Euripides was on to something when he loosed an angry Dionysius on his protagonists. For Dionysius—the god who in his carnal vitality insists upon recognition—will not tolerate neglect or exclusion from our definitions of human nature. Indeed, he is the god who ravages all our dreams and systems when we root them in the airy insubstantiality of wish and vanity rather than in nature.
Volatile and dangerous, Dionysius was nevertheless a god. And so, for the Greeks, he was a source of spiritual revelation. But what he revealed was, strangely, the need for discipline and humility in the building of our lives: the need ever to consult nature in our assessments of what is human and humanly possible. This was an ambiguous, contrary, and tension—filled revelation, for what was revealed was both animal and spiritual, Dionysian and Apollonian.
Somehow (perhaps “original sin” enters here), we resent this tension, this ambiguity, this indetermination. We resent Dionysius and his goat-footed satyrs just behind our aspirations and taking residence, like some moral fifth column, in our hapless glands. We do not, of course, dismiss him in our assumptions or our systems any more than we dismiss the weather by donning a cap. But we do make him—or appear to make him—subservient to our more flattering self-perceptions, to our Apollonian pretensions.
In the Greek tradition, Dionysius must be, if not honored, at least respected. He is passion and energy and eros and exultation. He is the undifferentiated potential for both creativity and destruction. Without him, thinking is sterile, dreaming is pointless, and desiring is wishful.
It is not inaccurate to call Dionysius “nature”—though he is not all of nature. But he is that dimension of our humanity determined by our animality—by our physical senses and hungers and instincts; by our mere and insistent materiality; by our bulk and movement; by our gravity, our constant changing, our mortality. And not least by our distinctions in size and strength, in talent and beauty and gender.
Thus animal, Dionysius calls for celebration, for the joy of the body. But he also engenders fear—not simply fear of reversion to that nature we consciously try to transcend, nor fear of that latent and indiscriminate violence which he represents: but fear especially of the implications inherent in our physical distinctions. These implications suggest limitations and obligations not congenial to our self-perceptions, desires, and expectations. In brief, Dionysius is to be celebrated and feared for the very nature he represents—both that generic nature which identifies us as human (rational, animal, communal, moral, religious) and that particular nature which identifies us as individuals (sexual, psychological, historical).
For the Greeks these two levels of nature—generic and individual—existed in a creative tension that both defined individuality and enhanced community. Within the context of myth it was a tension that united temporal with spiritual, secular with transcendent, and Dionysian with Apollonian.
The full Dionysian/Apollonian integration remained, of course, an unreachable ideal. But as an ideal it did govern human thought, behavior, and value. It did hold all these up to nature—to that ineluctable tension and union between matter and spirit and, by extension, between biology and social function. For recognition of those individual distinctions that biology makes manifest (size, strength, gender, talent) was, for the Greeks, recognition of those communal roles and obligations attendant upon these distinctions.
Today, confronted by all-assuming secularism (gentled by seductive sentimentality), we ignore Dionysius in the pantheon of consciousness. Our minds turn to the shrine of their own divinity, to the apotheosis of their aspirations. Dionysius, when he does stir, plays no role in the larger vision and realizes no integration into the human venture. He serves, rather, for gratification, for periodic escape. He has become, not the tremendous and terrible steed trained upon some surpassing grail, but the pornographer of our vanity and the magister ludi of our periodic binges—a sort of pressure valve of the psyche.
If, then, the demotion of Dionysius is a corollary of our culture’s psychic indulgence, it is also the symptom of our most pernicious, erosive, and potentially catastrophic inclinations. Ignoring the power, the limitations, and the obligations inherent in biology, we construct worlds out of mere ideas. We ignore those distinctions of gift and gender and function indicated by our generic and individual natures. We conjure systems to serve our imaginings. And our imaginings arise, not out of nature—out of what presents itself to our consciousness—but out of private impulse, need, and whimsy.
But as Euripides was so well aware, we ignore Dionysius at tremendous peril. The beast sleeps in the bed chamber. He seems to doze through our dalliances. He lets us pet him and feed him with our occasional lusts. We forget he is clawed and fanged. We sleep confident and inattentive. And then the nightmares come: the sudden rage, the fear, the clenched fist, the indiscriminate victim, the race riot, the beaten spouse, the pogrom, the holocaust. Then come the autocrats of mind and value and taste to fill the moral vacuums where we have slept. The nightmare begins, and human culture teeters on the brink of its ignored animality. And all the while, the pampered mind plays its games and names its delusions: personal autonomy, economic efficiency, racial cleansing, mercy-killing, absolute rights over one’s body, and so forth. It all comes off so smoothly, we hardly know the beast has cornered us—until, as ultimately happens, it is our turn to be victim.
How we got to this cataclysmic state is a matter of language—or, rather, of its manipulation. And the word most manipulated is “rights.” We say we have a right to the most comfortable life possible. We say we have a right to the goods and wealth we may have amassed. We say we have a right to absolute jurisdiction over our bodies. We speak of these “rights” as though they derived not from the nature of our existing in a physical and social context but from the fact that we exist at all.
What we tragically fail to perceive here is that the concept of rights is inseparable from the concept of otherness—the otherness of the universe generally, and, more immediately, of our planet and our communities. If there were no other beings with whom to share life, perception, or property, there would be no murder, deceit, or theft. There would be no one to offend us, no one to offend.
Our rights, therefore, are inseparable from our condition as members of a community and participants in nature. But as soon as we admit this, we must admit Dionysius. For, aspiring and idealistic as we may be, we are undeniably and inexorably physical animals. As such, we must recognize the Dionysian in every private and social equation if we are truly to understand and serve the order we call “justice”—and that is, in fact, the only ground and embodiment of our rights. What the Dionysian myth tells us, therefore, is that our bodies are both ours and the community’s; that our gifts, our limitations, and our genders must serve public as well as private ends; that, as with the highly individual pieces in a mosaic, our fullest identities are realized only within the context of a whole that is larger than ourselves and ourselves writ large. The myth further tells us that property, though it may most fruitfully be private, may never be absolute; that power, though expressive of self, must serve more than the self.
Conversely, against the suffocating encroachments of system or state, the Dionysian insists upon our individualities and the distinctions of our needs and gifts. If, as Aristotle says, matter is the principle of individuation, then the Dionysian consciousness demands that no disembodied abstraction diminish me: let no system ignore my age, my womanhood, my manhood, my intellect, my artistic gifts, my vocation. Note: the Dionysian consciousness does not say, “Let me follow any whim or fancy I desire,” but rather, “Let me realize as fully as possible the distinctive roles for which nature has suited me.”
One of the great deceptions of democracy—and of democratic advertising—is that we can be anything we like. But we cannot all be beautiful or thin or athletic; we cannot all be concert violinists; we cannot all be strong or stoical; we cannot all be good conversationalists or calm in crises or good drivers or good story-tellers or good cooks. And, though history may sometimes suggest the opposite, not just anyone can be president. That so many publications pandering to the voyeurs of glamour, adventure, wealth, and romance make money is testament to the pernicious appeal of abstractions in our lives—of denials of the individuality that democracies are meant to enhance and that Dionysian consciousness forever asserts.
John J. Savant is Professor of English at the Dominican College of San Rafael (San Rafael, California).