THEOSOPHY AND THE ALCOHOL QUESTION
by Herbert Coryn , F.T.S.
as published in “Theosophical Siftings” - Volume 7 - [1894-1895]
[Page 1] IT IS the charge of some of our opponents that the Theosophical Society owes part of its success to the skill with which it lays hold of, and causes to be in a measure identified with itself, certain collateral humanitarian questions. Of these the alcohol question is one. Within the Theosophical Society there is a large percentage of total abstainers, and it is to these that the following paper is addressed. For it is only right that these should be able to make out a good case for the attitude they assume on this question, a case grounded in part (as they think) on the Esoteric Philosophy. Putting on one side all the upper states of consciousness belonging to sleep and to deep meditation, it is clear that during normal waking life our consciousness is mainly limited to the brain-possibilities, and swayed by the bodily states. By means of the senses and the brain the Lower Manas is in relation with the outer world; the brain-cells are keys that unlock for us the chambers of our memory; to them come the psychic waves from the organs and cells of the body, waves that give rise in the consciousness of the Ego to the lower desires and emotions. Of these sensuous cognitions, and of these emotions is made up the whole consciousness of the animal, and, so far as he is an animal, the whole consciousness of man. These, complexly put together, compared, and generalised, mainly (and in the case of entire materialists, wholly) make up the matter of the reasoning consciousness. Other waves from the cells, spiritual, from their monadic consciousness, wholly super-physical, give rise in our consciousness to spiritual ideation; for in the bodily cells there is, beside their physical life with its desires, the one supreme life; beside Kama there is Buddhi. Thus from the most debased up to the most spiritual levels of consciousness we are fed by the cells of the body. Inasmuch as it is the aim of the true Theosophist to cultivate the upper at the expense of the lower consciousness, and inasmuch as both are, as it were, fed from the body, in some sense dependent for their activity on the waves from the planes of consciousness of the cell, we have to guard those cells: physically, that their physical consciousness may not in its rude intensity dim the finer light; morally, taking care that by unclean thought we do not soil them with a psychic grossness which in their irresponsibility they must subsequently cause to react upon us, for between them and the Ego there is equal action and reaction. With the physical aspect of the case we are [Page 2] for this paper mainly concerned. We have to enquire what is the effect of alcohol upon the cell, whether its life is lengthened or shortened by the use of that substance, whether its effect upon our consciousness is altered for the better or worse, whether its avenues of communication with the brain are by alcohol cleared or choked.
Alcohol is a narcotic to every vital function, and never in any true way a stimulant. It is time that it ceased to receive the compliment of that name. We do not call fresh air "stimulants”, nor a morning bath, nor food of any sort. We withhold the name from these, which are stimulants, and apply it specially, habitually, almost reverentially, to alcohol, which is not, but precisely the opposite. How then did it come to have that name ? Partly because the primary effect of certain paralyses that it induces is the setting free here and there of locked up force which in its irregular departure sets up some local excitements; but mainly because of the sensation of being stimulated that it imparts, the sensation of added strength. But if this sensation be either falsely based, or due to the impending wasteful expenditure of capital, then the work done under the illusion of that sensation should, in consequence of succeeding reaction and physical bankruptcy, be finally less in quantity than that done under the uniform and constant expenditure of merely the working fund of life. This is the case, and experiment shows that the sense of added strength is really due to the addition to the working fund of the capital, and that in a short time this working fund sinks to an almost irreducible minimum so far as its availability for the purposes of life is concerned; for, instead of flowing out, it is flowing back from the frontier to replenish the exhausted reserve-forces of the interior. The experiments to which I refer here are those of Dr. Parkes, who caused three soldiers to undertake various kinds of sustained physical work, administering to them respectively, and in rotation, coffee, alcohol, and beef-tea. In all cases the recipient of the alcohol broke down first. Man starts his physical life with an astral generator (so far as the individual man is concerned) of vitality, set to generate and pour into the physical body a steady stream of vitality for a given length of time, a time which is determined by Karma. It is possible, and in this age usual, to die before the generator is worn out. The physical cells will only accommodate a moderate stream, and if by vice, by perpetual excitement, by want of sleep, or by the use of alcohol, the vital current is rendered too intense for them, they will wear down faster than they can build up, and ultimately physical death will occur before it was necessitated.
If we restrict the use of the word stimulant to that which supplies the material for an intensified expenditure of vitality, then the name must be absolutely withheld from alcohol. For it cannot play the rôle of stimulant without stimulating something; the power of bodily work, plant, animal, [Page 3] or human growth; the senses; rapidity of nerve-conduction; muscular contraction; intellectual power; morality. It is easy to show that it stimulates none of these, unless the word stimulation is made to mean the sudden wasting of stored energy which is unsupported by the addition of replacing material. As regards the mineral kingdom, if, as it seems probable, the assimilation of crystalline salts to form part of the vital substance of cells (as distinguished from mere interpenetration) is effected by their alteration from the crystalline to the colloid conditions, this is a process which we know to be reversed by alcohol, which plays thus an anti-vital part.
As regards the vegetable cell; we know that if a series of nascent plants, say mustard-cress, be watered with water adulterated in various degrees with alcohol, the growth of such plants is inversely proportioned to the amount of alcohol in all cases.
As regards the animal cell; we know from the experiment of administering to a series of puppies, water adulterated in varying degrees with alcohol, that their growth is inverse to the percentage of alcohol.
As regards the human cell; we know that on the warmed stage of the microscope, the white cells of the blood in their serum, mixed with water, containing varying percentage of alcohol, are slow in their various movements in proportion to the amount of alcohol, and that they are killed by a very low percentage.
These various sets of experiments demonstrate the point as far as concerns (I) power of physical work of a sustained kind, (2) growth; and they begin to make clear what is further to be shown, namely, that the ultimate effect of alcohol is to make the physical plane uninhabitable for those little lives whose presence in all cells constitutes their vitality, and which collectively comprise human, animal, and plant vitality. The human cell approaches the animal, that is, begins to accommodate elemental lives that are parallel with animals instead of man; the animalised cell approaches the vegetable, and ultimately the vegetable sinks to the mineral, accommodating then only the lowest and most fixed units of elemental life. And as all the lives that make up the soul of the body of man, and are its animating essence are dependant upon that habitation and consequent association with the Lower Manas for the stimulus to their evolution which alone they can get from man, it seems to follow that the taking of alcohol tends to become a crime against nature. We will take the cells that comprise the various tissues of the body in their order and examine the effect of alcohol upon them (I) blood cells, (2) muscle cells, (3) nerve cells and fibres, cerebral and other, (4) cells concerned with each of the senses.
1. Upon the white blood-cells we have already made a note. Alcohol lowers all their activities. They are the bearers on to the physical plane of the preservative soul of vitality, that is, of those high elemental lives which [Page 4] make for the conservation of the body, which fight with, and in health destroy, the opposing lives whose activity constitutes disease. Death should not, perhaps, normally be due to disease of a marked or tangible kind, but to that general decline of function to which we do not ordinarily apply the term disease. They are the buffers between ourselves and death, giving their lives in our defence. The visible cell, floating in the bloodstream, is the body of one of these lives. With them, as with us, reincarnation is the law, for when the cell is destroyed in the conflict with disease the life therein is reborn in another. Our own death might be almost indefinitely postponed if we did not, by our own acts, interfere with and injure these little beings in their quiet and thankless task of constant self-sacrifice. Of these injuries the use of alcohol in ordinary life is one. It makes their conflict less potent, their movements less plastic, the products of their destruction more injurious (e.g., uric acid with its rheumatic and gouty progeny, instead of urea) whilst at the same time, choking up the systemic emunctories for the elimination of those products.
2. The experiments (I think of Dr. Ridge) made upon muscular fibre suspended, freed from its nerve-fibres, in an atmosphere of alcohol vapour, and caused to contract by electricity, show that this contraction is impaired in power and sustention. The previously quoted experiments of Parks would in any case strongly suggest this conclusion. A muscle seems to be a system of electro-magnets, that is, of bodies which become magnets when in the aura of a circumfluent spiral electric current, the spiral being perhaps formed among the fibres of the connective tissues surrounding the muscle elements proper. Probably the effect of the alcohol is upon these last, preventing them in an increasing degree from conducting the current, restricting the area of action upon the body of the central will. The conservation of the body as a whole, and the harmonisation of action of its units, depend upon that subtle and continued stream of volition that is not present to the normal physical consciousness of man, which thus far only shines upon and gives rise to the rougher volitions concerned with gross movements. But man is a complete being on earth, only when, in full terrestrial consciousness, he has learned to take hold of and guide the enormous volume and power of the subtler magnetism that maintains his body as a cohesive whole in all its works. This is a practical aspect of that "learning of matter" and its forces for which he is here, and which, when learned by Yoga or in the normal course of evolution confer upon him the physical powers over matter (in and outside of his body) that belong to Adeptship. Such advance is apparently stopped by the use of alcohol.
3. Upon nerve-cells and fibres the ultimate action of alcohol is coagulation of their fluid elements, the increase of the low connective tissue [Page 5] between them, and final destruction of their proper structure and consequent function. Nerve material would be classified for occult purposes into various systems, having their correspondences in consciousness respectively with the spiritual consciousness, the psycho-intellectual consciousness, and the animal consciousness. The student who would learn more of this would do well to consult H. P. B.'s. articles (in Lucifer, "Psychic and Noetic action”; particularly, in this connection, the second). The mass of our consciousness, while in a degree pervading the whole body, or perhaps more accurately, nervous system, has for each man a headquarters which is probably not exactly the same for any two. That is to say, inasmuch as each man's consciousness is predominatingly spiritual, or intellectual, or psychic, or animal, so it is more closely in touch with the radiations from one or another part of the nervous system. Occult physiology will never be understood by us, and the relations between the Lower Manas and the body will always be incomprehensible unless we keep constantly in view the fact of existence of the little conscious elements of life which are interposed as it were between our mind and body. On the one hand, they are the immediate actors upon, movers and maintainers of, the bodily cells whose soul and spirit they are, sometimes acting therein and thereon in accordance with our wills, much more often on their own account, or as we say automatically; on the other side of their being they receive impulses, volitions, and the general colour of their consciousness from the Lower Manas, reacting also thereafter upon the mind in accordance with what they have received formerly from it. Some of them belonging to the brain and heart are in relation with the strata of human consciousness that cannot be called Lower Manasic. Normal human embodied consciousness, then, tethered in its range from its highest to its lowest states to the various parts of the nervous system, is gravely affected in its quality by the taking of alcohol. Such a statement must be carefully limited to consciousness of the ordinary man, and not allowed to apply to the abnormally freed consciousness of the Occultist. In developing this statement we must bear in mind the double life of the cell, its two strata of consciousness. The life therein is on this plane a distinct unit. It has bodily purposes to carry out; it has to maintain its nutrition, to collect food, to receive and transmit many messages from other parts of the body. Its life as a unit is thus the life of an animal, intent on its own preservation. And as its consciousness is in close relation with the consciousness of the Lower Manas, who in saying, e.g., "I am hungry", thoroughly identifies himself therewith, so in that very identity the Lower Manas tends to become also animal in nature. We know that as a rule the athlete, that is the man whose cells are in great vigour, is an animal man; and that in the invalid where the cells are greatly depressed in vitality and make few [Page 6] appeals and weak to consciousness, the proper Manasic consciousness, freed from the animal contamination of the cells, rises higher and higher, and may ultimately reach a supremely spiritual condition. At death, of course, this always happens, and the high states of consciousness that supervene at death and culminate in Devachan are only possible because the cells are "dead", and make no interference with the Manas. But as this spiritual freedom was only attained at death and not during life, against the resistance of the cells, it is neither perfect nor lasting. There is, of course, at the other pole, the utterly depraved consciousness of the materialist and the completely animal man, who have absolutely, once and for all, asserted and made clear to themselves their entire identity with or inseparability from the body, and who therefore at the dissolution of the body suffer also the dissolution of the consciousness of that life. The other plane of consciousness of the cell-life is the purely divine or Buddhic which they enjoy not as units, but because they have their roots and real being in the divine life-tide of nature, and this consciousness is collective, too near the roots of being for individuality. It is only human consciousness that can return to this ocean and live therein as a unit. All lives, in emerging from this, have to develop the lower consciousness in matter and raise this by self-purification again to the divine. If, then, by the use of alcohol, a stream of vitality is made to rush out and increase for the time the animal life of the cells, it is clear that the Lower Manas, sharing and reflecting as it does that accentuated animal consciousness which the cells gain under that stimulus, must become increasingly animal, and we know that this is the case. In the rush of this lower life, it falls absolutely out of touch with the infinitely higher appeals that come to it from the higher life of the cell-lives on the plane of Buddhi, and so, falling out of touch with that plane entirely, it loses all sense of the Unity of Life, all perception of its relationship to its fellow-creatures, and all the humanities, charities, kindlinesses and self-sacrifices that come from the unconscious and conscious recognition, of our oneness of being with our fellows. It becomes increasingly limited in its consciousness, self-centred, and animal. Note the process of intoxication, and say whether this is not true. In the descending scale the man may first become patriotic, which is the loss of the sense of the equal rights and importance of other nations, loss of the sense of justice towards them, though it seems hard to say that patriotism is a symptom of the first stage of drunkenness. Anyhow, it involves a loss of the sense of brotherhood toward other nations. Then comes a further narrowing of the area of consciousness, an increase of the personal self in the thought of the drunkard. He becomes more opinionated, more quarrelsome, thinks himself more important, more witty, stronger. That marks a further descent from that consciousness which feels for others. Then he loses touch altogether with [Page 7] others, becomes brutal, first to his friends, afterwards to his family, a brutality which may end in murder. He has first lost his spirituality, that is his brotherhood; then his intellectuality, which is the mark of his humanity. He is only an animal. Then losing his animal powers of locomotion and expression, he becomes a vegetable, merely breathing, Lastly comes death. First the Lower Manas becomes incapable of sharing the Divine Life, and allies itself wholly with the flesh-life of the cells. Then the purely flesh life of the cells as a whole begins to fail to accommodate the proper life stream with which alone the Manas can associate itself, for it cannot associate itself with the individual life of the cells. With the decline of that human life-stream, the life of each cell takes on a separated being, and dissolution results. With each step of the cell-dissolution, lower and lower elementals occupy the cell as their body. Looking yet more closely at the three possible levels of human consciousness, the spiritual, the intellectual, and the animal, it is not difficult to perceive two levels at least in each of these, making, roughly speaking, six levels from the highest to the lowest, and to note that in the six the process of intoxication pares them away from the highest to the lowest. Among the spiritual, we have that universal consciousness that in its width, its compassion, and its comprehension almost obliterates for the Ego the distinction between himself and others. This is the first to go under the touch of alcohol. Then comes the plane of artistic inspiration, and this goes next. Of the intellectual levels, we have first those that are put on with difficulty, the result of self-made efforts in study and thought, the finest product and power of mature thinking. This departs early in intoxication and there is left only the common level of life. When this is wiped out there may yet remain an animal fondness for wife and children, but in time this, the sixth, is also cleaned away. If to all this, it be objected that there have been artists who could not compose, thinkers who could not philosophise save under the inspiration of alcohol, the reply is, first that the stimulus it gives is very short; second, that under the influence of the rush of life that for a brief time it imparts, many impure products are swept out of the cell that would not have been there had it not been for the previous use of alcohol, and which the new dose in no long time infallibly again engenders. A deplorable Karma is that of the man who cannot bring his mental machinery into motion without alcohol. To some extent alcohol represents the temptation of the age, for our inability to realise ourselves as not the body, as apart, from the body, make us dependent upon bodily health for our mental health and activity, and as none of us are ever in all respects well in body, we welcome and rejoice in the discharge of life into the bodily cell that alcohol produces.
4. The effect of alcohol upon the special cells that
are concerned with [Page 8] each of the senses is in line with what we should
have expected. The eye becomes capable of reading small letterpress less easily, and requires to come to
nearer range; the ear distinguishes less easily two tones a fraction apart, a few vibrations apart; the sense
of taste, and presumably the sense of smell is a little dulled: the sense of touch is similarly affected,
so that the points of a pair of compasses touching the palm must be a little further apart after than they
were before the dose of alcohol to be perceived as two. Humanity thus far, in its fifth race on this globe,
has but five senses, but in the coming ages that will cover the evolution of the two remaining races two
further senses are to be developed, and are even now to be obtained by Yoga. If then, as the researches of
Ridge and others demonstrate, a few minutes after the taking of a small dose of alcohol, all the senses are
dulled in their accuracy of work, and if, as is the case, the same occurs with all the other systems of cells
in the body, it is inevitably suggested that the same is true of the nascent senses that remain for development,
and which are even now developing in some. The physical organs in the body which stand related to them as
the ear is related to hearing, must be deadened and narcotised, and evolution thus stayed in its progress.
The two senses are for the perception of the astral and spiritual essence of substance on this plane. The
two physical organs in which they are rooted, are the home of elemental lives that belong to the astral and
spiritual degrees of this physical plane, and reflect the knowledge or essences of this plane in their consciousness,
and this knowledge or essence, reflected once again into human consciousness, becomes then part of human
knowledge. But if by the taking of alcohol, or in other ways, we render those cells physically incapable
of accommodating the lives, then we miss the power of getting the highest knowledge that is possible of the
higher, properties and possibilities of matter, knowledge for ever closed to the five senses, and therefore
unattainable by science.
Now we are able after all this examination, to take a more comprehensive survey of the action of alcohol. We have seen that, by means of the cells of our bodies we are in relation with the lowest plane and seventh plane of universal substance, with what we call physical matter. By the five senses the cells that compose them, or rather by the lives that inhabit them, we are cognisant of its physical nature; by the sixth sense we are, or shall be, in relation with its astral nature, its prototypal nature, its real form; and by the seventh sense we cognise its absolute reality, its spiritual laws and being. The lives that compose the fabric of the sheaths of the soul, from the physical upwards, mirror in their consciousness a little fragment of the domain of nature. The soul, self-consciously standing in the centre of the sheaths, gathers into itself, into its self-knowledge, all these rays from the lives under its survey and control, and thus has, if it will, [Page 9] knowledge of every department of nature, all of which departments exist as it were in sample in its vestures. For it differs from the lives through, or from which it obtains knowledge, in that whilst they mirror only one spot or compartment each of the total field of nature, and are not each individually self-conscious, it can through them gather the whole field into self-conscious wisdom, being from the first the potential lord of nature.
The symbol of the tree is true here as in other places. The cells are the leaves. A few of these spring from one twig, and except indirectly by means of that twig they do not communicate with each other. A few twigs arise from one branchlet, and several branchlets from one branch, whilst all the branches converge to, pour their communications into and receive directions from one root. It is only in the root, the human Ego, that all the separate units are united under one chief. After the preliminary period that follows the taking of alcohol, the admirable marshalling under one general is done away with.
First the groups of cells act independently, all are flushed with blood and act incoherently each for himself, liver, heart, brain, etc. On the subjective side the various parts of the whole nature cease to act as a whole, as a rationally guided unit. The various passions and powers of the intellect go off each along its own track; the man becomes foolish, excited, lustful, quarrelsome. Lastly the ultimate cells cease to respond to any requirement of united action, and lacking a synthesising generalship, render movement impossible, while on the subjective side the thinking man is dissolved into his isolated thoughts and mental pictures which come vaguely, fleetingly, and utterly disconnectedly across the field of his consciousness. So the taking of alcohol is the undoing of evolution, and that knowledge of nature in its occult, astral and spiritual, and normal departments, which comes from the comparison and synthesising of the little atoms of knowledge in the consciousness of the various cells according to the department of nature to which their inhabiting lives belong, is done away with and rendered impossible. Intuition is stifled, and all the upper and finally lower departments of the soul. We have seen that according to the training we bestow upon the little lives whose bodies make up our body are they advanced or hindered in their evolution; if we are clean-thoughted, so will they be; if we are impure in mind, they get of that the impress with equal facility. And what we give them, they render back. When we sit quiet, negative, thinking of little or nothing, and an impure thought suddenly floats into the mind, apparently not of our own making, whence comes it, save from these cells where, some while before, we ourselves had planted it. If with alcohol we habitually stimulate the lower animal life and therefore consciousness of these cells, it is that which they will pour back into our minds at unguarded moments, and even at [Page 10] times when we are trying to aspire. So, as I take it, the use of alcohol habitually is a bar to great progress. It is a bar to progress as to quality and as to quantity, for not only does it impair the activity of all the cells of all kinds, but, as might be expected, the length of life of the moderate drinker is less than that of the total abstainer.[At Bradford district, among the Oddfellows the time sick per member is 13½ days per annum; among the abstaining Rechabites it is 4 days: deaths among the former are 1 in 44, among the latter 1 in 141. At the Court of Foresters in Streatham there was an average of 152 members, of whom a quarter part were abstainers. This quarter part, however, drew but one-thirteenth of the sick-pay. The United Kingdom Temperance and General Provident Institution of London has two sections, one of 20,000 moderate drinkers (for the intemperate are not admitted), and the other of 10,000 total abstainers. In a certain five years they expected in the moderate section 3,450 death claims, and got them. In the abstaining section they expected 2,000 claims, and got 1,400. So 600 people are now living who would not be if they had been moderate drinkers. This, applying to one office of one city of one country can perhaps be more easily worked out for the world in imagination than statistically, but it is enough for our point.] But the man who dies under alcohol, slowly or quickly, dies by the wrong door. His vital sheath does not, as in normal death, slowly detach itself from the leaves of life backwards into their twigs, back to the branchlets, back to the branches, back at last to the root where dwells the observing and now knowing Ego, who taking into his quiet death-consciousness all that store of experience, passes with it to his rest. No, he dies outwards, from the root to the leaves, and the leaves die last, leaving little harvest to their owner, who does not enter into his inheritance. So far as concerns that life, he has unworthily died to the extent of his drunkenness or his moderation in the porch instead of the central chamber, died with the cells into which he has poured his life and with which he has unconsciously claimed and achieved identity. There are some who make the terrific and irremediable error of confusing that "knowing of matter" for which we are on earth with cultivation of the pleasures of lust and of the senses. They are at opposite poles of consciousness. The soul only begins to know matter, its real being, its secrets and its powers, when she recognises that she is the spectator of and not the sharer in its life. When the soul holds herself as wise spectator she has no longer pleasure in sensation. The essence of evolution is that the soul, for ages blinded in matter and thinking herself matter and form, shall at last detach itself, begin to attain Egoism and to say "I am spirit". And if, having in the process of nature obtained Egoism, recognised itself, and obtained will, it turns back from the dawn and says, fearing the hard path in front, "I will know matter", and so plunges again into the ignorance of the past without the irresponsibility of ignorance, it can but await its doom. And some, thinking wrongly that alcohol lengthens life, hold long life as in itself of value, forgetting that alcohol makes thought feeble, that it dilutes the contents of [Page 11] the vessel of thinking life, and that length without breadth would at any rate be the best that could be said.
We can for a moment imperfectly image to ourselves the manners and grades of life upon earth as a succession of forms standing each upon its rung of a vast ladder, every form animated by the breath of one life, which as it passes up through all of them acquires with effort, pain, and death, a greater and greater delicacy and complexity. At the top it enters and ensouls man, becoming in him self-conscious, and through him tries to flower out into a perfection as much greater than he, as he than the reptile, and the reptile than the fungus. And as far up as man there is no hindrance to the great Will behind creation; it moves irresistably to its purpose. But in him arises an opposing force. He has the power and also the responsibility of moulding his own growth. What he expands into, he becomes by his own intention and aspiration. At the service of the soul of man is his brain, his instrument for the understanding of nature, the very last outcome and possibility of matter in finish and delicacy. This is the fabric among whose threads we pour the poison of alcohol, prompted by our worship at the shrine of sensation. And therewith a greater question arises in view, the question as to how far we are justified in accepting the pleasure of sensations which occupy our intellectual field and hinder thought and work. The life of entire self-sacrifice may be beyond us, but some lesser possibilities are surely ours. We may not be able absolutely to destroy all thought and wish for our own progress, voluntarily forgoing such progress as might take us out of the immediate common work in the Theosophical Society. There may in the back of our minds still be the selfish wish for personal growth in power and wisdom, but we can at least refuse such pleasures as interfere with that growth. That anyhow will be something.
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