An essay I wrote for Comparative Philosophy II. It discusses an article by Sarah Mattice, ‘Drinking to Get Drunk: Pleasure, Creativity and Social Harmony in Greece and China’. I (very (very, very) ) briefly summarise her statements on the issue and then try to refute it. Only lightly touching on her arguments, I try to establish that it is never okay to drink alcohol to get drunk, or in relation to Mattice’s claims, to promote creativity and social harmony – ceteris paribus.
In her paper ‘Drinking to Get Drunk: Pleasure, Creativity and Social Harmony in Greece and China’, Sarah Mattice tries to show that our contemporary views on alcohol are too focussed on addiction and escapism, and not enough on the benefits it can facilitate. Through the works of Plato, Ouyang Xiu and Mei Yaochen she tries to argue that alcohol can be used for the benefit of society and the person: it can promote creativity and social harmony. Thus, she claims that drinking alcohol, or ‘drinking to get drunk’, is permissible in certain situations.
In this essay, I will refute the arguments Mattice makes and through this will show that it is under no circumstance permissible to drink alcohol. I will try to unpack what it means to manipulate one’s mental states, what forms there are of this manipulation and what we should be looking for to see if this manipulation of mental states is acceptable. Then, alcohol will be tested against the framework that has been developed to show that it does not promote creativity, and it should not be used to promote social harmony and that it is in fact never permissible to drink alcohol.
For the sake of simplicity, and due the rather colloquial use of the terms ‘consciousness’ and ‘mental states’ I will be handling in this essay, I will say that I use the aforementioned terms interchangeably.
An assumption Mattice seems to make is that it is permissible to alter one’s consciousness, or manipulate one’s mental states. Of course, we already alter our consciousness when drinking and eating – we change our hunger and thirst and the agitation that often comes with it. There seems to be no problem there. These changes in mental states, however, are for survival. We don’t eat (if we eat no more than needed) for simple leisure, we eat to not die. The same counts for sleeping (an obvious change in consciousness): without sleep, death is most certain.
It seems then, there should be made a specification here: the altering of consciousness that comes with survival, and the altering of consciousness for the sake of altering one’s consciousness.
The common consensus among historical cultures, such as the ones Mattice took as examples, seems to be that it is perfectly permissible, if not desirable, to manipulate consciousness: all of the early Vedic literature seems to come from hallucinogenic plant and drink ‘soma’, similar to ‘haoma’, used by the early Persians and Zoroastrians. As Carl Jung notes, the importance the Vedic peoples attached to soma is apparent from the way they identified it with Agni.He draws a parallel to a tradition we in the West can relate to, and tells us that the “significance of Agni has its parallel in the Christian interpretation of the Eucharistic Blood as the body of Christ.” (168)Gods being present in food or drink is a common theme across cultures: Jesus and Agni as we have already seen, Dionysus also was closely associated with wine. Plotinus also referred often to the ‘Nectar of the Gods’ in The Enneads, which was presumably used to gain unity with the Neoplatonic ‘One’.
There is another distinction to be made here: after the more fundamental distinction between the manipulating of mental states for survival or recreational manipulation, here I now introduce the distinction between mental state manipulation through substances and mental state manipulation not through substances, but through practices and exercises – ‘substantial’ manipulation and ‘non-substantial’ manipulation I will call them from now on.
With non-substantial manipulation, examples such as meditation come to mind: here the change in consciousness is not brought about through the use of substances but through a particular concentration and breath. Exercises such as yoga would also fall under this category, as would more ‘regular’ forms of exercise: going to the gym also brings about a considerable change in mental states. Exercising in a gym often has the change in mental state more as a secondary goal and is more focussed on physical fitness, while practices like yoga make this change in consciousness their primary goal.
Both substantial and non-substantial manipulation appear to be common and non-controversial in antiquity. Mattice seems to think this gives alcohol a free pass, and makes it automatically permissible in our own culture.
The step from our predecessors finding substantial manipulation desirable, does not in any way warrant our acceptance of the permissibility of substantial manipulation.
One critique of substantial manipulation comes in the form of the novel Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. In this novel, Huxley depicts a futuristic society, which has completely gotten rid of struggle and inefficiency – and negative emotion. Whenever the people of his world feel their negative emotions coming up, they take pills called soma (an obvious reference to the drink of the Veda’s). They go on ‘soma holiday’, a trance in which they hallucinate and feel intense pleasure. Later in the novel, the people from his advanced world meet the so called ‘savages’, people alike to the Native Americans. These people have emotions and deal with them. Huxley advocates that if we deal with our (negative) emotions, we become a better person than if we’d simply run away from them by drowning ourselves in substances that make us feel better.
Maybe then, we can say that substance manipulation is not permissible when used to deal with negative emotions. Although this puts some limits on the way we can use substances, it doesn’t necessarily undermine Mattice’s position. Still, it seems that what the substance is used for, what is wished to bring about by using it, plays an important role for the permissibility of the use of the substance. This is the first of three criteria to check if a certain substance is permissible to use.
Beside this general limitation on substantial manipulation, there are two more things to take into consideration to see whether we should find the use of a certain substance permissible. While the first criterion against which to test a substance had to do with the goal of the substantial manipulation, these two have to do with the effects of the substance used: the mental effects and the effects on the health. A question we can ask concerning the mental state a substance produces is whether it is desirable. If the substance causes any adverse effects on the health, we have to see if which of the effects way heavier: the desirable mental state, or the negative effect on the health.
Against these distinctions and criteria, I will test the Mattice’s notion of using alcohol and see if it still holds up: is drinking alcohol for survival or recreation? Whether alcohol is a form of substantial or non-substantial manipulation is admittedly, one of the more obvious ones and I will not discuss it in any further depth – alcohol is a form of substantial manipulation. But is the mental state that alcohol produces desirable, and does it way up against the toll it takes on one’s health?
The first question: is drinking alcohol a matter of survival or recreation? Here, the obvious answer would be that alcohol is solely for recreation: without alcohol, we would still be very much alive, we don’t need it as much as sleep or as much water. One could argue for the fact that the social cohesion that Mattice says alcohol gives would be a matter of survival, on a bigger scale than personal survival. If alcohol indeed does make sure there is social cohesion in a group, this could be crucial for the survival of humans.
But is drinking alcohol a necessary condition for social cohesion? Eating would certainly be a necessary condition for nutrition, does this work the same with alcohol? If we imagine a society without alcohol, would people in that society still be living peacefully side by side or would they be in a state of continual war? Is alcohol the only thing between peace and a Hobbesian state of nature? Certainly, it is not.
The second question, already having established alcohol is a form of substantial manipulation, is then: is the mental state alcohol produces desirable? Mattice seems to think so: intoxication produces a certain cheerfulness. The Greeks and the Chinese thought that there were multiple “ways in which drinking parties were seen as creative” (251).
A very vocal critic of alcohol was Friedrich Nietzsche. He calls alcohol “the European poison”. The word often translated as ‘intoxication’ when Nietzsche talks about alcohol is the German word Rausch(note that he uses the word in different contexts as well, in which it then has a different meaning). Now, often in other contexts this word could also be translated as ‘rush’: the rush of energy one feels when in love, for example. However, this is certainly not the only thing Nietzsche meant with Rausch: being cognate with the Dutch word ruis, the word doesn’t only signify a rush of energy, but also seems to point at a certain ‘background noise’ that it produces. In this sense,Rausch is the background noise on a radio, the black and white screen a television produces when the signal isn’t strong enough. While alcohol certainly seems to create a state of ecstasy, it brings with it a dullness of mind, according to Nietzsche.
Not only that, alcohol brings with it a misleading mental state, one that does not encourage people to develop their personality faults, but even run away from them. When one is at a social convention and is shy, what would make one have a stronger, if I might call it more virtuous, personality? Would trying to develop one’s faults and get over the shyness be better – or should we simply chug a few beers to produce a mental state of false, and unearned, confidence. Certainly, the former would be a better way of becoming more virtuous.
One could object that Mattice explicitly states that alcohol should be used “in the right circumstances” (252), and that when one drinks to overcome one’s shyness, it is simply not the right circumstance. To this I would like to raise a question. When would someone be more creative? When they create a work of art out of their own accord, explore the depths of their creative abilities; or when they drink a couple of beers as a shortcut to this creative process? If we accept the example I gave earlier, of drinking to get rid of the shyness, we’d have to accept that the sober artist is more creative, has more depth to his creativity, than the intoxicated artist. This refutes Mattice’s point that it would be permissible to use alcohol to be more creative.
Even if one doesn’t accept this point, Mattice undermines her whole enterprise of arguing that drinking can be used for creativity, with stating the fact that “[Ouyang] does not mention the danger of too much pleasure–rather, the best party will end with full pleasure and enjoyment. Reams of poems end with the subject passed out somewhere or too intoxicated to continue.” This in no way an enhancement of a creative process: getting intoxicated often hindersthe writing of poems.
All these arguments together, seem to indicate that alcohol in fact does not create a desirable mental state: it comes with a ‘background noise’, it produces a ‘misleading mental state’ and even the positive effects that Mattice mentioned, like creativity, are often is inhibited by alcohol – and even if it does produce creativity, we’d be better off by creating art sober.
But even if we would accept that the mental state alcohol produces is desirable, this doesn’t warrant it being permissible to use. There is still the third question: what the health effects of alcohol are.
Alcohol is associated with numerous forms of cancer, it increases the risk of heart diseases, it irreparably damages the brain every time it is consumed and decreases fertility in both men and women. On top of that, alcohol can be very addictive. These are all incredibly dangerous – in light of these claims, it seems that alcohol could never be consumed for the sake of survival, what was argued above. Also, even if alcohol would produce a desirable mental state, it could never weigh up against irreparable damage to the brain, damaging the nervous system, poisoning the liver and causing numerous types of cancer.
In light of all of this, substantial manipulation through alcohol is not permissible, not even “in the right circumstances”. It is a recreational use of substantial manipulation, the mental state it produces is not desirable, and even if it were it could never weigh up to the damage it does to the body. Even in the case of social cohesion, alcohol is not a necessary condition, and could easily be replaced by an activity that is not poisonous to the body – one could easily go out without alcohol and have fun or even resort to non-substantial forms of mental manipulation.
Huxley, Aldous (2014). Brave New World. London: Vintage Publishing.
Jung, Carl G. (1967). Symbols of Transformation, Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 5. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Mattice, Sarah (2011). “Drinking to Get Drunk: Pleasure, Creativity, and Social Harmony in Greece and China, Comparative and Continental Philosophy”(2011), 3:2, 243-253, DOI: 10.1558/ccp.v3i2.243
Nietzsche, Friedrich W. (2001). The Gay Science: With a Prelude in German Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. edited by Bernard Williams; translated by Josefine Nauckhoff; poems translated by Adrian Del Caro, Cambrigde: Cambridge University Press.
Symbols of Transformation, C.G. Jung
Ibid, p. 168
Ibid, p. 138
The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche, p.58