A New Year’s Eve post by Matt Yglesias describes quite well the mental dynamics of giving up the habit. It’s not all sweetness and light—not even if you want to quit and succeed in quitting.
There are, I suppose, people who come to hate smoking when they give it up. I don’t. I do dislike the taste of it in my mouth now. That is my primary device to turn away the urge when it comes. But I don’t think that smoking is evil. It harms the body: that much is certain. For that reason I prefer having quit to the alternative.
Smoking also makes you more or less completely a slave. The means, often time-consuming, sometimes self-abasing, by which dedicated smokers overcome the inconveniences put in their way testify to that. As do the rationalizations for continuing to smoke. Which is not to say that there isn’t some merit to the thought that disapproval of smoking is part of an increasingly repressive culture, one in which perceived risk provides a pretext for greater surveillance and control.
The ideal, as Yglesias says, if you like to smoke but want to retain your autonomy is to be able to smoke when and only when you please. I’ve known people who could do this. I can’t. I’ve never managed to stop voluntarily even for a day. It was only when smoking seemed to threaten my pleasure in everything else that I decided to quit. I saw the last five years of my mother’s life spent mostly in a sort of stupor; what alarmed me was not that she died of smoking, though she did, but that she stopped really living quite some time before. I didn’t want to end like that. So in March I stopped, with the help of a fairly new anti-smoking drug (I won’t name it: you can find out easily enough what the options are).
Even though I know that quitting is good for me, I don’t get any joy from having quit. Having a sense of smell again is a mixed blessing but on balance good. Being free to sit where I please in public places is a benefit—you might say, imitating Hume, an “artificial” benefit, but real enough given that smoking is restricted. Nevertheless my ideal world is not one in which I don’t smoke. It’s a world in which smoking is harmless. As it is, I have one less pleasure.
Like drinking, smoking is a tool of conviviality. The scene below from Godard’s Vivre sa vie illustrates the point (the male actor is Brice Parain, a French philosopher of language, one of Godard’s teachers).
It’s possible to be convivial without drinks or cigarettes, of course, just as it’s possible to worship God without singing or to make love without kissing. It can’t be said without qualification even that drinking and so on add pleasure to the activities they accompany. The argument in their favor is rather like those on behalf of classical music or Latin poetry. Such things can’t be said to be essential to a good life. A person may find no enjoyment in them and yet flourish in a suitably general sense of that word. The view that a life without cigars and brandy after a fine meal lacks something doesn’t rest on the necessity of cigars and brandy to the enjoyment of a meal; it is that, having acquired the taste, you will enjoy the meal even more with those accompaniments.
The good life should be defined not only in terms of primary goods like food and shelter but in terms of secondary goods whose worth is dependent on the acquisition of desires whose acquisition is itself viewed as good, as part of being a perfected human, of living a complete life. Each of those desires (or rather habits of desire) is, taken by itself, entirely optional; a good life, even the best, can be lived without acquiring it. But a life bereft of all of them cannot be an entirely good life—or so it seems to me. And for my part I would prefer it if the good life could include a cigarette every now and then.