Dionysian Ethics and the Antihero’s Journey

Most of us, having grown up on Saturday morning cartoons, had a pretty simple idea of heroism as kids.  The frames by which we understand Star Wars or Batman are some of the first narrative templates we acquire, and as children it seems to pervade the romanticized accounts we have of various historical events; not least the John Wayne “good vs. evil” frames by which we see the American Revolution, the American Civil War, and World War II.  Movies such as Abraham Lincoln Vampire (which I haven’t seen, but know enough about the plot to talk about) are a prime example: the first scene in the movie shows Abraham Lincoln as a kid getting into a fight with a slaveowner as an act of protest against the racist forces of his time (in reality, even Harriet Beecher Stowe, one of the most influential abolitionists of all time, had opinions about blacks that would rightfully make her a bigot by today’s standards), and later on his wife is shown as admiring his allegedly anti-racist sentiments (in reality, his wife’s family owned tons of slaves.)  But you don’t need me to tell you that those childhood tales in which only the truly and irredeemably evil were killed were mere fantasies; the ugly complexities and horrors of the world quickly come into view when one starts reading more in adolescence, and while the problems initially seem like inexcusable acts that can be resisted with simple, albeit difficult, actions, it becomes more clear as time goes on that the modern world, in its vast complexity and interconnectedness, takes us along for the ride whether we like it or not.

Such thoughts led me to wonder about what is and what should be considered ethical in a world that has created a horrifying synergy between violence and complexity.  While an analytic approach would leave us fruitlessly looking for axioms and leave us running in circles from the inevitable creep of unexamined assumptions, a lot can be learned by examining the cultural archetypes that shape our unstable consensus about morality: particularly the hero, a figure that stands at the intersection of morality and agency.  For our more complex and cynical postmodern age, however, there is another trope that fascinates me: the antihero.  While the antihero has arguably existed as long as the hero (I think back to the seemingly ambiguous ethics of Hellenic heroes such as Odysseus), today’s ubiquity of antiheroes in TV, movies, and novels seems to reflect some of our collective confusion while simultaneously paying tribute to more timeless ideas that may have been overlooked in moments of idealism.

Where the stereotypical selfless hero serves the Apollonian ideas of order and generativity, contemporary antiheroes are Dionysian destroyers; sometimes selfishly so, other times for a more nuanced version of what we might tentatively call “The Greater Good”.  The use of such terms is not just pretentious window dressing either: the labels of “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” refer to the two main archetypes in Friedrich Nietzche’s The Birth of Tragedy, respectively representing creation and destruction.  While Nietzche was primarily concerned with aesthetics, his archetypes later found themselves conceptually re-imagined as the essential conflict between creation and destruction known as dialectic and has since shaped many writers such as Hegel, Marx, Schumpeter, Boyd, Derrida, and Taleb among many others.  It’s the key concept behind my entry on allostatic economics, and it also underlies one of the most common templates for understanding the heroic archetype: The Hero’s Journey, as elucidated in Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  Before getting into that, however, let’s talk about “The Greater Good” (before we continue, here’s some comic relief in case you need it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2qRDMHbXaM)

Feel Locally, Pause Globally

The issues of morality that we struggle with have more to do with scale than anything else.  While we may occasionally debate about whether to tell someone a “white lie” or tell them the harsh truth, our knowledge of morality on a micro-scale is hardly ever topic for debate.  Anyone with half a brain can tell you that if someone is in danger that helping them is the right thing to do, or that it’s not okay to murder someone.  The kinds of ethical rules that we follow when dealing with our friends and family and those who are in our immediate vicinity are what make up micro-morality.  Micro-morality is instinctive: it’s based on the response we have to what is up close and personal: our horror at seeing abused animals or starving children, or our instinct to run to help our child when they scrape their knee on the playground.  Rather than being derived from any kind of logical inference, we choose our responses based on our sentiments.

Our sentiments do very well for handling the specific, but they are utterly clueless when it comes to the general.  While it may seem that we are horrified by the wreckage of a natural disaster far away or the casualties of a major war, this cringing of ours only happens when we are thinking about a specific image or story about the event; one in which we can imagine a specific person that is affected by the tragedy; thus the dreary aphorism that “one death is a tragedy, a million a statistic.”  Unfortunately, an individual story can never be an appraisal of the big picture: the world is too complex, and more than just the aggregate of many statistically independent vectors.  Nor does utilitarianism fare any better (in fact, it fares much worse when we consider the kinds of utopian delusions it can lead to), as there is no simple numeraire, let alone method of calculation, that can tell us what is categorically best in the big picture.  Even if we could, it would likely look horrifyingly callous to our sentiment-based instincts: for every isolationist who sees Obama’s drone strikes as a heartless calculated slaughter, there’s a neoliberal who sees Ron Paul’s fiscal conservatism as an economic nightmare for those whose survival would be threatened by the resulting contraction of the world economy.  Even in the cases where one measure could obviously do more good than another, it often contradicts our basic moral instincts: the second set of casualties from the September 11th attacks came from people avoiding flying and driving their cars more often.  Cars are literally over 50 times as dangerous (in casualties per million miles traveled) as planes, and tens of thousands of people in the US die in car crashes every year, but we’ll unfailingly feel more terror at the instant one-time taking of 3,000 lives.

One might consider that to be a case for moral relativism: but this is something that I strongly disagree with.  The tired argument that there is no logically provable system of first principles for “right” and “wrong” runs in direct contradiction to our instinctively defined ideas about how people ought to be treated.  Those who say “well just because our genes are fooling us, doesn’t mean it’s true” somehow miss that our subjective experience as humans is fundamentally incorrigible, and that saying that logic trumps our experience is like saying that someone crying out in pain isn’t “actually in pain” because the wrong area of the brain is lighting up.  This has always been very tough for me to argue, and I blame it on how we currently use the dichotomy of “subjective” and “objective” to mean “relative” and “absolute”–but that implies that there’s something inherently “relative” about experience and something inherently “absolute” about things that are defined independently of experience.  Instead, I’d say that micro-morality is subjective but absolute due to its strict adherence to our emotional state, and macro-morality to be objective but relative due to the fact that it is something that we can reason about, but at the same time is too complex for us to ever find an absolute answer.

Of course, even if we had a good idea of what counts for “the greater good”, we still have the pesky issue of unintended consequences, which plague nearly every well-intentioned effort in our complex global civilization.  If the risk of basing our macro-morality on sentiment requires us to be cold and calculating, then the futility of quantifying what serves the “greater good” requires that we be merely cold; to pause and think twice before we choose our actions.  Put more simply: micro-morality is hot, macro-morality is cold.  Unsurprisingly, the courageous and selfless heroes we see in stories are almost always hot-blooded: they feel anger, passion, indignation, and determination.  Antiheroes (who, yes, I still have yet to define more clearly), by contrast, have cultivated a greater stillness; perhaps with the exception of their more personal hangups, which can serve to motivate them in their goals.  This is no easy task: it is inescapably human to see a wound and want to bandage it; but sometimes this very urge can get in our very way when what’s necessary is not creation but destruction.  The movie Batman Begins revolves around this idea, but rather than watch two hours of Christian Bale making funny noises (okay, okay, it was actually a good movie), I invite you to watch a ten minute presentation by Slavoj Zizek on the unintended consequences of charity.  I don’t fully agree with him, but his argument is framed along the same lines, and acknowledges the unpleasant necessity of creative destruction:

Smith’s Telos vs. Schumpeter’s Deities

Seeing destruction as good is inherently counter-intuitive.  Although we sometimes speak of “destroying” corruption or poverty or discrimination, these are gentle abstractions.  Real destruction always comes with morbidity, and oftentimes with casualties.  Our association of good with creation and evil with destruction is in fact a natural extension of our micro-morality, and is embedded deeply enough into our psyche that even Zizek, despite seeing charity as a tragic irony that keeps a failing system from being destroyed, immediately sees George Soros’ acts of economic destruction as a supposedly obvious example of why global capitalism is a morally problematic system (NB: I am not making a debate for or against capitalism, that’s an entirely different subject.)

Without such economic destruction, however, resources would be indefinitely tied up in places where they don’t do any good (for more elaboration, see my previous post Phenomenological Opacity, Accounting Identities, and Allostasis).  That is not to say, however, that this destruction is not a dirty job.  It is tempting here to even say that Soros is doing nothing wrong, that he is merely “allocating resources more efficiently”, but such an idea hearkens back to the flawed concept of utilitarianism by implying that there is something to be maximized, and by extension some final outcome that we get closer to with every improvement in efficiency.  The result is not a cyclical view of history, but rather a teleological one; one that has arguably entered our own modern times in the form of our popular faith in the notion of “human progress.”

Although I’m no expert on early liberal philosophy, the philosopher John Gray, in his book Black Mass, has taken note of the teleology inherent in philosophers and economists of the liberal tradition.  The popular notion of the “Invisible Hand” of the market originally was actually a reference to God, who he believed to be the guiding force behind the complex coordination of many individual actors.  This might just be a pantheistic interpretation of the process of self-organization, but Smith’s devout practice of Christianity suggests that this process was nonetheless directed towards some final end.  The presence of a divine benevolence behind these transactions also provides a comfortable means to reconcile our sentiments with the greater order of things, as God is a human face to put on what is otherwise an emergent network of individual heuristics.  From this more teleological viewpoint, there is hope of a sound justification, and in the idea that should we choose wisely, or perhaps submit to a higher power, we’ll have done what’s ultimately correct; an idea that I’ll revisit in a bit.

In the absence of efficiency, utilitarianism, or any kind of anthropomorphic teleological force, morality takes on a quality of absurdity.  With no cosmic plan on which to anchor our macro-morality, we are left to look at Soros’ creative destruction through the micro-moral lens of sentiment.  It would almost seem here that he really is doing no good through his acts of destruction, but as my peer Greg Linster put it, without death, there cannot be life.  Forest fires burn down trees and spread the nutrients contained in the ashes, genes improve through natural selection, and failed businesses go bankrupt and cede their resources to new ventures.  This is the essence of what the economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction”**  History, in this view, is cyclical rather than teleological; a fundamentally allostatic process where the flattening out of its cycles are mere death rather than any grand revelation.  In this view of things, destruction is necessary, but not in any way that is unambiguously reconcilable with our sentiments.  There’s no grand plan that tells us what to destroy, just destruction happening for its own reasons that vary with each case.

Even then, it is not only human, but also morally imperative that we do not entirely disconnect from our sentiments, as they still serve as the sole reason for our macro-morality; we still ought to cringe when we witness the suffering of individuals.  For this reason, the contradictions of macro-morality do not suggest moral relativism so much as they reveal some fundamental absurdity about the world.  Where Adam Smith’s invisible hand can be equated with a benevolent God that will eventually liberate us from a petty and convoluted reality, Schumpeter’s blind and ubiquitous creative destruction more closely resembles the rowdy and debauched deities of the classical era.  According to the Hero’s Journey, the hero always submits himself to a higher power; the antihero, should they take on their mission, does the same for Schumpeter’s raucous band of supernatural knaves.

The Dionysian Journey

While the concepts of dialectic and creative destruction may only have been formalized a short time ago, they’ve been passed down tacitly through myths for countless generations according to Campbell.  The central theme of the hero’s journey is rebirth: death symbolizes a fundamental rite of passage.  Thousands of years later, the same wisdom applies in the exact same way: in order to grow, your old self needs to be put to the test and broken; you need to die so you can emerge as something stronger.  Every adaptation is a kind of death, and those who become too fearful of such death inevitably submit themselves to a slow and painful process of atrophy.  The hero undergoes this transformation after he is given the call to action, in which some force has thrown the world out of balance.  In order to bring the world back into balance, he must undergo a process of transformation, after which he is able to restore the world as he knew it.  The same task is incumbent upon the antihero, but his transformation is a far harsher one that tests the limits of his very humanity.  For each antihero, it is different, and they fall into a number of different archetypes.

The most straightforward kind of antihero may be the ones that are known as “lawful neutral.”  They are not necessarily unethical, but their primary drive is a relatively rigid sense of duty rather than sentiment.  James Bond is a textbook example: many of the villains he faces are agents who were previously betrayed by either him or the organization in favor of the mission.  In newer incarnations of Bond, he is a much more dark and brooding character who’s learned the hard way that sentiment is a liability, and has stoically resigned himself to serving as an apparatus of order.  His duty is simultaneously his remaining connection to humanity–not necessarily teleological, but the priority of saving human lives is a micro-moral one that keeps some semblance of reason.  Jack Bauer is another good example of such a character: he is willing to kill, torture, and break the law in order to protect the country from existential threat; but not without a heavy moral toll that exacts itself upon him and culminates in his ritual of atonement with an Imam at the end of the penultimate season.  The link to humanity is nonetheless a precarious one: both Bond and Bauer have enemies who were originally on their side who have suffered too much from the violence of their role.  Some, like Alec Trevelyan and Tony Almeida, have simply taken too much damage from what they’ve been through (a near-death experience and the loss of a wife and kid respectively.)  Others, such as Stephen Saunders from the third season of 24, have lost faith in the system that they support, and decide that something drastic must be done.  They, too, are a kind of anti-hero, and one that I consider to be the opposite of the lawful neutral: the fundamentalist.

Where the lawful neutral usually plays the role of hero, the fundamentalist more often than not takes up the role of villain.  They are almost always seeking a kind of finality; unlike the conventional hero who works to keep the world in a kind of balance, the fundamentalist is looking for dramatic changes, revolution, and in some cases either apocalypse or utopia.  For this reason, they are oftentimes the villain of stories, as they cross the line from respecting Schumpeter’s deities to delusionally believing in Smith’s benevolent telos.  Saunders, whom I mentioned just a minute ago, is one such arguably delusional fundamentalist.  After years of torture in a POW camp in the Balkans, his perspective changes and he finds the system upheld by Bauer and his counter-terrorist friends to be morally abhorrent.  His grievances against the United States, although arguably valid (NB: not making an anti-American argument here, just acknowledging that empires commit large scale crimes), are taken to an extreme in his plans to cripple the American empire once and for all by releasing a deadly contagious virus that kills 90% of its victims.  A more subtle example can be found in Alan Moore’s graphic novel The Watchmen, in which a former superhero by the name of Ozymandias stops an impending nuclear war by faking an alien invasion that results in the death of hundreds of thousands in the city of New York.  His act was very likely necessary for the survival of civilization, and his own words show just how aware he was of the gravity of his actions:

“What’s significant is that I know.  I know I’ve struggled on the backs of murdered innocents to save humanity… But someone had to take the weight of that awful, necessary crime.”

It would seem from this moment of alleged self-awareness that he had indeed grown from an idealistic young crime-fighter who believed that violence could be solved like a simple optimization problem, to a man who embraced the worst violence imaginable to prevent an even bigger catastrophe.  His utopian hubris, however, is shown in full view as he gloats to his would-be saboteurs about what he has supposedly done for humanity:

“My new world demands less obvious heroism, making your schoolboy heroics redundant.  What have they achieved?  Failing to prevent Earth’s salvation is your only triumph, and yet that failure overshadows every past success!  By default you usher in an age of illumination so dazzling that humanity will reject the darkness in its heart…”

The lawful neutral and the fundamentalist both find manifestations in real life as well.  Modern warfare exacts suffering on a horrifying scale, but it most likely continues to be a necessary action even in the best of cases.  Two people could spend a lifetime arguing whether Henry Kissinger was a war criminal or a national hero, but for our purposes it suffices to say that he felt obliged to keep peace by maintaining a balance of power between the world’s two superpowers and protect the well being and safety of the American people.  The fundamentalist also embraces this ambiguity in real life, though I’m convinced that fundamentalist organizations such as Al-Qaeda are engaging in a much more unambiguously senseless brand of violence that comes from utopian fantasies; a matter that I may revisit in later posts.

Perhaps most true to the antihero is a third kind, which taking a note from Venkatesh Rao’s essay, The Gervais Principle, I have labeled the sociopath.  Rao’s sociopath is not so much a sociopath in layman’s terms as he is someone who has withdrawn from the socially constructed reality of his former companions (who make up two other subgroups, the “losers” and the “clueless”) in order to answer to what he considers a higher ethical code.  In this way, he is very similar to my own description of the antihero, but differs in that he gains a more fundamentally nihilist outlook and may find himself completely disconnected from any trace of human sentiment.  Having already addressed order and revolution as two different antiheroic moral codes, my own categorization of the sociopath is one that has abandoned much of their morality to seek their own personal gain.  Unlike the villain, however, they are usually more sympathetically presented and are ultimately looking for some kind of redemption.  Walter White, the main character in the show Breaking Bad is a prime example: originally cooking meth in an attempt to save his family’s finances before he dies of cancer, he slowly slips away from his loved ones and becomes caught in a struggle against his own addiction to the new-found power he feels as he ascends to the status of drug kingpin.  In the realm of video games, Sarah Kerrigan, one of several protagonists in the Starcraft franchise undergoes a similar transformation; originally an idealistic freedom fighter with a past history of family deaths, abduction, and experimentation, she is eventually mutated into an alien-human hybrid who quickly becomes known as the scourge of the sector.  Consumed with rage at the betrayal that led to the incident, she is seen as a sympathetic character despite this status as arch-villain.  When she miraculously regains her humanity, she quickly realizes that it is her inevitable fate to transform back in to the hybrid, and while her actions become more moral, she nonetheless decimates entire worlds in order to get back at those who betrayed her and prepare her army to face a greater power that threatens to the entire sector.

An arguable sub-category of the sociopath is the narcissist; although in real life the narcissist is different than the sociopath, they are very similar in my current taxonomy.  They are both self-interested, but the quest of the narcissist is more particular: it is a quest for identity.  Walter White in fact falls under this, because his quest for power is ultimately one for validation.  A more striking example, however, is Don Draper of Mad Men; a man whose only purpose is to build an inhabit his new identity.  Prior to faking his own death, he was Dick Whitman.  Since then, he will do everything in his power to prevent anybody from finding out his past, even declining to tell his first wife and keeping traces of his old life in a locked cabinet.  It is not just this overt scam that he is trying to preserve, however: everything from his marriages, to his affairs, to his quest for power are part of his quest to create a convincing identity to inhabit that is as far away as possible from his old self.  As the facade breaks down in various places, he ends the most recent season by making plans to move to California, yet another scheme that gives him the hope of truly “starting over.”  The narcissist, interestingly enough, could be seen as a cross between the sociopath and the fundamentalist, since their own quest for identity is its own utopianism; a belief that if only they could play the perfect role, all would be well.

Like all antiheroic quests, however, it is not one that lends itself to clean endings and revelations.  Some antiheroes, like the lawful neutral, are more likely to understand this than others such as the fundamentalist.    Like the hero, however, the antihero undergoes change, and so the fundamentalist can always take on a less ruthless goal than utopia while the lawful neutral may one day become disillusioned with the continual injustice he decides to prop up.  At the end of The Watchmen, we are left to wonder what choice Ozymandias will make when he asks the godlike being Dr. Manhattan about the true significance of his actions:

Ozymandias: I did the right thing, didn’t I?  It all works out in the end.

Dr. Manhattan: “In the end”?  Nothing ends, Adrian.  Nothing ever ends.





*This is one of the reasons why I continue to see literary analysis as a field that is far from irrelevant, even if it produces a great deal of frivolity in the process.


**There was some philosopher well before Schumpeter that came up with this idea, but I don’t remember who that is.  Whether we like it or not, the concept is popularly attributed to Schumpeter.


4 thoughts on “Dionysian Ethics and the Antihero’s Journey

  1. Jed Trott

    Smith talks of a more general emergent order while Schumpeter is talking of a more specific destruction. Thus the fundamentalist who tries to enforce a Smithian order is at odds with the idea of a structure that is constructed without the particular intent or knowledge of any singular actor. This is an important difference: Smith’s telos can’t be driven by one man’s actions.

    1. alexboland Post author

      Very true: a top-down effort is very anti-Smithian in that way. At the time, I was thinking more about the mathematical implications of envisioning society as a mechanical system that is capable of producing local and/or global optima. In addition, there’s that fundamental belief that reliably connects sentiments to the greater good, which Smith does seem to overtly have.

      This actually brings up a good opportunity to think about another distinction: the narcissist believes that he can make the world in his own image. The fundamentalist believes that his actions, however seemingly extreme, are part of a divine plan; the former is contrary to Smith’s teleology, but the latter is not.

      I realized that I really dropped the ball on describing the narcissist. Don Draper’s quest for identity is primarily about shaping the rest of the world in his own (imagined) image.

  2. Persius

    Very interesting! Nice to see you in your new(ish) online home, where you can express yourself at length (and not on that account worse: good work!). I enjoy this piece.

    1. alexboland Post author

      This essay is admittedly very old–I keep on letting perfectionism get in the way of completing new ones!


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