Originally published in 2010 ‘Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens’ by Michael A. Rinella is a scholarly exposition of the use and understanding of the pharmakon in ancient Greek culture generally, and in the works of the philosopher Plato specifically. Rinella is currently the National Endowment for the Humanities Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York, Potsdam.
Ancient Greek and Athenian culture has played a vital role in the changing patterns of Western thought for the last two and a half thousand years. At times, this has been a wholesale acceptance of certain aspects—the Medieval Church adopting Aristotle’s philosophy, including his erroneous astrological views of the cosmos, which placed the Earth at the centre, for example—and, at other times, it has been a reaction against the received wisdom of the ancients; the rediscovery of Greek medicine and its overcoming by emergent scientific forms in the Early Modern period, to take a prescient example. However, one thing is for sure, for the large majority of this time ancient Greek thought has been hard to ignore, such is its persisting power and impact.
While Michael A. Rinella’s Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens very much focuses on the cultural understanding of the pharmakon in the period 750-300 BCE, particularly taking into account the classical Athenian period and the work of Plato, he remains aware that there are important implications for current Western thought. Indeed, in the second half of the twentieth century a number of theorists began to take up the question of the pharmakon in their work—most obviously, Jacques Derrida in his work Plato’s Pharmacy—and it is the deleterious Western approach to pharmaceuticals that have made the pharmakon’s exposition so necessary. In Rinella’s Afterword, the author moves towards writing Michel Foucault’s oft quoted but never written work on a genealogy of ethics, but specifically on the pharmakon, or what Foucault referred to as alimentary ethics in his history of sexuality.
“What this work, titled pharmakon after the ancient Greek word for “drug,” has sought to demonstrate is that the emergence of a concern for controlling the desire for ecstasy—and as a result controlling a not inconsiderable number of different forms of drug-related behavior—can be traced to the earliest beginnings of Western culture, especially ancient Greece. The difficulties of the pharmakon, in all its multifaceted ambiguity and complexity, constituted what Foucault called a “domain of action” that ancient Greek thought, especially Plato, perceived as a danger to social cohesion and political order.” (Rinella 2012, 257)
The problematization of drugs in the modern world, which has resulted in certain political, moral and social controls that have lead to mass incarceration, numerous avoidable deaths and an advocacy of extinguishing individual expression in favour of a repressive, social normalacy, is geneologically cast as having premise in ancient Athens. So, while the vast majority of Rinella’s work functions within the microcosm of ancient Greek culture, it necessitates an important contextualization of our present legal and moral frameworks in approaching ‘drugs.’ In other words, while the attitudes toward the pharmakon in Plato retains strong similarities to current attitudes of Western governance, thereby positively retaining that element of Greek, philosophic thought, this work intends—and largely succeeds—to expose them, and thereby offer a way of overcoming them at a time when, “The need for reconsidering the ethics of drugs within Western culture has never been more urgent” (Rinella 2012, 270).
Broadly speaking then, Rinella examines the changing use of the word pharmakon in ancient Greece, from its use in Homer, in symposions and day-to-day life, through to the point where Plato himself necessitates an important change in attitudes toward it. What, however, is pharmakon? Simply put it means ‘drug,’ however, this is a very simplistic understanding that does little to inform one as to the multifarious application and meanings of the word that an Athenian Greek would have understood in 400 BCE. The word was used to describe love potions, herbal remedies, intoxicants, poisons, cosmetics and, moreover, the ambiguity of the word served as a useful metaphor for theatre and the arts, and was even used by Plato to describe the art of philosophy itself. In this sense, the word itself is problematic for it belies any clear and objective description. Therefore, Rinella approaches it more carefully via the attitudes that employed it, evidence of which, as he notes, overwhelming comes from the male Athenians with the leisure time to write.
A number of broad themes are employed to contextualise attitudes toward pharmakon; identity, stasis/ekstasis and politics, for instance. These serve as useful attitudinal points for the cultural exchanges of the day, the most obvious being the use of wine in the symposion, which Plato used as the setting for his Socratic dialogue The Symposium. The Greek Symposion was a gathering of men—although female musicians and prostitutes were also present—that centred around the drinking of wine. The wine, for a longtime considered to be analogues to our present day offering, has since been shown to be a heady mixture of a number of herbs and intoxicants, hence why it was usually watered down. Within these symposia, there was a certain ethics of intoxication that was removed from the wider ethics of the polis, and it is from a consideration of these ethics that Rinella begins his investigation. Simply put, there was a “ethical-aesthetic sensibility that each gathering consensually imposed upon itself” (Rinella 2012, 14).
One could be forgiven, on first reading, for thinking that Plato was an adherent to the symposia because he chose to set one of his dialogues within one. However, a closer reading reveals quite the opposite—certainly within the context of his others works as well. Moreover, it reveals a certain problematic for Plato in his own employment of the term pharmakon. Plato tends to use it metaphorically in order to describe—variously good and bad—the techne involved in rhetoric and philosophy. So, for example, Socrates is described as using ‘black magic,’ which although perhaps is an allusion to the historical figure’s other skills, is also used to describe his philsophic skills. Indeed, in other dialogues Socrates discusses the use of love potions (pharmakon) and the word for a magician who uses plants in this way is a pharmakeus. The problematic, for Plato, is that he believes that plant and drug intoxication are a negative, while also using the term positively for philosophy (but negatively for the rhetoric of the sophists.) Hence a confusion can ensue within readings of his texts.
“Wherever a methe [intoxication] conflicts with goals of philosophic paideia [enculturation] there can be little doubt that the former will be sacrificed at the slightest indication that it threatens to hinder the smooth functioning of the latter” (Rinella 2012, 63).
In discussing the rites of Eleusis, Rinella discusses the kykeon, which means ‘potion’, and concludes that it is likely that it involved some sort of psychoactive drug. Although this use of pharmakon aims at the highest possible value in an approach to ‘truth’, in which it facilitates an intoxication within a much higher premise than the symposia, Plato sees it as a competing pharmakon. Although the rites sought to reveal a ‘truth’ to the initiates, Plato still believed that it could not serve the purpose of this as well as philosophy and one of the major reasons being because it operated outside the polis. Plato’s highest goal was the correct running of the city state. Therefore, while simultaneously linking pharmakon to politics through its apprehension through philosophy, he is stating the problematics of religious, and/or plant, intoxication as working against this goal. Essentially, this is the link that corresponds to today’s establishment approach to drugs—where political and scientific reasoning is assumed to be a stablizing factor and the use of certain drugs destabilizing.
There are numerous interesting sections of Rinella’s Pharmakon, which includes elements of entheogen theory being incorporated within a wider scholarly approach—not doubt partly influenced by the classicist Carl Ruck who looms heavily over this work. Furthermore, the questions involving stasis as meaning a sort of political disease in Plato are fascinating, especially in regard to the earlier conceptions in Odysseus’ dealing with the pharmakon and the constant retention of his identity. In conclusion, to my mind, this is a vitally important pharmacography. Not only does it shed light on today’s ‘drugs problem’ via the very roots of Western literary and philosophic thought, it does not do the disservice of assumption to the ancient Greeks, and boldly addresses them on their own terms. In this manner, it is a treasure trove of investigations that, no doubt, will help cast new light on a multitude of concerns surrounding the human use of that great ambiguity—the drug/pharmakon.