Ben Breen, Columbia
Intoxication in the Enlightenment
Over the course of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, European writers increasingly portrayed intoxication as hostile to both reason and “civility.” During the same period, the cities of Europe and the Atlantic World witnessed both a massive increase in the availability of novel intoxicating substances. Natural philosophers were by no means immune to their allure, not only subjecting potential intoxicants to a wide array of experimental trials, but also testing them on themselves. This talk grapples with the issue of psychoactivity and intoxication in eighteenth century debates about medicine, culture, and reason. It takes up a number of case studies: Jesuits observing ayahuasca ceremonies in South America, East India Company merchants sampling cannabis in South Asia, and the strange story of a French impostor, briefly famous for impersonating a Taiwanese nobleman in circa 1705 London, who anonymously authored one of the earliest published narratives of long term opiate addiction.