Previous Page/Table Of ContentsNext Page

As the Durants point out in The Lessons of History, mankind places its own meaning on life. A common mission for past civilizations has been to give glory to the state, its rulers, and its gods. We can today visit great monuments to this effort that still stand, to some degree or another, as monuments to long dead civilizations which have long since passed from the affairs of mankind.
And what is the common thread that connects all such monuments? Each was built to give pleasure to the powerful individual(s) who ordered the building of each such monument. No doubt all would agree that one of mankind's fundamental longings is for some form of pleasure. But we have also long known that mankind really needs to seek more than simply pleasure alone. Many of the greatest accomplishments of mankind will each involve an exercise of pure intellect alone, and passion will be totally absent.
Friedrich Nietzsche, in his first (and really only) major book, Die Geburt der Tragödie, 1872 (The Birth of Tragedy, 1968), began by defining a dichotomy in which he labeled the two parts as Apollonian and Dionysian. Nietzsche identified the Dionysian (or pleasure seeking culture) as the first to develop, while the Apollonian (or intellect based culture) came along later. The Dionysian culture involved a near total absorption in the passionate affairs of man, while the Apollonian involved an extirpation of passion.
Nietzsche, apparently modeling his argument on Hegel's logic concept of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, asserted that either Apollonian or Dionysian standing along was incomplete. The greatest Greek tragedies were those where a synthesis (or fusion) of the two forms occurred.
Later, in Also Sprach Zarathustra 1883-4 (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1954), this concept was extended by Nietzsche to contrast the fusion of Apollonian and Dionysian forms with most of the fundamental concepts of Christianity, which are most certainly Apollonian alone.
Drawing from his own studies of philosophy and from Darwin's Theory of Evolution, Nietzsche argued that the mission of mankind was to produce a race of supermen; beings who would be as equivalently advanced over mankind as mankind was advanced over the apes. It is interesting to note that, more than a century later, we can see that Nietzsche's goal of creating supermen would be the inevitable consequence of just allowing nature to take its course, as predicted by Darwin. The scary part is that we are now on the verge of acquiring the scientific techniques which would be necessary to make that great leap in a single generation, as opposed to many thousands of years.
In The Story of Philosophy, 1926, Will Durant selects nine great philosophers to honor with chapters about their lives and work. The first eight are Plato, Aristotle, Francis Bacon, Spinoza, Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, Schopenhauer, and Herbert Spencer. The ninth (and last) was Friedrich Nietzsche. Durant cited Also Sprach Zarathustra as Nietzsche's greatest work. Presumably Durant would also endorse the concept of creating a race of supermen as the mission of mankind, as expressed by that work.
So, where does this leave us in choosing a mission for mankind? Arnold Toynbee noted that there has never been a high level Dionysian civilization. The reason why should be obvious: we all know the town drunk, who has never accomplished much, and who will never amount to much in his entire life. Clearly, focusing on pleasure or passion alone is a dead-end path. However, as Nietzsche points out, the Christian solution of only focusing on Apollonian forms of expression is just as much of a trap. The allegory for this is the father who buries himself in his job, while losing virtually all contact with his wife and kids. Modern man is well placed to know that each of these images is wrong. Accordingly, mankind cannot be truly great until we lose our fear of passion, and learn to indulge ourselves in controlled exercises of these passions, in fusion with our Apollonian intellectual control mechanisms.
In the beginning, Christianity was a religion of simple people, by simple people, and for simple people. The moral choices were made simple by excluding passion from the mix. This is obvious from reading the New Testament, particularly the letters of Paul. Later, the Church decided to allow a passionate love of Christ, but that is still the only passion which is officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church. Even a passionate love for one's own spouse is supposed to be kept hidden and out of sight, winked at by those in the know, but never discussed in public.
Mankind has always tended to yearn for that which is lacking from our own lives and which keeps us each from feeling fulfilled. I am certain that many of us feel the lack of passion in our lives and yearn to have that part of ourselves fulfilled. Personally, I have always harbored a secret yearning to start a Dionysian movement. I felt challenged by Toynbee's observation that there had never been a high level Dionysian civilization. This idea never went anywhere, in large part because no such movement can be made practical in this day and age. There are enough drunks and drug addicts cluttering up our streets already, and any such movement would only tend to attract those who are least prepared to control their own actions.
So, as I said above, we must add back the missing Dionysian forms into our overall mission, but we must do so in fusion with our Apollonian control mechanisms.
And what Apollonian goals should we seek? Christianity is virtually silent on this subject, as the only real commandment in the New Testament is to live a virtuous life in preparation for the Second Coming of Christ. Of course, this omission eventually made Christianity acceptable to virtually every state in which it took up residence. If a state has ever suffered at the hands of a Christian church, it was entirely due to the non-religious beliefs of the church leaders, not to the faith itself. Jesus was entirely ambivalent about states, with his famous commandment: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." (Matthew, 22:21.) In point of fact, as the Durants eloquently point out, the basic function of all religions is to aid the state in maintaining order among the people, and thus a religion is most acceptable to the state when it performs that task without imposing any limits on what the state may or may not declare as a goal for its people to meet. If the state goes to war, then so does the church. If the state sends out a trade expedition, the church sends along missionaries. This sort of symbiotic relationship has existed right on down through all of mankind's history.
So, is there an Apollonian mission for mankind? I do believe that there is.
If you take the long view of the centuries, and you ask what it is that we have received from our forefathers, the answer is singular: it is knowledge. Furthermore, it is knowledge that allows the civilizations of mankind to climb the spiral of progress, as opposed to requiring each group of raw humans to begin the entire process anew. So, the Durants' quote becomes the Apollonian mission for mankind:

If you choose to follow the path outlined by Nietzsche, the creation of supermen, be it over a thousand generations or in a single generation, it still involves the accumulation and transmission of knowledge for which we have painfully accumulated the basic underlying premises. In other words, if we get to the point where the geneticists can engineer the birth of a superman or a superwoman, it will be the end product of thousands of years of human development, not an isolated intrusion into a sphere of God-like knowledge. In this sense, knowledge begets knowledge, as we need to achieve a certain fundamental level of understanding before we can take the next step in our ever growing list of human achievements.
Given the Apollonian mission of transmitting knowledge, and the Dionysian mission of passion and enjoyment, all that remains is to define a balanced fusion of the two in order to have the greatness first envisioned by Nietzsche. Obviously, there is no clear prescription in this regard. However, modern man has been faced with the task of making this sort of decision for a long time now. The fact that many wrong decisions are made is no argument for not requiring each individual to make his or her own decision in this regard. In fact, mankind has been making this sort of decision for all of history, and back at least into the times of the Old Testament. (see Genesis 9, 20-27, where Noah got drunk, and the moral of the story is to take care of the drunkard who defiles himself.) In fact, the ability to genetically engineer humans may provide us with a way of instilling the control mechanisms into our super-children. There is increasing evidence of a genetic basis for a susceptibility to addiction, and obviously, a genetically engineered person would have that particular trait eliminated. Eliminating any genetic contributions, plus an appropriate training of those kids in how to enjoy life without falling into the traps laid for pure pleasure seekers, ought to give our super-children the innate ability to achieve the proper balance without spending much time thinking about it.
At present, there is simply no way to define a true answer for the balance required between these two missions, so I will leave it at that: a balance, to be defined by each individual. This should not constitute a license for the drunk to continue drinking to excess, because that is still the definition of drunkenness, which is still wrongful because it is obviously not balanced. But this should also not argue for the Christian Temperance Union, or Alcoholics Anonymous, which would abolish all drinking, at least by their own members.82 That is also just as wrongful as drinking to excess, because, again, that is not balance, but an extirpation of passion. Beyond those two extremes, each of which is wrong in some way, we will just have to let mankind find its own answers, pending results from any research which might prove useful on this subject.

82 It must be noted that the efficacy of total abstention as a treatment for alcoholism is currently being questioned in the scientific literature, at least for drunks who lack the genetic predisposition to drunkenness.

Copyright © 1994-1999 by the Agnostic Church

Please send us your feedback!

Previous Page/Table Of ContentsNext Page