The two sons of Zeus couldn’t have been more different. Apollo, god of the sun (not to mention music, poetry, plague and disease) was a logic freak. He prided himself on his rational thinking and sound reasoning. He was forever telling younger brother Dionysus not to touch his carefully ordered record collection — because the lad would yuk his yum in a Santorini second. Dionysus, god of song, wine and dance, was the wild and crazy rebel, frolicking in the orchards, quaffing from the well of life, sowing happy madness wherever he went, with a lampshade on his head.
One day the demigod Orpheus had an insight about the two brothers. These guys represented competing visions of how to live. You can be an Apollonian or you can be a Dionysian. If you’re Apollonian, you plan carefully, think clearly and act decisively. If you’re Dionysian, you feel deeply, live sensually and pivot spontaneously. (Apollo himself wasn’t exactly a modestly restrained Stoic — he was a bit of a hothead. So it’s not a perfect analogy. But who’s to call Orpheus a lyre?)
None of us is exclusively one or the other, of course. In a sense, the struggle between “cold Apollonian categorization and Dionysiac lust and chaos” (as Neitzsche put it) is the tension of the universe. It is the war within the heart of each one of us: the tight-assed bean-counter and the drama queen. “The quarrel between Apollo and Dionysus is the quarrel between the higher cortex and the older limbic and reptilian brains,” Camille Paglia once said. In a healthy culture, Apollonian order beats back Dionysian wild, and learns something from it in the bargain. So the two forces are intertwined. But it’s fun to think about consciously trying to live in just one mode for a short time. Say: twenty-four hours.
I could feel an experiment coming on. And why not conduct it in the land of the gods that hatched the distinction in the first place?
Visiting Greece has topped our family bucket list since as long as the girls have been alive – delayed by finances and then again by Covid. (At 19 and 15, Maddy and Lila are the perfect age: and they’re both into mythology, big-time.) Here was a chance to realize the dream and put a purposeful spin on it. Headin’ to Greece, baby! We’d devote one day to going Full Apollo, and a second day to going Full Dionysus. The experiment would draw out the respective sides of the Greeks themselves, and tap the ice and fire without our own psyches. (Wait, didn’t Spinal Tap have a song about this?)
Summoning Apollo, the god of foresight, Jen set some parameters as we planned the trip. “I want to know that we have a place to stay each night, and at least one meal reservation every day.” This isn’t the way we’d have traveled 25 years ago, but one becomes a little more Apollonian after having kids. Surprises aren’t always a good thing.
The top of our Big Day double-header was clearly going to have to happen in Athens. We would apply logic and common sense as we navigated the ancient city — cradle of reason and philosophical rigour.
Head-first or heart-first: which is a better way to live? Let’s find out!
May 8, 2023, 12:30am: Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport, Athens
The cabbie has punched the airbnb co-ordinates into his GPS and is zipping northwestward through the hills, past olive groves, past the katehaki metro station with its soaring pedestrian bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava.
“Our apartment, is it in a good neighbourhood?” I ask.
The driver hesitates. “I would say no,” he says finally.
“Is it at least … safe?”
“That is how I define your question,” he says.
We don’t linger in the alley where he lets us off.
We spring the key from the lockbox but then can’t get into the suite itself. The lock is an enigma. You have to turn the key three revolutions in the same direction, wiggle it, and say a little prayer to Janus, god of getting through the damn door. When we finally crack it, we discover there are no lights in the suite. Or if there are, we can’t figure out how to turn them on. So we just crash in the dark.
Visiting Greece is a DIY proposition. There are lots of things you have to just … figure out. Like how to put your manual-transmission rental car in reverse. (We’d tackle this one two days later, in the middle of an intersection, with traffic backing up around us in all directions, until the girls finally get out and push.)
Today the plan is to explore the city on foot. Which is as it should be. Aristotle, patron saint of our Big Apollonian Day, founded the so-called “peripatetic” school of philosophy. Walking and talking. What else is there?
8 am Lycobattus Hill. We skip the funicular and trudge up this local mountain to get the lay of the land. There, stretched out below us, is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited human settlements. Athens is a palimpsest. It was flattened in the Roman invasions, rebuilt from scratch and continually amended ever after. Seven thousand years of history, layer upon layer of human striving, humiliations and triumphs, horseshit and silver. To investigate its complexity is a cognitive exercise, like eating baklava with your brain. Some people believe that in places like this there is concentrated energy, and sensitive folk can feel it through the bones of your feet.
We are not yet picking up the woo woo. Because we are in Apollonian mode.
10 am: the acropolis
Strangely, for something that looks like a perfect rectilinear jewel box, there are almost no straight lines on the Parthenon. The canny architects and sculptors who built it knew to account for human perception. So the walls appear to be absolutely plumb, level and square, in a way that they wouldn’t if they were, in fact, plumb, level and square. In a sense, they’re straighter than straight.
The strength and heft of this fortress on the rock: have I mentioned Apollo was also the god of war?
The Athenians were underdogs. Reason was their equalizer. It was their most powerful weapon. They figured it would give them an edge over the more badass Spartans and the Cretans.
You can see evidence of this preoccupation (and self-identity) in their myths. Take the minotaur. Lurking in the shadows of the labyrinth, he is the monster buried in the heart of every one of us. He is chaos, who must be tamed by reason. The Athenian lad Theseus is up to the job — thanks to a clever plan, a ball of string and an able co-conspirator.
We’d downloaded a couple of historical podcasts, and I’m enjoying one of them when Lila pulls me aside, out of the ant-stream of tourists.
“Dad, please. When you’re listening to the audio, don’t stick your tongue out.”
“I’m doing that?”
“Yeah, and around here, that makes you a gorgon. Looks like you’re trying to ward off evil.”
Now I’m wondering about my “thumbs up” gesture to that tour guide. Trying to parse the tricky cultural codes is making me neurotic. But then so was Apollo, so it’s all good.
12 pm: The Acropolis Museum
Some of the ancient Athenian treasures, from friezes to statues to crockery, were looted and lost. But a lot of the rest of them ended up here, on display at what’s routinely considered one of the finest museums in the world. We explore for a couple of hours before hunger overtakes us and we spring for a pricey lunch in the museum café. You’re paying for the view: that would be the Parthenon parked right outside the window. On the way out I realize I left my hat in the restaurant, and go back to get it. It’s not where I left it. Someone turned it in, maybe? Who’s to say? There’s a lot of paperwork to fill out. I come out all pouty.
“They can find a pot that’s been lost for 2,000 years but not my hat that’s been lost for an hour,” I fume to Lila. She had a little stain on her face. Darn! While looking for my hat I’d missed out on the ice cream the girls indulged in. Then again, that would have been a Dionysian intrusion into an Apollonian day. So the experiment remains clean.
We are trying, in the cracks and margins, to bone up on centuries of Greek history so we don’t have to rely entirely on the authority of Rick Steves, who is now guiding us into Syntagma Square to watch the changing of the guard. And there those blokes are, in front of the Presidential Mansion. Motionless as masonry. When’s the shift change? Lots of people are waiting. So we wait along with everybody else.
One difference between an Apollonian Day and a Dionysian Day is how you experience time. City people are on Apollonian time, mostly. We take our cues from a clock in Greenwich, instead of the heavens and the whispers of our own bodies, which are trying to tell us, for example, that it’s time to rest or rouse.
For this too we can thank the ancient Greeks.
2:30 pm: The Museum of Ancient Greek Technology
Humans shaped their tools, and thereafter our tools shaped us. To put some meat on the bone of that cliché, we pop into this private museum tucked into a backstreet.
There’s tons of cool stuff in here. Like a working model of Socrates’s alarm clock. After seven hours has elapsed, water flowing through tubes pushes open a little flap that sends stones clattering onto a pan. (Plato’s alarm clock is in here too. He was evidently more of a go-getter; his alarm went off after just four hours.)
Over in the corner is a cup invented by Pythagorus. You could call it the world’s first dribble glass. Inside the cup there’s an empty chamber. If you fill the cup all the way, the chamber becomes a siphon, which sucks the entire contents out through the bottom. (This is actually the same principle that modern toilets operate on.)
Wait, I thought Pythagorus was a serious mathematician, not a practical joker. An Apollonian, not a Dionysian. Turns out there’s more to the story of Pythagorus’s cup. Supposedly he was supervising a bunch of water workers one day. And he was keeping an eye on their wine consumption. He gave them all these sneaky cups. As long as the workers took only a modest amount, they could have their drinks. But the first guy to get greedy and fill it to the rim, the cup would become bewitched and spill its contents — and that would strike fear into the rest of them, and keep them all on the straight and narrow.
Score one for the Apollonian.
We keep moving through the museum. There are automatic-opening temple gates, a long-distance semaphore system. And the world’s first robot! That would be the Servant of Philon (circa 300 BCE), a human-looking automaton that mixes you up a wine cocktail when you put a glass in its hand.
That is starting to sound like a good idea.
But we’re still only halfway through our agenda. So it’s on to…
4:30 pm: the ancient Forum
It’s wild to stroll through a park whilst dipsy-doodling around two-thousand-year old temples and ruins. Even wilder to consider you’re walking in the sandalprints of Socrates as he steered young men away from power and toward honour, and St. Paul as he gave one of his first sermons to a tough crowd.
More and more stuff keeps getting jammed in my backpack. It’s like we’re re-creating the myth of Milo of Croton. (He was the ancient Greek wrestler who one day picked up a newborn calf, and every day thereafter put the growing animal up onto his shoulders, until eventually he was carrying a two-ton bull, and he was extraordinarily buff.)
The girls are digging every bit of this. It’s all the mythology they can handle, and more. Within their nerdy cohort, mythology is actually cool. Apparently gen-Z girls are getting Medusa tattoos. It’s kind of a #metoo gesture. “Medusa was assaulted by Poseidon,” Lila says, “and she was blamed.”
Birdsong serenades us all down the broad avenue. I’d downloaded an app to identify birds by their calls – like an avian Shazam. Because you’ve gotta know the name of things. Right? It’s the Apollonian way. To name it is to claim it.
We fire up the app and it starts getting soundings.
House sparrow. Pretty common. Bronze medal.
Eurasian magpie. Silver medal.
Monk parakeet. Seriously? Gold medal, baby. And there she is, flashing her yellow and blue!
As we meander, I’m realizing my feet are kind of killing me. I bought new shoes for this trip but neglected to break them in. Now the pain of the blisters is becoming a Stoic exercise in trying not to mind. There’s an ancient Greek word called “apatheia.” It means a state of mind in which you can’t be knocked off kilter by what’s coming down the pike. So not apathy, exactly: closer to “equanimity.” “Never let the future disturb you,” said Marcus Aurelius, in his Meditations. “You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”
Our man Aristotle, likewise inherently reasonable, had a notion that we should avoid all extremes and instead pursue what he called “the golden mean.” Life’s virtues, he believed, are hammocked between vices – deficiency on one end and excess on the other. So for example courage is the sweet spot between cowardliness and rashness. Friendliness is between crankiness and obsequiousness. Generosity is between stinginess and prodigality.
The golden mean! Moderation in all things! Or as the more thoughtful hockey players say in the postgame interview, through toothless smiles: “Can’t let yerself get too high or too low.”
I suddenly remember what’s happening back home in Canada: today’s the NHL draft lottery! The local team has a five percent chance of getting a generational player.
It occurs to me that we have been probability-crunching all day long. Should we go back for an umbrella? What’s the chance of rain? How likely am I to recover my deposit for that screw-up on booking.com? Crunching probabilities is very Apollonian.
But is it really the way you want to spend a family vacation?
As we wend our way back to the apartment, having already logged 18,000 steps (according to Mad’s phone), thence to put a cap on this Big Fat Greek Linear Thinking Day, I find I’m hankering for a little balance. Fun as the day has been, I’m looking forward to a wee dram of Dionysianism. Which we have already planned for next week on the island of Naxos.
Back at the flat, there’s still no power. We call the owner. In halting English she tries to talk us through flipping switches on the electrical panel. Nothing works. And then, as I’m on the phone with her, getting more and more frustrated, Mad, who is holding the key, has a brainwave. Attached to the key ring there’s a flat plastic doohickey that looks like a credit card. She flashes the phonelight across the wall. There’s a little housing with a slot in it. She inserts the card.
And suddenly there is light, as if Prometheus himself had conjured it.
So we do the rational thing and go to bed.