To Burn Out or To Rust Away

Drew Kaplan ‘20, Opinion Editor


I have tended to find dichotomies interesting. The concept that two things, whatever they may be, are completely opposed to each other; that nothing is shared between the two sides, that they are mutually exclusive.

I was recently sitting with a professor debating a, at least to me, wildly interesting philosophical dichotomy; that of Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo is the God of rationality, order, and logic, whereas Dionysus is the God of irrationality and chaos, though the Greeks did not consider the two as opposed. The discussion was framed around the question of is it better to burn out than to rust away? The professor came to the defense of rusting away, which led me to defend burning out. Is it preferable to act in accordance with one’s own wishes and desires, or to act in accordance with the zeitgeist, and be a paradigm of virtue in the promotion of order? Are the passions something to be repressed or something to be embraced?

We reached a point early on the discussion, which explained why we came to defend our chosen position: our perspectives. The professor is three times my age. At this point, he is condemned to rust away; his chance to burn out has passed. I may still go down either path.

Until recently, I sided clearly in the camp of Dionysus. Sometime in high school, I was introduced to the dichotomy, but my exposure was not to anyone who could be considered a primary philosopher on the topic; it was far more tangential. The following of Dionysus continued probably until I read works by Søren Kierkegaard. Either/Or, the first work by Kierkegaard I read, contains two distinct sections, one written in the perspective of a young man whose worldview is centered on aesthetic pleasure and novelty, and the other section is in the perspective of an older man finding pleasure in the regularity and consistency of life. Kierkegaard asserts that, eventually, one who goes on the path of burning out will inevitably reach a point of crisis, at which he must transition into the one who finds draws pleasure in regularity, assuming he does not die beforehand.

It feels strange how the Apollonian Dionysian dichotomy can be applied beyond the strictly philosophical; it seems to act silently in all facets of life. Should one go hiking the day before a midterm? Hiking is an enjoyable activity, and, in the short term, brings a great deal of pleasure. However, the midterm is the next day. One should study, prepare as fully as possible, look to the long-term implications. There will probably be fewer net endorphins in one’s brain if he chooses to study, but the self-denial of desire in favor of the “rational” choice goes against one’s will to life.

I’ll admit, hiking is a relatively mundane example, but it can be as extreme in application as one wishes it. Dionysus seeks to affirm life, which is itself irrational and chaotic, to make use of all life may offer, whereas Apollo seeks to reject life, and ascend to a higher level.

It seems that those who seek to defend and embrace irrational chaos are, for the large part, young. The choice of whether to burn out or rust away is still an open question; there is still enough fuel that it is possible to have a slow, metered burn, or go out in a rapidly extinguished fireball. The fireball though can ignite other fires far and wide. The new fires could ignite into a blazing inferno, or they may burn slowly, quietly exhausting their fuel. The metered burn, however, cannot ignite many other fires. Its reach is limited by how quickly it burns; fuel must be brought to it if it has any hope of spreading its spark.

The world is chaotic, there is no rhyme or reason, no innate rational order. To defend the Apollonian, to defend the metered, controlled burn, is to repudiate the world and human civilization as it exists. To live life as one long blaze of glory is not sustainable; one will either burn out, and become a shadow of their former self, or die. Those followers of Dionysus affirm life in all its aspects, including the hangovers.

I’m not sure there is an answer to the question of whether it is better to burn out or rust away. The supported answer, though, does seem to rest in perspective, though it eventually came down to defending two static positions. We failed to reach a synthesis of the two positions. Part of the issue though, does seem to stem from our wildly different perspectives and experiences. The professor I discussed this with has settled into a routine of normalcy and order, whereas someone of my age may still seek their will to be weird. As to which is preferable, I cannot say.