Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/November 1883/The Remedies of Nature VII

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THE REMEDIES OF NATURE.

By FELIX L. OSWALD, M.D.

THE ALCOHOL-HABIT {concluded).

II.

BUT, in tracing the causes which led to the present development of the poison-vice, we should not overlook the working of another principle which I must call a reaction against the effect of a wrong remedy. We can not serve our cause by ignoring its weak points, for, if we persist in closing our eyes to the significance of our mistakes, our enemies will not fail to profit by our blindness. We can not work in the dark. In order to reach our goal, we must see our way clear; and I. trust that no earnest fellow-laborer will misconstrue my motive if I dare to say the whole truth.

The matter is this: At a time when the civilization of antiquity had become extremely corrupt, a society of ethical reformers tried to find the panacea for vice, as we now seek the remedy for intemperance. But, instead of recognizing the local causes of the evil, they ascribed it to the general perversity of the human heart. They, too, failed to distinguish between natural appetites and morbid appetencies, and, misled by the glaring consequences of perverted passions, they conceived the unhappy idea that man's natural instincts are his natural enemies. In order to crush a few baneful nightshades and poppy-blossoms, they began a war of extermination against the flowers of this earth. But that attempt led to an unexpected result: the soil of the trampled fields engendered weeds that were far harder to destroy than the noxious herbs of the old flower-garden. The would-be reformers had overlooked the fact that it is easier to pervert than to suppress a natural instinct; but the history of the last twelve hundred years has illustrated that truth by many dreadful examples. The suppression of rational freedom led to anarchy. Celibacy became the mother of the ugliest vices. The attempt to suppress the pursuit of natural science led to the pursuit of pseudo-science—astrology, necromancy, and all sorts of dire chimeras. The suppression of harmless pleasures has always fostered the penchant for vicious pleasures. The austerity of the Stoics helped to propagate the doctrines of Epicurus; in Islam the era of the Hanbalite ascetics was followed by the riots of the Bagdad caliphate; and the open licentiousness of the English anti-Puritans, as well as the secret excesses of their northern neighbors, can be distinctly traced to the mistaken zeal of the party which had waged a long and unrelenting war against every form of physical pleasure, and hoped to find salvation in the suppression of all natural desires. That doctrine has never become the permanent faith of any Aryan nation, though now and then it has reached a local ascendency which made it a grievous addition to the evils it proposed to cure. More than fifteen hundred years ago the Emperor Julian, and even St. Clemens Alexandrinus, denounced the absurdities of the Marcionite Gnostics, who "abstained from marriage, the pursuit of worldly advantages, and all temporal pleasures." The original rigor of those dogmas could not maintain itself against the healthier instincts of mankind; but what they lost in consistency they made up in aggressiveness: an influential sect of the last century attempted to enforce upon others what the Marcionites practiced in private, and, while the Syrian ascetics preferred the desert to the world, the Scotch ascetics tried to turn the world into a desert.

"According to that code," says the author of the "History of Civilization," "all the natural affections, all social pleasures, all amusements, and all the joyous instincts of the human heart, were sinful. They looked on all comforts as wicked in themselves, merely because they were comforts. The great object in life was to be in a state of constant affliction;... whatever pleased the senses was to be suspected. It mattered not what a man liked; the mere fact of his liking it made it sinful. Whatever was natural was wrong. It was wrong to take pleasure in beautiful scenery, for a pious man had no concern with such matters. On Sunday it was sinful to walk in the fields, or in the meadows, or enjoy fair weather by sitting at the door of your own house."

"Whatever was natural was wrong"—though even the extremists of that school might have shrunk from the consistency of their Syrian exemplar, who forbade his anchorites to sleep twice under the same tree, lest their spiritual interests should be imperiled by an undue affection for any earthly object!

If it were possible that such dogmas could ever again overpower the common sense of mankind, we should welcome the poison-mania as the lesser evil, for it is better to seek happiness by a wrong road than to abandon the search altogether. It is better to taste a forbidden fruit than to destroy all pleasant trees. But it is impossible that such chimeras should have survived their native night. After the terrible experience of the middle ages, it is impossible that any sane person should fail to recognize the significance of the mistake, and we can not hope to maintain the field against the opponents of temperance till we have deprived them of their most effective weapon: we must furnish practical proofs that they, not we, are the enemies of human happiness; that we make war upon vice, and not upon harmless pleasures.

It is a significant fact that in every civilized country of this earth drunkenness is rarest among the classes who have other and better convivial resources. In the United States, where the "almighty dollar" confers unlimited privileges, the well-to-do people are the most temperate in the world, the poor the most intemperate. In Turkey, where the lower classes are indulged in many pastimes which are considered below the dignity of an effendi, the poison-vice is actually confined to the upper-ten: temperance reigns in the cottage, while opium-smoking and secret dram-drinking prevail in the palace. In Scotland, where all classes have to conform to the moral by-laws which discountenance holiday recreations, total abstinence is extremely rare. For—"Nature will have her revenge, and, when the most ordinary and harmless recreations are forbidden as sinful, is apt to seek compensation in indulgences which no moralist would be willing to condone. The charge brought against the Novatians in the early ages of the Church can, with equal plausibility, be brought against the Puritans in our own day. One vice, at all events, which Christians of every school, as well as non-Christian moralists, are agreed in condemning, is reputed to be a special opprobrium of Scotland; and the strictest observance of all those minute and oppressive Sabbatarian regulations to which we referred just now has been found compatible with consecrating the day of rest to a quiet but unlimited assimilation of the liquid which inebriates but does not cheer. And under the old régime to be drunk in private, though of course not sanctioned as allowable, would have been accounted a far less heinous outrage on the dignity of the Sabbath than to whistle in the public street."—(The "Saturday Review," July 19, 1879, p. 75.)

There is, indeed, no doubt that the "snuffling, whining saints, who groaned in spirit at the sight of Jack in the Green," [1] have driven as many pleasure-seekers from the play-ground to the pot-house as despotism has turned freemen into outlaws and robbers. For the practical alternative is not between conventicles and rum-riots, but between healthful and baneful pastimes. Before we can begin to eradicate the poison-habit we must make reform more attractive than vice; and, as long as the champions of temperance shut their eyes to the significance of that truth, their legislative enactments will always remain dead-letter laws. Our worst defects we owe, in fact, less to the shrewdness of our beer-brewing opponents than to the blindness of our Sabbatarian allies. A free Sunday-garden, with zoological curiosities, foot-races, and good music, would do more to promote the cause of temperance than a whole army of Hudibras revivalists, [2] Individuals, too, should be treated on that plan, and, next to absolute abstinence from stimulating poisons, the most essential condition of a permanent cure is a liberal allowance of healthful stimulants, in the form of diverting pastimes and out-door exercise. For the chief danger of a relapse is not the attractiveness of intoxication, but the misery of the after-effect, the depressing reaction that follows upon the abnormal excitement, and for several weeks seems daily to gain strength against the reformatory resolves of the penitent. This apathy of the unstimulated system can become more intolerable than positive pain, and embitter existence till, in spite of prayers and pledges, its victims either relapse into alcohol or resort to cognate stimulants— chloral, absinthe, or opium. In stress of such temptations the prophylactic influence of a mind-stimulating occupation is almost as effective as is the deliquium of disappointed love. Ennui is the chief coadjutor, of the poison-fiend. On the Militär-Grenze, the "Military Frontier" of Eastern Austria, a soldier's life is a ceaseless guerrilla- war against smugglers, outlaws, and Bulgarian bed-bugs; yet hundreds of German officers solicit transfer to that region as to a refuge from the temptations of garrison tedium, deliberately choosing a concentration of all discomforts, as a Schnapps-Kur, a whisky-cure, as they express it with frank directness; and for similar purposes many of Fremont's contemporaries took the prairie-trail to the adventure-land of the far West. Frederick Gerstaecker found that the California rum-shops got their chief patronage from unsuccessful miners; the successful ones had better stimulants.

For the first month or two the convalescent should not content himself with negative safeguards, but make up his mind that temptations will come, and come in the most grievous form, and that active warfare is nearly always the safest plan. The alcohol-habit is a physical disease, and a Rocky Mountain excursion, a visit to the diggings, a month of sea-side rambles and surf-baths, will do more to help a convert across the slough of despond than a season-ticket to all the lecture-halls of the Christian Temperance Union.

But such excursions should be undertaken in company. Soldiers in the ranks will endure hardships that would melt the valor of any solitary hero; and in the presence of manly companions the spirit of emulation and "approbativeness" will sustain even an enervated fellow. The esprit de corps of a temperance society is more cogent than its vows.

An appeal to the passions is the next best thing. Everything is fair in the war against alcohol: love, ambition, pride, and even acquisitiveness, may be utilized to divert the mind from a more baneful propensity—for a time, at least. For, after the tempter has been kept at bay for a couple of months, its power will reach a turning-point; the nervous irritability will subside, the outraged digestive organs resume their normal functions, and the potency of the poison-hungar will decrease from day to day. After that the main point is to gain time, and give Nature a fair chance to complete the work of redemption. As the vis vitæ recovers her functional vigor the employment of other tonics can be gradually dispensed with, except in the moments of unusual dejection that will now and then recur—especially on rainy days and after sultry nights. But in most such cases the demon can be exorcised with the price of an opera-ticket, and not rarely with a liberal dinner. " Good cheer" is a suggestive term; the mess, as well as music, has power to soothe the savage soul, and, before invoking the aid of medicinal tonics, Bibulus should try the dulcifying effect of digestible sweetmeats.

But, on the other hand, when luck and high spirits give a sufficient guarantee against present temptation, no opportunity should be missed to forego a meal. Fasting is a great system-renovator. Ten fast-days a year will purify the blood and eradicate thepoison-diathesis more effectually than a hundred bottles of expurgative bitters.

And only then, after the paroxysmal phase of the baneful passion has been fairly mastered, moral suasion gets a chance to promote the work of reform. For, while the delirium or the crazing after-effects of the alcohol-fever distract the patient, exhortations are as powerless as they would be against chronic dysentery. Dr. Isaac Jennings illustrates the power of the poison-habit by the following examples: A clergyman of his acquaintance attempted to dissuade a young man of great promise from habits of intemperance. "Hear me first a few words," said the young man, "and then you may proceed. I am sensible that an indulgence in this habit will lead to loss of property, the loss of reputation and domestic happiness, to premature death, and to the irretrievable loss of my immortal soul; and now with all this conviction resting firmly on my mind and flashing over my conscience like lightning, if I still continue to drink, do you suppose anything you can say will deter me from the practice?"

Dr. Mussey, in an address before a medical society, mentioned a case that sets this subject in even a stronger light. A tippler was put into an almshouse in a populous town in Massachusetts. Within a few days he had devised various expedients to procure rum, but failed. At length he hit upon one that proved successful. He went into the wood-shed of the establishment, placed one hand upon a block, and, with an axe in the other, struck it off at a single blow. With the stump raised and streaming, he ran into the house, crying, "Get some rum—get some rum! my hand is off!" In the confusion and bustle of the occasion somebody did bring a bowl of rum, into which he plunged his bleeding arm, then raising the bowl to his mouth, drank freely, and exultingly exclaimed, "Now I am satisfied !"

More than the hunger after bread, more than the frenzy of love or hatred, the poison-hunger overpowers every other instinct, and even the fear of death. In Mexico, my colleague, Surgeon Kellermann, of the Second Zouaves, was one night awakened by the growling of his spaniel, and thought he saw something like the form of a man crawling out of his tent. The next day the captain informed the company that some fellow had entered the hospital-camp with burglarious intent, and that he had instructed the sentries to arrest or shoot all nocturnal trespassers. About a week after, the doctor was again awakened by his dog, and, lighting a match, he distinguished the figure of a large man crawling from under his table and carrying in his hand a box or a big book. He called upon him to stop, cocking his pistol at the same time, but the fellow made a rush for the door, and in the next moment was floored by a ball that penetrated his skull two inches above the neck. He lived long enough to confess the motive of his desperate enterprise. His regiment had been stationed in Northern Algiers, where he learned to smoke opium, and having exhausted his supply, and his financial resources, as well as the patience of the hospital steward, who had at various times furnished him small doses of the drug, he felt that life was no longer worth living, and resolved to risk it in the attempt at abducting the doctor's medicine chest. What can exhortation avail against a passion of that sort? We should learn to treat it as the advanced stage of a physical disorder, rather than as a controvertible moral aberration.

And, even after the delirium of that disease has subsided, homilies should be preceded by an appeal to reason. Ignorance is a chief cause of intemperance. The seductions of vice would not mislead so many of our young men if they could realize the significance of their mistake. All the efforts of the Temperance party have thus far failed to eradicate the popular fallacy that there is some good in alcohol; that somehow or other the magic of a stimulating drug could procure its votaries an advantage not attainable by normal means. Nor is this delusion confined to the besotted victims of the poison-vice. Even among the enlightened classes of our population, nay, among the champions of temperance, there is still a lingering belief that, with due precaution against excess, adulteration, etc., a dram-drinker might "get ahead" of Nature, and, as it were, trick her out of some extra enjoyment.

There is no hope of a radical reform till an influential majority of all intelligent people have realized the fact that this trick is in every instance a losing game, entailing penalties which far outweigh the pleasures that the novice may mistake for gratuitous enjoyments, and by which the old habitué can gain only a temporary and qualified restoration of the happiness which his stimulant has first deprived him of. For the depression of the vital energy increases with every repetition of the stimulation-process, and in a year after the first dose all the "grateful and exhilarating tonics" of our professional poison-venders can not restore the vigor, the courage, and the cheerfulness which the mere consciousness of perfect health imparts to the total abstainer. A great plurality of all beginners underrate the difficulty of controlling the cravings of a morbid appetite. They remember that their natural inclinations at first opposed, rather than encouraged, the indulgence; they feel that at the present stage of its development they could abjure the passion and keep their promise without any difficulty. But they overlook the fact that the moral power of resistance decreases with each repetition of the dose, and that the time will come when only the practical impossibility of procuring their wonted tipple will enable them to keep their pledge of total abstinence. It is true that by the exercise of a constant self-restraint a person of great will-force may resist the progressive tendency of the poison-habit and confine himself for years to a single cigar or a single bottle of wine per day. But, if all waste is sinful, is not this constant pull against the stream a wicked misuse of moral energy—a wanton waste of an effort which in less treacherous waters would insure the happiest progress, and propel the boat of life to any desired goal?

But, while temperance people, as a class, are apt to underrate the difficulty of a total cure of a confirmed poison-habit, they generally overrate the difficulty of total prevention. The natural inclination of a young child is in the direction of absolute abstinence from all noxious stimulants. I do not speak only of the children of temperate people who strengthen that inclination by moral precepts, but of drunkards' boys, of the misbegotten cadets of our tenement barracks and slum-alleys. All who will make their disposition a special study may repeat the experiments which have convinced me that the supposed effects of hereditary propensities are in almost every case due to the seductions of a bad example, and that the influence of an innate predisposition has been immoderately exaggerated. Watch the young picnickers of an orphan-festival, and see what a great majority of them will prefer sweet cold milk to iced tea, and the lemonade-pail to the ginger-beer basket. Offer them a glass of liquor, and see how few out of a hundred will be able to sip it without a shudder. Or let us go a step further, and interview the inmates of a house of correction, or of a Catholic "protectory" for young vagrants. The superintendent of a penitentiary for adults (in Cologne, Germany) expressed a conviction that a plurality of his prisoners would stretch out their hands for a bottle of the vilest liquor rather than for a piece of gold. In the house of correction I would stake any odds that ninety per cent of all boy-prisoners under fourteen would prefer an excursion-ticket to a bottle of the best wine of Tokay or Johannisberg. At home, in a preparatory school of all vices, they of course imitate their teachers, but only by overcoming almost the same instinctive repugnance which is the best safeguard of the total abstainer's child. At the first attempt even the offspring of a long lineage of drunkards abhors the taste of alcohol as certainly as the child of the most inveterate smoker detests the smell of tobacco.

But it is true that the impaired vitality of the habitual drunkard transmits itself mentally in the form of a peculiar disposition which I have found to be equally characteristic of the children (and even grandchildren) of an opium-eater. They lack that spontaneous gayety which constitutes the almost misfortune-proof happiness of normal children, and, without being positively peevish or melancholy, their spirits seem to be clouded by an apathy which yields only to strong external excitants. But out-door work and healthy food rarely fail to restore the tone of the mind, and even before the age of puberty the manifestations of a more buoyant temper will prove that the patient has outgrown the hereditary hebetude, and with it the need of artificial stimulation. Temptation, of course, should always be guarded against, and also everything that could tend to aggravate the lingering despondency of the convalescent—harsh treatment, solitude, and a monotonous occupation.

"With normal children such precautions are superfluous. They will resist temptation if we do not force it upon them. No need of threats and tearful exhortations; you need not warn a boy to abstain from disgusting poisons—Nature attends to that; but simply provide him with a sufficient quantity of palatable, non-stimulating food, till he reaches the age when habit becomes as second nature. It was Rousseau's opinion that a taste for stimulants could be acquired only during the years of immaturity, and that there would be little danger after the twentieth year, if in the mean while observation and confirmed habits had strengthened the protective instincts which Nature has erected as a bulwark between innocence and vice. We need not fortify that bulwark by artificial props, we need not guard it with anxious care; all we have to do is to save ourselves the extraordinary trouble of breaking it down. After a boy becomes capable of inductive reasoning, it can, of course, do no harm to call his attention to the evils of intemperance, and give him an opportunity to observe the successive stages of the alcohol-habit, the gradual progress from beer to brandy, from a "state of diminished steadiness" to delirium tremens. In large cities, where the evils of drunkenness reveal themselves in all their naked ugliness, children can easily be taught to regard the poison-vice as a sort of disease which should be guarded against, like small-pox or leprosy.

But it should always be kept in mind that even the milder stimulant-habits have a progressive tendency, and that under certain circumstances the attempt to resist that bias will overtask the strength of most individuals. According to the allegory of the Grecian myth, the car of Bacchus was drawn by tigers; and it is a significant circumstance that war, famine and pestilence have so often been the fore- runners of veritable alcohol-epidemics. The last Lancashire strike was accompanied by whisky riots; the starving Silesian weavers tried to drown their misery in Schnapps. In France almost every general decline of material prosperity has been followed by a sudden increase of intemperance, and after a prolonged war the vanquished party seems to be chiefly liable to that additional affliction. The explanation is that, after the stimulant-habit has once been initiated, every unusual depression of mental or physical vigor calls for an increased application of the wonted method of relief. Nations who have become addicted to the worship of a poison-god will use his temple as a place of refuge from every calamity; and children whose petty ailments have been palliated with narcotics, wine, and cordials, will afterward be tempted to drown their deeper sorrow in deeper draughts of the same nepenthe.

And even those who manage to suppress that temptation have to suppress the revivals of a hard-dying hydra, and will soon find that only abstinence from all poisons is easier than temperance.


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  1. Macaulay's "History," vol. i, p. 371.
  2. "Every one who considers the world as it really exists, and not as it appears in the writings of ascetics and sentimentalists, must have convinced himself that, in great towns, where multitudes of men of all classes and all characters are massed together, and where there are innumerable strangers, separated from all domestic ties and occupations, public amusements of an exciting order are absolutely necessary, and that, while they are often the vehicle and the occasion of evil, to suppress them, as was done by the Puritans of the Commonwealth, is simply to plunge an immense portion of the population into the lowest depths of vice." (Lecky,—" History of Rationalism," vol. ii, p. 286 (cf. ibid., vol. ii, p. 350.) "Sir," said Johnson, "I am a great friend to public amusements, for they keep people from vice."—("Boswell," p. 171.) "Insani fugiunt mundum, immundumque sequuntur."—Giordano Bruno (Moriz Carrière, "Weltanschauung," p. 396).