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Drink, Drugs & the War on Reason

Posted by on August 16, 2015

‘Man, being reasonable, must get drunk’ (Byron, 2005 [1819])

The legacies of the Enlightenment can be seen at work in almost every facet of contemporary culture. The emphasis placed on reason, during that period of history, has been integral to the development of notions such as freedom, liberty and truth, which in turn have formed the economic, political, and moral foundations upon which modern society is constructed – most notably; capitalism, democracy and ‘human rights’.


“Man, being reasonable, must get drunk…” – Lord Byron

It can be easy for the moderate drinker to dismiss grand claims, such as Baudelaire’s “yearn[ing] for the infinite” (cited in Nicholls, 2006: 144), as over-embellishment. However, alcohol does possess the ability to strip us of our reason. If this were not the case then there would be no ‘drink question’, nor the vast array of literature and debate that surrounds the subject. Although different drugs produce very different effects, this argument is still applicable to the majority of intoxicating substances.


“Get drunk!” – Baudelaire

The construction of the self within society involves a process of repression of our basic impulses that takes place throughout our upbringing, for example when a child is taught that it is wrong to fight. It is widely accepted that alcohol breaks down these restraints. In the first instance, this is beneficial in that it facilitates “conviviality: the empirically grounded belief…that drink facilitates free and easy conversation” (Nicholls, 2009: 55). However, continued drinking relieves us of our ability to form logical chains of thought, eventually resulting in the complete loss of reason, and leaving the drunkard to act on singular impulses – what Boothroyd describes as “a kind of snakes and ladders sequential logic” (2006: 119). The drunkard may be able to stumble home, but only in the same way that an animal functions (that is, if we are to believe to commonly held assertion that animals don’t possess reason and that is what separates us from them, which I’m not sure I do). He is without reason; and when he wakes he will have to come to terms with the actions of the night before that no longer make rational sense, whether regretting them, repressing them, or simply laughing at their ridiculousness.


“Memories of a Night” – Luigi Russolo

Why then, when rational thinking is the driving force behind our modern world, do we continue to pursue the irrational through drinking and the taking of drugs? It would seem that, as the world continues to develop, so too does the spread of substance use. Robin Room has stated that “psychoactive substance use is deeply enmeshed in human behaviour, and it is unrealistic to contemplate a world without such use” (2003b: 1). This essay will attempt to address the potential reasons behind this long unresolved issue: “Why would a rational person drink,” asks Earnshaw, “when all it could lead to was ‘crime, pauperism [and] insanity’?” (2000: 221).


“Binge Britain”

Throughout history, drugs have a habit of becoming associated with the imagined problems of their era, such as poverty (Warner, 2003: 213); fears over immigrants, minorities and the working-class poor (Davenport-Hines, 2002: 151); the adverse effects of industrialization and city life (Gootenberg, 1999: 126); or “the loss of traditional values…family breakdown and crime” (Dillon, 2002: 304). The Gin Craze of 1736 was the first account of a major scale panic over drink or drugs. However, it doesn’t follow that gin alone could be the sole course of such an uproar. For Warner, “the real fallacy lies in assuming that any drug…is by itself responsible for the poor health and poor behaviour of its users.” (2003: 212). She suggests that it is in fact the other way around; that the “culture in which the drug has taken root” is at least partially to blame. (2003: 219). This is a point echoed by Dillon, who states that “Drug Craze and Drug Panic might be Siamese twins…it might be the very same forces of fear and uncertainty which drove young people to drugs” (2002: 304). According to Warner, “cities are complex and often very frightening places…we are too easily seduced by the notion that the complex problems that come with complex places boil down to a simple and single source, be it gin, heroin, or crack cocaine.” In fact, it is most likely because so many of the issues of modern life remain “unresolved issues” (Nicholls, 2006: 132) that so too does the ‘drink question’.


“Gin Lane” – William Hogarth

One of the largest of the perceived threats to society is the idea that drink and drug use encourage “unwholesome pleasure-seeking” (Davenport-Hines, 2002: 156) and have negative effects on the mentality of work, labour and productivity that is essential for the functioning of capitalism. Derrida (1995: 241) suggests that this is the reason that drugs are “condemned by a society based on work and on the subject answerable as subject.” Drugs, therefore, undermine capitalism by exposing the inherent contradiction that it tells us to be productive, but also to pursue happiness – in other words, to ‘work hard, play hard’. According to Benjamin, “the surrealists [were] the ‘first to liquidate the sclerotic-moral-humanistic ideal of freedom’” (cited in Boothroyd, 2006: 116). It was Benjamin’s aim to utilise “narcotics to counteract the stupefying effects of life under capitalism.” (Boothroyd, 2006: 116).

Drink and drugs, due to their intoxicating nature, point out a flaw within the concept of freedom through which “individuals not only realize themselves, but also govern themselves.” (Reith, 2004: 285). Drunkenness is a kind of “temporary madness” (Nicholls, 2000). Because to be free in all senses requires a sane and reasonable mind, one is not free when intoxicated. This means that freedom requires restraint (not to drink or take drugs) and so is not freedom at all – by its own nature freedom must be complete and free of limitations and restrictions.

One of my favourite examples of where drink and drug use have provided an insight into the failings of modernity is in the work of Jack Kerouac. Up until his death as a result of cirrhosis of the liver, aged only forty-seven, his work became increasingly obsessed with motifs of the city and its polar opposite – solitude; and with the lack of purpose in modern life once the myth of freedom has been quashed. The following extract is taken from Big Sur, his semi-autobiographical novel telling the story of his mental breakdown, and is typical of the angst, depression and desperation resulting from his search for meaning:

Me drunk practically all the time to put on a jovial cap to keep up with all this but finally realizing I was surrounded and outnumbered and had to get away to solitude again or die. (Kerouac, 2001 [1962])


“Me drunk practically all the time to put on a jovial cap to keep up with all this…” – Kerouac

Robin Room (2003a: 3) argues that “addiction…emerge[d] as a way of understanding…the failure of the drinker or drug user to behave rationally…to stop a recurrent pattern of use despite the harm it is seen as causing” and as such is “culturally specific…of the late modern period.” (2003a: 2). He insists that the criteria upon which addiction is defined only “make sense in a culture where…individualism [is] taken for granted, where each citizen has the right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ [and] only in the context of a culture attuned to the clock…in which time is viewed as a commodity which is used or spent rather than simply experienced.” (2003a: 4-5). Room suggests that addiction has become “an arena for struggle and triumph.” (2003a: 8) In other words it can give people the conflict that gives their life a purpose. This is where a fallacy emerges in the addiction concept: how can someone overcome an addiction that “proved stronger than [their] will”?

Valverde has asserted that “alcoholism, addiction, and alcoholism’s strange offspring, codependence…as a construct and as an experience, [are] rooted in the perceived opposition between one’s willpower and one’s desires” (1998: 33). Room also addresses this “assumption…that desires are something distinct from the will.” (2003a: 6). The words ‘will’ and ‘desire’ are effectively referring to the same thing but are caught up in addiction discourses that, as already discussed, came into being to serve a particular cultural purpose. A better term then might be ‘conflicting wants’, as it disperses of the myth that one is somehow worth more than the other. It is now clear that in some situations people consider their ‘want’ for alcohol or drugs a higher priority than their ‘wants’ for health, security or perceived success.

Liberalism – the dominant philosophy in Western thought – is heavily based on the notion of “maximum freedom from state compulsion (with the caveat that individual actions must not restrict the freedom or rights of others).” (Nicholls, 2006: 132-3). Already the “caveat” highlights what we have already asserted: that freedom is inherently an unattainable ideal. This can also be seen in Mill’s assertion “that an individual’s ‘choice of pleasures and their mode of expending their income, after satisfying their legal and moral obligations to the State and to individuals, are their own concern and must rest with their own judgement’” (cited in Blackman, 2004: 186-7). Although well-meaning, Mill’s remark is essentially meaningless. Without clarification of these “obligations” they could mean anything, thus justifying any amount of state control and any infringement upon personal freedom. It is not hard to see how his work became appropriated by the temperance campaigners, whom he was in direct opposition with.

As discussed in great depth by Nicholls, these debates around alcohol and drugs flag up the many “complexities…divisions” and paradoxes that remain riddled in the fabric of liberalism (2006: 131). Prohibitionists objected to intoxication because it was “a radically subjective (and, therefore, un-selfless) cognitive experience,” (2006: 136). In other words, what one gains from the drug experience is useless – and sometimes even detrimental – to the development of collective society. Derrida has also pointed out that “The Enlightenment…identified essentially by the motif of publicity and with the public character of every act of reason, is in itself a declaration of war on drugs.” (1995: 250). In a side note, it may be worth considering that the reverse is also true: that persisting drug use could be a “declaration of war” on what Nicholls refers to as “the canonization of reason associated with Enlightenment ideals” (2000). Courtwright (2002: 169) takes these points even further, stating:

The Enlightenment and its legacy of secular philosophies such as utilitarianism, with its imperative to pursue the greatest good for the greatest number, gave rise to a simple but very powerful idea…that private gains, however large…entail unacceptably high and morally indefensible public costs…If alcohol abuse leads to more sickness and premature death, it translates into fewer days worked, which equal so many dollars less in productivity, wages, and taxes. If it causes more crime and accidents, it raises police and medical costs, passed on to others as higher taxes and insurance premiums…

The ‘welfare state’ is an unmistakably liberal idea in that it supports everyone’s ‘right’ to safety, good health and wellbeing. However, it means that how one chooses to treat their body becomes the business of the state. One is no longer free to take personal risks as they may cost others. Morality begins to be measured in terms of money. This is the second paradox of liberty: that freedom, once again, is subject to responsibilities to, and the demands of, the State.

According to Nicholls (2006: 147) there is “near universal agreement on the unacceptability of non-consensual and random acts of violence”. Prohibitionists maintained that the Gin Craze was evidence enough that individual freedom “would lead to anarchic hedonism…‘riot and debauchery’” (2006: 134) and argued that the role of the state was as “educator” and that it should therefore “intervene” (2006: 133). According to Stivers (2000: 38), “the ideology of the movement [was that] immense political and social problems are the result of crime, the principle cause of which is drunkenness…Therefore teetotalism leads to the amelioration of social problems, individual health, and ultimately individual salvation.”

Mill opposed them, on the grounds that while violence is wrong, alcohol, in itself, is not; that it is unfair – ‘fairness’ being another necessary offshoot of liberty and freedom – to impose on, and restrict, the lives of moderate drinkers, who show “irrefutably that drink does not inevitably lead to ruin” (Nicholls, 2006: 140); and finally that prohibition is “‘far more dangerous than any single interference with liberty [as] there is no violation of liberty it would not justify’” (cited in Nicholls, 2006: 141). Mill and others have equated the temperance movement with “tyranny” (2006: 142). This latter point is echoed by Blackman when he quotes Mill as saying that it “assert[ed] an unlimited right in the public not only to prohibit by law everything that it thinks wrong, but, in order to get at what it thinks wrong, to prohibit a number of things which it admits to be innocent” (2004: 186).

Behind the exchanges between temperance campaigners and their critics is another unavoidable paradox. If drunken violence harms and impinges on the rights of others, then prohibition and other forms of state control are necessary. However, this legislation infringes on the ‘rights’ and ‘freedom’ of both retailers and consumers. Therefore, there is no way that society can take a truly liberal approach in all respects.

There are clearly a wide range of instances when the loss of reason, whether fully, in part, or metaphorically, can be put to creative or other productive use, but in addition to this, intoxication is important in defining sobriety, and therefore rationality, through their opposition. It is precisely the fact that drink and drugs impair our capacity for reason that we are so attracted to them. For all the ‘good’ things we lose when intoxicated, we are also freed of all the ‘bad’ – the restricting demands of thinking, of identity, and of the constantly contradictory modern world. Sometimes we want to be no more than those ‘animals’ – simple and free.

We have seen that drugs and the debates around them help to undermine the capitalist system within which we construct our selves, show freedom to be an illusion, and liberty to be unobtainable and therefore unrealistic as a political and philosophical goal. The question is: if or when these concerns, which drug use has brought to the fore, become too compelling to ignore, will society be able to find a way to adapt? What else is there? More realistically though, drinking and drug-taking look likely to remain “key practise[s] in the social construction of the world as it is and as it should be.” (Wilson, 2005: 13).


Blackman, S. (2004) Chilling Out: The Cultural Politics of Substance Consumption, Youth and Drug Policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Boothroyd, D. (2006) Culture on Drugs: Narco-Cultural Studies of High Modernity. Manchester: Manchester University Press

Byron, G. G. (2005) Don Juan. London: Penguin

Courtwright, D. (2002) Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World. London: Harvard University Press

Davenport-Hines, R. (2002) The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Social History of Drugs. London: Phoenix

Derrida, J. (1995) ‘The Rhetoric of Drugs’, in Points – Interviews, 1976-1993. [Translated by Peggy Kamuf et al.] Stanford: Stanford University Press

Dillon, P. (2002) The Much-lamented Death of Madam Geneva. London: Review, pp. 294 – 305

Earnshaw, S. (2000) The Pub in Literature: England’s Altered State. Manchester: Manchester University Press

Gootenberg, P. ed. (1999) Cocaine: Global Histories. London: Routledge

Kerouac, J. (2001) Big Sur. London: Flamingo

Nicholls, J. (2000) ‘Barflies and Bohemians: Drink, Paris and Modernity’, Dionysos 10.1

Nicholls, J. (2006) ‘Liberties and licenses: alcohol in liberal thought’, International Journal of Cultural Studies 9.2, pp.131-51

Nicholls, J. (2009) The Politics of Alcohol: A History of the Drink Question in England. Manchester: Manchester University Press

Reith, G. (2004) ‘Consumption and its discontents: addiction, identity, and the politics of freedom’, British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 55, No. 2, pp. 283-300

Room, R. (2003a) ‘The Cultural Framing of Addiction’ Janus Head 6(2). [online] Available from: [Accessed 14.1.2010]

Room, R. (2003b) ‘The Use of Alcohol and Drugs: Patterns, Pleasures and Problems’ [online] Available from: [Accessed 16.1.2010]

Stivers, R. (2000) Hair of the Dog: Irish Drinking and its American Stereotype. London: Continuum

Valverde, M. (1998) Diseases of the Will: Alcohol and the Dilemmas of Freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Warner, J. (2003) Craze. London: Profile, pp. 209-219

Wilson, T. ed. (2005) Drinking Cultures: Alcohol and Identity. Oxford: Berg

Further Bibliography

Burroughs, W. S. (1977) Junky. London: Penguin

Burroughs, W. S. (2005) Naked Lunch. London: Harper Perennial

Carnwath, T. and Smith, I. (2002) The Heroin Century. London: Routledge

Conrad, B. (1998) Absinthe: History in a Bottle. San Francisco: Chronicle

De Quincey, T. (1994) Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Ware: Wordsworth

Fachner, J. (2003) ‘Jazz, Improvisation and a Social Pharmocology of Music’, Music Therapy Today, Vol. 4, No. 3 [online] Available from: [Accessed 16.1.2010]

Frey, J. (2004) A Million Little Pieces. London: John Murray

Grinspoon, L. (1979) Psychedelic Drugs Reconsidered. London: Basic

Hemingway, E. (1982) The Sun Also Rises. New York: Charles Scribner

Jay, M. (2000) Emperors of Dreams: Drugs in the Nineteenth Century. Sawtry: Dedalus

Kerouac, J. (2001) Desolation Angels. London: Flamingo

Kerouac, J. (1994) The Dharma Bums. London: Flamingo

Lee, M. (2001) Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD. London: Pan

Plant, S. (1999) Writing on Drugs. London: Faber & Faber

Reynolds, S. (1998) Energy Flash: A Journey Through Dance Music and Rave Culture. London: Picador

Thompson, H. S. (2005) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. London: Harper Perennial

Walton, S. (2002) Out of It: A Cultural History of Intoxication. (London: Penguin), pp. 239-64

Wolfe, T. (1989) The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. London: Transworld

8 Responses to Drink, Drugs & the War on Reason

  1. Graham Askey

    Great stuff. To tie in the thoughts to travel, my experience is that the battle between reason and the addictive nature of intoxicants I have when at home (not in the serious health sense I might add) completely disappears when traveling. Is this because it’s an escape from the contradictions of society that you refer or just the urge is replaced by other sensory input? Not sure myself, but I am glad of it. Of course in your case travel probably only increases your desire to appreciate different modes of alcoholic excess. Vive la difference!

    • Derek Freal

      Interesting Graham. I myself align more with Roy, at least in terms of drinking on the road. I’ve found alcohol brings people together…..nearly as much as this one other plant I know of ;) I often find myself invited into random houses to enjoy a glass or four of whatever homemade beer or jungle juice concoction is the local brew of choice. And its these moments, these experiences, that I embrace the most when traveling and that keep me going. We don’t even need to speak a single word of the same language as long as we can tip our glasses and smile.

      Of course back when I had a home (many, many years ago) I did not drink near as often. Perhaps because I was busy with work or perhaps because I was not accomplishing arduous feats on a daily basis that deserved a beer as a reward. Successful hike up the mountain? Beer me! Make it safely through that nerve-racking chicken bus ride? It’s beer o’clock! About to hop on a chicken bus for a ride that could be your last? Better have a whiskey first. Too scared to try the local delicacy, goat brains? Do a couple shots to work up the nerve. Last night in [___insert country/town/hotel here___]? Drink up!

      See? There’s always a reason to drink on the road, but rarely at home. At least IMO ;)

      • Graham

        I wouldn’t really disagree with much of what you say as I didn’t mean to imply that I turn down alcohol related travel experiences, I ve had some great ones. My comment more relates to weed than alcohol and given the related tobacco cravings it works in a different way than the more social pressure for booze – UK has more of a broad based drinking culture than the US with a related higher level of social pressure. I’d link it to what you wrote about the effect of travel on depression. Certainly not against any flimsy excuse for beer o clock but I have spent a lot of time in Muslim countries that sometimes have restrictions on alcohol sale and it doesn’t bother me beyond the lack of non sickly sweet drinks. Hope we can share a beer or three over some disgusting food at some time in the future.

        • Derek Freal

          Cheers to that!

        • Roy Duffield

          I actually agree with both of you: alcohol is a great social lubricant, perfect for the meeting new people everyday that is a major aspect of life on the road – god knows where I’d be without it – but I also find that, yes, travel can be an intoxicant in its own right – the blur of rushing through the world, filling your senses with new things, being blown away by scenery you never could have imagined existed…

          I’m never sure whether my alcohol use goes up or down when I’m travelling, but it most definitely changes completely (in purpose, quantity, regularity, etc). It seems you both have the same thing.

          I never thought anyone would actually bother reading this. Cheers!

  2. Graham

    Would rather read stuff like this than more of the usual twaddle that other people clog up the internet with. Linking the subject with travel deserves a post on its own to expand on the issues we’ve raised. Nice one mate!

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