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A History of Addiction & Alcoholism

Substance use, and addiction in general, are longstanding aspects of human culture that have been discussed and considered since ancient times. The ancient Greeks used wine to fuel their Symposia, social gatherings that facilitated philosophical discussions led by greats such as Plato, while opium prominently features in both the ancient Greek and Roman times, even being mentioned in Homer's Iliad. Across the Atlantic, Mesoamerican civilisations, such as the Aztecs, Mayas and Incas, were using hallucinogenic drugs during religious ceremonies. The narrative that I often encounter around the historical use of substances is a positive one. Modern drug culture is fuelled by constant references to how the ancients used substances to further civilisation and facilitate their connection with the divine. However, as we will see, this is a one-sided view that fails to recognise the blatant dangers that accompanied historical drug use.

In spite of apparently seeing the value in moderate wine-drinking, Plato himself was critical of the over-consumption of alcohol. Similarly, Aristotle saw the value in being temperate and even indirectly deliberates on the problem of addiction through his view on Akrasia, or incontinence of will. Aristotle argued that well-meaning people could make "rational" decisions contrary to their best interests due to their inability to control their emotions or temptations. While these great philosophers are known to have spoken about the excessive consumption of alcohol, another famous ancient Greek may have died from exactly that. Alexander the Great is known to have amassed one of the largest kingdoms ever-known by only the age of 30. Alexander had very little time to enjoy his military successes as he died at the age of 32, with some historians suggesting that alcoholism deteriorated his health and hastened his death. The Macedonian king also killed his friend Cleitus while drunk and supposedly set the royal palace in Persepolis alight in a drunken stupor. The Roman stoic senator and philosopher Seneca even references the former incident in a letter, remarking "State that drunkenness is nothing but a condition of insanity purposely assumed." Contrary to the modern narrative of those who look to romanticise ancient drinking habits, some of the greatest minds to have ever graced the Mediterranean recognised and spoke out against alcohol addiction.

What about the psychedelic shamanism of the Mesoamerican cultures? It doesn't require deep and extensive research into these cultures to discover that many of their societal practices involved human sacrifices. Historians have hypothesised that these sacrificial rites involved the consumption of a plethora of psychoactive drugs including hallucinogenics. Male Aztec warriors were required to capture and give up a prisoner for sacrifice upon the completion of their training. These prisoners could be anyone, including women and children. The modern narrative is that psychedelic drugs are non-addictive, but the Mesoamericans are an example of how a cultural and religious obsession with a substance can have dire consequences, akin to those consequences found in addiction.

Advocates of the notion that drug use is more acceptable or more desirable because it is well-documented in our ancient past fail to acknowledge the damage that substance abuse caused in those historical periods. This one-sided and ill-informed narrative is particularly dangerous when coupled with the increasing acceptance of psychedelic substances and cannabis. Psychoactive substances are a reality for our society but an honest and comprehensive discussion around these substances is necessary for the safety of those vulnerable to addiction and alcoholism.


Opium in the Mediterranean -

Aristotle -

Aristotle and addiction -

Alexander the Great -

Lucius Annaues Seneca -

Drugs and the Mesoamericans -

Brutality of the Aztecs -

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