While looking up some info for a new project I’m working on with my friend Dave, I ran across an unexpectedly funny (in a “oh no he didn’t just write that” kind of way) treatise by King James VI of Scotland and I of England — that is, the guy who authorized the creation of the King James Version of the bible.
It seems that shortly after he took the throne of England, His Excellency became a bit…perturbed…at the newly introduced herb called “tobacco.” So he wrote “A Counterblaste to Tobacco.
Primarily, he disliked it not because it’s origin was merely less than noble: It was downright savage! Indeed, though James acknowledges that tobacco is found nearly everywhere, he goes on to enlighten us that it “was first found out by some of the barbarousIndians” [Native Americans] and “from them was first brought into Christendom,” along with smallpox. He appeals to his subjects to not imitate the clearly inferior habits of these inferior people (with a few jabs thrown in at the French and Spaniards, for good measure):
And now good Country men let us (I pray you) consider, what honor or policy can move us to imitate the barbarous and beastly manners of the wild, Godless, and slavish Indians, especially in so vile and stinking a custom?… Shall we, I say, that have been so long civil and wealthy in Peace, famous and invincible in War, fortunate in both, we that have been ever able to aide any of our neighbors (but never deafed any of their ears with any of our supplications for assistance) shall we, I say, without blushing, abase ourselves so far, as to imitate these beastly Indians, slaves to the Spaniards, refuse to the world, and as yet aliens from the holy Covenant of God?*
In all fairness, this is just the preamble. James doesn’t dislike tobacco only out of a sense of royal privilege and racist sentiment. On the contrary, he believes that his people have been deceived by the supposed health and social benefits of smoking. Through careful consideration, he has discovered four arguments that people present as advantages of tobacco; of these, “two [are] founded upon the Theories of a deceivable appearance of Reason, and two of them upon the mistaken Practice of general Experience.”
If we assume the good faith of the monarch and denounce any subterfuge on the establishment of straw men, which no doubt we can, then it may be worthy to analyze both the arguments of tobacco aficionados and the king’s “counterblasts” against them.
Tobacco Balances the Moisture and Coolness of the Brain
The claim, as James presents it, is that “the brains of all men, being naturally cold and wet, all dry and hot things should be good for them.” This is claimed by proponents of tobacco to be “an Aphorism of Physicke” (i.e., physical science).
The king says that this claim is based on false premises. We do not need something hot and dry to regulate the coolness and moisture of our brains. On the contrary, our bodies are already “compounded of the four Complexions, (whose fathers are the four Elements)”, and therefore, we are already internally balanced appropriately. We have, the King tells us, a “Microcosm or little world within our selves” that creates “a perfect harmony…for the maintenance of the whole body.” Smoking tobacco messes with the balance of our microcosm.
He gives us a couple examples to prove his point. If a man were to take the same approach with the liver, which “is hot (as the fountain of blood),” then he would have to “apply and wear close upon his Liver and stomach a cake of lead,” presumably because such a cake of lead is cool. Likewise, the heart “is full of vital spirits, and in perpetual motion,” which means that — like tobacco to a cold, wet brain — “a man would therefore lay a heavy pound stone on his breast, for staying and holding down that wanton palpitation.” Of course “the heart would be comforted with such a disagreeable and contrarious cure” and probably result in the man’s death.
But let’s not be hasty, the king goes on to say. There may, indeed, be times when it’s fully appropriate to prescribe tobacco:
Indeed I do not deny, but when it falls out that any of these, or any part of our body grows to be distempered…beyond the compass of Nature’s temperate mixture, that in that case cures of contrary qualities, to the intemperate inclination of that part…may be both necessary and helpful for strengthening and assisting Nature in the expulsion of her enemies: for this is the true definition of all profitable Physics.
Naturally, just like wearing lead around your stomach or placing a crushing stone on your chest may sometimes be necessary, so might smoking tobacco be necessary to balance “the four Complexions.” Elsewise, we must hold these remedies in reserve.
Spitting after Smoking Purges Phlegm
The second argument that James “counterblasts” has to do with the phlegmatic response to smoking. Some have claimed that smoking allows us “to purge both the head and stomach of rheums and distillations…by the spitting and avoiding flame, immediately after the taking of it.” In other words, it clears the sinuses and lungs of nasty mucous. This is bunk, the king says, and may be easily proven as such. The answer is clearly meteorological:
For even as the smoky vapors sucked up by the Sun, and stayed in the lowest and cold Region of the airr, are there contracted into clouds and turned into rain and such other watery Meteors: So this stinking smoke being sucked up by the Nose, and imprisoned in the cold and moist brains, is by their cold and wet faculty, turned and cast forth again in watery distillations, and so are you made free and purged of nothing, but that wherewith you willfully burdened yourselves
It’s so obvious: Smoking creates a little rainstorm in your head, and it’s the fallout of this storm that the smoker spits. Or more pithily, smokers merely expectorate the smoke they’ve smoked. As with the former counterblast, the good king gives us an example. It would be, he says, as if:
…for preventing of the Stone, you would take all kind of meats and drinks that would breed gravel in the Kidneys, and then when you were forced to avoid…much gravel in your Urine, that you should attribute the thank thereof to such nourishments as bred those within you, that behoved [it] to be expelled by the force of Nature, or you to have burst at the broadside, as the Proverb is.
It’s so obvious.
People Like Smoking
From the scientific arguments, James moves quickly into the arguments of “general experience.” The first of these is the popular argument, that “the whole people would not have taken so general a good liking thereof, if they had not by experience found it very sovereign and good for them.”
James’s response to this is the answer that all good monarchs give: People are ignorant copycats. He demonstrates this by noting the ridiculousness of fashion:
Do we not daily see, that a man can no sooner bring over from beyond the Seas any new form of apparel, but that he can not be thought a man of spirit, that would not presently imitate the same? And so from hand to hand it spreads, till it be practiced by all, not for any commodity that is in it, but only because it is come to be the fashion.
This desire to imitate others’ fashion is a result of “the corruption of envy bred in the breast of every one” and “we cannot be content unless we imitate every thing that our fellows do.” What weak-willed apes we all are! And this envious mimicry is not limited to the base populace, but it also affects men of learning:
For let one or two of the greatest Masters of Mathematics in any of the two famous Universities…they will I warrant you be seconded by the greatest part of the Students in that profession: So loath will they be, to be thought inferior to their fellows, either in depth of knowledge or sharpness of sight: And therefore the general good liking and embracing of this foolish custom, does but only proceed from that affectation of novelty, and popular error, whereof I have already spoken.
It’s a shame, really, that mankind has not the fortitude to withstand the corrupting influence of other men.
Tobacco Has General Health Benefits
The fourth and final argument King James counterblasts is another of “general experience.” It is argued, he says, that “by the taking of Tobacco…very many [people] do find themselves cured of diverse diseases as on the other part, no man ever received harm thereby.” In today’s terms, we might call it a “natural supplement” that at the very least doesn’t hurt anyone, and might actually provide some general health benefits. This argument, the king informs us, contains “a great mistaking and…a monstrous absurdity.”
Here, His Excellency shows his real logical prowess by calling out the “Non causam pro causa” fallacy — “as they say in the Logicks.” Because “peradventure when a sick man hath had his disease at the height, he has at that instant taken Tobacco, and afterward his disease taking the natural course of declining, and consequently the patient of recovering his health.” Clearly, it’s not the tobacco that is treats the illness, but it is natural recovery of its own accord: Coincidence, not causality. The relationship of tobacco to healing is, according to the king, a mere superstition, an old wives’ tale. For:
…will not every man you meet withal, teach you a sundry cure for the same, and swear by that means either himself, or some of his nearest kinsmen and friends w[ere] cured? And yet I hope no man is so foolish as to believe them. And all these toys do only proceed from the mistaking Non causam pro causa, as I have already said, and so if a man chance to recover one of any disease, after he has taken Tobacco, that must have the thanks of all. But by the contrary, if a man smoke[s] himself to death with it (and many have done) O then some other disease must bear the blame for that fault. So do old harlots thank their harlotry for their many years, that custom being healthful (say they) ad purgandos Renes, but never have mind how many die of the Pocks in the flower of their youth. And so do old drunkards think they prolong their days, by their swine-like diet, but never remember how many die drowned in drink before they be half old.
Or more succinctly stated: Smoking is equivalent to harlotry and extreme alcoholism.
But in addressing the “great mistaking” let’s not forget to attend to the “monstrous absurdity.” “It is all undoubted ground among all Physicians,” he tells us, “that there is almost no sort either of nourishment or medicine, that hath not some thing in it disagreeable to some part of mans body.” In today’s world, this is such an obvious statement it likely needs not be stated: Simply watch a commercial for some new medicine and listen to the litany of side-effects appended to it.
A good doctor, the king says, will only treat the part of the body that is actually sick, and not the whole body, because he knows about such ill side-effects. In addition, a good physician will “also consider all other circumstances, and make the remedies suitable thereunto: as the temperature of the clim[at]e where the Patient is, the constitution of the Planets, the time of the Moon, the season of the year, the age and complexion of the Patient, and the present state of his body, in strength or weakness.” (At least some of these things are still considered today.)
But the “monstrous absurdity,” according to James, is the claim that smoking is a general cure and health benefit for many things.
Where by the contrary in this case, such is the miraculous omnipotence of our strong tasted Tobacco, as it cures all sorts of diseases (which never any drug could do before) in all persons, and at all times. It cures all manner of distillations, either in the head or stomach (if you believe their Axioms) although in very deed it both corrupt[s] the brain, and by causing over quick digestion, fill the stomach full of crudities. It cures the Gout in the feet, and (which is miraculous) in that very instant when the smoke thereof, as light, flies up into the head, the virtue thereof, as heavy, runs down to the little toe. It helps all sorts of Agues. It makes a man sober that was drunk. It refreshes a weary man, and yet makes a man hungry. Being taken when they go to bed, it makes one sleep soundly, and yet being taken when a man is sleepy and drowsy, it will, as they say, awake his brain, and quicken his understanding.
According to proponents, tobacco is a miracle drug, but the esteemed monarch in all his monarchical wisdom is having none of it.
The Sinful Vanity of Smoking
Upon counterblasting all of the arguments proponents of tobacco set forward, there is one last point to make. “[I]t rests only to inform you what sins and vanities you commit in the filty abuse thereof,” he says. Those sins and vanities are:
- Lust: “First, are you not guilty of sinful and shameful lust? (for lust may be as well in any of the senses as in feeling) that although you be troubled with no disease, but in perfect health, yet can you neither be merry at an Ordinary, nor lascivious in the Stews, if you lack Tobacco to provoke your appetite to any of those sorts of recreation, lusting after it as the children of Israel did in the wilderness after Quails?”
- Drunkenness: “Secondly it is, as you use or rather abuse it, a branch of the sin of drunkenness, which is the root of all sins: for as the only delight that drunkards take in Wine is in the strength of the taste…so are not those…the only qualities that make Tobacco so delectable to all the lovers of it?”
- Laziness: “Thirdly, is it not the greatest sin of all, that you the people of all sorts of this Kingdom, who are created and ordained by God to bestow both your persons and goods for the maintenance both of the honor and safety of your King and Commonwealth, should disable your selves in both? In your persons having by this continual vile custom brought yourselves to this shameful imbecility, that you are not able to ride or walk the journey of a Jew’s Sabbath, but you must have a reek[ing] cole brought you from the next Poorhouse to kindle your Tobacco with?”
It’s not just the moral resilience of the individual that the king desires, but the rectitude of the entire kingdom. James shows that until tobacco was introduced, England was an international powerhouse. However, because of tobacco, the realm is susceptible to falling under in the manner of previous empires. “Mollicies and delicacy were the wrack and overthrow, first of the Persian, and next of the Roman Empire,” the eminent historian reminds us.
But lest that not persuade the reader, he returns to an appeal of racism. If all of the other arguments he made before now — those that appealed to reason, general observation and moral virtue — fell on deaf ears, then perhaps this final point will clinch it.
This very custom of taking Tobacco…is even at this day accounted so effeminate among the Indians themselves, as in the market they will offer no price for a slave to be sold, whom they find to be a great Tobacco taker.
In other words: You smokers are worse than unwanted slaves and (effeminate) Indians! If that doesn’t get you to drop the habit, then nothing else will.
The Effectiveness of Counterblast
Apparently King James didn’t consider his treatise to be very effective. As we’ve seen, his arguments were pretty solid, so it’s hard to imagine why they failed to change the people’s behavior.
So he did what all good tyrants do when the people they rule are driving themselves to moral decay: He made a law. Some time after the Counterblast was published, he imposed a tariff on the import of tobacco to the tune of six shillings, eight pence, per pound (on top of a previous custom tariff of two pence). Given the absence of smoking in the today’s United Kingdom, I’d have to say this law worked about as well as could be expected.
* I have modernized the spelling throughout the quotations.