Popular Science Monthly/Volume 14/January 1879/Effects of Alcoholic Excess on Character



A GREAT deal of attention has of late years been bestowed upon the subject of alcoholic indulgence. The importance of the subject warrants this, and even calls for still further attention. There are differences of opinion as to the use of alcohol; there are comparatively none as to the abuse of it. Leaving then, for the present, the question of the use of alcohol in disease, its effect upon the body temperature, and its position as a food, we may profitably engage ourselves for a little time with its social effects, alike upon the individual and the masses, especially in reference to its influence upon the mental manifestations of brain-activity. It is now universally acknowledged that mental alterations follow physical modifications of the brain, as seen in the various forms of insanity. We well know how profound is the influence exerted by alcoholic excess upon the brain, and through it upon the character. Unfortunately, the effects of continued alcoholic excess are but too frequently forced upon our attention.

The most pronounced product is found in the hopeless drunkard, who, in squalid rags, with rotten tissues, the embodiment of intellectual and moral degradation, utterly beyond hope, the line of possible restoration long past, hangs around the tavern-door, and, with the odor of alcohol floating on his breast, whiningly begs a copper from the mass of vitality around him, of which he himself is a withered and decaying branch. This man is incapable of labor; he is unwilling to entertain the idea of toil. He is beyond any capacity for labor; he is no longer capable of discharging his duty as a citizen; he is a social parasite of the lowest and foulest order, as useless as a tapeworm. He has abandoned all self-respect, because there is nothing left in him for himself or any one else to respect. He is a shameless liar, who will make the most solemn protestations as to the truth of what it is patent enough is false. There is no depth of moral degradation to which he will not descend for the means to purchase a little more of the fluid which has ever been his bane.

Betwixt him, however, and his patrons, many of whom enter the tavern to celebrate some little matter by a glass together, there is a potential association, not always at first sight readily apparent. The effect of alcoholic indulgence is seductive; and it often creeps on unobserved, doing much irretrievable mischief ere its presence is unmistakable. It is not the intention of the writer here to discuss the question of the moderate use of alcoholic beverages, but rather to point out the fruits, the evil consequences, of excess. Betwixt the hopeless drunkard and the casual taker of a social glass there are a thousand grades and modifications. Nor does it necessarily follow that the one shall degenerate into the other; very commonly he does not; but, unfortunately, he may, and not unfrequently does. Too frequently, indeed, the practice grows, especially in those who naturally lack self restraint, or cannot control their impulses, however capable in other respects. The dangers of alcoholic allurement are various in their degrees of potency in different individuals.

Not only that, but there is no little influence exercised by the immediate motives for which alcohol is taken. The future progress of the individual indulging in alcoholic excess is widely different, according to the mental attitude at the time. Thus, betwixt the man who has been taking alcohol to excess at intervals extending over many years, and the young woman who is just commencing to drink because she is unhappy, there is a wide gulf. The one, so far as the alcohol is concerned, will probably live to an advanced age; the prospects of life in the other are very poor, and the ruin will be swift and complete. In the one there are long intervals of sobriety, during which the effects of the debauch will, to a great extent, wear off; in the other the act will be repeated as often as opportunity will permit; one act of indulgence will lead to, indeed will induce another, and the oft and quickly repeated act will become a constant habit, whose effects are soon felt. It is not in women alone that the hopeless nature of drinking habits in certain susceptible organisms is manifested; it is equally seen in men where the nervous system lacks stability.

The deceptiveness, the utter untrustworthiness, the subtle craft, the falsehood, which women of culture even will develop under the influence of alcoholic cravings, have shocked many persons. The habitual drunkard, however produced, always exhibits these characteristic signs of moral degradation. The deterioration of character produced by protracted drunkenness is notorious. While the intellect becomes enfeebled by excess, the moral character becomes profoundly modified; the forces which ordinarily restrain others are in abeyance—perhaps too often their influence has gone forever; the indifference toward the interests of others progresses alongside a waxing selfishness, a complete absorption in self. So long as they can procure what they themselves crave for, confirmed drunkards are indifferent as to how others may suffer for, or be injured by, their selfishness. The ordinary feelings of parent or husband are too often overruled by the consuming passion; the wonted consideration for those who used to be dear to them has given way to an inordinate egotism. Not uncommonly, indeed, there is developed a vein of devilish mischievousness which delights in injuring those whom they ought to protect—a sort of malice, closely resembling the viciousness of certain animals. Of course, all drunkards are not exactly alike; the ruin still preserves the general outline of the primitive structure.

These statements may seem to some to be unnecessary as being already too well known, and too notorious to need any reference to them. But it is just because they are so well known and so indisputable that they are adduced here. Having thus laid firmly down the well-marked consequences of persistent alcoholic excess, it is possible to proceed to consider the less pronounced conditions, and to trace the course of the downward progress. It is evident that there must be many intermediate stages betwixt the commencement and the end of such a course—that some of the deteriorating effects of alcohol must be experienced long before the final stage is reached.

It may be well to speak in general terms of the indication of this direction, of this retrograding and degenerative process. The best subjects for the study of the social effects of alcoholic excess are furnished by the humbler classes: firstly, because the effects are more palpable among them with their limited resources, where excess in one direction means deprivation in another; and, secondly, because they present fewer complications, fewer elements of error to be encountered, than is the case in the more complex condition of affluence. It must not, however, for one moment be assumed that the evil consequences of alcoholic excess are confined to the humbler classes. No position in life will secure the individual against the unpleasant consequences of such self-indulgence, or prevent his reaping as he has sown. A momentary digression may be permissible at this point; it will help to illustrate what is to be said shortly. In an elaborate paper on alcohol, read before the Medical Society of London last winter, by Dr. Lauder Brunton, F. R. S., to which was awarded the society's medal, it was stated that the first effects of alcohol are felt in the higher or controlling portions of the brain. The consequences are, that the lower or animal impulses manifest themselves, freed from the control to which they are ordinarily subject. Such are the first symptoms of intoxication, after the stage of exhilaration has been passed. Then the motor centres are implicated; and complex movements, like walking, ordinarily habitual, require a conscious effort for their execution, and even then the performance is imperfect. After this the lower portions at the base of the brain are involved, leaving nothing but the respiration and the circulation in action; while still further intoxication arrests these movements, and the organism perishes.

It is this effect upon the higher centres of the brain which induces the most disastrous social outcomes of alcoholic indulgence. The person who takes alcohol to excess becomes a lower form of being by comparison with those around him. This is seen alike in the individual and in the aggregate. There is a diminution so brought about in the power to exercise self-control, and to estimate aright the claims of the future upon the present; there is produced a state of thriftlessness and recklessness, and a lack of consideration for others. These effects are demonstrated distinctly in two out of many practices. The one is that form of improvident self-indulgence—early and premature marriage, where the rite is robbed of all sacredness, and degraded to a mere form of license for unrestrained indulgence. This is common in the pit districts of Durham, where comparative children present themselves to be married, who can scarcely have realized the gravity of the step they are taking. Another form, sadly too common, is that of living in any hovel where the rent is small, so that a larger sum weekly remains over to be spent in drink. This is especially found amid the Irish in towns. The moral effects of decent houses, with sufficient sleeping accommodation for the two sexes, are well known; the disastrous immoral effects of huddling different sexes and ages together, from want of proper sleeping-space, are equally notorious. Not only are these evil consequences of such overcrowding produced, but, when alcohol gives the rein to the passions, these consequences are aggravated and intensified. There are then blended the direct and the indirect outcomes of alcoholic excess, each of which aggravates and adds to the other.

It is unnecessary to multiply illustrations of the deterioration of character induced by alcoholic indulgence. Just one more may be adduced. When recently on a visit to the South Yorkshire Asylum, near Sheffield, Dr. Mitchell, its accomplished superintendent, informed me that even in the victims of mania and general paralysis there was a marked contrast in the degree of violence manifested betwixt the patients arriving from the purely agricultural districts and those from the iron-work and colliery districts. This he attributed partly to their rougher ways and to the nature of their occupations, but still more to the drinking habits of the latter. That these last formed the chief factor in the production of the result was rendered probable by the large proportion of female subjects of general paralysis in that asylum. This disease is comparatively rare among women; and its prevalence among females from these districts Dr. Mitchell attributed to the habits of the women being allied to those of the men, especially as regards indulgence in drink.

Such, then, are some of the grave social outcomes of systematic indulgence in alcohol which arrest our attention. We have seen that its effects upon the nervous system are such as to give the rein to the lower centres, chiefly by lessening the control exercised by the higher and restraining portions of the brain. Man escapes from his wonted self-restraint when under the influence of alcohol, and stands before us with his fundamental character revealed. The groundwork of his character is exposed by the removal of the demeanor which he has carefully cultivated. The outside cover is withdrawn; all, or nearly all, that self-education or cultivation has given, is temporarily taken away. Through the revelations so made by alcohol we not rarely find that even in staid and proper men the tiger and the ape have not entirely died out. The animal propensities are thus discovered to have been concealed rather than subdued. For the time being the intoxicated individual is reft of much that not only he but his ancestors for generations back have studiously cultivated. For the time being he is a lower type of man. About the truth of this statement there can be no doubt.

The progress of physiological psychology, of the investigation of the workings of the mind, has taught us, in unmistakable accents, the strong tendency which exists for a habit to be formed by repetition of anything. After a thing has been done several times it becomes exceedingly easy to do it again. There is, in fact, in the nervous system a great readiness to take on an attitude which has been assumed before. We all recognize how it becomes necessary for every one to rehearse a part before acting it, and how quickly a species of habit or imitative attitude is formed. It is widely recognized that practice makes perfect, and that what was once difficult becomes easy by repetition of it. These are but illustrations of a law universally acknowledged. We all know how important it is to avoid what may become a habit. Consequently, we can see distinctly and with painful clearness that repeated indulgence in alcoholic stimulation, not necessarily extending to visible intoxication, must tend, by virtue of this law, to modify and mould the character. Under alcohol the individual becomes sanguine, reckless, careless of consequences, boastful, and indisposed to sober calculation; he also becomes self-assertive, arrogant, and boisterous; there exist a certain impulsiveness and impatience of control, and a distinct tendency to reach certain ends by violence, if other measures do not seem likely to be successful. In fact, we see the habitual self-restraint slowly developed by the exertions of many ancestors, by the efforts of the individual himself, aided by the training given by education, for the time being withdrawn to a great extent. Every time this act is repeated the greater the tendency for the character to manifest its lower rather than its higher forms. The character is indeed being slowly modified, and that, too, in a most undesirable direction. It is being gradually deprived of much that a slow process of civilization has given it.

It must be patent to all that the direction just depicted is that in which our town populations are distinctly moving. I have sketched elsewhere (the Alliance News, July 22 and 29, 1876) those circumstances in the condition of the masses which, in my opinion, render something more than the mere removal of temptation necessary in the practical treatment of intemperance. Whatever may be the effect of monotonous occupations, of bad hygienic surroundings, of improper food in infancy, and the physical deterioration which results from large aggregations of individuals, there can be no question but that repeated alcoholic indulgence is gradually modifying the character of the masses. It is seen in the growing insubordination, in the turbulence, the impatience of control, in the tendency to assert their opinion on subjects of which they are not in a position to judge; it is demonstrated in the growing thriftlessness, in the marked inclination to increase the number of their holidays, in the spending of a large portion of their weekly earnings on Saturdays and Sundays, till the middle of the week is a time of comparative destitution. It is illustrated by the columns of our daily press in the increased acts of violence perpetrated under the influence of alcohol by men accustomed to be intoxicated; and by the increase of disease of the nervous system, especially excitable forms of mania, found most commonly amid the population of certain industrial districts. Doubtless there are many thrifty, sober, self-respecting, and industrious working-men; but it cannot be denied that the proportion of such men to the whole body is less now than it was in days not far gone by. The character of the masses has been undergoing grave modifications in recent times; and the fashioning hand of alcohol can be clearly traced in the production of the results.

There is, however, a still grimmer aspect of this subject than even the effects of repeated indulgence upon the mental attitude of the individual himself, and that is the influence which such indulgence will and must exercise upon the nervous system of his offspring. We are all of us "the outcome of the coöperation of countless ancestral forces," and each of us is individually indebted to his ancestors for every act of self-restraint, every act of self-denial or control exercised by each of them. Our forefathers, in forming their own character, were insensibly fashioning ours. "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge," is sternly true. What, then, can we legitimately expect to be manifested in the next generation? Further, if children are taught to frequent taverns, and drink there on holidays and Sundays, by their fond but foolish parents, what effect must this exert upon the character during the plastic period of youth and growth? How far are the inherited mental constitution and nervous system, already depraved to start with, still further modified by such experience of the individual in childhood, when "wax to receive but marble to retain?" Conditions already hard enough upon the child are aggravated by indiscretions perpetrated toward the infant before its own free will and choice can be called into play, before it is responsible for its own actions. Not only have its parents given it an imperfect organization, but they are prejudicing its chances of self-evolution before it has had an opportunity of forming its own decision—it is handicapped alike by descent and by mischievous early training.

The habit of frequenting taverns, of drinking, and of feeling the self-satisfaction so induced, leads to still further indulgence in alcohol by half-grown youths; and so the inherited character is still further deteriorated. The increasing loss of self-control leaves such beings less and less capable of resisting the temptations, the allurements of the public-house. The impulsive and less perfectly controlled nervous system craves more and more for the alcoholic stimulant; and the longings are intensified accordingly. The repeated visits to the tavern grow into a custom, and what commences as an irregular practice becomes crystallized into a habit.

Nor is it in youths alone that the drinking customs of the day are seen in their evil and sombre aspects. The number of respectable girls seen now at public bars is a contrast to what obtained but a few years ago. Up to a recent period, if a girl were known to frequent taverns, her character was gone; and it was rarely that a well-conducted girl was seen in a public-house, and then only with her sweetheart or some male relatives. But now it is sadly different. From familiarity with bars as an outcome of excursions, and even more from the associations of the music-hall, girls, capable of better things, are not now apparently conscious of any impropriety in being in a public-house without male friends; and the painful spectacle of seeing young girls under twenty treating each other at a public bar is a sadly too common occurrence. How can a girl, with the mobile nervous system of her sex, be fitted to be a mother, and to counteract the evil tendencies of alcoholic indulgence in the father, if she herself have been subjected to the same influence? With the facts of inheritance before us, what may we expect, what must we apprehend as to the condition—the future prospects—of the generation following immediately after this one? As our forefathers insensibly and unconsciously built up the character of the present generation, so it, in its turn, is fashioning the character of its successors, its unborn offspring. No wonder, then, that the morale as well as the physique of the masses in large towns is undergoing already retrograde changes; and that the present condition fills the minds of observers of social progress with gloomy forebodings as to the future. The progress of civilization has endowed us with a measure of self-control, has tended to subordinate the unit of the mass—to encourage the evolution of the citizen as compared to the mere individual. The effect of alcoholic indulgence to excess is to institute retrogressive changes, and to undo, to a great extent, what civilization has slowly achieved.—Sanitary Record.

  1. Read before the Social Science Congress at Liverpool.