High Art


Riggs, Mike, Reason


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David Hillman isn't the first classics scholar to have cited historical texts that suggest recreational drug use was common in antiquity, but doing so at the University of Wisconsin in 2004 almost cost him his degree. His doctoral thesis review committee objected to the idea that writers such as the Roman poet Ovid not only consumed drugs but used them to inspire their writing. The committee gave Hillman a choice: remove the drug references or kiss your Ph.D. goodbye. Hillman played ball and then turned around and wrote The Chemical Muse: Drug Use and the Roots of Western Civilization, which was published in July by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of Macmillan. Mike Riggs interviewed Hillman in December.

Q: Why don't we know more about the history of recreational drug use?

A: People haven't heard about it because we're living in a prohibitionist century. Sigmund Freud's cocaine use is a great example, because cocaine was widely consumed pre-prohibition through Coca-Cola, as a pick-me-up. This was also back when opium was a common drug, and people like [poets Samuel Taylor] Coleridge and [Charles] Baudelaire had no problem with it whatsoever. Even [Friedrich] Nietzsche, who was a brilliant classicist in his day, talks about the use of drugs in antiquity. So my argument is nothing new, but it's new to the last 100 years and the time of prohibition, when drug use was suddenly given a renewed moral stigma.

Q: How has Christianity changed our understanding of antiquity?

A: We can't help but look at these texts through the lens of Christianity. It's an artifact of history that we've come through Christianity and it's become a part of our culture. But there was no Christianity when these texts were written. Judeo-Christian culture is based upon a system of commandments, whereas the Greek culture was based on "the good is the beautiful, and the beautiful is good."

One thing I didn't mention in the book, or didn't push, is that there's no word for homosexuality in antiquity. …

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