Backroad Tobacco and an Argument for the Soul
Essence, Existence, & Plato's Philosophy of Forms
The purpose of this essay changed after speaking with a high-school friend who’d recently lost a family member. In the course of our conversation, he told me about two other friends who’ve lost family members over the past year. This news came after learning of the deaths of several acquaintances from high school. These deaths are tangential to me, but they raise a series of questions. How do we mourn? With what intensity? How do we give condolences to those who remain? Is it fair for deaths to have an outsize impact, if you only knew that person in passing? I can’t answer those questions, but I can argue for the existence of the Soul. This argument for belief is rooted in tobacco and the memories I have of the friends who formed me
I took my first drag when I was fifteen on the driveway of one of my best friend’s houses at two o’clock in the morning. We were joined by a group of guys who I often think of when I smoke my pipe on our terrace in Dakar. They’re the guys I moshed with at Henry County’s local rock shows, back in the mid-aughts. The friends whose parents pretended to sleep while we snuck out of their houses to smoke Marlboros under 3am streetlights in local subdivisions. They’re the friends who sat across bonfires at field parties, where we belted Corey Smith songs, our hands wrapped around Coors Lights and Camels. They are the men who, ten years removed from Georgia, still accept me unconditionally.
I remember, distinctly, that my friend offered me a smoke without pressure. If my memory of that night serves correctly, one of the guys had stolen a carton of Marlboro lights from an open SUV at another house in the neighborhood. Ten packs for five fifteen-year-olds. We were set for the summer. These guys always paired cigarettes with beer, but I didn’t drink at the time, due to epilepsy. My first seizure happened in eighth grade, and this kept me from drinking in high school. So, I often played the role of D.D. The arrangement let us raise hell on the backroads, fields, and playgrounds of Henry County, GA without “runnin’ afoul of the local Law”.
Inhaling the Marlboro Light made my head lighten, frightening me slightly because it reminded me of the onset of a petit-mal seizure. The first moments feel like a high, but instantly devolve into the sensation of electric knives across the brain. Then, I lose the capacity for language, all motor coordination, then have an out-of-body experience. Returning to earth, I proceed to throw up until I take an anti-nausea medication, then sleep for about twelve hours. Thank God that hasn’t happened in fifteen years.
I smoked three more. We tossed the butts under the new pine straw. A few days later, the wind blew the butts all over the driveway. My friend’s dad grounded him for a month.
Still, everybody’s gotta have a little teenage rebellion, so I started smoking.
Most of my teenage rebellion was ideological over that first year of high school. Cigarettes allowed me to distance myself from the social and political Conservatism of Georgia, and they were a vehicle for having my own sense of self outside of the dictates of my community. I wrestled with a conception of Christianity, so different from the loving Christ I’ve found now, battled the depression that came with the seizures, and struggled academically. More than that, they signified moments of freedom, moments where I was able to express my ideas, desires, depressions, and interests to the friends who validated them.
With those first cigarettes, the exhilaration of fear and pleasure rose in me, and I let go of where I was to connect with my brain and body. Then, rather than slide into a seizure, the feeling dissipated. I had connected with, what Plato would call, the ‘Form’ of my Being.
This idea comes from Plato’s Theory of Forms. That theory begins with a question.
To summarize Plato who writes in Socrates’ voice, “Why do human beings have the ability to imagine perfect things when a perfect thing cannot exist in nature?”
If all that exists is the “natural world”, where there is no perfect triangle, no perfect face, no perfect hand, no perfect relationship, no perfect government, and no perfect execution of social justice, why do human beings have the ability to imagine such things?
If we are merely clumps of cells that evolve through a process of observation, problem solving, and fitting ourselves for survival, then the limits of imagination should be that which exists as we experience it. We should not be able to imagine perfect things. Yet, we all have the ability to conceive perfect things. He calls these conceptions of perfection, ‘Forms’.
In the Euthyphro, Plato says a Form:
is the same whenever it occurs
has the same character
retains its identity1
In addition to objects, the ideas of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty must come from somewhere in order to enter the mind. Therefore, they must exist. He concludes that there exists a place beyond the natural world wherein these Forms reside.
There is such a thing as absolute x
It is the essence or real being of everything
It is apprehended by the intellect (not the senses)
we believe in the existence of equality—not the equality of pieces
of wood or stone, but equality in the abstract
which we learn of by seeing x phenomena
we form from them the idea of abstract x, which is different from
this applies as well to good, beauty, justice, piety—everything
which we mark with the name of the real
the assumption that there exists ‘absolute x’
particular phenomenal x are made x by partaking of absolute x
presence of X2
Different spiritual practices call this place by a number of names: Heaven, Nirvana, a state of Enlightenment. Carl Jung might call it the Collective Unconscious.
One way or another, it is a connectedness with perfect unity, complete understanding of oneself, others, and natural reality. This realm of Forms can never be fully accessed, only glimpsed. But it exists. It takes Art, Literature, Science, Philosophy, and spiritual practice to glimpse it.
Now, I’m not going to tell y’all that smoking a Marlboro Light gave me total access to the divine, but it did connect me with a part of myself that I knew was eternal and unchanging. Whatever “I” am as a Being. Over three thousand years of philosophy has tried to understand Being, as a conscious person in the world. It’s pretty damn hard to apprehend that history of thought, and even harder to articulate it through the lens of people. I find it easier to use objects.
In that spirit, let’s look at the Platonic Form of a cigarette.
Any smoker can tell you that there is no such thing as the perfect smoke. You can imagine the taste and feel of it, but even the most pleasurable smoke is not going to be as divine as your mind makes it out to be. Though, it might be pretty damn good.
The cigarette exists as an object in your hand. You feel it, hold it, smell it, light it, breathe it in. Smoking it creates unity of the idea of the cigarette and the physical reality of the cigarette; it’s essence and its existence. Essence and Existence are the binary components of what philosopher call ‘Being’. Hence, the difference between a ‘human’ as a mammal in the natural world, and a human-being who is born, lives, and dies in a way unique from any person before them and any person after them. They are a Being.
The times when I’ve stopped to recognize the unity of my existence with essence are all related to smoking in some way or another. They’ve been to my Southern-ness, and not in just a nebulous, abstract way. Cultures are composed of people after all, and it’s been the people I’ve shared those smokes with who remind me of the reality of the Soul.
A selection of smoking memories:
1. Finding empty cul-de-sacs where my friends and I would share a pack, talking about anything and everything, specifically during the year when my sister had three surgeries.
2. Sneaking into the local Church park, my best friends with a six pack, me with a pack of Camel lights talking of God and the girls we liked.
3. Prom night where I drove the guys to a field party, 2000s rock blasting from the stereo, a Black & Mild between my teeth, me still in my tuxedo with the guys in jeans.
4. Camping by a bonfire where that same friend who gave me my first cigarette gave me my first beer.
5. My first trip abroad to Eastern Europe; sitting on a windowsill in Prague by myself with a Marlboro, realizing that I wanted a life traveling the world.
7. The summer before I started college when I spent a week with that same friend at his university in Alabama, sitting outside the dorms with a 24 pack of Coors, a carton of Camels, giving them away to the Fraternity guys and Sorority girls.
8. Freshman year on the quad, after my History of Philosophy class, where I first learned of these ideas.
9. The eve of 33, having quit the cigarettes for a pipe, smoking that briarwood in the Café’s of Dakar.
I romanticize these moments without shame because they took me away from the traumas of my adolescence. Those moments have allowed me to look back on my time in the South, and they are a salve for the overt racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and other iterations of intolerance I witnessed. Those memories don’t mitigate any of those Southern sins, but they do show the duality of Culture. The dichotomy is a part of what it means to exist, and I believe that nothing of value exists without “essence”, and it is Essence that shows we have a soul.
As the philosopher Peter Coffey says:
“Existing or being (in the participial sense: esse, existere, ƒx µ6½±¹) is a simple, indefinable notion. A being is said to exist when it is not merely possible but actual, when it is not merely potential in its active and passive causes but has become actual through those causes.”3
Tobacco, in all its forms, reflects this idea. because its purpose for Being is to change into smoke, to be inhaled, to provide a moment of pleasure, to be exhaled, dissipating in the nights of our youth, having changed, just as we do.
To quote that same philosopher again:
“Nor can we limit existence to material realities; for if there are spiritual realities these too have existence, though this existence can be discerned only by intellect, and not by sense.”4
I argue that discovering a connection with Essence takes spiritual practice in addition to intellect. It is meditation, prayer, and ritual that allow us to “fix our attention merely on what the thing is”5 creating a space where we are “thinking of its real essence”.
Spirituality, too, call be illustrated through tobacco. I went through a crisis of Faith as a teenager and those moments of kindness, camaraderie and non-judgement with my friends coincided with rising doubts about Christianity. There was certainly a sense of guilt in my acts of cigarette rebellion, just as there was a guilt over my waning faith. My tumultuous relationship with God also existed in those Camel lights.
That sentence, “We believe in the existence of equality– not the equality of pieces”6 is the best articulation of Social Justice I’ve ever read. It’s an easy summary of this new Christianity I’ve come to. It’s a belief that has arisen, partially, from the act of smoking.
Here in Senegal, my memories of youth and the men I shared it with surface while I’m puffing on my pipe. Conversations with those same dudes are accompanied by the briarwood. Topics of joy and sorrow flow with the Pueblo tobacco.
I haven’t experienced loss like those guys have. Language can’t heal those wounds. Still, if any of y’all read this, I hope I can give y’all something beyond hollow words of comfort.
I can tell y’all that I believe in the Soul. I believe that the soul exists and it isn’t easy to understand. The people y’all love aren’t simply in a “better place”. Their existence in our reality made their essence in the world present. The effects of their lives on our lives isn’t in a “better place”. It’s with you, here and now. And, in the interest of staying on this Earth, I’ll limit my pipe to the evenings when we have kids.
Until then, here are some resources for quitting smoking.
Plato. EUTHYPHRO, Lecture 5.1: Plato’s Theory of Forms Rorty UCSC 2008
Plato. PHAEDO , ibid.
Ontology or the Theory of Being Author: Peter Coffey Release Date: March 30, 2011 [Ebook 35722] Language: English
Plato, PHAEDO, ibid.