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BOOK REVIEW: The Chemical Muse

The Chemical Muse: Drug Use and the Roots of Western Civilization by D. C.A. Hillman, Ph.D.  (2008, St. Martin’s Press)

Dr. Hillman’s Chemical Muse obliterates contemporary drug prohibitionist nonsense by taking the reader on a magical mystery tour to ancient Athens and Rome.  There Hillman reveals that recreational drug-taking was the norm for the greatest thinkers of Western civilization.

Hillman exposes a history that until now has been kept under tight wraps.  Traditional Classical scholars have been too prudish, too puritanical, or too conscious of modern society’s stigma toward drug users to translate the precise contents of certain ancient Greek and Latin texts into modern languages.  With Hillman’s new book, things change.

The written record reveals that the intellectual giants, along with nearly everyone else of the period, used common, not-so-common, and some really strange herbal concoctions to light up their neurocircuits and brain cells like some colossal shopping mall Christmas tree.

Yes, Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Pythagoras, Democritus, Galen, Pliny, and other luminaries and humanitarians, it turns out, were all major druggies.  Potheads.  Walking, talking pharmacopeias.  The collective brain stimulus achieved by ingesting recreational drugs in Athens coincided with their creation or furtherance of medical science, democracy, the atomic theory, mathematics, formal logic, philosophy, poetry, art, architecture and the theater.

In one example [Hillman, p. 177], we find Plato writing in Phaedrus about drug-induced inspirations:

In reality, the greatest of blessings come to us through mania [effects of psychotropic drugs or madness] when it is sent as a gift from the gods.

And later:

And a third kind of possession and madness comes from the Muses.  This takes hold upon a gentle and pure soul, arouses it and inspires it to songs and other poetry, and thus by adorning countless deeds of the ancients educates later generations.  But he who without divine madness comes to the doors of the Muses, confident that he will be a good poet by art, meets with no success, and the poetry of the sane man vanishes into nothingness before that of the inspired madmen.  

The peaceful and favorable coexistence of recreational drug users together with a healthy and productive society is a vision that modern drug warriors condemn as being wholly unrealistic and potentially disastrous.  The Classics tell us that nothing could be less true.  The wisdom of the sages provides solid evidence that Athenian and Roman cultures integrated recreational drug use into their cultures with minimal blowback.

No hysterical complaints about drug use and its consequences can be found in the ancient record.  No evidence exists of efforts to change a pro-drug culture into one of prohibition-plus-persecution.  Rather, prohibition schemes would be put on hold until the 4th-century when some bizarre social priorities emerged in Christian-era Rome.

For drug use to be favorably implicated in the dawn of Western civilization means that a safe and effective system of legal distribution of recreational drugs is not only achievable, but is also likely to be beneficial.  Industrialized societies with economies partially based on the creative impulses of their individual citizens could not help but profit.  In the U.S., estimates are that about 40-percent of the economy is driven by good old Yankee innovation, and it is common knowledge that recreational drugs play an active role in all types of creativity.

With kudos to Dr. Hillman for yanking the sheets off the Classics, a peaceful coexistence between drug users and the opposition culture has just moved a few degrees closer to the higher realms of reason and justice.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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