A Reading of The Urge: Our History of Addiction, Part II
The first time someone used the word addict in English, he was criticizing the Pope. Since then, the word has been used millions of times about all kinds of people. The meaning has changed. Yet, in a sense, the original meaning remains the same.
That little tidbit is one of the many things I learned from reading Carl Erik Fisher’s book, The Urge: Our History of Addiction. Fisher is an addiction psychiatrist, bioethicist, and assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University. The book presents the history of the concept of addiction and our consequent response to it, paired with his own history of alcoholism and recovery.
The person who coined the word, addict, we are told, was John Frith (1503–1533), the English Protestant priest, and martyr. He borrowed it from the Latin, addicere. In Roman times, the word meant to speak to, as a flight of birds was considered to speak to the will of the gods. Later, it came to describe a strong attachment, as a slave is attached to her master. In the Middle Ages, it referred to any kind of attachment, good or bad. This is how Frith used it:
Judge… all these things with a simple eye Be not particularly addict to the one or the other But judge them by the scripture.
For Frith, having an addiction is similar to having a prejudice. It was not something that happened to you, a force that overthrew your will, but something you chose. To addict yourself, as when you align yourself to the devil, is dire, but you could just as well addict yourself to prayer. Addiction labels that grey area between free will and compulsion, where you ought to have free will, but don’t. Addiction is a willed compulsion, an active process of giving over your agency, a choice to give up choice.
The story of Faust, which originated during the same era, is a good illustration of how people in the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Period thought of addiction. Faust was a doctor who gave his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge. In Christopher Marlowe’s play Dr Faustus (1604), Faust is presented ambiguously. It’s never settled whether Faust could have done other than what he did. It’s an example of a how intense dedication, in this case towards knowledge, leads to enslavement by it.
These days, it seems like we’re returning to this original meaning of addiction. Not many years ago, addiction meant something quite specific. You could only be addicted to chemicals that created physiological tolerance and withdrawal. Even cocaine was not considered to be addictive because its effects are largely psychological. It took years before we knew better. Today we recognize that psychological addiction is often a stronger attachment than physical addiction can ever be, so the distinction has become moot. This realization paved the way for behavioral addictions, such as towards gambling and sex to be recognized. Today, in our everyday language, we speak of being addicted to Netflix, shopping, or to the phone.
There are many who object to the broadening of the term, addiction, but it’s interesting how it represents a return to the original meaning of the word. It captures the ubiquity of addiction in everyone and expresses the truth that, once we make a certain class of choices, it can be almost impossible to unmake them.
Next in the series: Is Addiction a Disease?