Dionysian Attributes

Reflecting on the Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy, I always recall one contemporary author, Nassim Nicholas Taleb. While our pursuit of knowledge is basically for the Apollonian order, his works remind us of the Dionysian chaos.

Every few years Taleb released his book, and every time it reminded me of the Dionysian attributes. Let me introduce them one by one.

  • Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (2001)
  • The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007)
  • The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms (2010)
  • Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder (2012)
  • Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life (2018)

Perhaps not all of us could be fond of his narrative. It often sounds sarcastic, even contemptuous. But then, interestingly, this very style itself looks like the way drunken Dionysus (aka Bacchus) is talking about and laughing at our stupid, naive intelligence and seriousness.

As intellectuals, we tirelessly pursue knowledge, order, and harmony, and other Apollonian attributes. But then, it seems “Dionysian” Taleb always kicks our ass. He points out how much we were wasting our efforts, exposing our intellectual deceptions.

After all, our pursuit of knowledge is merely part of our self-satisfaction to deceive us, believing that we can understand the secret of the world and universe.

In his first book, Fooled by Randomness taught us how easily and deceptively we could see false causality out of pure randomness. Our cognitive perception cannot tolerate randomness without any meaningfulness.

Beyond confusions between correlation and causality, we always distort what we see. We only see what we see, and we are happy with it. We try to understand various mechanisms from divine interventions to sorcery correlations to laws of physics to quantum mechanics, out of pure randomness. This bold claim sounds so Dionysian.

As its continuation, the concept of the Black Swan was sensational. Our Apollonian instincts always try to predict the future based on past experiences. Deceptively, we believe that what did not take place won’t happen in the future, either. The past must always be the basis and baseline for the future. Thus, we also believe that what happened in the past would take place in the future as its continuation.

Taleb symbolized this deception as a Black Swan. We concluded there was no Black Swan since we had never seen it in the past. We lived this reality until recently, when we found a Black Swan.

After all, Taleb taught us that we could never ensure any improbability based on our experience. In fact, we are encountering a lot of “Black Swan events” such as GAFA, 9/11 Attacks, the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, Brexit, and much more. And usually, due to its nature, these Black Swan events are positively or negatively impactful, even catastrophic.

The Bed of Procrustes consists of his philosophical aphorisms. These also sound so Dionysian, counterintuitive, if not contemptuous. Being a drunken Bacchus, it seems Taleb is laughing at our Apollonian efforts as stupid, naive intellectual moves. These are some examples:

  • What fools call “wasting time” is most often the best investment.
  • Modernity: we created youth without heroism, age without wisdom, and life without grandeur.
  • Preoccupation with efficacy is the main obstacle to a poetic, elegant, robust and heroic life.
  • Those who do not think that employment is systemic slavery are either blind or employed.

And, Antifragile came in. In this work, the author even claimed the superiority of being Dionysian. He uses this particular term, “antifragile.”

Throughout the book, we can see a series of the Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy. The author keeps on telling us the ordered and stable environment makes us fragile, impoverish, even less creative. On the other hand, the disordered and constant risk-taking make us antifragile, which is what we need, the source of true growth and creation.

If you live your life in stable large organizations, then what would happen to you? You will become so fragile. One system breakdown would destroy you completely. “Be antifragile.” When Taleb says so, I feel like he tells us, “Be Dionysian.”

And his latest work is Skin in the Game. This book is again so bold and aggressive. In it, he calls those Apollonian intellectuals as IYI. What is IYI? It stands for Intellectual Yet Idiot.

The IYI pathologizes others for doing things he doesn’t understand without ever realizing it is his understanding that may be limited. He thinks people should act according to their best interests and he knows their interests, particularly if they are “red necks” or English non-crisp-vowel class who voted for Brexit. When plebeians do something that makes sense to them, but not to him, the IYI uses the term “uneducated.” What we generally call participation in the political process, he calls by two distinct designations: “democracy” when it fits the IYI, and “populism” when the plebeians dare voting in a way that contradicts his preferences.

Skin in the Game

It seems IYI guys are so knowledgeable and opinionated, and yet never willing to take their risks. They talk a lot for investment but never use their opinions for their investments. They know a lot of business strategies but never take his own business to use them. They criticize leaders but never lead anything and anyone. For poverty, they enjoy slum tourisms and love to prestigiously work in the international organizations.

What if we seriously and existentially take our own risks? In doing so, their problems can genuinely become ours in a real sense, which is truly having skin in the game.

For example, there are three types of money; one is the money of some you don’t know; the second is the money of someone you love, and the third is your money. We can genuinely commit how to use the money only in the third case.

Moreover, how about there are three types of death? One is the death of someone you don’t know, that is part of our daily news. The second is the death of someone you love. And the third is your death. Facing and embracing the second and third death, our life can be genuinely creative. Furthermore, in this regard, the Crucifixion is also one of the critical Skin in the Game and Dionysian moves. He took the sins of the world through His own death.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

John 3:16

Taleb’s narrative sounds sarcastic, even contemptuous. Reflecting on the perspective of the Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy, it seems we can learn a lot from his books.

Image by Alina Kuptsova

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