Dionysian Thinking: Nietzsche and the Critique of Reason

Dionysian Thinking:
Nietzsche and the Critique of Reason

by Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D.

The philosophy of Western Civilization is dominated by a certain set of ideas, assumptions and ways of thinking. Beginning with the Enlightenment, reason starts to become glorified by some intellectually-minded people (we are talking mostly European "white" men). And not all types of reason, but the "instrumental rationality" that is based on a brutally calculating means-ends analysis. This form of reason is seen as the ultimate source of freedom and the “rational” human is seen as capable of ultimate perfection. It is believed that through the use of reason that moral truths will become revealed. The line of thinkers embracing this philosophical worldview includes Kant, Hegel, Marx and many of the greats in Western philosophy.

Other aspects of this philosophical tradition include an ethnocentrism / Eurocentrism in which different ways of thinking and knowing are seen as inferior. There is also an obsession with “the negation” and "dialectical" forms of argument are seen as superior. Also, linear, logical and categorical forms of thinking predominate. 

There is a preference for dry, objective prose clearly stating propositions that should be empirically tested with supposed reality. Moreover, there is a penchant for elaborate system building in which the (mighty) Author seeks a theory of everything (“grand narratives”!).  A one-sided version of rationality permeates all aspects this tradition.

Nietzsche and the Celebration of Unreason

In contrast to this, an alternative philosophical tradition that I call Dionysian Thinking has emerged. No doubt, elements of this tradition can be found in the pre-Socratic writings of ancient Greece and in “non-Western” intellectual traditions and thinkers. But our story here focuses on one small gang of western European philosophers who celebrated "unreason" in the modern era. Freidrich Nietzsche stands out among these as a pioneering genius who tore open the Pandora's Box of Unreason, using a different way of thinking and a different style of presentation to explore a diverse set of forbidden topics.

The critique of reason found in this alternative philosophical tradition is carried forward by many who have been influenced by Nietzsche's thought, including Martin Heidegger, Pierre Klossowski, Georges Bataille, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, FĂ©lix Guattari, Francois Lyotard, Jacques Derrida and Hakim Bey, among others.

Nietzsche railed against life-denying rationalism and philosophies that championed reason over the passions. He saw the rational subject as found in most philosophy as a maelstrom of impulses and drives.   And, because the subject is a product of a debased culture, s/he is docile, conformist and disciplined.  Nietzsche diagnosed nihilism as the worm eating at the heart of modernity.  Nihilism results from an overly optimistic belief in humanity, rationality and life itself.

The name “Dionysian Thinking” invokes Nietzsche's contrast pairs Apollo-Dionysus from his book The Birth of Tragedy.  Dionysus was the Greek god of ecstasy, whose worshipers, the female Maenads and the male Satyrs, celebrated each year on Mount Parnassus with four days of ecstatic frenzy filled with dance, trance, entheogenic intoxication and love-making.

A sacred general economy has guided the movement of humanity through its struggle to survive.  

On the one side we have order, law, and creation – represented by the Greek god Apollo.  

On the other side we have chaos, transgression and destruction – represented by the Greek god Dionysus. 

On the one side we have Apollo who represents beauty, permanence and perfection.  

On the other side we have Dionysus, who represent tragedy, intoxication and reverie.

Modern humans have become debased by absolute adherence to order and stability. Through this Apollonian triumph we have lost our essential meaning and have become “things”. How we yearn to return to the immediacy of life at the edge of chaos. How we yearn to dance again with Dionysus!

Nietzsche called for a return to the repressed side of the Dionysian, though he knew it was a Promethean task. Are we up to it?”, he asked.

That which brings the greatest joy also brings the greatest pain. That which makes us suffer also keeps us going. This is the paradox of our drive for jouissance (ecstasy). You cannot close off all awareness of jouissance in a world based on the rational ego, capitalist production and bureaucratic efficiency.  This is impossible.  Jouissance will break out anyway.

Nietzsche's concept of "Ur-eine" posits a Dionysian epistemology, or way of knowing, that treats the "sacred ecstasy" of sexuality and mind-altering substances as potential sources for truth. 

Transgressive acts, in which boundaries are crossed, taboos violated and mystical frenzies are achieved, reveal the flow of our desires.  Elsewhere, I have explored this innate need to alter consciousness and have dubbed it “The Will to Party” (I have an essay with this title on my blog “Doing Modernity”).

Some other Nietzschean themes include: the body, nihilism, morality, the emotions, the origin of Greek theater.  Indeed, Nietzsche is offering nothing less than a totally new approach to life. 

One thing that makes Nietzsche so appealing to many is his writing style, in which a broad range of topics, often not traditionally philosophical, are explored through witty aphorisms filled with radical critique.  His basic point is that society must change completely and that we must acquire new modes of thinking because the decadence of the modern world is based on mistaken modes of thinking over two thousand years old.

An Affirmative Philosophy:  Saying Yes To Life

Nietzsche, contrary to popular misconception, was no amoral nihilist wringing his hands in despair.  Instead, he was someone saying “yes to life!” and rejecting the pessimistic worldview.  In fact, while ignored by many commentators who focus on his anti-Christian polemics, Nietzsche offers a spiritual alternative in his affirmative philosophy.

Nietzsche urged us to live life with the following attitudes:

This world itself, the wondrous and mysterious unfolding of Creation, is sacred. Humans, as part of this natural world, are, thus, also sacred.  We need to appreciate our earthly life and natures.  While some approaches to spirituality see our human natures as evil, he instead urges us to see these qualities as what is best in us. 

Our bodies and instincts are not base nor vile sources of “sin”, but are magnificent sources of meaning that are often more subtle than the thin veneer of rational thought.  If humans are innately lustful and prone to drunken orgies, let us rejoice in these qualities!   We need to freshly re-examine who we are, what our strengths are, and everything in our natural world and love these things on their own terms.

Rather than a focus on a future afterlife, the temporal focus should be on the present, for it is only in the present moment that we can assert our aliveness, take action, engage our projects or charge our directions.  We need to find tremendous meaning and satisfaction in the finite endeavors in which you engage now and in this world. 

Let us throw ourselves into life and take satisfaction with what we do.   When we do things intensely and strive for advancement we grow and learn, even when we falling short of we goal.  The meaning of life is to be found in the enchantment of this world.

Let us take inspiration in nature's beauty.  Let us have a sense of gradual development, cultivation and transformation.  We need to keep our projects provisional and revisable, for many projects are of value because we are developing practices that are refined through many repetitions.

We need to turn failure to our advantage and engage life by moving forward.  We must become who we are!  Take chances and experiment with life. We need to reassert our individual virtues and powers.

Let me quote at length one section of Ecce Homo in which Nietzsche discusses Dionysian Philosophy (translated by Walter Kauffman p. 258):

"The affirmation of passing away and destroying, which is the decisive feature of a Dionysian philosophy; saying Yes to opposition and war; becoming, along with a radical repudiation of the very concept of being--all this is clearly more closely related to me than anything else through to date."

Central to the Dionysian philosophy is the acceptance of suffering, amor fati ("love of fate"), saying yes to life, and remaining affirmative.  I will leave it to the reader to ponder the above glorious passage which is filled in many, many deep insights.


Nietzsche totally rethinks the conventional wisdom concerning human nature and rejects the imposition of reason as the central trait in our species being.  Accepting the impulses and instincts of human beings and celebrating our passions, a picture of the Dionysian “free spirit” emerges in which the spontaneous, the non-rational and the creative are emphasized.

While "fettered spirits" or "fanatics" have their critical reflection abilities disabled by an unwillingness to consider alternative world views, free spirits cast suspicion on everything and therefore decide for themselves without external influences how to life their lives.  Nietzsche emphasizes the power of traditions to potentially prohibit questioning and therefore to become forms of ideological conditioning.

Human desire is productive.  An affirmation of life becomes a unifying worldview of human potentiality.  While the reception of much “Left Nietzschean” thought has been negative and reduced to a vulgar fascism, in part due to Heidegger, I find a radical politic genuinely anti-capitalist, anti-statist and quite countercultural in its celebration of bodily pleasure, sacred ecstasy and transgressive behaviors.

The free spirit I base my theoretical articulations on is not merely one who rejects instrumental rationality and Apollonian conventionality; the free spirit understands our base instincts as related to sacredness.

Like his shamanistic ancestors, the free spirit mixes freedom and control, passion and reason, order and chaos—to realize the heights of human potentiality.

Liberation comes not through the suppression of desire in prohibitionist ways, nor through mere transgressive indulgence in taboo-related joys. It is the overcoming of rules while insisting on their validity that the free spirit realizes his will to power and escapes falling prey to the ways of the herd.

Dionysian thinking conceives of human self-actualization as autonomous action within rituals of control so that "bodies without organs" (Deleuze and Guattari) do not become bodies without brains. 

Accepting herd morality in order to transcend it, the free spirit attains a sacred playfulness and seeming acceptability to tradition and piestic notions of self-care and proper restraint.  To the world our free spirit appears moderate, dutiful and productive while secretly maintaining mysticism and lustful sociality.

The New Humanism: Passion and Reason Combined

With passions shaping what is valued, a new basis for reason emerges, one not founded on denial, lack and rejection of instincts and impulses as found in much rationalist dogma, but one affirming the deepest parts of our animal natures and collective sympathy. Flux and flow are highlighted when order and stability were previously seen. Not being but becoming.

What emerges from this reconceptualization of our fundamental nature is a “new humanism”--one finally realizing the wholeness of our minds and no longer content to be a caricature of the Enlightenment thinkers' ideal of what humans's should be, one stressing what we are, rather than what we should be, one dissolving the gap found in all social sciences between systematic models of utilitarian, calculating, goal-oriented and rule-governed behavior and our more nuanced, more integral, caring selves. 

This acknowledgment celebrates human wholeness by acknowledging how our values are constituted; reason is an outcome of passion.

This does not mean we must abandon the peaks of scientific logic and goal-oriented behavior. By insisting on the power of pathos we achieve a complex integration that spans the contradictions between reason and emotion, that supports our integrity and need for community and relationship.

The ontological reality of humanity keeps us from reducing our complex actions into psychological projections and sociological constructs that modernity needed.  We are not rational individuals following rules and using reason. We are social animals with complex biological instincts and impulses and needs for relationships and community. Deeply caring about some things, our rational mind achieves goals through systematic rules, mechanisms and logics; outer order, harmony and sense-making is tempered by inner feelings, unconscious drives and heart-felt emotion.

Nietzsche and the Dionysian Religion of the Future
While many people know Nietzsche as the atheistic and nihilistic author of The Anti-Christ, who proclaimed “God is dead”, the truth is that Nietzsche was a deeply spiritual man who prophesied a “new Dionysian religion of the future”.  Nietzsche believed that the death of the Judeo-Christian God was a spiritual event needed for humanity to advance to a higher state of being, a Superman.  The ultimate goal of the “death of God” is not atheism or nihilism, but the “re-evaluation of all values”.  In a sense, the old god must die so that society can take a new form.
A central tenet of Nietzsche’s thought is that the prevailing myths of modernity–progress, reason and moral order–are decadent and are supported by values which are life denying.  Nietzsche prophesied the advent of a “new form of divinity”.  The Dionysian religion of the future will supposedly worship a Pagan god that affirms life.  It will be immanentist and pantheist, and not offer an “afterlife”, but rather direct our focus to the here and now.  Nietzsche fought against nihilism and sought to build a higher form of humanity.  As noted, the “death of God” was a spiritual event which would allow the true affirmation of life.  Nietzsche placed great importance on the meaning of suffering in Christianity compared with a life-affirming “tragic” perspective.  Tragic humans affirm “even the harshest suffering: he [sic] is sufficiently strong rich and capable of deifying to do so”.  The Christian view sees suffering as an objection against life, and life-negating.   Nietzsche asks his readers if he has been understood when he boldly lays out the contrasting perspectives offered:  “Dionysus versus the Crucified”–either we can create a new life-affirming Dionysian religion or we can remain with the old life-denying Christianity.
Nietzsche believed that in moments of Dionysian ecstasy are to be found the supreme affirmation of life.  In our “primordial being’, the subjective mind is dissolved, and our bonds with nature is reconciled.  Ecstasy releases us from the ruling mythology and into a realm of ego-less becoming.  This shamanic use of techniques of ecstasy to transform consciousness and to change worldviews might be something useful for us to consider as we seek to re-sacralize the natural world.

George Bataille, Lustful Pornographer of Nothingness

George Bataille's writings explore visions of excess. For Bataille, reason promotes the values of homogeneous societies--societies which are standardized and regulated and lacking vitality and force. Earlier societies were enchanted and filled with an exuberance of life. This is because acts of transgression can allow humans to shatter their egos, while strengthening social bonds and reaffirming cultural values. 

Bataille saw civilizations as lacking proximity to the sacred and life is now not lived with intensity. During the 1930s Bataille founded the “College de Sociologie” in Paris, an infamous institution which combined a loose-knit group of highly influential intellectuals concerned with “sacred sociology”. 

Participants included some of Fance's most well-known thinkers of the interwar period, including Roger Callois, Walter Benjamin, Pierre Klossowski, Jean Wahl, Michel Leiris, Alexandre Kojeve, Andre Masson.

Bataille wrote a very influential book on Nietzsche and it is through him that the post-structuralists and postmodernists got introduced to Nietzsche.   Some of his dominant themes include: base materialism, the accursed share, immanence, the sacred, heterogenous matter, the pineal eye, slow slicing, transgression, excess, eroticism, inner experience, desire, potlatch, the solar anus and sacrifice. 

Modernity needs the Dionysian, Nietzsche and Bataille seem to be saying, as a palliative to utilitarian reason.

Concluding Remarks

So the point that I am making here is: say yes to life.  Despite all the pains, suffering and anguish you are likely to encounter on your journey through life, you can choose to celebrate the affirmation of life as exuberant and joyful. 

Even if your passions lead you to excess, and you are momentarily carried outside the boundaries of conventional society, and loose control of yourself, your experience can be a valued as source of truth and self-understanding.

While Dionysian Thinking, as I have come to embrace it, has all types of basic assumptions, principles, trajectories and consequences, that it remains so positive and hopeful at its core is an important feature of this philosophic worldview and an excellent first element to begin an exposition of its central ideas.

The ecstatic frenzy of the Maenads and Satyrs is closely related to the induced shamanic journeys of earlier tribal societies. Humans have embraced mystical states of consciousness for most of our history and this "Ur-Eine" or “Will to Party” reveals how non-rational activities, such as pursuing bodily pleasures to excess, can bring forth self-knowledge, worldly truths and sacred bliss. 

Through the transgression of conventional boundaries and taboos, we come into contact with our desires.  When such activities are pursued as a spiritual quest they contribute to a vitality for life not found through mere rational and utilitarian means.

Many contemporary thinkers who attempt to make sense of the changes in society since the Enlightenment emphasize the values of reason in human progress and have marginalized emotions, metaphysics, magic and mystical experiences.  Much of classical social theory celebrates the triumph of reason in what they see as ever expanding enlightenment, freedom and progress. 

In contrast, Dionysian Theory curses the decadence, destruction and exhaustion of the modern era resulting from the “iron cage” of “rationality”.

Rationalization has negative effects on society, including standardization or homogenization, loss of enchantment, the destruction of nature, political repression and the overly scientific worldviews.  Dionysian Thinking also rejects the great systematic philosophers who follow the road to science as the “one right way” to describe reality, closing off all other possibilities.

Dionysian Thinking follows Pauline Rosenau in laying out these key features of post-modern social theory:
  1. It is critical of modern society and of its failure to deliver on its promises;
  2. It tends to reject grand narratives and systematic theories;
  3. It tends to accord great important to phenomena such as “emotions, feelings, intuition, reflection, speculation, personal experience, custom, violence, metaphysics, tradition, cosmology, magic, myth, religious sentiment, and mystical experience” (Rosenau 1992: 6);
  4. It tends to break disciplinary boundaries;
  5. It rejects the careful and reasoned style of modern academic discourse and instead aims to shock or startle, and has a more literary style;
  6. It devotes its attention to the periphery ...” on what has been taken for granted, what has been neglected, regions of resistance, the forgotten, the irrational, the insignificant, the repressed, the borderline, the classical, the sacred, the traditional, the eccentric, the sublimated, the subjugated, the rejected, the non-essential, the marginal, the peripheral, the excluded, the tenuous, the silenced, the accidental, the dispersed, the disqualified, the deferred, the disjointed.
All of these things can be found in Dionysian Thinking.

The rationalist tradition of Western Civilization is sustained by practitioners whose intellectual work consists of authoritative statements neatly linked into grand systems.  As Rorty has argued (1979), systematic philosophies involve a belief in the human subject as the knower of essences and the search for a single all-encompassing vocabulary resulting in the answer” (cited Ritzer Sociological Theory p. 24).

Rationalist thinkers favor the road taken by science because it sees that as the one right way of describing reality.  In contrast, Dionysian Thinkers are suspicious of all the pretensions of systematic philosophy, and instead offer satires, parodies, and aphorisms.

Their intention is to momentarily react.  They offer only interpretations.   They momentarily destroy, hoping to keep space open for the sense of wonder which poets (and madmen) can sometimes cause...something which (at least for the moment) cannot be explained and can barely be described (Rorty 1979: 369-370).

My sense of the "political" has been shaped by Dionysian Thinking.  My engagement with post-anarchist thought, particularly the work of Hakim Bey, Todd May, and Lewis Call, only reinforced my interest in Nietzschean studies and my rejection of Enlightenment epistemologies.  And as I immersed myself in French "post-structuralist" thought, particularly the work of Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, I found ways out of the quagmires that Enlightenment thinking presented.  

Hakim Bey sees revolution as unobtainable within the Spectacle, because the revolution will always be annexed by the super-ansorbent powers of the State.  Resistance is embodied in everyday instances that refuse to engage directly with the Spectacle.  Bey's notion of the "temporary autonomous zone" celebrates those fleeting moments of anarchy that occur in everyday life.