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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Health and Illness II
GA 348

III. The Effects of Alcohol on Man

8 January 1922, Dornach

Dr. Steiner: Does anyone have a question on his mind?

A question is asked concerning alcohol, its negative effects, etc.

Do you mean the extent to which alcohol generally is detrimental to health? Well, alcohol's initial effect is quite obvious, because it influences what we have been describing in man all along, that is, the entire constitution of the soul. In the first place, through alcohol, a person suffers a form of spiritual confusion so strong that he becomes subject to passions that otherwise are weak in him and can easily be suppressed by his reason. A person thus appears more sensible if he has had no alcohol than if he drinks. To begin with, alcohol has a stimulating influence on the blood, causing an increased circulation of the blood. This, in turn, arouses a person's passions; for example, he may more readily become furious, whereas otherwise he can control his anger more easily. So you can see that the first effect of alcohol is exercised on man's reason—indeed, on his whole life of soul.

After alcohol has remained for a certain length of time in the organism, it causes another symptom that you know well, called a hangover; the appearance of a hangover shows you that the entire organism objects to the initial effect of alcohol. What does it mean for a person to have a hangover? As a rule, it appears in the morning after an evening of too much drinking. Due to the drinking the night before, the circulation of a person's blood is strongly agitated. The increased movement that otherwise would have taken its course at a much slower pace uses up a lot of energy.

Pay close attention to this! Let us assume that the body accomplishes a certain activity within twenty-four hours. When somebody consumes a goodly amount of alcohol, the same activity is completed in perhaps twelve or even six hours. The body thus deprives itself of inner activity. People who are in the habit of drinking every once in a while, therefore, instinctively do something before the hangover appears: they eat heartily. Why do they do this? They eat heartily either to avoid a hangover altogether or so that its effects the next day are at least milder so that they can work.

What happens, say, if a person has drunk himself into a visible state of intoxication and then consumes, let us say, a large hotdog? He stimulates again what has been used up by the previous excessive activity. But if, because he is not a habitual drinker, he doesn't do this—habitual drinkers do eat—and he forgets to eat that hotdog, he then will suffer the hangover, basically because his body is no longer able to engage in increased inner activity. When the body does not function correctly, however, waste products, in particular uric acid, are deposited everywhere. Since the head is the most difficult to supply, the waste products are deposited there. If a person has, through alcohol consumption, depleted the inner activity of the body during the night, he walks around the next morning with his head in the condition that is normal for his intestines, that is, filled with refuse. An immediate revolt by the body is brought about when, through the intake of alcohol, too much activity is demanded of it.

As I have mentioned to you before in these lectures, man has a much higher tolerance—I don't mean only regarding alcohol but generally—and can take much more abuse than is normally assumed. He is capable of readjustment for a long time. Some people even make use of a most deceptive, most questionable antidote against a hangover. When they come home or arise the next morning with a powerful hangover, what do they do? Surely, you have seen this; they continue drinking, making the morning pint into a special cure.

What does this continued drinking signify? During the night, through the agitation of the blood, the body has been deprived of activity. This activity is now missing in the morning. Through renewed drinking, the body is stimulated once again, so that the last remnants of activity are consumed. Since these last remnants dispose of the major part of the refuse, the hangover disappears to a degree from the head but remains that much more in the rest of the body. People are, however, less aware of that. Additional drinking in the morning thus unconsciously transfers the hangover to the rest of the organism. Only now, when this occurs, does the real misery for the body begin. Those alcoholics who drive away a hangover with more drinking are in the worst shape, because gradually, as this is repeated, the entire body is ruined.

Still, however, because man can endure a good deal, it is almost impossible to ruin the body that quickly. Therefore, the first thing that happens to a real alcoholic is that he suffers from a form of delirium. This does not as yet indicate total ruin. When delirium tremens, as it is called in medicine, sets in, people see certain kinds of animals, mice and the like, running all over the place. They suffer a form of persecution complex. Delirium tremens is connected with the phenomenon of people seeing themselves surrounded and attacked from all sides by small animals, especially mice. This is something that even has a historical background. There are structures called “mice towers” (Mäusetürme). Usually, they have come by their name through somebody in some earlier time having been incarcerated in them who suffered from delirium tremens, and, though some real mice might well have been there too, this person was plagued by thousands upon thousands of mice that he merely imagined all around himself.

You can see, therefore, that the ruinous effects of alcohol can only slowly be driven into the body; the body resists these effects that are produced by alcohol for a long time.

What happens when people who have been drinking heavily for some time are suddenly bothered by their conscience and, having some energy left, stop drinking? It is an interesting fact that if they had not suffered from delirium tremens before, now, after abstaining from alcohol, they sometimes get it. Here we find something of interest, when people's consciences suddenly stir. They have been drinking for a while, let us say, drinking since early in the morning, and then suddenly the conscience stirs and they stop drinking. What happens then? If they had not had delirium tremens earlier, they struggle with it now. This is the interesting fact, that sometimes those who have been drinking for a long time begin suffering from delirium tremens when they stop drinking.

This is one of the most important signs that man must be viewed in such a way that the head is seen to work differently from the rest of the body. In the last lectures I mentioned many aspects of this to you. As long as a person suffers only in his head from the side effects of drinking, his overall condition is still tolerable; the effects have not yet permeated the entire body. When they have penetrated, however, and the person leaves off alcohol, the rest of the body really revolts by way of the brain and he suffers from delirium tremens just because he discontinued drinking.

One thus can say that the bodily counterpart for the most important functions of the soul is found in human blood. You probably know that some people suffer from persecution complexes, seeing all sorts of figures that are not there. Particularly in earlier times, such persons were bled—not a bad remedy, really. You must not believe that all people in the past were as superstitious as is generally assumed today. Blood-letting was not something derived from superstition. People were bled primarily by applying leeches somewhere on the body that drew off blood. The blood thus was less active. Not necessarily in the case of alcoholics, but for other attacks of insanity blood was less active, and the person fared better.

As I have mentioned, the nervous system is very closely related to the foundations of the properties of the soul, but it is much less important for the human will. The nervous system is important for reason, but for the human will it has much less significance than the blood.

Now, when you see that alcohol pre-eminently attacks the blood, it is clear from the body's strong reaction against alcohol's effects that the blood is well protected against alcohol. The blood is extraordinarily well protected against the assault of alcohol in human beings. By what means is the blood so strongly protected against this assault? We must ask further, then, where do the most important ingredients of the blood actually originate?

Remember that I told you that blood consists of red corpuscles containing iron, which swim around in the so-called blood serum, and it also consists of white corpuscles. I have told you that the most significant components of blood are the red and white corpuscles. We shall now disregard the corpuscles connected with the spleen's activity, which, in our tests in Stuttgart, we termed the “regulators.” There are many components in the blood, but we want now to focus only on the red and white corpuscles, asking where in the body these corpuscles originate. These corpuscles originate in a most special place. If you examine the thigh bone from the hip to the knee, if you think of the bone in the arm, or any long bone, you will find in these bones the so-called bone marrow. The marrow is in there, the bone marrow. And you see, gentlemen, the red and white corpuscles originate in this bone marrow and migrate from it first into the arteries. The human body is arranged in such a way that the blood, at least the most important part of it, is produced in the inner hollows of the bones.

If this is the case, you can say to yourself: in so far as its production is concerned, the blood is indeed well protected from harm. In fact, alcohol must be consumed for a long time and in large quantities to damage the bone to the point of penetrating it to the innermost part, to the bone marrow, and destroying the bone marrow so that no more red and white corpuscles are produced. Only then, after the effects of drinking alcohol have reached the bone marrow, does the really ruinous process begin for the human being.

Now, it is true that regarding their intellects and soul qualities, humans are in many ways alike; regarding the blood, however, there is a marked difference between man and woman. It is a difference that one is not always aware of but that is nevertheless clearly evident. This is that the influence on human beings of the red and white corpuscles that are produced within the hollows of the bone is such that the red corpuscles are more important for the woman and the white are more important for the man. This is very important: the red corpuscles are more important with the woman and the white with the man.

This is because the woman, as you know, every four weeks has her menstrual period, which is actually an activity that the human body undertakes to eliminate something that must be eliminated, red corpuscles. A man, however, does not have menstrual periods, and you also know that his semen is not derived directly from red blood. It has its origin in white corpuscles. Although considerably transformed, in the end they turn into the main ingredient of semen. Thus, regarding what affects human reproduction, we must go to the protected bone marrow to investigate the means by which the human reproductive capacity can be influenced physically. Indeed, the human reproductive capacity can be physically affected precisely through the bone marrow within the bone.

After having been produced in the bone marrow, the red and white corpuscles naturally enter the blood stream. When a woman now drinks alcohol, it is the red corpuscles that are particularly affected. The red corpuscles contain iron, are somewhat heavy, and possess something of the earth's heaviness. When a woman drinks, it affects her in such a way that there is too much heaviness in her. When a pregnant woman drinks, therefore, her developing child becomes too heavy and cannot inwardly form its organs properly. It does not develop properly inwardly, and its inner organs are not in order. In this round-about-way, gentlemen, the harmful influence of alcohol is expressed in the woman.

In men, alcohol primarily affects the white corpuscles. If conception takes place when a man is under the influence of alcohol, or when his system is generally contaminated by the effects of alcoholism, a man's semen is ruined in a way, becoming too restless. When conception takes place, the tiny egg is released from the mother's organism. This can only be seen with a microscope. From the male, a great number of microscopic sperm are released, each one of which has something resembling a tail attached to it. The seminal fluid contains countless numbers of such sperm. This tail, which is like a fine hair, gives the sperm great restlessness. They make the most complicated movements, and naturally one sperm must reach the egg first. The one that reaches the egg first penetrates it. The sperm is much smaller than the egg. Although the egg can be perceived only with a microscope, the sperm is still smaller. As soon as the egg has received it, a membrane forms around the egg, thereby preventing penetration by the rest of the sperm cells. Generally, only one sperm can enter the egg. As soon as one has penetrated, a membrane is formed around the egg, and the others must retreat.

You see, therefore, it is most ingeniously arranged. Now, the sperm's restlessness is greatly increased through alcohol, so that conception occurs under the influence of semen that is extraordinarily lively. If the father is a heavy drinker when conception occurs, the child's nerve-sense system will be affected. The woman's drinking harms the child's inner organs because of the heaviness that ensues. The man's drinking harms the child's nervous system. All the activities are damaged that should be present in the right way as the child grows up.

We therefore can say that if a woman drinks, the earthly element in the human being is ruined; if a man drinks, the element of movement, the airy element that fills the earth's surroundings and that man carries within himself, is ruined. When both parents drink, therefore, the embryo is harmed from two different sides. Naturally, this is not a proper conception; while conception is possible, however, proper growth of the embryo is not. On the one hand, the egg's tendency toward heaviness tries to prevail; on the other, everything in it is in restless motion, and one tendency contradicts the other. If both parents are alcoholics and conception occurs, the masculine element contradicts the feminine. To those who understand the entire relationship, it becomes quite clear that in the case of habitual drinkers exceedingly harmful elements actually arise in their offspring. People do not wish to believe this, because the effects of heavy drinking in men and women are not so obvious, relatively speaking. This is only because the blood is so well protected, however, being produced, after all, in the bone marrow, and because people must do a lot if they are to affect their offspring strongly. Weak effects are simply not admitted by people today.

As a rule, if a child is born with water on the brain, one does not investigate whether or not, on the night conception occurred, the mother was at a dinner party where she drank red wine. If that were done, it would often be found to be the case, because wine causes an inclination toward heaviness, so that the child is born with hydrocephalus. If, however, the baby has a congenital twitch in a facial muscle, one normally does not check to find out if the father had perhaps been drinking too much the evening conception occurred. Seemingly insignificant matters are not investigated; people therefore assume that they have no effect. Actually, alcohol always has an effect. The really disastrous effects, however, occur with habitual drinkers. Here, too, a striking, a very remarkable thing can be noted.

You see, the children of a father who drinks can develop a weakness somewhere in their nervous systems and thus have a tendency toward tuberculosis, for example. What is inherited by the children need not be connected with the effects felt by the alcoholic father. The children need not have a tendency toward mental confusion, for example, but instead, toward tuberculosis, stomach ailments, and the like. This is what is so insidious about the effects of alcohol, that they are communicated to totally different organs in the human being.

In these matters, the great effect on human development of minute amounts of substances must always be taken into consideration. Not only that, but in each instance, one must consider how these substances are introduced into the human being. Consider the following example. Our bones contain a certain amount of calcium phosphate. Our brain also contains some phosphorus, and you will recall from earlier lectures that phosphorus is most useful since without phosphorus the brain actually could not be used for thinking. We therefore have phosphorus in us. I have already told you that phosphorus has a beneficial effect when the proper amount is consumed in food so that it is digested at a normal rate. If too large an amount of phosphorus is introduced too quickly into the human stomach, it is not useful but rather harmful.

Something else must also be considered, however. You know that in earlier days, matches were made with heads of phosphorus, but they are rarely seen anymore. If one has had an opportunity to observe something like what I did as a boy, the following can be experienced. When I was thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen years old, I had an hour's walk from our home to school every day. There was a match factory about halfway where phosphorus matches were manufactured by workmen. At any time, one could see that a number of these workmen had corroded jaws—this was in the 1870s—and, radiating out from the jaw, their bodies were gradually destroyed. Beginning with the upper and lower jaws—especially the upper—the bones were eaten away.

Knowing the harmful effect that phosphorus can have on humans, one realizes that such a match factory is actually about the most murderous place one can have. In matters pertaining to the progress of human civilization, it is always necessary to look at the numerous harmful effects that man can suffer in this way. I always saw a number of these workmen going into this match factory with bandaged jaws. That is where it started, and then it spread. Of course, phosphorus obviously was already contained in the upper jawbone, but what kind of phosphorus was it?

You see, the phosphorus that first enters the stomach along with food and then travels internally through the body into the jaws is not harmful, provided the amount is not too large. Matches, however, are manufactured first by cutting long wooden strips into tiny sticks; these are then fitted into frames so that one end sticks out. They are dipped first into a sulphur solution and then into a phosphorus solution. The workman who dipped the matches simply held the frame in his hand and always got splattered. Just think how often in a day a person who cannot wash his splattered hands might touch his face during working hours. Though the amounts of phosphorus with which the person comes in contact in this way are minute, they nevertheless penetrate his skin. This is a mystery of human nature: a substance that is often extraordinarily useful when taken internally and assimilated first through the body can have the most poisonous effect when it comes in contact with the body from outside. The human organism is so wisely arranged inwardly that an overdose of phosphorus is eliminated in the urine or feces; only the small amount required is allowed to penetrate the bones; the rest is eliminated.

There are, however, no provisions for the elimination of externally absorbed influences. This problem could, of course, have been alleviated. Remember that in the last century little thought was given to humanitarian considerations. It would have helped if bathing facilities had been made available so that every workman could have had a hot bath before leaving work. A great deal could naturally have been accomplished by such an arrangement, but it simply was not done.

I only mention this to you to illustrate how the human body works. Minute, detrimental influences from outside, even substances that the body otherwise needs to sustain itself, can undermine human health, indeed, can undermine generally the entire organization of the human being.

Man can withstand a good deal, but beyond a certain point the organism fails. In the case of drinking alcohol, the organism fails at the point at which alcohol prevents the correct functioning of the life-sustaining activities, the invisible life-sustaining activities.

When a person is exposed to phosphorus poisoning, the inner activity that otherwise would assimilate phosphorus is undermined. It is undermined from outside. It is actually quite similar in the case of alcohol. When a person drinks too much alcohol, drinking always more and more, so that imbibing alcohol is no longer merely acute but has become chronic, the alcohol works directly as alcohol in the human being. What is the direct effect of alcohol? Remember that I once told you that man himself produced the amount of alcohol he requires. I told you that in the substances contained in the intestines, a certain amount of alcohol is constantly produced by ordinary food simply because man needs this small amount of alcohol. What do we need it for? Remember that in an anatomy, lab specimens are preserved in alcohol, because otherwise they would decompose. The alcohol prevents what was a living body from decaying. The alcohol produced in the human being works in the same way in the human organism; that is, it prevents decay of certain substances needed by man. Man through his inner organization really prescribes how much alcohol he should have, because he has certain substances that would otherwise decay and must be conserved.

Take now the case of a person who drinks too much alcohol. Substances that should be eliminated are retained in the body; too much is preserved. If a person repeatedly exposes blood that circulates in the body to alcohol, he conserves this blood in his body. What is the consequence? This blood, having a counteracting influence, blocks the canals in the bones; it is not eliminated quickly enough through the pores and so forth. It remains too long in the body. The marrow in the hollows of the bone is consequently stimulated too little to make new blood, and it becomes weak. It so happens that, in the so-called chronic alcoholic, the bone marrow in time becomes weakened and no longer produces either the proper red corpuscles in the woman nor the proper white corpuscles in the man.

Now, at a point such as this, I always have to make the following observation. Certainly, it is very nice when people come up with social reforms such as the prohibition of alcohol and so forth. It certainly sounds fine. But even such a learned man as Professor Benedict—I told you about his collection of skulls of criminals and how Hungarian convicts objected to having their skulls sent to Vienna because they would be missing from the rest of their bones on Judgment Day—even Professor Benedict said, and rightly so, “Here people speak against alcohol, but many more have perished from water than from alcohol.” Generally, that is quite correct, because water, if it is contaminated, can be present in much larger quantities. Considered simply from a statistical point of view one can naturally say that many more people have died from water than from alcohol.

Something else must be taken into consideration, however. I would like to put it like this. The situation with alcohol is like the story contained in Heinrich Seidel's Leberecht Hühnchen. I don't know whether you are familiar with it, but it is the tale of a poor wretch, a poor devil who only has enough money to buy one egg. He also has a great imagination, however, and so he thinks, “If this egg had not been sold in the store but instead had been allowed to hatch, a hen would have developed from it. Now, when I eat this egg, I am actually eating a whole hen.” And so he imagines, “Why, I, who have a whole hen to eat, am really a rich fellow!” But his imagination is not satisfied there, so he continues, “Yes, but the hen I am now eating could have laid any number of eggs from which hens again would hatch, and I am eating all these hens.” Finally, he calculates how many millions and millions of hens that would amount to, and he asks himself, “Shouldn't that be called gorging myself with food?”

You see, this is the case with alcohol, not in a funny sense as in this story but in all seriousness. Certainly, if you take the time from 1870 to 1880, and you investigate how many people died throughout the world from water and from alcohol, statistics would show that more people died from impure water. In those days, people died more frequently from typhoid fever and related illnesses than today, and typhoid can, in many instances, be traced to contamination of the water. So, in this way, gentlemen, it is easy to conclude that more people die from drinking water.

One must think differently, however. One must know that alcohol gradually penetrates the bone marrow and ruins the blood. By harming the offspring, all the descendants are thus harmed. If an alcoholic has three children, for example, these three are harmed only a little; their descendants, however, are significantly hurt. Alcohol has a long-term negative effect that manifests in many generations. Much of the weakness that exists in humanity today is simply due to ancestors who drank too much. One must indeed picture it like this: here is a man and a woman, the man drinks too much, and the bodies of their descendants are weakened. Now think for a moment what this implies in a hundred, and worse, in several hundred years! It serves no purpose to examine only a decade, say from 1870 to 1880, and to conclude that more people died from water than from alcohol. Much longer periods of time must be considered. This is something that people don't like to do nowadays, except in jest as did the author of Leberecht Hühnchen, who naturally was looking over a long span of time when picturing how to wallow in so much food.

If this matter is examined from the social viewpoint, consideration must go beyond what is nearest at hand. Now, it is my opinion that the use of alcohol can be prohibited, but when it is, strange phenomena appear. You know, for example, that in many parts of the world the sale of alcohol has been restricted or even completely prohibited. But I call your attention to another evil that has recently made its appearance in Europe, that is, the use of cocaine by people who wish to drug themselves. In comparison to what the use of cocaine will do, particularly in damage to the human reproductive forces, alcohol is benign! Those individuals who take cocaine do not hold cocaine responsible for the damage it does, but you can see from the external symptoms that its use is much worse than that of alcohol. When a person suffers from delirium tremens, it becomes manifest in a form of persecution complex. He sees mice everywhere that pursue him. A cocaine user, however, imagines snakes emerging everywhere from his body. First, such a person seeks an escape through cocaine, and for a while he feels good inside, because it brings about a feeling of sensual pleasure. When he has not had any cocaine for some time, however, and he looks at himself, he sees snakes emerge everywhere from his body. Then he runs to have another dose of cocaine so that the snakes will leave him alone for a while. The fear he has of these snakes is much greater than the fear of mice that is experienced by an alcoholic suffering from delirium tremens.

Figure 1

Certainly, one can prohibit this or that, but people then hit on something else, which, as a rule, is not better but much worse. I therefore believe that enlightening explanations, like the one we presented today regarding the effects of alcohol, for example, can be much more effective and will gradually bring human beings to refrain from alcohol on their own. This does not infringe on human freedom, but understanding causes a person to say to himself, “Why, this is shocking! I am harmed right into my bones!” This becomes effective as feeling, whereas laws work only on the intellect. The real truths, the real insights, are those that work all the way into feeling. It is therefore my conviction that we can arrive at an effective social reform—and in other spheres it is much the same—only if true enlightenment in the widest circles of people is made our concern.

This enlightenment, however, can come about only when there is something with which one can enlighten people. When a lecture is given nowadays on the detrimental effects of alcohol, these things are not presented as I have done today—though that should not be so difficult, because people know the facts. But they do not know how to think correctly about these facts that are familiar to them. The listeners come away from a lecture given by some dime-a-dozen professor, and they do not know quite what to make of it. If they are particularly good-natured, they might say, “Well, we don't have the background to comprehend everything he said. The educated gentleman knows it all. A simple person can't understand everything!” The fact is that the lecturer himself doesn't fully comprehend what he is talking about. If one has a science that really goes to the bottom of things and considers their foundations, however, it is possible to make it comprehensible even to simple people.

If science is so unreal today, it is because true humanness was excluded from it when it originated. An individual rises from lecturer to assistant professor [in German, “extraordinary professor”] to full professor. The students are in the habit of saying, “The full professor knows nothing extraordinary, and the assistant professor knows nothing fully.” [“Ein ordentlicher Professor Weiß nichts Außerordentliches, und ein außerordentlicher Professor, der weiß nichts Ordentliches.”] The students sense this in their feelings, gentlemen; the sorry state of affairs thus continues. Regarding social reforms, science essentially accomplishes nothing, whereas it could be effective in the most active way. A person who is sincerely concerned about social life therefore must emphasize again and again that dry laws on paper are much less important—though naturally they too are needed—but they are much less important than thorough enlightenment. The public needs this enlightenment; then we would have real progress.

Particularly facts like those that can be studied in the case of alcohol can be made comprehensible everywhere. One then arrives at what I always tell people. People come and ask, “Is it better not to drink alcohol, or is it better to drink it? Is it better to be a vegetarian or to eat meat?” I never tell anyone whether or not he should abstain from alcohol, or whether he should eat vegetables or meat. Instead, I explain how alcohol works. I simply describe how it works; then the person may decide to drink or not as he pleases. I do the same regarding vegetarian or meat diets. I simply say, this is how meat works and this is how plants work. The result is that a person can then decide for himself.

Above all else, science must have respect for human freedom, so that a person never has the feeling of being given orders or forbidden to do something. He is only told the facts. Once he knows how alcohol works, he will discover on his own what is right. This way we shall accomplish the most. We will come to the point where free human beings can choose their own directions. We must strive for this. Then only will we have real social reforms.

If I am here on Wednesday, we will be able to have the next lecture.