Course Offerings


A Poison By Any Other Name...

The Greek word pharmakon (φάρμακον) can be translated as “poison”, “remedy”, “drug”, “medicine”, or “magic potion”. These are diverse, indeed seemingly diametrically opposed meanings, yet all share a striking commonality: each refers to a substance that, when ingested, can profoundly alter body and/or mind.  Plato’s account of Socrates’ death – one of the most famous examples of “judicial poisoning” in Western history – sets the stage for a conversation that will seek a broad understanding of the idea of poison and the prominent role it has played in history, law, recreation, science, music, literature, and art.  We will examine the inherent ambiguity of pharmakon by asking questions including: is poisonousness an intrinsic property of a substance, or is it, as the Renaissance physician and alchemist Paracelsus asserts, simply a matter of dosage? Where do we, as individuals and as a society, draw the line between “medicinal” drugs and “recreational” drugs? Notwithstanding their unquestioned physiological harmfulness, are cigarettes actually “sublime”, as Richard Klein suggests?  Studying fiction and nonfiction texts will reveal archetypes: who is the prototypical poisoner? Who is their victim? Readings of poetry and song lyrics will explore the meanings of pharmakon from a metaphorical perspective.  Throughout these conversations, our overarching goal will be to understand how a single word in Greek has come to embody such a rich assortment of meanings in modern discourse.   

Andrew P. Duncan

Course taught by

Andrew P. Duncan