Chesterton’s Rule of Drinking

October 5, 2013

We Catholics know how to enjoy a good drink. But alcohol, like any good thing, can be abused, and it has the potential to turn into the hell of alcoholism if we do not exercise temperance.

So is there a good rule of thumb for making sure we do not abuse drink? There sure is, and it is provided by the inimitable G.K. Chesterton, who has something to say about everything. Here’s his advice on enjoying drink safely.

Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable. Never drink when you are wretched without it, or you will be like the grey-faced gin-drinker in the slum; but drink when you would be happy without it, and you will be like the laughing peasant of Italy. Never drink because you need it, for this is rational drinking, and the way to death and hell. But drink because you do not need it, for this is irrational drinking, and the ancient health of the world.

In other words, don’t drink to find happiness, drink to enhance the happiness you already have. Cheers!

Sam Guzman


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Reader Interactions


  1. Marco says

    Thank you very much for this quote! “Omar and the sacred vine” is one of my favourite chapters in Chesterton’s “Herectics”, but the last sentences touch me the most:
    “And at the high altar of Christianity stands
    another figure, in whose hand also is the cup of the vine. “Drink” he
    says “for the whole world is as red as this wine, with the crimson of
    the love and wrath of God. Drink, for the trumpets are blowing for
    battle and this is the stirrup-cup. Drink, for this my blood of the new
    testament that is shed for you. Drink, for I know of whence you come
    and why. Drink, for I know of when you go and where.””

    • BW. says

      There is a “old” saying (from a Jew father to his son) : My son i have only one more thing to teach you before i die – “Wine can also be made of grapes”

    • Paul says

      That was Belloc’s advice to a friend who couldn’t handle his liquor, not a mandatory principle for everyone to follow:

      Let him (said I) drink red wine and white, good beer and mead—if he could get it—liqueurs made by monks, and, in a word, all those feeding, fortifying, and confirming beverages that our fathers drank in old time; but not whisky, nor brandy, nor sparkling wines, not absinthe, nor the kind of drink called gin.

      This he promised to do, and all went well. He became a merry companion, and began to write odes. …

      [W]hen one fatal day—it was the feast of the eleven thousand virgins, and they were too busy up in heaven to consider the needs of poor hobbling, polyktonous and betempted wretches of men—I went with him to the Society for the Prevention of Annoyances to the Rich, where a certain usurer’s son was to read a paper on the cruelty of Spaniards to their mules. As we were all seated there round a table with a staring green cloth on it, and a damnable gas pendant above, the host of that evening offered him whiskey and water, and, my back being turned, he took it. Then when I would have taken it from him he used these words—

      ‘After all, it is the intention of a pledge that matters;’ and I saw that all was over, for he had abandoned definition, and was plunged back into the horrible mazes of Conscience and Natural Religion.

      “What do you think, then was the consequence? Why, he had to take some nasty pledge or other to drink nothing whatever, and became a spectacle and a judgment, whereas if he had kept his exact word he might by this time have been a happy man.”

      It’s probably good advice for someone who is inclined to over-consume to lay off beverages with a higher alcohol content. But with all due deference to Mr. Belloc, there is much to be said for a gin and tonic in the summer time.

  2. Mike says

    I come from a family with a history of alcoholism, so I honestly never touched the stuff until I was in my 30’s. My wife’s family is very much into their Scottish and Irish heritage. Her mother taught the traditional Irish dance in 4-H and her brother is an accomplished musician who’s played in a few Irish pubs around Boston. We were at a pub in Chicago the first time I tried Guinness.

    In 2009, we traveled to Ireland and it was the first time I actually tried whiskey (Bushmills). A young man who had been my brother-in-law’s roommate when he lived in Dublin, gave me this same advice. He said, “I never drink whiskey when I’m down. I only go to whiskey in the good times. Because, drinking to pick yourself up is how you end up an alcoholic”. I don’t think our friend was aware that was Chesterton’s advice.

    I have to admit, I’ve broken that rule once. But, I generally reserve it for the good times.

  3. Jess says

    I think it’s incredibly important to differentiate between substance abuse and substance dependence. The former, I believe, is what Chesterton is talking about. The latter is a recognized disease that is not at all based in moral failures. Alcoholics will tell you that their worlds changed the minute they first consumed alcohol, and that has nothing to do with intemperance.

    • JTA says

      But, as a recovering alcoholic myself, I can say there is good practical advice in not drinking when you are “down”. Anyone can become an alcoholic if they drink too much, and for the wrong reasons. It isn’t only genetic.

  4. Larry says

    From Chesterton’s friend Hillaire Belloc:
    “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
    There’s always laughter and good red wine.
    At least I’ve always found it so.
    Benedicamus Domino!”

  5. Cuff of Coppee says

    Chesterton’s view is a little different than what Proverbs states:

    Proverbs 31:6 “Give strong drink to them that are sad: and wine to them that are grieved in mind: Let them drink, and forget their want, and remember their sorrow no more. ”

    In full Christian context and my favorite Bible verse about wine:
    Ecclesiasticus 31:

    Fire trieth hard iron: so wine drunk to excess shall rebuke the hearts of the proud. [32] Wine taken with sobriety is equal life to men: if thou drink it moderately, thou shalt be sober. [33] What is his life, who is diminished with wine? [34] What taketh away life? death. [35] Wine was created from the beginning to make men joyful, and not to make them drunk.

    [36] Wine drunken with moderation is the joy of the soul and the heart. [37] Sober drinking is health to soul and body. [38] Wine drunken with excess raiseth quarrels; and wrath, and many ruins. [39] Wine drunken with excess is bitterness of the soul. [40] The heat of drunkenness is the stumblingblock of the fool, lessening strength and causing wounds.

    [41] Rebuke not thy neighbour in a banquet of wine: and despise him not in his mirth. [42] Speak not to him words of reproach: and press him not in demanding again.

  6. jose alonso says

    Some tips from Spain:

    1 Never drink without eating a little something (this is the origin of tapas)
    2 If you are planning to drink a lot (ie, you want to visit several bars), drink stuff with low alcohol content.
    3 Do not mix beberages. Stick to one, whatever.
    4 In the old days, when you had to drink a lot, you previously had the precaution of taking a spoonful of olive oil (it coats the stomach and so limits alcohol absorbtion).
    5 Drinking is a social thing: you drink with your friends, not for the sake of drinking, but as a by product of being together and enjoy the company.
    6 It seems that in the anglo saxon world, the fun is to drink until you fall. This is the fun. This is very wrong and impaires seriously your health.
    7 People who get drunk is because they do not know “drinking” (“no saben beber”)

  7. David Young says

    It’s a common misconception that heavy drinking leads to alcoholism. In fact, many heavy drinkers can stop drinking when they want to, while the alcoholic can not. What’s the difference? The alcoholic has a physical condition that makes alcohol so pleasurable that once started the only “sensible” drinking is oblivion drinking. The brain of the alcoholic literally has different receptors that process alcohol in a way very similar to hard drugs such as cocaine.

    So, this isn’t to say “don’t drink”. But, if your family has a history of alcoholism (people drinking to destructive ends…), then, even if drinking for the “right” reasons, it may be best to be filled with the spirit in other ways.


  8. Paolo says

    “Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable” – something very nice like this was said in the wine film “Sideways.” It was so profound that I remembered and abided by it. Now it’s nice to know that GK Chesterton also said it.


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