Your Mind on Drugs -- Great! A Book Review

Categories: Get Lit
As a headline from last week’s Time states, smoking pot is an “American Pastime.”

The article was reporting on a survey that determined that “Americans were more likely to have tried marijuana or cocaine than people in any of the 16 other countries, including France, Spain, South Africa, Mexico and Colombia, that the survey covered.” Forty-two percent of Americans have tried pot. So yeah, we like our drugs. Is this cause for worry?

Probably not, at least according to D.C.A. Hillman, Ph.D., author of The Chemical Muse: Drug Use and the Roots of Western Civilization .

Hillman writes that “Plato, Julius Caesar, and Jesus did not view drugs as the menace as they are looked on today. Narcotics have not always been the boogeyman they are portrayed to be at present; on the contrary, they’ve been an ever-present aid to the Western world, a comfort and source of hope to societies marked by ages of physical suffering.” In fact, he says, the use of drugs -- natural ones like the poppy, wormwood, cannabis and others -- in Ancient Greece and Rome has actually made the Western world what it is today:

History presents us with myriads of upright, important, brilliant, vibrant people who made positive contributions to the development of the world around us while using drugs. In reading this book, you may come to the conclusion that the West would not have survived without these so-called junkies and drug dealers; and you, as a beneficiary of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, would not be an heir to the freedom for which the Western world has been known for centuries.

Whether or not you buy that drugs made democracy possible, Hillman does lay out convincing evidence that drug use in ancient Greece and Rome was widespread and takes other academics to task for, he claims, ignoring evidence of recreational drug use because…basically, because they’re uptight.

In the book’s introduction, he writes about sitting for his dissertation exam to discuss his thesis about the use of medicinal drugs in the Roman Republic. The professors who question him object to a single chapter about the Roman “penchant for recreational drugs and the prevalent use of psychotropics by just about everyone in antiquity, farmers and aristocrats alike.” He removes the offending chapter and gets his Ph.D., but the episode eventually inspires this book.

The Chemical Muse is interesting and, at times, fun, but Hillman sometimes seems overly into being a rebel. “Information contained in The Chemical Muse will not make me popular,” he writes. “Recreational drug use is an aspect of our history that has been dutifully covered up and effectively ignored for the past fifteen hundred years.” Hillman’s profs aside, in an era when Barack Obama freely admits to having smoked marijuana and nobody gives a shit, it’s hard to believe that this book will make Hillman that unpopular with other classics scholars.

Anyway, if you’ve been feeling guilty for smoking too much pot lately, you can feel better on two counts: 1) other Americans are doing it too, and 2) ancient Greeks and Romans dug it. And they accomplished a lot.

Cathy Matusow


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