I’ve always been put off by the amount of drug and alcohol use that is so rampant in society. I just have to shake my head at so many young people in my generation giving in to these temptations.
We tend to think of substance abuse as a relatively new phenomenon. Yet, drug and alcohol use and abuse is nothing new. We’re reminded of this in the essay Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves by Leo Tolstoy.
As a man who dedicates his life to the ideals of love, kindness, non-violence and the like, drug use has no place in a society. In fact, he begins the essay by pondering why they even exist:
What is the explanation of the fact that people use things that stupefy them: vódka, wine, beer, hashish, opium, tobacco, and other things less common: ether, morphine, fly-agaric, etc.? Why did the practice begin? Why has it spread so rapidly, and why is it still spreading among all sorts of people, savage and civilized? How is it that where there is no vódka, wine or beer, we find opium, hashish, fly-agaric, and the like, and that tobacco is used everywhere?
Why do people wish to stupefy themselves?
Ask anyone why he began drinking wine and why he now drinks it. He will reply, “Oh, I like it, and everybody drinks,” and he may add, “it cheers me up.” Some—those who have never once taken the trouble to consider whether they do well or ill to drink wine—may add that wine is good for the health and adds to one’s strength; that is to say, will make a statement long since proved baseless.
Certainly, people have their reasons for drinking and smoking. But logically, these reasons don’t hold up.
Peer pressure and doing it because ‘everyone else does it’ is poor reasoning as well:
Ask a smoker why he began to use tobacco and why he now smokes, and he also will reply: “To while away the time; everybody smokes.”
Similar answers would probably be given by those who use opium, hashish, morphia, or fly-agaric.
‘To while away time, to cheer oneself up; everybody does it.’ But it might be excusable to twiddle one’s thumbs, to whistle, to hum tunes, to play a fife or to do something of that sort ‘to while away the time,’ ‘to cheer oneself up,’ or ‘because everybody does it‘ — that is to say, it might be excusable to do something which does not involve wasting Nature’s wealth, or spending what has cost great labor to produce, or doing what brings evident harm to oneself and to others.
Tolstoy makes some excellent points here. People are spending precious time and labor to grow tobacco, for example, when they could be using that energy for more beneficial and productive measures.
Moreover, there are certainly more productive things to do with one’s time than drink and smoke. You could add things like pornography, vaping, and eating junk food to that list today. They’re tiny ‘peccadillos’, brushed off as harmless by society. Yet, when we continually engage in this behavior for long periods of time they will undoubtedly have negative impacts on our health and psyche.
So what is the reason that people use these drugs? Tolstoy posits that it lies in blunting our conscience:
The cause of the world-wide consumption of hashish, opium, wine, and tobacco, lies not in the taste, nor in any pleasure, recreation, or mirth they afford, but simply in man’s need to hide from himself the demands of conscience.
When a man is sober he is ashamed of what seems all right when he is drunk. In these words we have the essential underlying cause prompting men to resort to stupefiers. People resort to them either to escape feeling ashamed after having done something contrary to their consciences, or to bring themselves beforehand into a state in which they can commit actions contrary to conscience, but to which their animal nature prompts them.
A man when sober is ashamed to go after a prostitute, ashamed to steal, ashamed to kill. A drunken man is ashamed of none of these things, and therefore if a man wishes to do something his conscience condemns he stupefies himself.
You could add to that list sleeping with unattractive women, spending time with people we don’t like among other activities. And as society and Western culture continue the downward spiral into the abyss, we will only see more examples of this. Sadly, I presume it will start to become even more accepted into society, only further exacerbating the problem.
I tend to look too deeply into these matters, but I suspect that rampant use of illicit substances in our society is deeper than it appears.
The guy or gal having one too many drinks on a night out may seem silly and harmless, but something insidious is lurking much deeper.
The person that smokes weed everyday to take the edge off or ‘relax’ needs to look deeply into the mirror and reflect on themselves. If you fall in that category, you must too.
A Short, Yet Important Read
I recommended that you give this essay from Tolstoy a read. He is perhaps my favorite writer. His introspection is always profound and will leave you thinking about an idea or point of view that you hadn’t yet considered.
The essay is quite brief as well. It was originally published in 1890 as a preface to a book by Dr. P. S. Alexeyef, on alcoholism, and it fits that role well.
You can find the essay free here on WikiSource.