Last year, a disenchanted classics major named D.C.A. Hillman published a book called The Chemical Muse: Drug Use and the Roots of Western Civilization. It was his revenge on the academic community that had censored his thesis, forcing him to remove the section dealing with recreational drug use in Greek and Roman times in order to graduate.
It’s a short but pithy book, aimed at the hypocrisy of the modern U.S. stance on (some) drugs as much as at the stuffy classicists who maintained, in the face of reams of textual evidence, according to Hillman, that “[the Romans] just wouldn’t do such a thing.” I’m not a classicist, but Hillman doesn’t have to work very hard to convince me that Rome’s pleasure-seekers didn’t just drink lots and lots of wine in those saturnalian romps of theirs.
The Chemical Muse is a brief overview of the evidence that the ancient Greeks and Romans were both aware and tolerant of the use of psychoactive substances: opiates, cannabis and other plant-based drugs, while they simultaneously warned of the dangers of “poisoning” (what we would refer to as overdose) and prescribed precautionary remedies for it. In fact, according to Hillman, the only aspect of drug use that was criminal in these societies was the intentional poisoning of another person with a drug.
Hillman is mostly interested in presenting his case from a civil libertarian standpoint; since our own imperfect understanding of civil liberties is largely derived from Classical society via the Enlightenment, he wonders how we can have descended to a position so much less enlightened in this regard than our primitive forebears in the ancient world.
But in his defense of Greek and Roman recreational drug use, Hillman barely touches on what is to me, the heart of the matter: drugs may have stimulated the very visions and insights that gave early poets and philosophers levels of understanding that Western civilization has built on ever since, while systematically purging the parts of those understandings that didn’t gibe with any practice not useful to refining social control and/or increasing the production of profit. Hillman does make note of the pre-Socratics, chief among them Pythagoras and Empedocles, for whom mysticism and rigorous investigation of the natural world were no contradiction. He says: “the roots of Western philosophy reach deep into the fertile soil of the human imagination, where shamanism, divination, and narcotic experiences have held sway for thousands of years.” While this idea alone could easily be the subject of a book, Hillman is more interested in documenting classical references to drug use than to linking it to the production of important concepts and archetypes, from mathematics to theology.
The Greeks themselves were not exempt from the process of ideological exclusion, which probably reached a point of no return when Plato threw poets out of his ideal republic and animism out of nature. Yet, as long as the pharmakon was not actively banned, the visions it produced were tolerated too, although from the misogynistic Greeks with their cautionary tales of murderous Medea or the Bacchae begins its long descent to complete anathema, the tool of witchcraft that would undermine the later Christian social order. Ending up, of course, in the gynocide that European Christianity required for its triumph, which washed right up on the shores of Plymouth and swept over the colonists at Salem.
Much as Hillman would like us to see the current war on drugs as a modern aberration, it’s still a very old story. Perhaps as old as the rise of monotheism: tellingly, there is no society where monotheism dominates in which psychoactive drug use is officially tolerated (and psychoactive is the key here) unless that society has since become much more thoroughly secular than our own. And that’s why drug use is not really a just a matter of civil liberties per se, of the “individual freedom” that libertarians maintain is the true legacy of Western civilization. The issue isn’t whether or not you have a personal right to alter your mood—after all we have caffeine, and we have alcohol and nicotine which are far more strongly addictive and dangerous to health than cannabis, but we don’t have cannabis. Why? Because cannabis can alter your perception of reality, not just your mood.
Reports of psychoactive drug experiences tend to support the idea that the user can become aware of multiple levels of reality all present simultaneously that are far more complex and yet more harmonious and unified than normal experience permits her to perceive. All sorts of understandings are possible, based on the particular mind and the particular drug, but this type of awareness is a through-line. Why would monotheism particularly be afraid of this? Because the experience tends to reinforce the idea that while there is undoubtedly a transcendent realm of existence, it doesn’t recognize those equally hallucinatory desert-engendered patriarchs Yahweh or Allah as its exclusive landlords. So, to coin a phrase: how’re ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Par-ee?
Yes, you will say, but Almighty God or no, whatever consumer capitalism wants consumer capitalism usually gets in our good ol’ U.S. of A. So why did we abolish Prohibition only to let the drug war run on and on with no sign of ever ending? What’s the difference, when pleasure can be turned so readily into cash?
There’s no doubt that American culture is schizoid as regards pleasure: for a consumer capitalist society, pleasure is the big money, the holy grail of profit, but for a never-truly secularized monotheistic society, dominated by a particularly sensation-hating brand of monotheism at that, pleasure is always deeply suspect, a terrorist in our midst. Still, I would maintain that insight, not pleasure, is the real target, or at least the real casualty, of the American war on the particular drugs it has chosen as the enemy. Sensual pleasure may be a danger to organized religion, but insight is dangerous to both religion and profit.
And let’s remember that Prohibition, once in place, was not repealed until after American capitalism crashed its car and was stumbling around, reeling, in the wreckage. A broke government couldn’t help save it, and Prohibition, just as in our day, was denying the government millions in revenue from taxation while forcing it to spend more millions on enforcement. God would have to rethink his position on this one.
Up to now, it’s clear our drug war has been extremely convenient for the powers that be. It’s conveniently mostly harmed only the poor in our society and in producing countries. It’s conveniently resulted in their mass incarceration in the U.S., keeping them from troublesome agitation for greater social equality. Consumer capitalism has found plenty of stuff to sell that’s just as lucrative or more than the cut it would get from marijuana dispensaries or cocaine fun pills (including all sorts of mood enhancing but not mind-altering pharmaceuticals, for the millions whose pleasure deficit has hit a clinically definable level). There’s no correlation of forces strong enough yet to push our strangely picky God to the side on this one, even though we’re getting closer all time: governments bankrupted by drug war enforcement and incarceration costs are less and less able to provide the infrastructural bootstrap that business unendingly needs to be pulled up by, or the social stability it needs to generate profit. Or even, at a certain point, enough skilled employees to manage its enterprises, since schools tend to die where prisons grow. But drug policy change, like actual job creation, will probably only come as an absolute last resort, so profoundly distasteful is it to those who have benefited most from its absence.
At the same time, while the social benefits are almost undeniable at this point, it’s naïve to expect that some kind of renaissance of insight-based living would sweep over this land if psychoactive drugs were legalized. Holland would be full of transcendentalist philosophers if that were true. I’m not saying there would be a linear consequence of greater intellectual maturity in the populace the more drug use was accepted. There’s nothing linear about psychoactive drug use; that’s of course another aspect that makes it an anathema to social policymakers. Hillman shows that Classical writers were well aware of the risks posed by psychoactive stuff; they warned against the power it had to distort personality and breed contempt for traditional lines of authority, particularly, as I’ve noted, in that hidebound patriarchy from which our own descends, in the hands of women.
Contempt for authority would be a fine consequence, in my view. But while a temporary subversion of authority may have been a laudable consequence, the anything-goes surge of psychoactive drug use in the ‘60s also left a lot of individual casualties strung out (so to speak) along the way. The salient word is individual. As long as the whole subject is confined to individual choice, we’re on the wrong track, just as with, say, health care, or organic food. If legalization is only about an individual’s “right” to an expanded menu of pleasures, well, ancient Rome already provides a fairly negative example of what that would look like.
At the same time, much as today’s spiritual questers, Burning Man trippers, ayahuasca tourists, and so forth may be hoping to trigger some new transformative wave of enlightenment that will wash over us all simultaneously as we align with the galactic center in 2012 (or whatever)—messianic, culturally-decontextualized attempts to jump-start our continued evolution, whether with drugs or machines, conveniently attempting to skip over the mess of social inequality, endemic violence and environmental collapse we’ve so far created could just as easily be elements of some junked up dystopia, an even more schizoid reality in which most people’s experience would still be the phenomenon of living inside somebody else’s nightmare. Huston Smith, a renowned scholar of religion who participated in Timothy Leary’s Harvard experiments with LSD, has written compellingly of the potential of psychoactive drugs to provide transcendental insights, even calling them entheogens, god-producing substances. But he also felt that the U.S. psychedelic movement was not mature enough to create a truly functional social alternative out of the possibilities of psychoactive substances. Without discipline and a sense of overriding obligation to some sort of collectively defined, sustainable way of life, its insights were not transferable.
So maybe we’re not worthy of anything better than what we’ve got, yet. Where psychoactive drugs seem to have been employed most usefully and with the fewest negative side effects is in small, low-tech societies where there is a high level of mutual trust built up over generations of co-habitation, aided by highly disciplined guides whose mission is to support the community, strengthening its web of relationships and showing how those relationships extend to the natural world. As a society we’re currently about as far from that as it’s possible to be. After all, we can’t even use tobacco correctly; it was a salubrious ceremonial substance for untold generations until we got hold of it, and turned it into a mass killer. But it’s conceivable that changing material conditions generated by the glaring contradictions in our current system will encourage at least some of us to move in a more communitarian direction simply in order to survive. And psychoactive drugs could be useful in catalyzing that process—why not? They’ve already been so for thousands of years.
Other reasons for ending the drug war a.s.a.p. are still compelling enough, and even absent an effective social reform movement, the economic forces no one really controls anymore may finally do it in. I hope that regardless of how it happens, our Manichean war will someday be seen simply as another of those quintessentially reactionary futilities that were once endemic to materially powerful institutions and societies: like attempts to stop the sun from rising by holding your hands in front of your eyes. Because without somehow disseminating expanded consciousness (along with the material basics for a decent life) more widely through our species, it’s difficult to see how we’ll avoid getting trapped in our own 4-D labyrinth, whose walls of unintended consequences just seem to get higher faster all the time now. The only way to neutralize the imprisoning power of a labyrinth is to be able to see it from above.