Hole in the soul – can philosophers teach us about addiction?

Looking to the philosophers can give us valuable understanding of the nature of addiction, suggests Albert Yates.

Albert Yates discusses what philosophers teach us about addiction?
Read the full article in DDN Magazine

On the face of it, Classical Greek philosophy and the psychology of addiction are not natural bedfellows. Bringing both disciplines together to produce a plausible theory of addiction might seem unlikely. However, this is less so when addictive behaviour is seen for what it is: human behaviour.

To better understand human behaviour, we would do well to acknowledge the work of our intellectual ancestors – Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. These Classical Greek philosophers spent their lives trying to understand the way human beings behave. Choice, motivation, personal responsibility, desire, and excess are but a few aspects of human action they explored. In modern times, these are among the areas of human behaviour that practitioners in the field of addiction seek to understand.

In this article I offer a brief insight into how we may account for addiction (or to be precise, an excessive appetite) by understanding the characteristics of the soul as represented by Socrates.

What I propose is:

‘Addiction is a disorder of the soul characterised by the excessive use of psychoactive substances, or the excessive involvement in certain non-substance related activities.’

The way in which Socrates defined the soul in mid-fifth century BC is very different to the way we think of it today. In modern times, the soul is more likely to be thought of as a non-secular entity, relating to religious or spiritual matters. The idea that we are embodied souls, and more than just physio-chemical organisms, does not accord with current intellectual thinking. To consider the soul serving a practical purpose by moving us into action would seem incongruous to most people.

Socrates thought differently. For him the soul was life itself. The soul takes primacy and should be cared for over the body. It is the soul that governs the body. It guides us into action and carries us wherever we go. Reason and intellect constitute the essence of the soul, which is perceptible by reason alone. Socrates believed that the soul is something that keeps bodily desires and affections in check. These are the bare bones of Socrates’ conception of the soul. They permit us to consider the soul within the context of addiction.

Through Plato’s writing, Socrates tells us that the soul is made up of three parts. There is ‘appetite’, which can be thought of as base physical craving. Then there is ‘reason or logic’, the faculty that takes a considered view, and sets the right course of action. The third part is spirit, not to be confused with ‘spiritual’. Spirit can be seen as anger, indignation, often an ally of knowledge.

When appetite is kept in check by reason, the soul is in a state of balance, a state of harmony. A happy and flourishing life can be expected when the soul is in this state. On the other hand, when appetite rules the soul and defeats reason, the soul becomes disordered. Appetite becomes unruly and if it is not checked, addiction ensues. A miserable, unhappy life, dominated by excess can be expected.

What has happened here is that the soul has become undisciplined, instigated by an excessive appetite. This reveals itself in the many problems commonly associated with addictive behaviour. We should bear in mind that each one of us has a worse and better element within our soul.

We might reflect on those occasions when we have allowed our desires or emotions to lead us to behave in a way that is out of character and not in our best interest. It may have been nothing more than a momentary lapse in an otherwise disciplined existence. There is nothing remarkable about this. Socrates believes that ‘…the mass of mankind lives an intemper­ate life because of ignorance or lack of self-control or both’. When this happens, it is because the worse part of the soul (appetite) has been permitted to overwhelm and control the good (knowledge and reason).

Appetite can develop to the point of excess, not because the individual is a moral failure, or is in the grip of a disease, but because they are human beings like the rest of us. The development of an excessive appetite could happen to any one of us.

Bust of Socrates the classical Greek philosopher credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy linking to what philosophers teach us about addiction?
Socrates was a classical Greek philosopher credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy

Socrates tells us that the force that leads a person to develop an excessive appetite is the ‘power of appearance’. The power of appearance fools us into believing that something bad is good. It has the capacity to encourage a person to do something, that, all things considered, they would not ordinarily choose to do. In other words, it persuades them to act against their better judgement. Think of being tempted into eating a cream cake when dieting, or being persuaded to have that last drink. When we succumb to such temptation the power of appearance has diverted attention from reason and logic, and set the soul on a course of fulfilling the senses.

The power of appearance can exert its influence on the imagination. Aristotle says that ‘the soul never thinks without an image’. He adds that ‘for the most part imaginings are false’. The choice between a good and bad course of action is offered by the imagination. From such an image the body is moved to act, which could lead to an unwelcome outcome for someone with an addiction. Aristotle’s treatment of imagination helps us better understand why, in the event of the bad course being chosen, relapse in addiction occurs without any obvious triggers being present.

As human beings we are fallible, we are not perfect. Socrates tells us that the desires we experience can sometimes overpower reason. For someone trying to end their addiction, the inner conflict they experience between wanting to quit, but finding it difficult to do so, can be characterised by the struggle in the soul between knowledge and appetite attempting to assert control over the other. Such conflict can only be resolved if the soul is disciplined. For Socrates, discipline takes the form of ‘fair words’ or ‘charms’. He sets great store by the therapeutic use of words. Today, we might draw parallels between fair words or charms and the talking therapies.

The bottom line is that the Classical Greek philosophers warn us that we cannot trust the body. As Socrates says:

…the body fills us with desires and longings and fears and imaginations of all sorts, and such quantities of trash, that as the common saying puts it, we really never have a moment to think about anything else because of the body.

Dr Albert Yates talking about what philosophers teach us about addiction?
Dr Albert Yates is author of A theory of addiction founded on classical Greek philosophy, a thesis at Manchester Metropolitan University

The Classical Greek philosophers tell us that if we are to check unruly bodily senses and realise the truth, we must turn to the soul. A soul that is cared for will not deceive. It will not engage in excessive behaviour. Addiction is a disorder of the soul – a disorder that we can all succumb to if we care more for the body than the soul. That we fill the body with desires and longings, false imaginings, fears, and quantities of trash is perhaps a metaphor for addiction in the 21st century?


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