for pain relief and anaesthesia from a medical perspective and in order to sanitise water. Moreover, a greater awareness has developed over the past two centuries about how limiting alcohol consumption can lead to better personal health and less societal problems.
The rise of the sober curious in recent years is simply another aspect of this, based primarily on the psychological and benefits of temperance and abstinence, much of which is an offshoot of the modern wellness industry. Yet as the foregoing has demonstrated, temperance movements are not an entirely modern phenomenon. Rather current developments are part of an ongoing process which has been underway for thousands of years.
Pythagoreanism was an unusual movement, one which has been viewed as a kind of ancient Greek forerunner of the New Age movements of the twentieth century. Pythagoras and his followers followed an ascetic life, one in which they sought to attain arête or excellence, a Greek philosophical concept which concerns moral virtue or what the Viennese psychoanalysts of the late nineteenth century would define as individuation. In order to achieve this Pythagoras and his followers lived in ways which were unusual for the time, adhering to vegetarianism, focusing on subjects like music, cosmology and geometry in their studies and advocating moderation in their drinking. They also veered towards a greater level of gender equality than was typical of the sixth century BC.
As one would expect, numerology was a significant aspect of Pythagoras’s teachings as well and he and his followers believed that mathematical theorems and arithmetic could be used to explain much of existence; thus Pythagoras’s Theorem. Pythagoreans also believed in a form of reincarnation termed transmigration whereby one’s soul either passed into a celestial sphere or the body of another organism after death. As such, it was an influence on the development of Christian thought and was also profoundly influential in the formation of Platonism, Aristotelianism and Stoicism as schools of Greek philosophy.
Danny Hakim, ‘Pythagoras: The Cult of Personality and the Mystical Power of Numbers’, The Washington Post, 13 March 1996.
Kathryn M. Kueny, The Rhetoric of Sobriety: Wine in Early Islam (Albany, New York, 2001).
Mu-Chou Poo, ‘The Use and Abuse of Wine in Ancient China’, in Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 42, No. 2 (1999), pp. 123–151.
Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).
Donal Robertson, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (New York, 2020).
James R. Rohrer, ‘The Origins of the Temperance Movement’, in Journal of American Studies, Vol. 24, No. 2 (August, 1990), pp. 228–235.
On this Day
23 August 1723 – On in this day in 1723 the New England Puritan clergyman, Increase Mather, died in the city of Boston in Massachusetts. Mather was known for many things, notably his role in the governance of New England during the colonial period, his presidency of Harvard College for a period of twenty years and his involvement in the Salem Witch Trials. But Mather was also notable as an early advocate of temperance in the British Colonies of North America. In 1673 he published Wo to Drunkards, in which he proclaimed that “Drink is in itself a good creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness, but the abuse of drink is from Satan, the wine is from God, but the Drunkard is from the Devil.” This reflects a growing move towards temperance amongst the religious communities of North America in the second half of the seventeenth century, the first stages in the move towards calls for outright prohibition on the sale and supply of alcohol in countries like the United States and Canada in the nineteenth century.
1 June 1830 – On this day in 1830 the Hindu yogi or ascetic Swaminarayan died in Gujarat in north-western India. Over a thirty year period between his first initiation into the Uddhav sampradaya in 1800 and his death in 1830, Swaminarayan developed a devoted following in India, with his followers viewing him as a manifestation of the God Krishna. He emphasised the virtues of moral and personal betterment to improve society. This included prohibitions on many things, notably the consumption of meat, drugs, tantric rituals, adultery and the consumption of alcohol, wine included. Unusually, Swaminarayan was even opposed to the consumption of wine and other alcohol even for medicinal purposes, thus being one of the most severe temperance and abstinence movements to appear anywhere in the world prior to the prohibitions imposed by national governments in North America and Scandinavia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Want to read more? Try these books!
 Carl Huffman, ‘Pythagoras’, in Edward N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Stanford, 1995).
 Ryan Holiday, Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living From Zeno to Marcus Aurelius (New York, 2020).
 Jaap Mansfeld, ‘Diogenes Laertius on Stoic Philosophy’, in Elenchos, Vol. 7 (1986), pp. 295–382; Donal Robertson, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (New York, 2020).
 ‘China’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).
 David J. Hanson, Preventing Alcohol Abuse: Alcohol, Culture and Control (New York, 1995), p. 3; Mu-Chou Poo, ‘The Use and Abuse of Wine in Ancient China’, in Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 42, No. 2 (1999), pp. 123–151.
 Kathryn M. Kueny, The Rhetoric of Sobriety: Wine in Early Islam (Albany, New York, 2001); ‘Islam’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).
 Natalia Beltrán Peralta, Silvia Aulet and Dolors Vidal-Casellas, ‘Wine and Monasteries: Benedictine Monasteries in Europe’, in Journal of Foodservice Business Research, Vol. 25 (2022), pp. 1–32; Desmond Seward, Monks and Wine (Second Edition, London, 2021).
 Jack Rosenwinkel, ‘Some Discernment on Spirits’, The Fenwick Review, 25 November 2017; Robert Pasnau, ‘Thomas Aquinas’, in Edward N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Stanford, 1995).
 Raymond Williams, Introduction to Swaminarayan Hinduism (Cambridge, 2001).
 James R. Rohrer, ‘The Origins of the Temperance Movement’, in Journal of American Studies, Vol. 24, No. 2 (August, 1990), pp. 228–235.
 Danny Hakim, ‘Pythagoras: The Cult of Personality and the Mystical Power of Numbers’, The Washington Post, 13 March 1996.
 https://www.brettmccracken.com/blog/blog/2013/07/17/christians-and-alcohol-a-timeline [accessed 22/1/23]; Kenneth B. Murdock, Increase Mather: The Foremost American Puritan (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1925); Increase Mather, Wo to drunkards: Two sermons testifying against the sin of drunkenness: wherein the wofulness of that evil, and the mistery of all that are addicted to it, is discovered from the word of God (Boston, 1673).
 Raymond Williams, Introduction to Swaminarayan Hinduism (Cambridge, 2001).