The Ecstasy of Reason Essay

The Ecstasy of Reason Essay

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In the Bacchae, Euripides questions the authority of god versus man and man's allegiance to the gods. Pentheus is caught in a unique struggle of maintaining authority in his own kingdom and keeping allegiance to his favored god Apollo. The appearance of Dionysus in Thebes raises a conflict for Pentheus in that he can not accept the authority of a god other than the one he has chosen to revere within his kingdom. Pentheus resists Dionysus supreme authority as a show of solidarity with Apollo and the laws of reason versus Dionysus and the disruption of civil order.

Pentheus is worshiped and revered in Thebes just as he reveres Apollo. Apollo represents rationality, law, order, harmony and philosophical enlightenment. Dionysus is the god of wine and pleasure and represents all that is irrational, chaotic, and physically pleasing. Dionysus takes possession of the women of Thebes who have denied his godly descent from Zeus. He dresses them as bacchanals and sends them to the mountains to learn the rites of Bacchus, so that his prestige will be greater than that of Apollo in Thebes. A rumor reaches Pentheus that there is another controlling his people, specifically the women. His immediate reaction is outrage and Pentheus returns to Thebes to find that the women have indeed left their homes for the mountains, where they are said to "frisk in mock ecstasies...where they serve the lusts of men" (ln 210-220). Pentheus considers himself to be the protector of civilized society and does not want the Bacchae to disrupt the civic order and duty to which they are bound. Pentheus hostile response to the erotic liberation of the women by Dionysis is due to the closely held belief that sexual energy should be repressed within the c...

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...g and amounts to nothing. He is unable to save his city and those who advised him to act differently to Dionysus are punished or destroyed. The Bacchae leaves us with a world in Dionysian control. There is no law or reason and ethical norms have disappeared. Dionysus will move on to the next city and conduct the same disruption there. Pentheus resistance is futile and serves only as a warning that it is futile to resist chaos. A well placed shield of Apollonian rational is easily cast aside by the madness of Dionysus ritual. The lesson Pentheus refused to learn is this: the ecstasy of wine and pleasure must be embraced to counter the rigid nature society demands or there is the risk of being torn apart by the demands of both.


Euripides V. The Bacchae. Ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1968

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