Was Plato on Drugs?

I posted a short piece a while ago about a few books on Plato, including one about Plato’s relationship to drugs (pharmaka). That piece gets a lot of views regularly, and it seems like people often find it by asking google, “Was Plato on Drugs?”  I realize that the piece I wrote isn’t as explicit as it could be.

It’s worth being clear about this.  The answer is simple: yes.  

Plato was indeed on drugs.  This is true, and not only in a metaphorical sense.  However, the metaphorical sense is itself significant, as it indicates that Plato expressed something like a theory of drugs and drug-use.  Along with writing about the ethics and politics of drug use (see Michael Rinella, Pharmakon), Plato also used metaphors where writing itself is equated with a drug (see Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy”).  In the latter case, Plato’s written works would themselves be a kind of drug, an ambiguous substance that can heal or poison, cure or kill.

But Plato didn’t just write about drugs, he was also literally on drugs.  Rinella’s work is an excellent source of detailed information on the psychoactive properties of the kind of wine imbibed in Plato’s Athens.  It wasn’t like today’s alcoholic beverages (absinthe is a notable exception), which are just alcohol (and maybe some juices, flavoring, carbonated water, etc., but no added psychoactive plants).

There’s another (much more speculative) hypothesis that, along with psychoactive wine, Plato might have taken a psychedelic drink in an initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries (an ancient Greek esoteric religious practice).  That’s not entirely unreasonable.  The Wasson, Hofmann, and Ruck argument claims that the ritual drink (the kykeon) ingested during that initiation was made using barley that was infected with a fungus (ergot), which contains an alkaloid analogous to LSD.  That hypothesis seems pretty unlikely, since it would be difficult to intentionally infect the barley with exactly the right amount of fungus: too little and the initiates wouldn’t have a psychedelic experience, too much and they’d be poisoned…or perhaps that risk was part of the initiation.

In any case, kykeon aside, Plato most likely experienced altered or nonordinary states of consciousness through the psychoactive plants mixed in with his wine.  It doesn’t mean his philosophy can be reduced to drug experiences.  Even if his philosophy could be reduced to its material conditions, there are many more conditions to account for (e.g., proteins, carbs, Athenian economy and ecology, sex, dreams, and stimulating conversation with friends).

Really, the question should not be whether a great thinker was on drugs.  The question should be expanded into a general dietology.  Everybody is eating and drinking things that contribute to the ongoing alteration of their consciousness.  Let’s articulate different dietary practices of philosophy without getting distracted by substances that have been romanticized and idealized (e.g., LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, cannabis).

The important thing: be careful, first of all, and remember that a lot of people do drugs and don’t produce anything nearly as great as what Plato did, and a lot of people don’t do drugs and likewise never produce anything at the level of Plato’s legacy.  The drugs don’t matter as much as the actual existing individual.

4 thoughts on “Was Plato on Drugs?

  1. I don’t know about Plato, but scientifically it is much more likely that Moses burned some bush and saw visions of the Hebrew ‘god’, rather than had a vision of a burning bush as a god that would be inconsistent with Hebrew theology.

    1. I’ve heard a little about the psychedelic interpretation of Moses. Rick Strassman gets into some of that in his book on psychedelics and the Hebrew Bible (DMT and the Soul of Prophecy). It’s a good one.

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