Sobriety

The friends and relatives of the alcoholic commonly urge him to be "strong," and to "resist temptation." What they mean by this is not very clear, but it is significant that the alcoholic himself—while sober—commonly agrees with their view of his "problem." He believes that he could be, or, at least, ought to be "the captain of his soul." 111 But it is a cliche of alcoholism that after "that first drink," the motivation to stop drinking is zero. Typically the whole matter is phrased overtly as a battle between "self" and "John Barleycorn." Covertly the alcoholic may be planning or even secretly laying in supplies for the next binge, but it is almost impossible (in the hospital setting) to get the sober alcoholic to plan his next binge in an overt manner. He cannot, seemingly, be the "captain" of his soul and overtly will or command his own drunkenness. The "captain" can only command sobriety —and then not be obeyed.

Bill W., the cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, himself an alcoholic, cut through all this mythology of conflict in the very first of the famous "Twelve Steps" of AA. The first step demands that the alcoholic agree that he is powerless over alcohol. This step is- usually regarded as a "surrender" and many alcoholics are either unable to achieve it or achieve it only briefly during the period of remorse following a binge. AA does not regard these cases as promising: they have not yet "hit bottom"; their despair is inadequate and after a more or less brief spell of sobriety they will again attempt to use "self-control" to fight the "temptation." They will not or cannot accept the premise that, drunk or sober, the total personality of an alcoholic is an alcoholic personality which cannot conceivably fight alcoholism. As an AA leaflet puts it, "trying to use will power is like trying to lift yourself by your bootstraps."

The first two steps of AA are as follows:

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than our-selves could restore us to sanity. 112

Implicit in the combination of these two steps is an extraordinary—and I believe correct—idea: the experience of defeat not only serves to convince the alcoholic that change is necessary; it is the first step in that change. To be defeated by the bottle and to know it is the first "spiritual experience." The myth of self-power is thereby broken by the demonstration of a greater power.

In sum, I shall argue that the "sobriety" of the alcoholic is characterized by an unusually disastrous variant of the Cartesian dualism, the division between Mind and Matter, or, in this case, between conscious will, or "self," and the remainder of the personality. Bill W.'s stroke of genius was to break up with the first "step" the structuring of this dualism.

111 This phrase is used by AA in derision of the alcoholic who tries to use will power against the bottle. The quotation, along with the line, "My head is bloody but unbowed," comes from the poem "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley, who was a cripple but not an alcoholic. The use of the will to conquer pain and physical disability is probably not comparable to the alcoholic's use of will.

112 '[Alcoholics Anonymous], Alcoholics Anonymous, New York, Works Publishing, 1939

Philosophically viewed, this first step is not a surrender; it is simply a change in epistemology, a change in how to know about the personality-in-the-world. And, notably, the change is from an incorrect to a more correct epistemology.

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