Taking Back Dionysius


A few weeks ago I was reading a piece on Brain Pickings, titled A Field Guide to Getting Lost: Rebecca Solnit on How We Find Ourselves. The whole thing is worth a read and was a great overview of Rebecca Solnit’s book, but there was really one sentence that stood out to me, and it wasn’t actually a Rebecca Solnit quote:

“Taking back the meaning of lost seems almost a political act, a matter of existential agency that we ought to reclaim in order to feel at home in ourselves.”

That sentence has been with me for the past couple of weeks. It has been rattling around in my head, unsure of what it was actually there for, until I finally made the connection. A few days ago, I was listening to The Partially Examined Life podcast – a podcast I highly recommend, by the way – and going through old Nietzsche episodes they had done. The episodes on The Gay Science and The Genealogy of Morals mentioned Nietzsche’s use of Apollo and Dionysius, and that’s when the above sentence finally clicked.

For those who are not familiar, Apollo is the Greek God of many things. However, the most important characteristic of Apollo for Nietzsche, is that he is the Greek God of intellectual pursuits (i.e. reason and rationality), while Dionysius is the Greek God of wine and a symbol for emotion and instinct. Nietzsche argued for a life that fused both the Apollonian and Dionysian characteristics together; a life that would allow for humans to be rational and use reason, but not excessively to the point where they would cease to feel emotion or use instinct. If one was pulled too far in either direction, they would never find true happiness. A proper life was based on finding a nice balance between rationality and emotion. But it seems to me that we’ve lost much of that Dionysian aspect to our lives nowadays. We often find ourselves so busy that it can be very difficult to find time to get lost, like Solnit argues we should.

For quite a while now, we’ve been sold a system that tells us that we are rational actors; otherwise known as homo economicus. Human beings, according to this point of view, are rational actors, and are essentially cold, calculating, machines. While that can be true in some instances, when we really think about this point of view, I doubt many of us would argue that human beings are entirely rational beings. Rather, human behavior is extremely complicated and can easily be influenced by emotions or irrationality at any given moment. Whether we are tired, sick, or upset, there are moments when our decisions would be very difficult to cast as rational. Yet, despite understanding this when we really get down to it, our society preaches that this rational being is human nature; it is the correct being, it is the being we strive for.

Under that Apollonian ideal, it follows that every move we make should be seen as a calculated, economic decision or a return on investment. Buying a house, going to school, or getting a job; these have all become economic decisions. We are not only buying a house for the use value it provides in giving us shelter, but we are also buying a house for the exchange value we hope it provides when we decide to sell it. As children, we are taught we need to invest in our human capital in order to sell ourselves to the market in the hopes of becoming rich, or at least well off financially. We go to college in order to get a high-paying job, not to further ourselves as human beings or make ourselves better citizens. If you went to school to study philosophy and now you’re in debt and have a crappy job, that’s too bad. It serves you right for not studying something more profitable or “realistic”, like engineering. The system is structured this way because you have to bear a heavy burden of debt just to attend college. This gives individuals the incentive to desire that high-paying job because they have to pay off that debt somehow. Once someone is trapped under student debt, no longer is finding a job that makes them truly happy quite as important. Rather, how much they are going to make annually shoots to the top of the list of priorities.

And it makes sense that people think like this under the current system. We all have families to feed and bills to pay, and there are few things that can ruin your life faster than debt. Who can really blame you for wanting a job that will keep you well-compensated? But, at the same time, who can really blame you for being unhappy that you have to spend 40+ hours per week at a job that seems pointless in the grand scheme of things? Well, our society can and actually does.

Our society values and glorifies this hard-working, ultra-rational persona, this Apollonian character or homo economicus; the person who works tirelessly to put food on the table and a roof over the head of their family, even if they don’t get to spend a whole lot of actual time with them; the person who just shuts up and does their job without complaining because that is “the right thing to do.” It’s been glorified to the point that it has essentially strangled off the Dionysian characteristic of life for the majority of the population. No longer can most people afford to get lost in life; to wonder what the true meaning of their existence is, what their purpose for living is, and what truly makes them happy. An individual more interested in the existential questions of life than working their entire life is cast as “lazy” and seen as a leech on society. This idea that hard work, no matter how meaningless it is, fits with the idea that our culture has accepted for centuries: Idle hands are the Devil’s Workshop. This saying runs as a moral undercurrent today, and so much so, that we seem to worship and idolize the hyper-ascetic individual who is endlessly working and refuses to actually enjoy life. It’s like a Nietzschean nightmare meets a Weberian nightmare.

We are so busy that we have little time for leisure and even less time for getting lost. This is why that sentence above sticks out to me. Getting lost is a political act because the societal structures and barriers that have held us back from the Dionysian characteristic of life are political barriers that we could change. Why do we work 40 hours or more per week? Labor unions fought to shorten the work week to 40 hours. There’s no natural law that states we have to work that much to prosper as human beings. Why must going to college mean you are an indentured servant to the economic system for the majority of your life? This was not always the case, so why do we think this is the correct method now? The list goes on and on with healthcare, housing, etc. There are numerous facets of life that we could make better for the greater good of humanity if only we were to get politically active. And that’s our challenge.

The danger in idly sitting back and just accepting things the way they are now, is to truly live blind to the possibilities of a better life; a life where we may still have to work, but a life in which we work less; a life in which what happens to be our occupation isn’t what necessarily defines us as a person. Instead, we can spend more time with the ones we love and we can get lost in search of our passions in life in order to find that which truly make us happy. Not wanting to spend our entire lives toiling away in a factory, cubicle, or any other environment where we do not have full control of ourselves is not lazy. It’s a desire to take back control of our lives and an attempt at finding real meaning in this world. When you really think about it, who believes the point of their life is to produce widgets or push paperwork for a living? People do this for survival, and because they believe it’s necessary. Once we realize that this doesn’t have to be necessary — at least not to the extent that current society believes it is — and that this is just one way of structuring society, we then begin to understand that we can change that structure. And that’s a powerful first step to action.

So it would seem that it is up to us to act politically to resuscitate the Dionysian characteristic of life for the entirety of the population. A just society should not be structured in such a manner that access to this aspect of enjoyment is dictated by wealth and access to capital. Instead, a just society would provide access to basic living essentials so that everyone has a chance to experience the Dionysian side to life on a more regular basis; to find out what it feels like to get lost in the world and to truly find ourselves and what makes us happy. In order to do that, though, and in order to allow everyone the chance at a life worth living, it will require political action to initiate the change.


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