Book Review

From The American Interest:

Addicted to Addiction

A new book about early modern England reveals an eternal truth: We are all addicted to something, and maybe that’s not a bad thing, so long as we choose well.

The first addicts to stumble across the threshold of the English language, refugees from Latin, were not only drunks or gamblers. Their ranks included devout Christians and scholars. Today we argue about whether addiction is a sin or a sickness, but when the term first entered our language it could name a virtue and an accomplishment: In the 16th century “addiction” covered many forms of “service, debt, and dedication,” including the pious Christian’s zeal to obey God’s every command. Rebecca Lemon’s new study, Addiction and Devotion in Early Modern England, does not merely trace an etymological development. She takes the earliest meanings of “addiction” not as a cute quirk of linguistic history, but as a challenge to our contemporary shared understandings of substance abuse, political sovereignty, religious faith, and love.

Lemon looks at a range of sources, from translations of John Calvin’s sermons to pamphlets promoting anti-drunkenness laws, but her primary focus is on plays and poetry. The first chapter looks at Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus; then we get Twelfth Night, the Henry IV and Henry V plays, and Othello; and lastly, literary portrayals of the custom of “health-drinking.” Throughout, Lemon uses other sources to explore the artistic works’ portrayals of addiction: For Faustus we get religious texts on God’s grace as the power determining whether someone is addicted to God or to vice; for Othello, with its crimes of passion, shifting legal rulings on the culpability of people who commit crimes while drunk.

Lemon begins in the 1530s, when “addiction” begins to appear in English to designate both distorted desire for wine or riches and properly exclusive, single-minded desire for Christ. In 1534 George Joye asks God to “make faste thye promises to thy servant which is addicte unto thy worshyppe.” For these Protestant writers, Catholics were “addict to their supersticyons,” whereas they should be “addict unto none but to christ,” “addicted to praiers,” to “the meaneynge of the scripture.” Lemon’s Protestant sources share a suspicion of anything too material, too embodied—fasting, kneeling—as if Catholic sacraments were the original substance abuse. Lemon quotes a translation of the Letter of St. Paul to Titus which opens, “I Paule my selfe the addict servant & obeyer, not of Moses lawe as I was once, but of God the father, and ambassador of his sonne Jesus Christ.” That Paul should be an addict is obvious to his English readers; the important question is to whom he ought addict himself.

More at the link.