Drugs and Social Progress Since the Greeks

The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization, 101

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.

Christy Rodgers’ writings have appeared on Dissident Voice, Truthout, Alternet, Upside Down World, Counterpunch, and Dark Mountain Project. She lives in San Francisco and blogs at What If?: Tales, transformations, possibilities. Read other articles by Christy.

14 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. b99 said on September 1st, 2009 at 1:20pm #

    I think the need for booze was the basis for the rise of agriculture 8 to 10 thousand years ago.

  2. Ntessier said on September 2nd, 2009 at 2:41am #

    Prohibition fails again and again no matter whats being prohibited.
    There are no valid arguments that can support this failed policy and simply no excuses from our elected representatives that can justify the cost in ruined lives and dollars.
    It’s time to contact your representatives, from local city council to your representatives in congress and let them know in no uncertain terms, Your Voters Demand the Repeal of Prohibition now !

  3. undrgrndgirl said on September 2nd, 2009 at 8:51am #

    it is rumored (by a credible source – one of his long time scientific partners) that francis crick was under the influence of lsd when he first thought up the idea of the double helix in dna…and used small amounts of lsd to boost his powers of thought.

  4. mark w bradley said on September 2nd, 2009 at 9:28am #

    An eloquent and illuminating argument. I have always maintained that the “mind altering” and “consciousness raising” effects of psychoactive drugs such as LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin make them a potential threat to the social, religious, and political status quo. My own extensive experiences with these substances in the late 1960’s wrought a fundamental change in my perception of the world, and thus an unwillingness on my part to remain one of those who, in William Blake’s words, “has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” During those transformative years, I learned to abhor the rigid march of certainty and embrase the fluid dance of paradox. I shudder to contemplate the shallow pool of existence I might otherwise have been condemned to inhabit…

  5. Dennis Igou said on September 2nd, 2009 at 6:42pm #

    The labyrinth from above is workable. It is my opinion that our military industrial power is supporting the production of massive amounts of narcotics through the world. The psychoactive enthogens is what is needed but what is provided is more sleepy and numbed downe,comfortably so. It is true that the NATO packs distrubuted to Georgian troups in the flare up , had meth and MDMA(to cope with the stress). Ethnogens can provide windows to our existance. To contemplate our existance is key to our souls journey here on terra firma. Spiritus mundi. Dennis

  6. Dennis Igou said on September 2nd, 2009 at 6:45pm #

    existence in place of existance if you please

  7. Obstreperous said on September 2nd, 2009 at 9:32pm #

    The comments above are perhaps the best arguement for the current prohibitions. Frankly I’m surprised that the government hasn’t endorsed the widespread use of everything from narcotics to stimulants to psychotomimetics in an attempt to further marginalize and dissociate the public from things that actually make a difference in their lives. There’s sports, but for those of us disinterested in spectator activities, drugs could help to control or disengage the rest of us. Heck, it would even be something else to tax. The increased accidental death rate would also save on health care costs since a raoid death at a younger age is cheaper than the chronic illnesses of old age. Let’s go for it!!!

  8. keith anderson said on September 3rd, 2009 at 12:55pm #

    You have a decidedly anti-capitalist train of thought, but if you think communism will be tolerant of psychoactive drugs, just look at USSR and China. Also, it was leftist progressives who foisted prohibition of alcohol on USA. I am a cannabis enthusiast, and in my experience it’s
    a supply and demand capatilist enterprise. And a highly effective one at that. Legal or not, it’s easy to find, and better product costs more. That’s competition in a marketplace. Sounds like free enterprise to me. I don’t hear any hue and cry to “eat the rich— dope peddler”. If you’re maintaining that entheogens provide insight, may I suggest you’ve ingested insufficient quantities? Turn on. Tune in. Wise up!

  9. Shelley C said on September 3rd, 2009 at 7:57pm #

    Has neither Hillman or anyone else heard of the work of Gordon Wasson, who wrote pioneering works on the usage of hallucinogenic mushrooms in Greek and other early civilizations? His conclusions, especially about the visions and trance experiences which formed the root of many of their religious beliefs. I haven’t read this book, but I am getting used to people coming up with ideas and not researching to see if they have ever been brought forward in seminal works written before they were born.

  10. Christy Rodgers said on September 3rd, 2009 at 8:56pm #

    Shelley: Both Hillman and Huston Smith cite Wasson’s work, I believe. Hillman just doesn’t seem particularly interested in the philosophical implications, at least in this book.

    Obstrep: I think you describe pretty accurately the situation we currently have. It’s called the US health care system.

    Keith: Whatever. When you can spell capitalism, then (maybe) I’ll believe you actually understand how it works.

  11. dp63 said on September 4th, 2009 at 11:11am #


    This article was written with an insight and eloquence that is rare to see on the web today. Excellent article! Ethenogens are a powerful and insightful tool for expanding awareness beyond our normal condition. My use of mushrooms, LED and salvia, while rare and occasional, have given me a perspective on life and existence that simply is not attainable to those who have not tried them. They are NOT for recreation, they are much too powerful and unpleasant for that purpose. They open doors in your consciuosness that are much more than simple hallucinations or mind tricks. In fact, I believe that our normal reality is the true illusion.

    The fact is, government and religion, while initially founded in good faith, over time become institutions which succumb to one of man’s worst attibutes… ambition. The ambitious become enamored with the power of the institution, and that in turn attracts more like-minded, until an untameable beast is created.

    A few snakes soon becomes a pit of them. The pit becomes the Monster.

    While I have no argument that the institutions of government, and especially that of religion (ESPECIALLY monotheistic relion) understand the nature of ethenogens and the threat they pose to their beloved bureacracy very well, it must be further realized that these organizations create other actions that cause our society great harm. War, discrimination, and social inequalities are all results of the powerful and their power-hungry conciliators. While ethenogens can help one reveal that, if one dares to look for the truth, they alone cannot turn evil into good.

    We have much growing to do as a species. As I age, I realize more and more that Man is a very child-like creature. I’m afraid our abilty to breed unchecked and our technological progress of destroying each other and our environment quickly outpaces our ability to gain wisdom. With 7 billion people on the planet, we are at the brink of collapse. From what? Name it… nuclear war, bilogical war, global pandemic, climate change, mass starvation, economic collapse… we are facing threats that we enevitably come to fruition due to our igorance.

    Maybe, if some small bands of us survive, we can return to the way of life from which we ascended, as small tribes eeking out a meager, but sustainable living from the land. Only them will we bee free from the prison we have built for ourselves called “civilization”.

  12. Mexomorph said on September 5th, 2009 at 2:10pm #

    Compelling and interesting article, Christy; thank you for sharing your thought-provoking insight. I agree wholeheartedly with Mr Bradley’s experience as well – monotheism & religion are both harder to swallow after opening your mind to the multiverse.. which is why those of us committed to entertain everyone else are usually imbibing to keep the mask of reason in place.

  13. Mike Cane said on September 5th, 2009 at 5:20pm #

    >>>The only way to neutralize the imprisoning power of a labyrinth is to be able to see it from above.

    And why is using a drug the only way to achieve that?

  14. ENKI-2 said on September 12th, 2009 at 4:17pm #

    The problem with this train of thought is that it assumes that the government is in a position to prohibit things. Government in general is in a position merely to provide punishments for those who may or may not have broken a given rule. Punishment is not the same as the absence of a choice.

    That said, you make a good argument for why status:q sees it to be in their best interest to ban psychoactive substances. Monotheism and government are fundamentally the same phenomenon: the generation of a rigid central structure of authority that acts as a sink for responsibility. What I disagree with is the idea that the members of any given government have this reasoning; I would argue that it is not any given person in government who wants power (the power is not particularly useful, in government; a small business owner might have more social status and control with slightly fewer headaches and roughly equivalent lobbying benefits) — it is the concept of government that seeks to stay in power. Psychoactive substances allow a greater level of introspection, and introspection is dangerous to memes that are essentially toxic, particularly ones that require the extermination of competing memes and their carriers (capitalism and communism, for instance, or most monotheistic religions; more or less any dogma that suggests that opposing ideas be silenced or that those who disagree be killed will fit this criteria, particularly given the essentially neophobic essence of these doctrines. Psychoactive substances are too direct and could easily be eliminated, but slow infection has proven to degrade the most authoritarian elements of most of these).