Everybody must get stoned: That’s the great lesson of history, driven home by this elucidating survey.
According to Breen (History/Univ. of California, Santa Cruz), the quest for drugs has been a constant of human history, propelling the rise of empires in the modern era. By “drug,” he adds by way of qualification, the author includes a wide variety of substances both recreational and medicinal, some of them quite dubious: “Eating the powdered flesh of an Egyptian mummy may cure the plague….Possessing an enemy’s toenail clippings may allow you to kill them.” Between-the-lines reading offers intriguing possibilities: It’s not hard to liken the doings of the Portuguese Empire, by far the most effective of all drug-seeking powers, and the British Empire that overtook it as rival drug cartels. What is certain, argues Breen, is that the Portuguese “spent much of their first decades in the Americas stumbling in the dark, trying and usually failing to make sense of the hallucinogens, poisons, stimulants, and remedies that surrounded them.” Apply science to a recreational substance, and you often get medicine, from CBD oil to morphine, with the “pristine sterility of the pharmacy” replacing the dusty shelves of the antiquarian; apply it to a remedy, as with quinine, and you get a lucrative patent, giving rise to the modern pharmaceutical industry. All reason enough to chase after drugs, a bewildering variety of which marched into European markets following the Columbian exchange: Samuel Johnson’s dictionary includes definitions for many of these novelties, including agaric (“a drug of use in physick, and the dying trade”) and nepenthe (“a drug that drives away all pains”). Breen makes a fine case for his title, which he suggests is more appropriate than the Age of Reason—and for reasons good and true.
A provocative examination of the history of exploration as a quest for new and improved ways to change our minds.