Alexander and the Macedonian lads didn't do anything halfway. By the time their frequent drinking bouts ended, they were past caring about food, conversation or any other gentle pleasure. In contratst, the Athenians, their more cultivated Hellenic subjects, would not tolerate inebriation. To be found drunk in Athens would be to risk one's social standing. The mores of Athenian society were sufficiently powerful that no government regulations were required to enforce good drinking behavior.

Dr. Morris Chafetz, a Washington psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of alcoholism, draws a parallel between the world of the ancient Greeks and modern society. Alcoholism, he says, is a serious problem in those countries where heavy drinking is regarded as a manly pursuit and intoxication is pardoned, countries such as France, the Soviet Union, Australia and the United States. The Athenians of today include Italy, Spain, China and Israel.

Ten million Americans have a drinking problem, says Chafetz. He defines a drinking problem as the use of alcohol in any way that affects life-functioning: for example, if a person needs a drink to board a plane or to make a speech, or if drinking results in striking personality change. Alcoholism itself is a severe condition of the drinking problem.

To Chafetz, alcoholism is an illness, an uncontrollable need for a drug with which to deal with physical and mental discomfort. He believs that it should be recognized and treated by society in the same open and sympathetic way as cancer or heart ailments. This comparatively new approach contrasts to the older, more negative attitude that views alcoholism as a transgression for which the weak-willed alcoholic must be made to atone.

Can we afford to be a society with a drinking problem? Chafetz believes not: "No one knows how many poor decisions have been made from drugged brains. It's harder to detect impaired output in the board room or office than on the assembly line." Occupational pressures, including entertaining, make our leaders -- the professionals and managers -- most vulnerable to the effects of drinking.

The drinking problem is not going to disappear by raising the drinking age or by imposing government controls on the sale of alcoholic beverages. History has shown that human behavior cannot be legislated. Prohibition was a grand example. Not only did the unattainable become more desirable, but Prohibition bequeathed America two unfortunate legacies: organized crime and a conflicted, guilt-ridden attitude to alcohol.

Somewhere between rampant alcoholism and prohibition lies the key to balanced, enjoyable drinking: moderation. (Now, here comes the plug for wine.) Wine has some important advantages over other liquors. It is lower in alcohol content than distilled spirits -- and most wine drinkers, I believe, have a healthy respect for alcohol. In addition, wine has proven nutritional and therapeutic: More than 90 percent of hospitals in this country, says Chafetz, will serve wine to patients. Most important, wine is drunk with food, in a social setting. The food helps to absorb the alcohol and the wine helps the digestion of food. Great teamwork.

There is a difference between enjoying wine and getting drunk. The Athenians knew.