Up@dawn 2.0

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The History of Entheogens in Philosophy: 1st Installment (H1): Jake Danuser

A History of Psychoactive Drugs in Philosophy

(H1) For thousands of years, men have used psychoactive substances to induce altered states of perception. Mind altering drugs come in many different forms, ranging from mushrooms to morning glory seeds to cacti. These substances are not simply a short and cheap high; they are entheogens. Entheogens, from the Greek roots “en” inside, “theo” god, and “gen” create, are characterized by any substance that can be used to bring about enlightenment, spiritual awakening, or transcendence in the participant. Due to the intellectually stimulating nature of these drugs, they have seeped their way into philosophy and may have had more of an impact than mainstream culture gives them credit for. In this installment, I will write a brief history of entheogens in philosophy, and explain the overall impact they have had on the philosophers who enjoyed them, as well as on philosophy as a whole. My list will be selective rather than exhaustive, as states of altered perception are a common theme of a great many philosophers throughout history.  
                We begin our journey through the history of altered perceptions in pre-history. The shamans of ancient tribal culture utilized a great variety of different types of plants to induce trance states. Most notably and still used today, a tea made of two naturally occurring roots, Banisteriopsis caapi and Mimosa hostilis, is used by many tribes in the Amazon forest. Shamans boil these roots down and drink the resulting syrup, known as Ayahuasca. Ayahuasca which translates to “Vine of Spirits,” contains a high concentration of Dimethyl-Tryptamine (DMT) the most powerful hallucinogen known to man.  As the name suggests, the shaman, after ingesting the rue, would find himself communing with the elders of his tribe which had long past. The shaman would often come into the subconscious world with questions raised in the conscience world. The shaman may perhaps ask, what kind of plant should be used to treat a new disease contracted by one of the children. These trances meant more to the community than simple states of ecstasy used to escape usual life, they were a way of tapping into an ancestral knowledge inaccessible to the average waking mind.
First in the lineup of entheogen supporting philosophers is none other than the founder of Western Philosophy himself, Plato. Plato took part in the Eleusinian Mysteries, the most famous of the secret religious rites of ancient Greece carried out by the Cult of Demeter. At the Mysteries, all those initiated into the group would drink kykeon, a mixture of barley, mint, and water. It is widely believed that the barley used in the kykeon was infected with a parasitic fungi known as Ergot. Ergot contains ergine, which has the highest concentration of Lysergic Acid Amide (LSA) in nature. LSA is a close psychedelic relative of LSD-25, which was touted as the premier drug to expand one’s consciousness by the hippies of the 1960’s.
Entheogens could very well have been part of what inspired one of Plato’s greatest works. In his allegory of the cave, Plato tells a story of a man who was chained to a stationary perspective of the world. When the man escapes he escapes the cave and sees the form of perfect good. Plato recounts his kykeon experience in Phaedo, where it seems as if he has seen some of the perfect forms of good.
[W]ith a blessed company—we following in the train of Zeus, and others in that of some other god—… saw the blessed sight and vision and were initiated into that which is rightly called the most blessed of mysteries, which we celebrated in a state of perfection … being permitted as initiates to the sight of perfect and simple and calm and happy apparitions, which we saw in the pure light, being ourselves pure and not entombed in this which we carry about with us and call the body, in which we are imprisoned like an oyster in its shell.
Unfortunately, after the Christians ushered in a new era and began labeling new ideas as heretical unless they were in the name of God, the Eleusinian Temples and the kykeon initiations ended, as well as most entheogen use in the Western World. It wasn’t until chemistry advanced enough for the Western world to be able to produce chemicals of desirable intoxication outside of alcohol. Drugs like opium, nitrous oxide, and absinthe made their way into the markets in the 18th century.
The dangerous, self-destructive, personality should be noted when mentioning Opium in the nature of entheogens. Opium’s painkilling qualities made it highly desirable to the upper class of England. It's highly addictive and euphoric embrace made it a great treasure of England’s. In the late 1600’s opium was banned in China, but due to growing demand in England, many smuggled the drugs for great sums of money. When it seemed that England’s opium supply was being threatened, they engaged in what is known as the Opium Wars, in order to keep the supply flowing.
                Thus the intellectuals of the late 18th century to the early 19th century were all quite well acquainted with the states brought about by chemicals. Thomas de Quincey and Humphry Davy, followers of the philosophical school started by Kant, were the first to write about their experiences in a philosophical light. Thomas De Quincey wrote Confessions of an Opium Eater, comparing opium to the noumenon described by Kant. Humphry Davy, one of the first philosopher-chemists to take his own drug, ingested nitrous oxide and finally understood Kantian Idealism. Davy wrote of his experiences in Consolations in Travel or The Last Days of a Philosopher, becoming the first to propel nitrous oxide forward as an entheogen. Arthur Schopenhauer wrote a little on the intensifying of intellect experienced when drinking wine or smoking opium, but little else on the subject.
William James, highly influential and respected in both philosophy and psychology, heavily advocated for the use of altered states in the pursuit of knowledge. William James began as a psychologist and wrote The Principles of Psychology, which preceded Freud and is highly influential in psychology still today. Later in life James turned to a more philosophical standpoint. James wrote Varieties of Religious Experience, where James defends the experience of the individual. He explains that things that are experienced bear more weight on our beliefs than any idea we have learned over time. James also writes about the mystic's search for wisdom, giving some guidelines for the experience.
It is no secret that James’ writings were heavily influenced by his experimentations with entheogens. James first ingested nitrous oxide after reading a pamphlet entitled The Anaesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy, in which the author, Benjamin Paul Blood, advocated for nitrous oxide as a way of expanding one’s mind and thoughts. Throughout his life, James wrote essays that would don him the title “The Nitrous Oxide Philosopher.” In “Pluralistic Mystic,” James praises Blood and nitrous oxide for their heavy influence on James’ view of mysticism.  He explained in many essays that his personal experience with nitrous oxide had proven to him that our normal perception of the world is just one of many possible, even saying that it was only through nitrous oxide experimentation that he could understand Hegel. James work in philosophy and psychology helped open the minds of the masses and intellectuals, for shadowing Aldous Huxley and the hippies of the 1960’s.
As arguably one of the most famous philosophers of the 19th century, it is curious that Nietzsche may also be the heaviest drug user. Nietzsche proclaimed himself a “disciple of the philosopher Dionysus.” Dionysus was the ancient Greek god of intoxication. Nietzsche, from a young age, was prone to migraines, thus he was well acquainted with the effects of opium. Nietzsche wrote often of his fondness of opium. He wrote in correspondence once,
My dears, Lou and Rée: … Consider me, the two of you, as a semilunate with a sore head who has been totally bewildered by long solitude. To this, I think, sensible insight into the state of things I have come after taking a huge dose of opium—in desperation. But instead of losing my reason, as a result, I seem at last to have come to reason. …
    Nietzsche advocated for a new Dionysian age, an age where men could indulge in any intoxication they wished. Perhaps this is a result of Nietzsche’s near dependence on drugs to keep himself going. Nietzsche did advocate for new forms of consciousness in pursuit of the Ubermensch, and due to his low level of ethics, he may have been quick to advocate for an entheogen that would produce men that were “beyond good and evil.”
    The last major philosopher I will mention in regards to entheogens is Aldous Huxley. Aldous Huxley was born in England in 1894. Huxley is best known for his novel Brave New World, a dystopian story of an authoritarian government that uses drugs to keep the population sedated and under control. Huxley’s major contribution to the world of entheogens is his non-fiction memoir The Doors of Perception. In which Huxley partakes in an experiment with mescaline, which was recently synthesized from the San Pedro Peyote cactus. The San Pedro cactus had been used for hundreds of years for spiritual vision quests by the Huichol people of Mexico. 
In The Doors of Perception, Huxley describes the thoughts and visions he saw while under the effect of the drug. Huxley uses beautiful imagery to hook the reader into the trip with him so they to see the beauty he sees. Huxley explains conscience as a sort of reducing valve. The brain is exposed to too many forms of stimulus to perceive everything at once, so it narrows down what you perceive based on importance. By taking a drug like mescaline, Huxley explains that one is able to experience the full beauty of the world. Huxley also noted the speed at which his thoughts were flowing, and the new found sense of creativity that had manifested in his mind.
Huxley’s effect may not have been so much in the potency of his thoughts, but in the popularization of the ideas. Huxley gave the first in detail account of a psychedelic trip, turning on millions to the new idea of drugs. It is said that The Doors of Perception is the book that launched one million trips, spawning the psychedelic hippies of the sixties and ushering in the current era of entheogen use.  Huxley died in 1963, before his death he instructed his wife to place a tab of LSD-25 in his mouth. His wife later described the scene as, “the most beautiful death.”
                Unlike what we are formally told psychoactive drugs have had a large part in the philosophy of the West. Some of our greatest thinkers used chemicals to enhance their thinking and change their perspective. I hope that this history has helped open your mind to the millions of other perceptions of the world around us. In the next installment, I will pick up with the entheogen use of the hippies, and Terrence McKenna, as well as make a case for entheogen use today.


  1. Thank you for making this post. I have to say, you've done an excellent job bringing attention to the important influences psychoactive drugs have had on philosophy. I feel that it's a frequently neglected topic, and I feel that it is neglected intentionally as a precaution not to encourage drugs that can be of a dangerous nature if misused. However, I appreciate your decision to highlight them as a massive contributor to many of our respected philosophical ideas. No wonder some philosophical concepts can seem so absurd! (H2)

  2. Props to you for the most creative installment I've seen so far. It has never really occurred to me that the cliched "What is life, man?" weed-smokers in movies actually have a real-world equivalent.

  3. "conscience world" - Freudian slip? The approved world of everyday "normal" consciousness is imposed by social sanction, which does indeed as a kind of reproving conscience for anyone who suspends normal consciousness in search of something more. Health considerations, not inappropriately, are offered as the rationale for the disapproving voice of conscience that declares indiscriminate war on drugs. A nation of pharmacological experimenters would, it is feared, destabilize the social order. That's probably true. A stable social order is not always the greatest good, however, if stability comes at the cost of free thought and action. The image of Socrates escaping the cave via a substance-induced "vision" is amusing, provocative, and almost plausible.

    James's nitrous experiments were serious, even though his "Hegelisms" seemed at least half sarcastic. But note his remarks in "Varieties of Religious Experience" about the dangers of "intoxication" (by which he meant all forms of psychoactive disruption, not just that induced by alcohol) as giffing "whiffs" of something at once excellent and destructive. He considered it "tragic" that most of us cannot consistently function under the influence of anything that alters normal consciousness.

    Nietzsche, interestingly, had contempt for German beer culture.

    Huxley is more known for the "soma" in his Brave New World than for the LSD that eased his "most beautiful death." He was aware that chemicals could open AND close doors of perception, as needed.

    Are you going to talk about Albert Hoffman's famous bicycle ride? Interesting articles on him: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/28/magazine/28hofmann-t.html
    And his obit:

  4. I like that you give a historical analysis, going through the centuries about hallucinogenics' role in philosophy and certain societies. I didn't know that a lot of the people you mentioned experimented with different kinds of drugs and it is interesting to see explained how it affected their thoughts. I like that you mentioned Brave New World but I wish you had gone into the drug in the book - soma - a bit more and talked about how it was used in the society and the implications behind it and how society as w hole might be better off for using it and being under some form of control.