Monday, October 24, 2011

drug culture, ecstasy and philosophy in ancient greece

Video - excerpted interview with Michael Rinella. | Dr. Rinella, what significance, what weight did the Greeks of the Classical Period attach to intoxication?

Let us consider the question of significance or awareness first. It surprises me that there are many analysts who believe that intoxication was not a condition subjected to a constant, regular, and on-going ethical inquiry in ancient Greece, simply because ancient thought lacked, to give one example, something like our contemporary theory of addiction. In other words they argue that the ancient Greeks had no “drug problem” and were in a sense oblivious about drugs. Well of course that is true if by “drug problem” you are thinking of the specific set of responses to recreational drug use in play since roughly the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. But if you consider Greek thought on intoxication in its own terms you’ll find a discourse as rich and complex as the ancient discussion of food and sex.

And the emphasis?

The question of weight or emphasis is equally important. In contemporary market economies non-productive drug use has been problematized as a disease condition to be subjected to a juridical intervention by a criminal justice system, a medico-therapeutic intervention by a drug-abuse system, or both because these systems tend to operate in loose conjunction or alliance with one another (each having a normalizing role within late-capitalist society). In ancient Greece intoxication was problematized largely on aesthetic grounds. At least until Plato, who was considerably more sophisticated than his peers in terms of understanding human psychology.

What were the parameters of an aesthetic appraisal of intoxication? And what did Plato change?

The central idea within the symposia of the elite was to drink well, and wisely. And by “drink well” they meant becoming intoxicated. If you met this goal your peers considered you properly aristocratic, refined, and a truly attractive human being. The ancient Greek poets speak of this constantly. To allow the mind to be completely unseated by a substance such as wine was considered boorish, ugly, and unattractive for several reasons. On the one hand it was considered unmanly; it made the warrior emotional and feminine. On another it led to hubristic behavior, something that was, in a culture heavily based on honor and shame rather than responsibility and guilt, about as taboo as you could get. The ugly side of intoxication was seen as a primary cause of discord in the social body politic, what the Greeks called stasis. In the politically charged atmosphere following the end of the Peloponnesian War and the trial and execution of Socrates Plato comes along and introduces a new way to think about social discord. For instance in the Republic he uses the term stasiazonta, or “stasis within” and this allows him to begin to question the value of intoxicated states from a new perspective.

Was the most common choice of intoxication at that time, wine, comparable with our wine today?

No, it really wasn’t, and this is a continuing source of misunderstanding. Ancient wine was frequently combined with other substances, including what we would today call “recreational drugs.” The surviving textual record offers ample proof of this but, as classicist Carl A. P. Ruck and a handful of others discovered, purely textual evidence was easy to dismiss or, worse, simply ignore. Now, however, the latest techniques of archeological analysis have confirmed the presence of other intoxicants in Greek wine, to the point it is simply incontrovertible. I’m thinking specifically of anthropologist Patrick E. McGovern’s works, like Ancient Wine.