Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/November 1894/Alcohol and Happiness

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NOT as an ascetic, Dr. Gaule assures his hearers, anxious to debar them from a pleasure, but from their own standpoint, as friend with friends, all interested in increasing the sum of happiness, he wishes to discuss the proposed question. First, where do all the life activities come from? They are, as it were, latent in the body substance, the expression in some form or other of impressions received from without. Every act, of course, destroys substance, which must be replaced. Material taken from outside does this work of rebuilding, and it is of two sorts—one, which is enough like body substance to be readily changed into it and express the same activities; the other, so unlike that if it once finds way into the body in such form as to express its own latent power, it injures or destroys—is poison.

Alcohol belongs to the second class. That it injures can be readily seen in the liver, kidneys, and stomach of a drunkard, and also in more delicate changes of the elements revealed by a microscope, where the quantity taken has been even a small one. A physiological examination proves always beyond doubt that, where any appreciable quantity of alcohol has been taken, there are changes in the body substance, not always indeed wholly proportionate to the quantity taken, because the living elements have always more or less power to resist and overcome.

But I am not to deal with dangers and consequences from the use of alcohol, but with the problem of possible pleasure in existence without it. Let us see what pleasure does come from its use. While the influence of alcohol on the elements of the body is so evident and important, it is yet only as that influence touches the nerves that we are conscious of it. This becomes real to us in two ways: first, through the senses of taste and smell, as it touches the outward body; and, secondly, when it has entered into the blood and begins its chemical working in the nerve centers. How far shall we count these influences pleasurable? We are wont to count them one, but in a physiological sense they are very different, resulting from the action of very different parts of the drink taken. Wine, for instance, is made up of six elements, five of which give the taste, the sixth the fragrance of the wine. One of the five is alcohol, the only one which can not be enjoyed alone, and is never taken alone except by the man whose sense of taste has been utterly destroyed. We are not now situated as were the ancients—"der gute Noah," for instance—nor even as the men of the last generation, who had discovered so little of the earth's power to produce pleasure-giving substances that they were naturally delighted with and disposed to make the most of the new discovery of wine. We can take the elements of wine which do please our taste and make a better drink without alcohol. It needs only that a sufficient number of men resolve upon such a course.

But the effect of wine upon the brain and other nerve centers is that of the alcohol alone. To understand it physiologically one must remember the ordinary action of the nerves. An impression from without meets us, the nerves carry it to the nerve center, and a movement or other expression results. The movement does not, however, always accompany the sensation directly. In reading, for instance, one may indefinitely postpone any expression of received impressions; and then a single action may express a number of stored-up impressions, or again one impression may call forth a number of movements. Man has learned to in some sense measure the relation of movement to sensation—as to rapidity of movement, and as to the relative strength of the two. It is found, first, that the sharpness and certainty of sensations are modified by even small doses of alcohol, completely deadened destroyed by large quantities. Secondly, as to the expression of sensation in motion, small doses of alcohol increase the quickness of that expression; large doses make it slower and more slow, until at last there is no expression. Thirdly, as to the movements themselves, small doses make them more rapid, but less sure of attaining the end sought; large doses tend to make movements impossible. And popular experience bears witness to the truth of these three statements, only the masses can not understand how the rapidity with which action follows impression and rapidity of action itself are increased by small doses, but decreased by larger quantities; and the friends of alcohol have claimed that the difference between small and large doses is real, not of degree, and really distinguishes the moderation of the wise man from the madness of the foolish. But science has proved that this contradiction is only apparent. The same increased rapidity of expression of a sensation is noticed when the brain is stupefied, and the greatest rapidity results when the brain is entirely separated from the other centers. Reflex action is more sudden and more rapid than brain action. So the influence of alcohol is exactly as if the brain were cut away. The man no longer stops to consider the whole situation, to make use of impressions of former experiences stored away in his brain, or weigh present obligations, and the sly saloon-keeper well understands this. The man who would engage another in a brawl or cajole a secret from him knows well how alcohol dethrones reason and loosens the tongue. And as more and more is taken, the stupefying influence reaches lower and lower, until at last even reflex action is imperfect and slow.

If this then is the influence, where is the pleasure in it? It is not my object, however, to depict the dangers and consequences from such disturbance of brain functions, but to ask only in what then consists the pleasure which alcohol brings us? The fact that so many men seek this condition, even passionately seek and value and prefer it to others, must have deep psychological ground. I will only say in passing that men differ as to the particular time of richest delight, some choosing the very beginning, others the time when sleepiness and forgetfulness have come, still others the perfectly senseless condition; but the influence of alcohol is still the same, sometimes on a smaller, sometimes on a larger portion of the nervous system. How does it increase the feeling of happiness? The body uses its powers in resisting the outside forces which act upon it. Normally, there is a balance between body and environment. If environment prevails we are discouraged; if we are able to prevail, our spirits rise and our happiness grows. And it is not for the moment only, but we compare the accumulated impressions of the powers out-side of us with the powers which our brains develop, and are happy or unhappy according as we feel our superiority or otherwise. Just how much does alcohol interfere in this balance of powers? It clearly can not lessen the power of outside influences which harm us; it can as clearly not increase our own powers in so far as they enter into this conflict with the outside world—it rather makes us less skillful and able. What can it do, then? It can deceive us. It dulls our appreciation of powers outside of us until they seem so much smaller that we are sure we can conquer them, and so we gain a feeling of satisfaction. Nine tenths of those who take strong drink seek this feeling in alcohol. This is their "refreshing" at eventide, their "rest from the day's cares," their forgetfulness of sorrows; but it rests upon a deceit, and at the least trial falls into ruin. He who to-day forgets is not any stronger to-morrow, and so is constantly tempted to a new appeal to his false friend until his senses are so dulled that every duty is forgotten. His holiest interests are but shadows and mist before his eyes, and he knows nothing more but thirst for the deceitful drink. Even the defenders of alcohol at last call a halt; but they have forgotten that the first steps are much more easily undone than the later ones, when the brain has in a measure lost its power to control. They do not forget through malice, but because they have not rightly understood the physiological effect of alcohol.

And the poor drinkers say: "There is so much misery in the world, and we must have now and then a care-free hour; therefore we drink. What will you give us in place of drink?" Is the argument true? Is the future of mankind really so hopeless, and does life offer nothing to the man who refuses alcohol instead of the forgetfulness which alcohol brings? I believe that in this respect the attitude of men toward this problem has very much changed. Has not the newly awakened appreciation of Nature in this century revealed a new source of joy which our forefathers did not know? Who ever could have known formerly that a glimpse of the Alps or the raging sea could give pleasure which really makes strong and furnishes recompense for trouble and trials? Our new insight into the secrets of Nature, the general dissemination of art so that even the masses may enjoy its works, these are worth more to alleviate care than anything known of old. But it comes so slowly, some say. It takes the masses so long to acquire the power to appreciate these things. But why? Because they spend their leisure hours in seeking the stupor and forgetfulness which alcohol brings, and so have no time to discover beauty anywhere; also because so many have dulled their senses until they have no power to appreciate, and because alcohol has really made the sum of misery larger. That this is true is conclusively proved in communities where alcohol is not used at all. In Massachusetts, for instance, the most enlightened State of North America, where the question has been discussed pro and con, and the friends of alcohol have been worsted, the condition of the working class proves my statement. On a visit there I went through one of the cloth factories and was surprised when the foreman told me a certain workman wished to talk with me because he had learned I knew about microscopes. He wished to know what microscope was most in favor in Germany. I described a good one of moderate price, twenty dollars; but he said he had one of that sort and wished now a better one. On questioning him I found he really had knowledge about bacteria, for the study of which he wished his instrument; that he was president of a club of workmen who spent their leisure hours in this study. When I then looked at the homes of these workmen, with their pretty, well-tended gardens and blooming, well-dressed children, I felt clearly the different atmosphere where the father spends his spare time and money not for alcohol, but for the beautifying of his home. And can this life be less enjoyable than ours?

In Mr. Bryce's American Commonwealth he has devoted one chapter to the consideration of the pleasant character of American life, in which he calls attention to the general air of hopefulness which prevails among American people and extends also to all foreigners who visit them, through which, moreover, difficulties are lightly overcome, losses and injuries good-naturedly endured. One misses this characteristic painfully among us when one has once experienced it; it is like a new melody in the great concert of life. . . . And what says this melody? I understood it first as I saw this hopeful spirit, and I said to myself. Must mankind then be always miserable? Must they be always helpless against Nature's forces? Can they not conquer these forces, make them subservient, if they use intelligence to understand them instead of stupefying themselves? Must they pine away for lack of pleasure in a world which is so beautiful that it charms us if we lift but the corner of the veil which hides its secrets? This it is which makes me consider life without alcohol more beautiful than the other, and that is the transformation in the feeling of mankind which I await with their development.

Nothing retards this development except that we are bound by the customs of the middle ages. The conditions of the middle ages have vanished, but the habit of stupor still remains, as if, in place of the serfs and lords of old, a new man had not come who can use his manly powers. See what this inheritance of inactivity costs us. Statistics of last year show that in Switzerland every tenth man who died, died directly or indirectly from drink; that of men between forty and fifty-nine years old every sixth was killed by alcohol. You have learned how our hospitals for the insane are filled and how men are led to violence from Dr. Speyr's lecture, and you recall scenes of coarseness you have yourselves seen as the result of alcohol. You will see that a chain of coarseness is drawn about our whole life, which binds us fast on a plane of barbarity and wretchedness. Follow this chain even to yourselves. It is wound about you. . . . That here one dies of delirium tremens, there one loses his senses through alcohol, there a deed of violence is done, here a brutality perpetrated—these are all manifestations of a single great phenomenon, the bondage of mankind to a plane of rudeness in which they deaden and make useless the most precious instrument which is given them for their development; and you are sharers in the guilt so long as you do not break this chain, so long as you do not have courage to adjust your life-compass with reference to the future instead of the past.

This is the joy of the one who does not drink—the feeling of freedom from responsibility for misery, the joy of hope for the future of mankind, the increased sensitiveness to the beauty of the world; and on us, the chosen people, rest the hopes of the world for the future. We must be leaders.

  1. Synopsis of a lecture given in Berne, the second in a series for the advancement of temperance in Switzerland.