The Drugged Up Birth of Modernity

Below is a passage from a book I got for my birthday. I was skimming through this tome and came across a note from one of the later chapters. It discusses a theory about how new substances, caffeine and sugar, helped cause changes in mentality during colonialism, early modernity, and industrialization. I first came across a version of this theory back in the late ’90s or early Aughts, in a book I no longer own and haven’t been able to track down since.

So, it was nice coming across this brief summary with references. But in the other version, the argument was that these substances (including nicotine, cocaine, etc; along with a different kind of drug like opium) were central to the Enlightenment Age and the post-Enlightenment world, something only suggested by this author. This is a supporting theory for my larger theory on addictive substances, including some thoughts on how they replaced psychedelics, as written about previously: Sugar is an Addictive Drug, The Agricultural Mind, Diets and Systems, and “Yes, tea banished the fairies.”. It has to do with what has built the rigid boundaries of modern egoic consciousness and hyper-individualism. It was a revolution of the mind.

Many have made arguments along these lines. It’s not hard to make the connection. Diverse leading figures over history have observed the importance changes that followed along as these substances were introduced and spread. In recent years, this line of thought has been catching on. Michael Pollan came out with an audiobook about the role coffee has played, “Caffeine: How Coffee and Tea Created the Modern World.” I haven’t listened to it because it’s only available through Audible and I don’t do business with Amazon, but reviews of it and interviews with Pollan about it make it sound fascinating. Pollan has many thoughts about psychedelics as well, although I’m not sure if he has talked about psychedelics in relation to stimulants. Steven Johnson has also written and talked about this.

As a side note, there is also an interesting point that connects rising drug addiction with an earlier era of moral panic, specifically a crisis of identity. There was a then new category of disease called neurasthenia, as first described by George Miller Beard. It replaced earlier notions of ‘nostalgia’ and ‘nerves’. In many ways, neurasthenia could be thought of as some kind of variant of mood disorder with some overlap with depression. But a passage from another work, also included below, indicates that drug addiction was closely linked in this developing ideology about the diseased mind and crippled self. At that stage, the relationship wasn’t entirely clear. All that was understood was that, in a fatigued and deficient state, increasing numbers turned to drugs as a coping mechanism.

Drugs may have helped to build modern civilization. But then they quickly came to be taken as a threat. This concern was implicitly understood and sometimes overtly applied right from the beginning. With the colonial trade, laws were often quickly put in place to make sugar and coffee controlled substances. Sugar for a long time was only sold in pharmacies. And a number of fearful rulers tried to ban coffee for fear of it, not unlike how psychedelics were perceived in the 1960s. It’s not only that these substances were radicalizing and revolutionary within the mind and society as seen in retrospect. Many at the time realized these addictive and often stimulating drugs (and one might even call sugar a drug) were powerful substances right from the beginning. That is what made them such profitable commodities requiring an emergent militaristic capitalism that was violently brutal in fulfilling this demand with forced labor.

* * *

The WEIRDest People in the World:
How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous
by Joseph Henrich
Ch. 13 “Escape Velocity”, section “More Inventive?”
p. 289, note 58

People’s industriousness may have been bolstered by new beverages: sugar mixed into caffeinated drinks—tea and coffee. These products only began arriving in Europe in large quantities after 1500, when overseas trade began to dramatically expand. The consumption of sugar, for example, rose 20-fold between 1663 and 1775. By the 18th century, sugary caffeinated beverages were not only becoming part of the daily consumption of the urban middle class, but they were also spreading into the working class. We know from his famous diary that Samuel Pepys was savoring coffee by 1660. The ability of these beverages to deliver quick energy—glucose and caffeine—may have provided innovators, industrialists, and laborers, as well as those engaged in intellectual exchanges at cafés (as opposed to taverns), with an extra edge in self-control, mental acuity, and productivity. While sugar, coffee, and tea had long been used elsewhere, no one had previously adopted the practice of mixing sugar into caffeinated drinks (Hersh and Voth, 2009; Nunn and Qian, 2010). Psychologists have linked the ingestion of glucose to greater self-control, though the mechanism is a matter of debate (Beedie and Lane, 2012; Gailliot and Baumeister, 2007; Inzlicht and Schmeichel, 2012; Sanders et al., 2012). The anthropologist Sidney Mintz (1986, p. 85) suggested that sugar helped create the industrial working class, writing that “by provisioning, sating—and, indeed, drugging—farm and factory workers, [sugar] sharply reduced the overall cost of creating and reproducing the metropolitan proletariat.”

“Mania Americana”: Narcotic Addiction and Modernity in the United States, 1870-1920
by Timothy A. Hickman

One such observer was George Miller Beard, the well-known physician who gave the name neurasthenia to the age’s most representative neurological disorder. In 1871 Beard wrote that drug use “has greatly extended and multiplied with the progress of civilization, and especially in modern times.” He found that drug use had spread through “the discovery and invention of new varieties [of narcotic], or new modifications of old varieties.” Alongside technological and scientific progress, Beard found another cause for the growth of drug use in “the influence of commerce, by which the products of each clime became the property of all.” He thus felt that a new economic interconnectedness had increased both the knowledge and the availability of the world’s regionally specific intoxicants. He wrote that “the ancient civilizations knew only of home made varieties; the moderns are content with nothing less than all of the best that the world produces.” Beard blamed modern progress for increased drug use, and he identified technological innovation and economic interconnectedness as the essence of modernity. Those were, of course, two central contributors to the modern cultural crisis. As we shall see, many experts believed that this particular form of (narcotic) interconnectedness produced a condition of interdependence, that it quite literally reduced those on the receiving end from even a nominal state of independence to an abject dependence on these chemical products and their suppliers.

There was probably no more influential authority on the relationship between a physical condition and its historical moment than George Miller Beard. In 1878 Beard used the term “neurasthenia” to define the “lack of nerve strength” that he believed was “a functional nervous disease of modern, and largely, though not entirely, of American origin.” He had made his vision of modern America clear two years earlier, writing that “three great inventions-the printing press, the steam engine, and the telegraph, are peculiar to our modern civilization, and they give it a character for which there is no precedent.” The direct consequence of these technological developments was that “the methods and incitements of brain-work have multiplied far in excess of average cerebral developments.” Neurasthenia was therefore “a malady that has developed mainly during the last half century.” It was, in short, “the cry of the system struggling with its environment.” Beard’s diagnosis is familiar, but less well known is his belief that a “susceptibility to stimulants and narcotics and various drugs” was among neurasthenia’s most attention-worthy symptoms. The new sensitivity to narcotics was “as unprecedented a fact as the telegraph, the railway, or the telephone.” Beard’s claim suggests that narcotic use might fruitfully be set alongside other diseases of “overcivilization,” including suicide, premarital sex (for women), and homosexuality. As Dr. W. E Waugh wrote in 1894, the reasons for the emergence of the drug habit “are to be found in the conditions of modern life, and consist of the causative factors of suicide and insanity.” Waugh saw those afflictions as “the price we pay for our modern civilization.”24

Though Beard was most concerned with decreased tolerance-people seemed more vulnerable to intoxication and its side effects than they once were-he also worried that the changing modern environment exacerbated the development of the drug habit. Beard explained that a person whose nervous system had become “enfeebled” by the demands of modern society would naturally turn wherever he could for support, and thus “anything that gives ease, sedation, oblivion, such as chloral, chloroform, opium or alcohol, may be resorted to at first as an incident, and finally as a habit.” Not merely to overcome physical discomfort, but to obtain “the relief of exhaustion, deeper and more distressing than pain, do both men and women resort to the drug shop.” Neurasthenia was brought on “under the press and stimulus of the telegraph and railway,” and Beard believed that it provided “the philosophy of many cases of opium or alcohol inebriety.”25

* * *

Also see:

The Age of Intoxication
by Benjamin Breen

Drugs, Labor and Colonial Expansion
ed. by William Jankowiak and Daniel Bradburd

How psychoactive drugs shape human culture
by Greg Wadley

Under the influence
by Ed Lake

The Enlightenment: Psychoactive Globalisation
from The Pendulum of Psychoactive Drug Use

Tea Tuesdays: How Tea + Sugar Reshaped The British Empire
by Maria Godoy

Some Notes On Sugar and the Evolution of Industrial Capitalism
by Peter Machen

Coffee, Tea and Colonialism
from The Wilson Quarterly

From Beer to Caffeine: The Birth of Innovation
by Peter Diamandis

How caffeine changed the world
by Colleen Walsh

The War On Coffee
by Adam Gopnik

Coffee: The drink of the enlightenment
by Jane Louise Kandur

Coffee and the Enlightenment
by Stephen Hicks

Coffee Enlightenment? – Does drinking my morning coffee lead to enlightenment?
from Coffee Enlightenment

The Enlightenment Coffeehouses
by David Gurteen

How Caffeine Accelerated The Scientific Enlightenment
by Drew Dennis

How Cafe Culture Helped Make Good Ideas Happen
from All Things Considered

Coffee & the Age of Reason (17th Century)
from The Coffee Brewers

Philosophers Drinking Coffee: The Excessive Habits of Kant, Voltaire & Kierkegaard
by Colin Marshall

Coffee Cultivation and Exchange, 1400-1800
from University of California, Santa Cruz

4 thoughts on “The Drugged Up Birth of Modernity

    • Well, “energy drinks” are mostly a variant on caffeine. They sometimes have some other ingredients in there like ginseng or amino acids, but the stimulant effect is typically just the caffeine. An energy drink today is basically equivalent to coffee and tea in the early colonial trade. They are over-the-counter drugs to get people buzzing so that they’ll be more efficient workers and, as I argue, to help rigidify the needed egoic boundaries to function within stressful modernity. Many people would not be able to get through the day without a stimulant or multiple stimulants. That is sad commentary on our society.

      I totally get it. I’m of the opinion that caffeine, along with sugar, are more addictive than nicotine. Without sugar and caffeine, modern civilization might not be possible at all. And if our supply of stimulants was suddenly cut off, civilization as we know it might collapse in short order. I’ve sensed the power of stimulants in my own experience. It’s extremely difficult to do highly cognitively taxing reading and writing without sugar and caffeine, especially caffeine. I probably wouldn’t be the intellectual I am now if I hadn’t built up my cognitive abilities through years of caffeine and sugar addiction, similar to how PKD would probably never written such amazing output without amphetamines.

  1. Interesting research, I found the nootropics to be effective stimulants without the squirrel like , small minded overfocus that caffeine gives, but like any drug there’s drawbacks. I did a lot of writing over the summer, and found no trouble keeping up with school papers, but it was mostly on the dry intellectual end, and I found fiction writing much harder.

    However it didn’t effect the ability to play music, actually gave me some chops I struggled with before. I think this is due to the calm I was able to bring to practice, more than any magical property of the drug itself. It mainly led to my praise of the cyborg as a real possibility for the future (as opposed to some deus ex machina of AI).

    I am much more weary of Terence McKenna’s wild theories than I used to be, since he’s stuck in what an American critic called “naturalistic fatalism” (referring to Romantic poets and the realists of the 19th cen. )

    With McKenna, its almost like he believed that the cure for a national drug problem reaching back through the centuries is simply more drugs, of a different sort. Its just that the CIA leadership had the same idea in the 1950’s. Sometimes I want to tie Jordan Peterson to a chair like in Clockwork Orange, feed him massive doses of THC edibles and play him every Adam Curtis doc, but then I decide to wank to something better, or just mix a drink and read something more interesting than rules for life.

    I’m not renouncing my use of mushrooms and pot, but I also wouldn’t credit the drugs with, say, Louis Armstrong or Skynyrd’s lyrical soling the way Camille Paglia would in her praise of the “psychedelic frenzy”. The Romantic pastime of dreaming freed from any moral effort or imaginative direction reminds me strongly of the character Griffith in Miura’s “Berserk” series, though I’d probably need more writing skill to explain how that is the case.

    I don’t think its a random fluke that addictive drug use arose in the upper class, Romantic milieu first, which Paglia does have some interesting theories on in relation to the later blossoming of nature worship in the 1960’s. “Rousseau counseled a ‘return to nature’. De Sade, laughing, agrees.” Its hard not to notice that the period when all Europe was buzzing with talk of “the natural man” with little-to no relation to the actual pre-modern indigenous ( my ancestors were all political animals as much as the Europeans they encountered at the outset of the American colonization) was also the time when caffiene was juicing the new revolutions of the middle classes.

    • What nootropics have you tried? I’ve been experimenting with nootropics. There has been the hope of finding something to replace caffeine, to create focus and energy without the downsides. Or else to design a stack of supplements that would support healthier neurocognition in general. Some nootropics aren’t stimulants but instead promote growth of neurons, increase ATP production, support cellular repair, etc. My hope is to undo some of the decades of damage to my body from bad diet, depression, and addiction.

      I can’t say that I give much thought to McKenna these days. He wasn’t directly on my mind when I was writing this post. My thoughts on psychedelics has largely developed independently of his peculiar, if amusing, views. There is no need to idealize or romanticize psychedelics. My speculations are not necessarily advocacy as simply historical analysis. Different drugs and drug-like substnaces, if used widely and systematically, can shape not only mind and behavior but culture and social order.

      Then again, there are those like the Piraha who apparently don’t use any drugs at all, not stimulants or depressants or psychedelics. In talking with my father, I brought up a point made by Daniel Everett. In his training as a missionary when at Bible college, a professor taught him that a people cannot be saved (i.e., converted) until they are made to feel lost. That means destroying social fabric, culture traditions, and moral imagination. Maybe there is something about the Piraha’s lack of drug use in relation to their resistance to conversion and outside influence.

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