Vacations from Rationality

One of the main ways humans use their mind is looking for the means to lose it. We classify humans above animals by defining ourselves as rational beings, but then we jump at the chance to take vacations from rationality. Philosophy, the general intellectual form of logical reasoning, has existed for only about two and half millennia, and the scientific method only a few hundred years. But the primitive mind, which has been around since the world began and, according to psychologists, is still hidden in the messy mental attics of modern people, whispers to us subversively—and often persuasively—that dreams, drugs, omens, rituals, signs, superstitions, taboos, and visions are gateways to realities more meaningful and pleasurable than our rational world. Police reports and the daily news seem to confirm the premise. As a society we wage an endless but apparently losing war on hallucinogenic drugs and intoxicating drinks. The notorious failure of Prohibition is a staple of history and Hollywood.

Paleontologists tell us that narcotics are among humanity’s oldest discoveries and that far back in prehistoric times our remote ancestors already knew and used most of the classic intoxicants and narcotics: alcohol, opium, datura, hashish, mushrooms, and other plants. Viniculture, or wine making, is among mankind’s oldest occupations. The ancestor of modern tobacco was so potent that Native Americans smoked it ritualistically to induce visionary trances. And the quest goes on for ways to escape our logical senses. In very recent times we have added synthetic drugs to this ancient stock of mind-altering hallucinogens. The old Latin saying, in vino veritas (in wine there is truth) is understood lightheartedly today to mean that drunks blurt out the truth. But in prehistoric times it had a very different connotation. In states of ritual intoxication the human mind was set aside, allowing exalted prophetic religious visions and truth to emerge. Modern scholars believe that intoxicating fumes from volcanic fissures were responsible for the prophetic oracles of Delphi and similar locations in ancient Greece.

Some scholars have advanced the hypothesis that the first shelters and caves of prehistoric mankind were not residences for daily life at all, as we assume today, but rather ritual sites where certain tribal men inhaled hallucinogenic vapors that induced visions and trances. The cave art at Lascaux, Altamira, and other locations around the world may not have been art at all as we understand it today, but a dimension of prehistoric religious ritual.

Despite our differences, our existential kinship with primitive mankind is not hard to find. Vast portions of life still consist of problems that mystify and frighten us, impelling us to find ways to deal with them. Prehistoric mankind sought answers in magical rituals and hallucinogens. Today we claim to seek solutions to our problems through the application of logical, clearheaded reason. But it does not take much for us to strip away our modern veneer, leave our mind behind, and take vacations from rationality.

Harold Raley