De Quincey first tried opium in the autumn of 1804. He was spending the season in London during a break from college, and experienced a toothache. He assumed it was because he had recently stopped washing his hair in cold water, so he did this right away in hopes of alleviating the pain. However, the attempt backfired, and the next morning he had “excruciating rheumatic pains of the head and face” (37) which continued to afflict him for three weeks. One day, he ran into a classmate who suggested trying opium as a pain-reliever.
De Quincey went to a druggist, who gave him laudanum, a tincture of opium. (Up until the 1920s, British pharmacists could prescribe and sell opium to anyone at their own discretion (Anderson and Berridge).) De Quincey remembers this as a pivotal moment in his life, and describes the druggist as an “unconscious minister of celestial pleasures” (38). When he got home, he tried opium for the first time, and although he did not use it in such a way as to maximize the high, he still enjoyed it and was impressed by how easily it alleviated his pain. He remarks that despite the joys that opium brings to the user, he is often put into a thoughtful mood the depths of which lead others to doubt the user is experiencing any pleasure.
According to De Quincey, too much misinformation has been spread about opium. He believes that the only correct assumptions the public has about opium are that it is brown, that it is expensive, and that it will kill anyone who consumes too much of it. People seem to think that opium intoxicates its users in the same way alcohol does, but De Quincey argues that this is not so. He writes that opium highs last eight to ten hours, and bring “exquisite order, legislation, and harmony” (40) to the mental faculties, rather than confusing them like alcohol. Opium, he suggests, allows people to be their best selves morally and intellectually, and bring us to a higher plane, whereas alcohol grounds us firmly on our baser level.
During his young adulthood, De Quincey met an unnamed surgeon (most likely John Abernathy) who was an opium addict and very politically outspoken. De Quincey tried to explain to the surgeon that the surgeon's enemies accused him of talking nonsense, while his friends defended him by explaining that he was always under the influence of opium. The surgeon responded cheerfully that both groups were right – he talks nonsense and stands by it, but he is indeed always under the influence. De Quincey objects to the surgeon’s description of himself as “drunk with opium” (42) because it equates the intoxication of opium with the intoxication that comes from alcohol, but he didn’t press the matter at the time because he thought it would be impolite, and further acknowledges that many people use the word "drunk" to describe many effects quite dissimilar to that produced by alcohol.
De Quincey rails against the assumption that opium will cause depression and laziness after the high is over. He claims never to have experienced depression after taking opium, and while he admits that opium can make users drowsy, it is their own fault if they don’t take their dose at a time when they will be able to go to bed when the drowsiness kicks in.
Often in the period between 1804 and 1812, De Quincey would take opium in the company of his friend, the late Duke of –––, who preferred to drink. They would then go to the opera together, which De Quincey believes opium allowed him to appreciate more thoroughly than he otherwise could have. He explains this by noting that true appreciation of music comes from the mind rather than from the ears, and is thus enhanced by using opium.
On Saturday nights, De Quincey sometimes forwent the opera to wander in London’s poorer districts. He did this because he was nostalgic for his own days of poverty, and he appreciated the poor people’s attitude of “patience, hope, and tranquility” (47). He would sometimes participate in their conversations, and resorted to opium when the news of his poor friends’ hardships made him sad. Some of these nighttime wanderings led De Quincey very far afield, to obscure corners of London.
However, de Quincey does concede that sometimes opium intensified his natural inclination toward solitude. As a university student, he actively tried to avoid this because too much solitude made him depressed, but in later years, when he was in better mental health, he often yielded to this inclination and spent many happy evenings by himself under the influence of opium. De Quincey concludes the section by praising opium’s potential to relieve mankind’s sufferings.
"The Pleasures of Opium" is structured as an argumentative essay, in which De Quincey corrects the public’s misconceptions about opium use. He focuses on debunking factual misconceptions about the experience of taking opium, rather than on confronting moral objections to the practice. Through his anecdotes illustrating his experiences while under the influence, he argues implicitly that opium is a fundamentally good drug that has the potential to improve its users morally and intellectually by relieving suffering. This is a purposeful argumentative strategy; by initially framing his ideas as factual corrections, De Quincey forestalls objections from readers who are vehemently against opium use.
De Quincey’s nationalistic attitudes come into focus in this section. While the Preliminary Confessions revealed some of the grittier aspects of English society, De Quincey praises his country and its people extensively in "The Pleasures of Opium." For example, he suggests that English users are more likely to be productive while under the influence of the drug, whereas he characterizes Turkish users as “stupid” (44) and sluggish while using opium. By framing this dichotomy in explicitly national terms, De Quincey alludes to what it means to be an English opium-eater, specifically. His nationalist rhetoric suggests that opium is a pleasure of the civilized man, and that only members of an advanced society can truly appreciate it.
De Quincey uses religious imagery even more extensively in this section than he did in Part II. He refers to his early years of taking opium as his "noviciate," describes his druggist as “beatific” (38), and even describes himself as a member of the church of opium. In Part II, he sought to compare opium to a religious experience; in The Pleasures of Opium, he suggests that the drug supplants religious experience entirely. This is also implied when he rhapsodizes at the end of the chapter about how opium can improve anyone’s life.
Although De Quincey was quite wealthy himself, he nevertheless dwells on the expense of opium in this chapter. He views it not as a financial hardship, but rather as a commodification of pleasure – hence the repetition of the phrase “All of this was to be had for five shillings” (46) at moments of intensely transcendent experiences. Just when the sensual lushness of an opium high seems as far as possible from the cold logic of daily life, De Quincey brings the two worlds together by referencing money.
When put in the context of his critique of social inequality, De Quincey’s preoccupation with opium as a commodity becomes a condemnation of the rich. He suggests that because they can afford to do so, the rich can live free of life’s physical and emotional suffering. Although he suggests that in general, this is good for the human condition, it also contributes to the psychic and spiritual gap between the rich and the poor. De Quincey demonstrates this by pointing out that whenever he was depressed by his poor friends’ misfortunes, he would take opium so he wouldn’t have to think about them.
All in all, this section makes a strong intellectual argument for the author's insistence (sometimes made only implicitly) that this is a work more literary than exploitative. He uses it here to confront arguments real and imagined, and imbues himself with a great authority that comments on social ills and potential solutions, while all the while delivering to the audience what they bought the book to encounter: the pleasures of opium.