Anyone who has ever had an experience with getting high can, in one way, shape, or form, attest to the philosophical sensibilities they experienced while high. I am certainly not implying that one becomes an expert on twentieth-century French existentialism and critical theory. But perhaps in that slowed state of mind of being high, one can better infer the ‘vibe’ of French existentialism and critical theory better than any other state of mind. At least, 4 famous philosophers who smoked weed thought so. Why, exactly?
The curiosity of asking why is the beginning of any great philosophical question, to which great minds throughout history have wrestled to answer – and often failed. Interestingly enough, for the most part, the common thread reported by people about their experience getting high was a sharp increase in curiosity and wonderment, i.e. looking at everyday things more deeply. This specific aspect of the getting high experience is worth examining and should not be taken lightly. Why? To quote the late American philosopher M.J Adler:
“Philosophy, according to Aristotle, begins in wonder. It certainly begins in childhood, even if for most of us it stops there, too.”
I ‘Weed’ Therefore I am
And it is precisely this which has inspired this article to investigate which famous philosophers smoked weed. Also, what philosophers (and authors with philosophical works) have said about cannabis throughout their lives. That said, to say that researching for this article was a daunting task would be an understatement. Two things especially make the task difficult:
Of course, due to legality — think “reefer madness” and afterschool specials) — these figures could only adjacently imply without incriminating themselves. So, we’re left with less than straightforward winks at being high (see Albert Einstein below). We must use common judgement to infer from their cryptic writing.
2. Socio-cultural context:
Throughout ancient history, the cannabis plant was not a stigmatized entity in its own right. So, the possibility that, say, Plato or Aristotle could have gotten high would not be as noteworthy back then as it would be for our public figures of today.
To ameliorate these obstacles, we apply judgement. And when necessary, we paradoxically apply a philosophical inquiry. Whereby we reverse engineer the likelihood of said philosophers getting high from their actual philosophies (assuming, of course, they lived by what they preached).
Albert Einstein’s less than obvious wink
“I believe that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs,”
Albert’s theories of relativity began with an extremely metaphysical question. To paraphrase, he would imagine what it would be like to ride on a beam of light. That was the genesis. This thought experiment birthed the theories that made Einstein, Einstein. But besides his dishevelled head of hair and playful pothead-like demeanour, how can we possibly infer that he most likely smoked cannabis. Now, there is no way to know for sure, but here are the tangential things he had to say specifically about altered states of mind.
One of the reasons that Einstein smoked a pipe was that he believed that smoking helped him relax and gave him a fresh way to look at things.
“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it”
Cannabis alters your consciousness, which for many results in enhanced creativity. Because of that, it would not be a stretch to believe that Albert Einstein, although not strictly a philosopher, did smoke weed.
Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs
Simone de Beauvoir, the acclaimed French author, tried marijuana in New York City in 1947 and wrote about it in her book, America: Day by Day:
“As in all big cities, people use a lot of drugs in New York,” de Beauvoir wrote. “Cocaine, opium, and heroin have a specialized clientele, but there’s a mild stimulant that’s commonly used, even though it’s illegal—marijuana. Almost everywhere, especially in Harlem (their economic status leads many blacks into illegal drug trafficking), marijuana cigarettes are sold under the counter. Jazz musicians who need to maintain a high level of intensity for nights at a time use it readily. It hasn’t been found to cause any physiological problems; the effect is almost like that of Benzedrine, and this substance seems to be less harmful than alcohol.”
While not technically among the philosophers who smoked weed (that we know of) Simone de Beauvoir’s partner of 51 years, famous French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, also cut himself loose from the grip of Western narcotics to commune with a cactus. While pondering phenomenology sometime in the 70’s, Sartre experimented with peyote. De Beauvoir recounted how he spent years after his bad trip followed by crabs. Sartre’s crustacean invasion led him to none other than a young Jacques Lacan, where the two concluded he was afraid of being alone. The experience is also the implicit inspiration behind his opus magnum Nausea. Sartre later concluded “I liked mescaline a lot.” Go figure.
Alexander Dumas’s & Charles Baudelaire’s Hashish Club
Two of the greatest French writers of the 19th Century would meet regularly to use cannabis — in hash form — in what they dubbed as Le Club des Hachichins (Hashish Club). The Hashish Club gathered between 1844 and 1849 at the suitably gothic Pimodan House, also known as the Hôtel Lauzun.
Baudelaire’s best piece on hashish was published in 1860 and entitled “Les Paradis Artificiels” (Artificial Paradises) — a comparison of hashish and wine “as means of expanding individuality.”
For him, “among the drugs most efficient in creating what I call the artificial ideal, leaving on one side liquors, which rapidly excite gross frenzy and lay flat all spiritual force, and the perfumes, whose excessive use, while rendering more subtle man’s imagination, wear out gradually his physical forces; the two most energetic substances, the most convenient and the [most handy], are hashish and opium.”
“At first, a certain absurd, irresistible hilarity overcomes you. The most ordinary words, the simplest ideas assume a new and bizarre aspect. This mirth is intolerable to you, but it is useless to resist. The demon has invaded you…”
“It sometimes happens that people completely unsuited for word-play will improvise an endless string of puns and wholly improbable idea relationships fit to outdo the ablest masters of this preposterous craft. But after a few minutes, the relation between ideas becomes so vague, and the thread of your thoughts grows so tenuous, that only your cohorts… can understand you.”
“Next your senses become extraordinarily keen and acute. Your sight is infinite. Your ear can discern the slightest perceptible sound, even through the shrillest of noises. The slightest ambiguities, the most inexplicable transpositions of ideas take place. In sounds there is colour; in colours there is music… You are sitting and smoking; you believe that you are sitting in your pipe and that your pipe is smoking you; you are exhaling yourself in bluish clouds. This fantasy goes on for an eternity. A lucid interval, and a great expenditure of effort, permit you to look at the clock. The eternity turns out to have been only a minute.”
“The third phase… is something beyond description. It is what the Orientals call ‘kef’ it is complete happiness. There is nothing whirling and tumultuous about it. It is a calm and placid beatitude. Every philosophical problem is resolved. Every difficult question that presents a point of contention for theologians, and brings despair to thoughtful men, becomes clear and transparent. Every contradiction is reconciled. Man has surpassed the gods.”
Philosopher Carl Sagan’s outright confession
Finally, joining the ranks of philosophers who smoked weed is Carl Sagan (Nobel Laureate), an American astrophysicist, astronomer, and cosmologist who wrote several scientific papers and books. He is especially famous for his theories about extraterrestrial life, and writing and narrating his book and the TV series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (now rebooted with Neil DeGrasse Tyson). Throughout his life, he earned several awards, including a Pulitzer and two Emmys.
Afraid of the marijuana stigma, in 1969, 35-year-old Sagan wrote a popular essay under the pen name “Mr. X”. In it, he talks about the insights he experienced while smoking weed and his support for its legalization. Later in life, Sagan openly advocated for the legalization of medical marijuana. It wasn’t until three years after Sagan’s passing that the public learned he was the author of that 1969 essay.
From my personal and subjective adventures with Cannabis, puffing and pondering the meaning of life and other grand aims have been simultaneously one of the most pleasurable and anxiety-inducing experiences. But as the late Danish Philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard said:
“To venture causes anxiety, but not to venture is to lose one’s self … and to venture in the highest sense is precisely to become conscious of one’s self.”
What do you think? How has your personal experience with cannabis enlivened your philosophical sensibilities? Which philosophers who smoked weed are your favourites? Leave a comment, we would love to know!