The opposing concepts of the Dionysian (hereon DI) and Apollonian (hereon AP) are central themes within Nietzsche’s first major work, The Birth of Tragedy (hereon BT). His contemplation of such opposing forces of nature are primarily used to analyse Greek culture in general, and Greek art in particular, stating that its role in Greek attic tragedy places these plays at Greece’s cultural pinnacle. However, his ideas invite further social and political contemplation as to their resounding implications. In this article I intend to outline Nietzsche’s conception of DI and AP, expounding on the role he assigns them in Greek tragedy, before approaching the necessary implications of these ideas critically.
What does Nietzsche mean by DI and AP? The latter is derived from the concept of Apollo, the Greek god of light, who is often said to rule over the realm of the self-conscious, and is thus strongly related to the idea of individuation, through which he provides the world around us with a sensible structure. In contrast we have Dionysus, god of festivals (among other things), ‘centred in extravagant sexual licentiousness’ where ‘the most savage natural instincts were unleashed’ (Nietzsche, 1993, p.147). Crucial to this imagining of Dionysus, this ’emerges as an expression of the feeling of ecstasy that accompanies the sense of loss of the individual self’ (Sedgewick, 2009, p.60). Quite contrary to the individuated sense of the AP, then. This sense of individuation, Nietzsche claims, takes the individual out of nature, away from the community of beings in which they reside, where the latter concept negates such an alienation by placing one firmly in nature, relishing natural instincts and in turn breaking down any and all social barriers, allowing the sense of community spirit to thrive naturally once more.
Nietzsche’s conceptions of the DI and AP are used at length in his discussion of art, with a particular focus of Greek tragedy. A key component to these plays (e.g. Oedipus) is that of the Greek chorus, a collection of performers who narrate or pass comment on the action in unison. It is this chorus that Nietzsche deems fundamentally DI. We can of course see how a unified performance represents his idea of deindividuation associated with the DI, but the connection goes further: the characters of the chorus ‘remain eternally the same,’ regardless of what may come to pass within the progression of the story (such as the passage of time itself). It is of Nietzsche’s belief that such a ‘fictitious natural state’ will cause the audience to feel ‘nullified’ and create a similar feeling of having their individuality stripped away; this will, he believes, provide a metaphysical comfort for them, explaining that the chorus acts as ‘a living wall against the assaults of reality because it […] represents existence more truthfully […] and completely than the man of culture does, who ordinarily considers himself as the only reality’ (Nietzsche, 1993, pp.201-2). What Nietzsche means by this is that the chorus, and Greek tragedy as a whole, helps to bring forth matters such as death and one’s own mortality through the form of art, which in turn makes it a great deal more bearable. The metaphysical comfort springs from being able to consider these issues in an AP way, for the beauty of the dialogue and the poetry utilized within the play is logical and structured – AP indeed. It is this combination of AP and DI that Nietzsche admires, claiming it helps to ‘sugar the pill’ of unpleasant thoughts by displaying them in an aesthetically pleasing way.
It is when this careful combination of the AP and DI ceases that Nietzsche believes the artform to be in decline, a fault he places on Euripides. Euripides founded New Attic Comedy and was, Nietzsche claims, the first to bring the ‘spectator’ onto the stage. His plays, in contrast to that of Achilles or Sophocles, focused not on great tragic heroes but the ‘common man,’ dramatic reinterpretations of everyday occurrences similar to modern-day soaps. This led to the audience feeling they ‘knew’ the characters; that they could pass moral judgement on them in ways they could not on tragic individuals, and in turn threaten the return of individuation, as each spectator forms moral opinions on the events before them. Euripides’s plays were also carefully written and structured, much unlike the chaotic mess of the preceding tragedies: seemingly very un-DI characteristics. Nietzsche believes that the plays are left only with the AP, an artform that in no way helps us seek the aforementioned metaphysical comfort.
Nietzsche’s concepts of the AP and DI, along with the entirety of BT, were not well received initially: the author himself called the book ‘badly written, ponderous, embarrassing, image-mad and image-confused’ (Sweet, 1999, p.49). However, the ideas have left a notable legacy and are still discussed in matters of ethics, politics and art. Indeed, Michael Motta (1991) likens the opposing forces to mental illness, stating how stages of mania in bipolar artists can be likened to that of the DI (‘The urge to create is great, but the ability to step back, to control the process is reduced’), with depressive phases linked to the AP (‘Critique and reflection take precedence over impulsivity, inhibition holds sway over exhibitionism’). Nietzsche was also keen to pose these concepts politically, making great distinctions between the primitive DI state (a tribal, barbarian society), the apollonian state (disciplined and lawful societies), and the AP-DI state which he of course favoured (pp.29-36). However, Nietzsche considered the Greek culture to be a state of one of the two extremes – primarily AP – with only DI resemblance in certain ‘barbaric’ times across history. We can of course apply this to modern-day politics, though one could question its usage. Were we to accept Nietzsche’s ideas in relation to the structure of our own state, it would surely be that of the AP; and it would seem necessary to reconsider our government’s strict laws. Oswald Spengler (1991) echoed many of Nietzsche’s sentiments: in his book The Decline of the West, he shamed the ‘mass culture’ of modern western civilisation, decreeing it to be full of ‘clones’ created and moulded by the media, completely devoid of the DI aspect that both he and Nietzsche thought necessary for a thriving, illuminated culture (see ch.3-6). Spengler (1994), too, longed for a combination of DI and AP and the deconstruction of ‘bourgeois culture’ (pp.142-59). However, Nietzsche’s ideas seem to demand a certain degree of chaos and unpredictability in his AP-DI culture, one which the majority of modern-day democracies would be unwilling to accept, even when combined with the AP aspects we currently employ. Whether or not Nietzsche’s reasoning can be applied to the Greek culture to which he originally referred is difficult to ascertain; but it seems unlikely that such a literal usage of his ideas is useful in more modern discussions.
We can see the legacy of the AP and DI concepts even more clearly in psychoanalysis: Freud’s original theory is clearly grounded in the same ideology that Nietzsche employed, with the DI id contrasting to the AP superego. He praised Nietzsche as a forerunner of his ideas and took them a step further, universalising them to a topic relevant to every individual, whose minds could then continue battling the two extremes (Egels, 2000, p.96). Freud did, however, seem reluctant to concur with Nietzsche that the DI should be as equally utilised as the AP. It was not until Otto Gross that a psychoanalyst would fully appeal to the idea of a DI culture: Gross thought, in contrast to the idea that such a lifestyle would be destructive to society, that the progression and stability of a society depended on it. He spoke out for a ‘hedonist’ way of life, embracing unrepressed sexual activity and almost animalistic tendencies. It is unsurprising that Gross came to be considered an anarchist, and his ideas overwhelmingly dismissed by the world of psychological research (ibid. pp-301-8). It seems clear that in a modern society such ideas are not only impractical but potentially dangerous, undermining liberalism and current laws. While psychoanalyses have been hugely important in shaping psychological research and development, the influence of Nietzsche’s conceptions of DI and AP appears to be minimal outside of its initial inspiration of Freud’s id, ego and superego. Here, much like their influence on modern politics, the themes presented in BT, and in particular the supposed necessity of a DI aspect to culture, seem wholly incompatible with a modern liberal society.
Somewhat like Freud, Camille Paglia (1990) took Nietzsche’s ideas of the AP and DI to be biological, claiming that ‘the quarrel between Apollo and Dionysus is the quarrel between the higher cortex and the older limbic and reptilian brains’ (p.133). A dissident feminist, her thesis claimed that the DI was associated with women (and their hedonistic, chaotic lifestyle) while the AP is the male portion of society rebelling against their DI nature. It is due to this supposedly superior virtue that males have been dominant in many areas of culture, politics, science and history, with Palgia even going so far as to claim that ‘the male orientation of classical Athens was inseparable from its genius. Athens became great not despite but because of its misogyny’ (p.140). While it is important to note that such anti-feminist ideals were not that of Nietzsche’s, his influence on their creation is clear. Such notions in modern society would be, by the vast majority at least, considered not only insulting to women but going against the kind of liberal progression which has taken place over the past few centuries. So the concept of the DI and AP can be seen to not only endanger the political world but the social one, and, once more, to be wholly incompatible with today’s western culture.
There are, however, certain contexts in which Nietzsche’s concepts are relevant and potentially illuminating. Written as they were about Greek culture, we can perhaps hope to gain some insight into the structure of ancient Greek society, and in particular their relationship towards art and theatre. More recently, the concepts have been used anthropologically by Ruth Benedict (2009) to illustrate the differing values of varying cultures, such as the self-restraint of the Zuni people, which would be associated with the AP, and the somewhat vulgar and ostentatiousness of the Kwakiutl, associated with the DI (pp.130-51). We have seen, through its implications and impracticalities, that it would be difficult and dangerous to implicate the concept of a culture that employs both DI and AP lifestyle in modern western cultures; but perhaps, as with the above, they are useful in our exploration of ancient and/or anthropological societies. The opposing forces are certainly a crucial matter in the study of Greek art and continue to be an interesting line of thought when studying cultures outside current modern liberalism.
Benedict, Ruth, ‘Configurations of Culture in North America’, American Anthropologist 34 (American Anthropological Association, 2009)
Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Birth of Tragedy (Penguin ed., 1993)
Paglia, Camille, Sexual Personae (USA: Yale University Press, 1990)
Sedgewick, Peter, Nietzsche: The Key Concepts (Routledge, 2009)
Spengler, Oswald, The Decline of the West (OUP Australia and New Zealand; abridge edition, 1991)
Sweet, Dennis, ‘The Birth of The Birth of Tragedy’, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 60, No. 2 (Penn Press, 1999)