woman-smoking-cigarThe current brouhaha over smoking has made everyone painfully aware of tobacco’s effects on the body, but it has also obscured a more profound reason for smoking’s popularity: its relation to the soul. As the heyday of smoking passes into the ashheap of history, it is meet that we reflect on this connection.

The soul, of course, is a complex thing. Long ago Plato suggested that we consider it as divided into three parts—the appetitive, spirited, and rational—that correspond to the three basic kinds of human desires: the desire to satisfy physical appetites, the desire for recognition, and the desire for truth. Once this tripartite division is recalled, tobacco’s relation to the soul becomes clear: the three prevalent types of smoking tobacco—cigarettes, cigars, and pipes—correspond to the three parts of the soul.

Cigarettes correspond to the appetitive part of the soul, a fact that explains their association with both food and sex. The connection with the latter is particularly obvious: think of the proverbial postcoital cigarette, or of the ubiquity of cigarettes at singles bars. People with strong physical desires demand instant gratification, and they try to make what they desire as much a part of their own bodies as possible: hunger demands eating, thirst drinking, and lust making the body of one’s lover a part of one’s own. So too with cigarettes. A cigarette is inhaled: it must be fully and internally consumed in order to give pleasure. And a cigarette, with its quick buzz, is also instant gratification. Even the cigarette’s notorious connection to death ties it into appetites: both are indifferent to health in their quest for satisfaction, and both, when they reach addictive levels, become hostile to it.

Cigars, on the other hand, correspond to the spirited part of the soul. This explains their traditional popularity among men seeking honor or reputation—politicians, executives, etc. The reason for this correspondence can be found in the similarity between cigars and ambition. A cigar is visually impressive: with its large size and great billows of smoke, it often leaves a greater impact on the spectator than on the smoker. Further, a cigar is phallic—not with regard to male lust, but to male power. “Testis” in Latin means “witness”: the phallic status of the cigar is meant to bear public witness to the smoker’s prominence, his virility. The fact that a cigar is not inhaled reflects this external focus.

Ambition also has these traits: it too is more external than internal. Unlike physical desires, which are satisfied simply by consumption, ambition requires the consensus of others. The honor-seeker, for example, has to be honored by as many people as possible in order to be satisfied.

EPISODE 12-THE FINAL PROBLEMFinally, the pipe corresponds to the rational part of the soul, which explains why we tend to picture wise figures smoking pipes: the Oxford don surrounded by his great books, or Sherlock Holmes, who, in Doyle’s original stories, actually smoked other sorts of tobacco as well, yet is almost always portrayed with a pipe. Unlike cigars and cigarettes, a pipe endures. Similarly, the questions of the philosopher far outlast the passing concerns of physical desires on the one hand and human ambitions on the other. Further, while the cigar is entirely masculine, the pipe has both masculine and feminine elements (the stem and the bowl). This corresponds to the philosopher’s activity, which is both masculine and feminine: masculine in its pursuit of Lady Truth, feminine in its reception of anything that she discloses. Finally, the effect that the pipe has on others is analogous to the effect of philosophizing: the sweet fragrance of a pipe, like good philosophy, is a blessing to all who are near.

It is fitting that all three kinds of smoking tobacco involve the use of fire, for each relates to the soul’s responsiveness to reason, and fire, at least from the days of Prometheus, is especially emblematic of reason. But there are also nonhuman parts to the human soul. The growth of our hair and fingernails, for example, is due to the soul’s activity, yet is not responsive to rational instruction.

The use of tobacco that does not involve fire, therefore, somehow corresponds to these nonhuman—or more accurately, subhuman—parts of the soul. Chewing tobacco, for example, is a quintessentially subhuman activity. It is the rumination of bovine men. Or perhaps we should say it is camel-like, for camels not only chew, but spit as well. In either case, the point is clear: chewing tobacco is a sub-rational activity, which is why we usually associate it with men of limited acumen.

Snuff, too, would fall into this category, but with some minor differences. First, because it is not so disgusting, it would not have the same negative connotations as “chew”. (Activities can be sub-rational without being bad). Second, snuff taken through the nose would fall under a different category. Everything else we have seen involves the mouth, and this is only natural, for the mouth was made to receive things into itself. But to sniff something up one’s nose . . . this is unnatural.

question remains, however, about smoking non-tobacco. One candidate immediately comes to mind because it, like tobacco, is a natural leaf. Marijuana is also noteworthy because it is used in the same ways as smoking tobacco.

332bdfa24d8cbf9d_landingThe key to the difference between the two is how each one affects the smoker. Tobacco—whether in a cigarette, cigar, or a pipe—leads to conversation, loosening the tongue just enough to incline it towards speaking, but not enough to disconnect it from the brain. Marijuana, on the other hand, does not keep this balance, loosening the tongue only to have it reel away from rational thought. It does not truly facilitate conversation, drawing the smoker into himself (not outwards, as does all good conversation) and dumbing-down any speech that is uttered. Thus the appearance of conversation can be created, but it is usually only that—an appearance. Marijuana is therefore a charlatan-weed, an impostor that apes its distant relative tobacco in a shallow and perverse way.

The uses of marijuana are twisted imitations of the uses of tobacco. Joints perversely imitate cigarettes in both their appearance and in their users’ claim to be erotic. But while the claim is one thing, the reality is another. Eros requires both a healthy tension and a sense of discrimination in order to be truly human. Marijuana, however, eliminates both. Think of the counterculture of the 1960s, which, in preaching sexual liberation, actually destroyed the human part of our sexuality by robbing sex of any sense of mystery, standards, or fidelity. Where once sex was a magical moment between eternally committed lovers, it was now purely animalistic, something that had no more meaning than any other bodily function. The pot-smoker fancies himself an erotic man, but ends up being an unerotic animal.

Similarly, the hash pipe is a perverse imitation of the tobacco pipe. The pot-smoker often fancies himself an intellectual: he gets high and thinks “deep thoughts” (again bringing the 1960s to mind). But the appearance is one thing, the reality another. Just as the wisdom of the 1960s student turns out to be sophomoric, so too do the deep thoughts of the pot-smoker end up being moronic.

And yes, there is even a marijuana counterpart to the cigar. In the early 1990s the inner cities gave birth to a new practice called “blunting,” in which cheap cigars are gutted and stuffed with marijuana. It is fitting that this practice originated in the same place where gangs come from. An inner-city gang seems supremely concerned with honor and courage: its elaborate codes would suggest as much. But seeming is one thing, being another. The gang-member fancies himself honorable, but is in reality a thug. Just as the cigar is the counterpart to the real virtues of honor and courage, the marijuana-blunt is the counterpart to the fake virtues of gang-honor and gang-courage.

Housewife smoking a cigar after hanging clothes to dry on clotheAs every student of Plato knows, if something has a relation to the soul it has a relation to the city. Thus if our theory is anything more than the smoke it purports to explain, it can be used to analyze political phenomena. For example, in recent years we have witnessed a concerted effort to sterilize our erotic attachments, to sap them of their danger but also of their vigor. The flat, unerotic words we now use for these attachments confirm this. Instead of “lover” and “beloved,” we now have “significant other” and, even worse, “partner” (a term which lends to the affairs of the heart all the excitement of filling out a tax form). Given this environment, it is no wonder that our most vigorous moral war waged today is against cigarette-smoking. Nor is it any wonder that this war’s only rival in intensity is the one in favor of “safe sex,” for condoms sterilize sex not only literally but figuratively as well.

Further, the relation between cigars and spiritedness may explain why cigars are now for the first time gaining a significant number of female disciples. For as women continue to enter the traditionally male world of competition, many are beating men at their own game by using the same tactics of gaining power. And with the tactics have come the symbols.

Most significantly, however, the relative rarity of pipe-smoking in America is a telling sign of its current intellectual crisis. If the pipe epitomizes the intellectual way of life, then is it any surprise that it cannot be found where schools substitute politically correct ideology for real philosophy, or where the intelligentsia, instead of engaging in serious thought, pander to the latest activist fads? Is it any surprise that America’s most famous pipe-smoker in the last thirty years has been Hugh Hefner, pajama prophet of the trite philosophy of hedonism? No, the age of the pipe-smoker is as far from us as the day when philosophers will be kings and kings will philosophize, a sad reality to which the thick blue haze of non-pipe smoke is only too ready to attest.

It should also be no surprise in this pipeless age that the ferocious battle over tobacco has missed the real point about its addictive power. Tobacco holds sway over the soul as much as it does the body. The qualities it takes in its various forms make it a near irresistible complement to the particular desire dominant in an individual’s soul. How we react to these forms says as much about our attitude toward those desires as it does toward the weed itself.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of  First Things (April 1997). 

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7 replies to this post
  1. I read the original article months ago. It’s a true gem, one of the best reflections on the topic I’ve found. I was a dual cigarette/pipe smoker, and this was one of the single best helps in transitioning only to my pipe. Having been told to quit smoking of any sort last week, I can attest to the notion that ‘tobacco holds sway over the soul as much as it does the body’! I was glad to have been able to put cigarettes behind me, but having to disuse the pipe has felt a bit more tragic, like walking away from an unstable friendship.

  2. I’ve smoked cigars for several years and have tried American Spirit cigarettes-I’ve found I only like the former. However, I’m at the point where I’m ready to go and buy a quality pipe and learn how to smoke it. Pipes are safer in the long run (mostly), and as the article says I too can attest to the intellectual draw of a good pipe and good company, to say nothing of the help of a good book or drink to go with it.

  3. Bravo! I won’t bore you with a recitation of my own history with the weed, however, I’ve always thought it was connected, in some way, to the transcendental aspect of existence, and let it go at that. Re: the ‘chew’, a relative of mine (name withheld), at the age of twelve, played catcher on a Little League team in the old hometown. When they were in the late innings, and the game on the line, he would, with the count 3-2 or so, spit a great mass of his chew (yes, he chewed Redman) on the shoes of the opposing batter. This act, which I witnessed on a few occasions either resulted in some sort of brouhaha or so broke the batter’s concentration he became an easy out. Tobacco is our friend, I don’t care what the Democrat-do-gooders say.

  4. I believe our current spiritual/creative crisis (see: Hollywood) stems in large part from anti-tobacco bigotry. Cannot prove it, just believe it.

  5. I’ve made rounds through nearly all of the hobbies covered here (how can you not enjoy tobacoo in the South, where the finest in the world is grown?). Only cigarettes and pipes have ever held much enjoyment, and the pipe-smoke is increasing in prevalence. Well-written piece with the exception, I think, of its condemnation of marijuana. Maybe mix a dab of it in with some Cavendish and a pinch of perique (much harder to come by than the cannabis), and then plunge into the depths of the Four Quartets. In just the right mixture, the drowsy hypnotism of Eliot’s voice is enchanting.

  6. As a lady, I have preferred long, dark, Nat Sherman thin cigarillos as my tobacco of choice, while also partaking of an occasional cigar when in the company of men who are indulging. It seems to balance a nice glass of Port or Grand Marnier. In my husband’s office, for many years smoking was not only not prohibited, it was highly encouraged. The male interns were all taught how to smoke a pipe, as a rite of manhood. Those days are over, and I have switched to e-juice of various flavors in a contrivance that almost has the elegance of the old-fashioned cigarette holder, but alas, not quite. I do find that contemplative puffing while reading and writing does offer the moments of reflection, while watching a whirl of smoke carry one’s thoughts. It has been said that smoking a cigarette is like watching television, smoking a cigar is like watching a movie, but smoking a pipe is like reading a book. If I wouldn’t look like Grandma Moses (and horrify my husband) I would probably smoke one, just out of defiance of the anti-tobacco league.

  7. Oh my, I hate to be the party pooper (I was never much fun at parties anyways). I must admit to being the stand out here. I spent half my life smoking and regret every second of it. The irreversable damage it did to my health, while providing no benefits that could not be acquired via nontoxic means, is an embarassment, because it was all sustained through free will (tabacoo is addictive, but I did not quit for as long as I did because I chose to ignore the evidence since in the short run, smoking was easier than quiting). I have happily been free of tobacco for four years now and my health has improved. Rather than smoke, I train in the gym and eat healthy. If I have to have something in my grip, I prefer the rosary to the cigarette. I’m not much of a political crusader as far as smoking goes (I take the view that it is better to be for gymnastics rather than against a nasty habit), but on a personal level, it is tantamount to applying small doses of poison to your body. I was very lucky to have been given the proper support in quiting. Marijuana is even worse because while tobaccoo attacks the lungs, marijuana attacks the brain. Both organs are rather precious.

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