Addiction and Philosophy

Addiction itself is not a problem – it is the consequence of a problem. The problem may be articulated as follows: man has natural tendencies and longings that may be transformed, misdirected, sublimated, directly expressed, but never eradicated. These tendencies and longings, when thwarted, lead to frustration, helplessness, despair, hopelessness, and pain. This pain is palpable and builds up toward a desperate need for relief. This pain is the result of many things that may be imprecisely called frustrations. These frustrations are the result of one not getting what is wanted, what is thought to be deserved or what may complete one. For example, a man may want a certain woman and he goes through much to gain her favor, but this woman could be anything: a desired job, a prize, or an honor of any sort at all, but he feels he deserves it, believes he has worked hard for it. Let us now say he doesn't get it, or gets it, enjoys it, and finds it is very pleasant, but then loses it. He becomes pained, frustrated that he cannot get it back, and is consumed by a kind of pain that doesn't stop. His incompleteness is manifest to him. He searches out for something to nullify or ease his pain, and he turns to some thing, a drug, a chemical cocktail, or a behavior, and while this thing toward which he turns is not the addiction, but is only instrumental. The consequences he associates with his use of some thing artificially and immediately hides those pains that consumed him. He seeks out not the thing but the concomitant positive consequences of his indulging in whatever he did. Say it is alcohol. He goes to a bar, drinks, meets people, laughs and cries, feels less incomplete and that is what he seeks through drinking: a feeling of completion that is profoundly pleasant. This is called "psychological addiction." The physiological addiction to alcohol is immaterial. A man may be safely detoxified with relative ease and speed. Now what a person chooses to use depends on the kind of relief he seeks. It need not be a positive loss, but even a feeling of being incomplete. One cannot honestly deny the role that chemicals play in affecting the brain, and thus behavior, but so little is known about the brain and how exactly it works that to reason about it is almost useless. Perhaps a certain feeling triggers a certain amount of certain neurotransmitters to be present which may affect how the brain reacts to every other instance of some certain chemicals. However we want to look at any experimental evidence, we cannot deny the fact that people have quit from the most horrible addictions with no chemicals or treatments delivered artificially or at all. Perhaps a change in one's thinking was enough to change the processing of other chemicals. Who can say with certainty? Just because the research has yielded nothing supremely helpful doesn't mean that it won't. We must continue.

Many people compare the pain they feel to an emptiness, a hole in their soul that they say can only be filled by spirituality. Others say they use drugs or behaviors to "cut loose" and "let go," so that they may feel more like how they think they're supposed to, to feel "normal." Still others may do things to forget the badness or pain of their past. All of these are still variations on the theme of incompleteness. Some say they use because they are curious or because they want to feel good, or if they feel good already, to feel better still. One feels bad or is curious for a reason. They seek after a pleasure they do not have but want. All of these people are erotic in the classical sense. They seek a completion that is not easily or readily available, and because a sham substitute is both easily and readily available, they latch onto it and are consumed by it. If alcohol or cocaine fill the hole in their soul temporarily but falsely, it is infinitely preferable to the profound pain of it not being patched at all. How do people fill this void without recourse to drugs or addictive things? It has been done, and therefore can be done again. In the past, people lived for a value they took very seriously. One need only read Nietzsche's Zarathustra to have the very human desires and tendencies awakened in them, and thereby see their soul's sublimated and otherwise transformed tendencies. Those tendencies and longings, having been awakened are made to see how they have been changed and perverted, possibly beyond repair. If God is no longer taken seriously, what protection do we have from the abyss? Our angst will eat us alive, and our most common reaction to something we can't fight is flight. We cannot run away from the thoughts of the abyss, so we hide from them by distracting ourselves from them. If there is no alternative that we take seriously, we are condemned to a life of helplessness and hopelessness, peppered with fleeting moments of distraction from this insoluble problem. We are not surprised that people return to their addictive behaviors over and over again, since the staring into the abyss, voluntarily or involuntarily is horrible and terrifying. If you believe a god is there and more importantly that it cares for you and wants to save you then this ceases to be as terrifying or necessarily horrible, although eternity has its own terrors and horrors to deal out... How do we hope to combat this? There have been many attempts at a solution, yet the problem persists. The difficulty lies in telling a believable myth that can stand up with certainty to any criticisms reason may throw at it. For this a progressive training is necessary, not merely for indoctrination or simple education, but for the highest kind of education toward truth. Certain truths are deadly because they strip away comforting myths or show us very real horrors that we cannot readily deny. The Greeks sought to extend into eternity through their children and their reputation after they died. There was no afterlife for normal people – just annihilation. A god has been dealt with earlier. All have lived by some kind of value that dominated a people generally. The Family, God, Friendship, Tradition… We currently take no value seriously since all values are permitted and encouraged, so none is taken more seriously than any other. This is the root of our nihilism and thus our addictions. I do not say that a nihilist necessarily knows he's a nihilist, but the pains of profound emptiness due to nihilism can be felt without precise articulation. Pain, no matter how complex, needs no precise articulation to be felt deeply. That the root of the problem is a lack of seriousness regarding a value has been demonstrated in Aristotle's Ethics, but we will summarize: Happiness is the good at which all things aim, a good in itself pursued for its own sake, and is distinguished from pleasure by its permanence. A happy man may experience misfortune but bears it well because of this abiding happiness. Further, happiness is independent in that it doesn't require external things that may be taken away and thus ruin it. Happiness lasts. One achieves happiness by cultivating virtues and thereby living virtuously. In this formulation of happiness, friendship and wisdom are values to be taken most seriously, and the other virtues are instrumental to these virtues. Friends make happiness more likely. Since a human being is social by nature, friends may be a necessary condition to happiness. We are less miserable in our misery when we have friends to help us bear it. Arguments along these lines may also apply to happiness involving any value or belief. They all will condense to wisdom being needful for happiness.

We long for many things. A man universally, no matter where he is or when he is, feels anger when treated unjustly from his perspective. This points to an aspect of his soul, his thymos as Plato calls it. I mention this only to point to the existence of something called "soul." Today, soul is treated as a spiritual component necessary for transmigration into an afterlife. This is not what is meant in our discussion by "soul." When we say soul, we mean the totality of the non-physical aspect of the body. The thinking, deciding, wishing, willing, desiring, spirited, calculating part that is somehow beyond the body or parts of the body. It exists with the body but is not found in or on it. That's it. The soul is cultivated by actions that train its faculties, and is harmed by actions that blunt it. Let me say that drug use blunts the soul. Let me qualify that statement by immediately adding that very few people can refrain from blunting their souls through drug use. In almost all instances, the soul is damaged by drugs, alcohol, or any of the behaviors commonly called "addictions". It can be retrained, as a man injured may heal or a fat man may become fit through exercise. The soul and the virtues are the tools to be used to stare back into the abyss without flinching – and that is our goal: the way out of the cave of addiction. Since God is not taken seriously, we must explore why it is not and use arguments that are based solely in reason, since it is unreasonable to reason about the unreasonable.

The soul is the desiring, spirited, and deciding part of us, and our desiring part is very strong. A soul that is governed by its rational part is well-ordered, keeping desires not suppressed but governed. Denying pleasures simply is not a desirable life, but a life spent experiencing the highest kinds of pleasures is best. Indulging in excessive behaviors gives more reign to the desiring part of the soul, because the desires don't judge but compete against one another. A governed desire is different from an ignored desire; governed desires are less likely to manifest themselves in strange and unpredictable ways. The reasoning part of the soul governs desires by informing itself of consequences, but it cannot deny that indulging in some behaviors is pleasant, and reason itself looks for pleasure. A soul that pursues pleasure haphazardly will be unable to control itself, and thus be a slave to its desires – not even its desiring part. Such a slavery is bad, even though it may be pleasant at times, but it doesn't allow the soul to govern itself. Instead, the easy pleasures are pursued vigorously because the soul doesn't know higher pleasures – higher in dignity, duration, and purity – are even possible. All the soul knows is that the deepest desires are temporarily sated or quieted with substance use or certain behaviors, but doesn't immediately see that it is harmed by being made a slave. One must be prepared to look into the abyss and not be frightened, and this is done through practice, reflection, thought, and education. Substance use and other occupations provide an easy distraction from this terrifying activity which most people rightly find dangerous and depressing. The terror itself, we have said, entices one to distract oneself or run away, usually by drug use, dangerous behaviors, or other distractions. A soul that is used to easy respite has little reason to pursue Being through the Nothing, but is instead likely to stop short. This kind of laziness is almost encouraged, since no one likes to be around depressed or morose people. This lazy soul can be trained, but it is no easy training, and most people have no inclination to it. The reasoning part must be in control for all the above reasons, but most importantly because it alone is capable of guiding the desires properly, that is, toward the best pleasures. Desires are like crying babies that don't know what exactly they want, but have guesses and they certainly don't know what's good for them individually or as a whole. If they wish to go on, they must be taken care of, and reason, like a parent, can do that better than an older sibling, like the spirited part can. A person may be very smart indeed and know a great many things, knowing facts and discrete bits of thought, but the highest knowledge is knowledge of the whole, of everything and especially how everything fits together, and that is much more difficult to fake. It is also much more difficult to acquire and is like climbing a ladder. It is unlikely to find a person who has known this pleasure with a poorly-ordered soul, and this is no accident, nor is it accidental that such people do not run away from terrifying thoughts with distractions like drugs or gambling.

An addict's soul is in disorder. The desires overrun the reasoning and spirited parts and instead rule them. A man's reason and anger may be used or silenced for desires to be temporarily satisfied. A man knows drugs are harmful but still uses them, and it is not true to say they have decided to use, but that they chose to use as a starving man chooses to eat. One may become angry and use this anger to get what one desires, and this same anger that asserts itself for the soul's sake is silenced and degraded when the desires tell it to. A well-ordered soul is desirable for its own sake, but also because a poorly ordered soul is so repulsive. Drug abuse, or addiction in general, is not the only cause of a disordered soul, but it is certainly a powerful cause.