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The Age of Dionysus

Robert D. Kaplan—

Many hope and believe that the murderous autocratic regimes in Russia and Iran must eventually give way to democracy. But it may be a long struggle. I am reminded of what the Lebanese intellectual and man of letters, Elias Khoury, told me in Beirut in 1998, in reference to the terrifying Baathist governments in Syria and Iraq at the time: “These regimes have succeeded in destroying not only their societies but any alternative to themselves. Because no alternative can survive, the choice may be between total control and total chaos.”1 Likewise, whatever their unique circumstances and their vast differences with those Arab regimes, we should at the least not expect smooth transitions in Moscow and Tehran. We should be on our guard against local forces of disruption. Not only could the Russian Empire disband with disorder in Moscow, but the Kurdish, Arab, and Baluch peripheries of Iran could breakaway, with no one really in control in Tehran. Though I continue to believe that Iran is particularly suited for democracy, I worry, nevertheless, since it is much easier to start a rebellion than to replace a hated regime with an institutional and bureaucratic alternative.

The French philosopher Albert Camus understood the dilemma. In one of his greatest books, The Rebel, he writes that rebellion is eternal to the human condition, yet, “When the throne of God is overturned, the rebel realizes that it is now his own responsibility to create the justice, order, and unity…and in this way to justify the fall of God.”2 By itself, the toppling of kings and tyrants does not always morally validate the rebel. Ousting a suffocating dictatorship in the Middle East or even in Russia and Iran is not by itself a moral act, in other words, unless one has developed some sort of a plan or idea for something better. The rebel must replace the old order with a new one that is more just, or at least more benign.

This all may seem counterintuitive. What could be worse than President Vladimir Putin in Moscow and the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Tehran? Perhaps nothing. But both countries have nuclear weapons programs, and both have so destroyed their own civil societies that it is best to draw lessons from the ancients in terms of what we might face.

Indeed, anarchy was the ancient Greeks’ greatest, most fundamental fear. The Greeks were too rational to ignore the power of the irrational that lay on the other side of civilization. They saw no moral equivalency between order and disorder. In Greek tragedy, an orderly universe—the opposite of chaos— is always a virtue. The modern world lost this sensibility amid the monstrous perversions of order imposed by Hitler and Stalin, which helped inspire the dystopian fiction of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949): two books that featured regimes so chilling that they gave order itself a bad name.

For the non-rational side of the human spirit the Greeks created an immortal symbol: Dionysus. Dionysus was the “patron-god of Tragedy,” the god with whom the writhing stage chorus was associated.3 He was the god of arousal, ecstasy, dreams, fantasies, fanaticisms, and ultimately of chaos. He is in effect the opposite of wisdom and reason. But while he must be resisted, the fanatical forces he unleashes can never be denied. The god’s victory in this struggle is among the central stories of Greek tragedy.

Winston Churchill, who had spent much of his life reading and writing about history, and experiencing colonial wars first-hand as a soldier and war correspondent, had an intuition about Dionysian tragedy. Thus, he saw through Hitler before anyone else in the British establishment. The late Harvard classicist Charles Segal writes that without “the painful possibility of seeing life as chaos,” our civilized order “would become sterile, self-enclosed, solipsistic,” and we ourselves would become arrogant with the hubris of our own intellectual power.4

The Bacchae, women frenzied with wine, were the foot soldiers of Dionysus. They rushed through the woods, swept up in ecstasy, emitting ferocious cries, tearing to pieces the wild creatures they met, and devouring their flesh. Nothing could restrain the Bacchae. The mob in all its rage and terror—the Cossack pogroms, the Nazi mass rallies, the Serbian rape camps, the sectarian death squads during the Iraq War, the roving bands of Russian war criminals in Ukraine—all contain elements of the fanaticism, the vitality, and the sheer deadly enthusiasm of the Bacchae. Though the Bacchae were immortalized in an eponymous play by Euripides, they are not just creatures of mythology, but in analytical terms part of our very world. For the Bacchae, to repeat, are close in nature to the crowd or mob, potentially the most frightening formation in politics.

Nobel laureate Elias Canetti’s insights into the phenomenon of crowd formation in Crowds and Power (1960) have a spiritual ancestor in Euripides’s play, as Canetti defines the crowd as a mass of people who abandon their individuality in favor of an intoxicating collective symbol. In this, the impulse to destroy ultimately comes from the impulse to escape into an altered consciousness. The individuals in a crowd want to lose themselves in the communal will. Predictably, Canetti got his inspiration from observing the mobs in Vienna on the eve of the Nazi takeover of Austria.

This all should be obvious, yet it isn’t. Why is that? Why are we not more afraid of such forces? Perhaps because it is outside the personal experience system of the upper-middle class and its orderly existence from which the policy community is mostly drawn. The policy community inhabits a world of ideas and competing theories. Thus, nothing terrifies it so much as authoritarianism, which crushes such ideas and does not permit debate. And authoritarianism is just so obvious, since dictators are always in the news. In fact, while journalists obsess about unelected strongmen, it is the very lack of governance that could pose the greater risk, and not only in the developing world, but in the West, too. Yet Dionysian anarchy is especially hard to communicate unless one has experienced its bowel-churning reality up close as I have. For example, there is nothing like the memory of naked physical insecurity at a makeshift roadblock in the African bush, manned by carousing soldiers wearing only parts of uniforms with their rifle safeties off, to concentrate one’s thinking—to know at the most vivid, tangible level what exactly is chaos and the absolute absence of authority.

Or take another, utterly different example from another era and another part of the world: the anarchy of the Russian Revolution in 1917 that deposed the czar. Crowds assaulting police stations with stones and chunks of ice; gangs of youths dismantling long revered public statues; criminals released from the prisons. Soldiers in their thousands deserting the army after nearly beating to death their officers. All this is described in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Red Wheel series of novels. It was from such Dionysian chaos that Lenin and the Bolsheviks emerged, to murder and enslave tens of millions and give the 20th century its horrifying direction. The worse the anarchy, the worse the tyranny that follows, and vice versa, as we saw in Iraq after the Americans toppled Saddam Hussein.

The issue, as the Greeks knew, is anarchy foremost, which at all costs must be prevented. As Thomas Hobbes was among the first to explain, order must come before freedom since without order there is no freedom for anybody, and the most awful calamities result. It is only when order has been achieved, that one can go about making that order less and less oppressive. To accept order, any kind, can be an awful proposition. Look at the Middle East. In every country that saw an uprising for democracy, collectively known as the Arab Spring in 2011, outright chaos, disorder, or abject disappointment and confusion eventually resulted, with vast destruction of life and property in the cases of Libya, Yemen, and Syria. No political model emerged to improve life: whereas in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies, royal dictatorships have quietly resulted in decades-long stability, a fair degree of personal freedoms, and ongoing prosperity.

Democracy, when it is institutionally stable, has proven to be the most benign form of order, the perfect equipoise between political extremes. But when it fails to build sturdy institutions and is wracked by violent unrest, as in a quite a number of countries in the developing world over the decades, then order must be searched for elsewhere. Again, it can be a cruel proposition. Liberal internationalists and neoconservatives are right: tyranny is on the ropes in several critically important countries. But an Age of Dionysus could follow.


  1. Robert D. Kaplan, Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus. New York: Random House, 2000, p. 156.
  2. Albert Camus, The Rebel, translated by Anthony Bower, 1951. Vintage International edition, p. 25.
  3. F. L. Lucas, Greek Tragedy and Comedy, 1954, Viking paperback edition, pp. 4-5.
  4. Charles Segal, Tragedy and Civilization, 1981, University of Oklahoma Press paperback edition, p. 42.

Robert D. Kaplan is the author of The Tragic Mind: Fear, Fate, and the Burden of Power, published by Yale University Press. He holds the Robert Strausz-Hupé Chair in Geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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