There are two drives at war within each of us – the creation and maintenance of order, and the reckless breakneck chase of disorder.
Visualize a skinny nerd walking a big dog. The dog is trying to pull the nerd where he wants to go, and the nerd is gripping the leash with white knuckles. And you are neither the nerd nor the beast, but both at the same time.
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Ancient Athens was a pretty hip joint. In its day, it was the central nexus of rational thought, a unique oasis in a world where most people were busy screaming and stabbing each other with spears. They had this word in Ancient Greece, ArÃªte. Ar-uh-tay. It means Virtue. It means Quality. It means Heroism. And it requires balance.
Odysseus, the preeminent Greek Hero, was not a straight-laced do-gooder, a shield of righteousness and a spear of justice. He was kind of a bastard. He lied, he cheated on his wife, he insulted the Gods, and he killed more people than Rambo. He was both a man and a beast at the same time. But he was not weighted down by his personal Disorder, he made it into one of his virtues. That’s Quality. That’s ArÃªte.
See, the Athenians believed that man has to romance his chaos. They spent most of the month worshiping Apollo, the God of Light and Reason and Harmony and Rational Thought. But for one or two days out of each moon, they ignored Apollo and worshiped Dionysus, the God of Drinking and Orgies and fantastic fucking Parties.
They had huge, unbelievable festivals which swallowed the whole city. Everybody in the Athens would put down their day-to-day selves and spend all night chanting and dancing and drumming and wearing strange masks. They really let their hair down. One might expect violence, human sacrifices, people fucking in the streets. Itâ€™s not just about having a good time, itâ€™s about experiencing those aspects of ourselves which we flee from, like fear and rage and sloppy drunkenness and uninhibited ecstasy.
Â Who participated in these festivals? It wasn’t just rebel kids: youths on the cusp of adulthood whose chaos hasn’t yet been bled out of them by the Machine. The Bacchanal was attended by both the rich and the poor, the smart and the dumb, the old and the young. These festivals were what they needed – they needed to FREAK OUT and let the animal loose.
See the Athenians thought this was necessary for sanity. If they were going to get their Important Stuff done during the week, they knew they needed to kick out the jams on the weekend. A Greek Hero is balanced between Apollo and Dionysus. He’s a warrior AND a philosopher. He’s a good guy AND a scoundrel. He is a man, but he is also a beast. He is Apollo, but he is also Dionysus.
“Don’t suppress your nature,” the Greeks are saying to us. “Once in a while, party with no hesitation or regret. Let your beast loose.”
Let yourself succumb to emotions like panic and fear and joy. Allow yourself to get lost in a riotous crowd all cheering at the same time. You’ll lose your identify for a little while. Then when you put your Apollo back on, you’ll be tempered.
And where are we now? I look around and I see very few people who know how to ride their beasts, let alone take them for a walk every so often. People are afraid of that aspect – they don’t want to look in the mirror and see a frazzled, cracked out animal, bloodied and drunk, but still smiling. They’d prefer to see the guy with the neatly combed hair, confident and rational, comfortable and reasonable. The kind of guy who doesn’t make waves. A go-getter with everything to lose.
Â Â You can’t keep the beast tranquilized forever. One day it’s going to leak out through your tension and anxiety. Itâ€™s going to make your rational-self uneasy. And when youâ€™re loosest, it’s going to claw its way out of your heart and murder all the philosophers and poets and innocent bystanders. It’s going to hurt them and it’s also going to hurt you.
The beast is, by its nature, not comfortable. It’s emotional. It’s savage. It’s unpredictable. The beast is what you’re trying to escape with your breathing exercises and iPod. With your drive for homeostasis and your metronomic routine. Living the way we do, we’ve all learned and internalized dozens of techniques to keep the beast in its cage. But itâ€™s going crazy in there, waiting for a moment of weakness to spring out and tear shit up. Your beast is a big strong dog, and your Rational Thought is a skinny nerd trying to walk him but barely in control. Who’s in charge here? Who’s leading whom? If you have mastered ArÃªte, one checks the other but they move in unison.
So there it is. ArÃªte. Itâ€™s not a mastery one learns by living by the rules and being in control every day. Itâ€™s not experienced by becoming the most rational, controlled, stand-up person you can be. Itâ€™s found by tempering your brain with your balls. Itâ€™s pouring your fire into a shot glass and drinking it