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The Dionysian and the Apollonian in Nietzsche: The Birth of Tragedy

Alexander Gatherer
Cardiff University


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.


Works Cited

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)

Kant’s Account of Beauty: An Assessment

Alexander Gatherer
Cardiff University


Kant’s first two ‘Critiques,’ The Critique of Pure Reason (1981) and The Critique of Practical Reason (1988) helped secure his place as the cornerstone of modern Western philosophy. However, the two did face a serious issue. The former looks into the debate of epistemology, and gives birth to his renowned theory of the phenomenal world (that which appears to us) and the normative one (that which actually is), and he appears to us to believe the world to be causally determined. His second Critique, on the other hand, looks at ethics, and gives rise to his ideas of categorical imperatives and the Kingdom of Ends (how people should be treated as intrinsically valuable rather than as means to an individual end). It seems complex to bridge the gap between causal determinism and a firm ethical standpoint, for how can ethics be relevant in a causally determined world? It is this which Kant seeks to answer in The Critique of Judgement (1990), and what ultimately leads him to his discussion of art and the concept of beauty. It is in this discussion that he comes to the notion that ‘beauty is the form of finality in an object, so far as perceived in it apart from the representation of an end.’ In this essay I shall examine the meaning of the quote, as well as its relevance to bridging the gap between Kant’s scientific ideas and his ethical ideals. I will then go on to evaluate the quote’s adequacy as an account of beauty, concluding that while it is a robust concept of beauty and art, the questions that follow from it render it, at best incomplete.

Kant discusses how we tend to look at the world teleological way. When we look at something, such as a hammer, we look at how it is designed to fulfil a particular end, and judge it based on how efficient its design is. However, this is not always the situation when we consider items we deem to be beautiful. When, for example we look at a flower, whilst scientists may regard it from the point of view of its purpose of attracting insects and consequent pollination, many will simply appreciate its design simply because of the design itself, which we deem to be ‘beautiful’. The same can be said of a well-constructed painting. When the lines and colours are put together in a pleasing way we deem the painting ‘beautiful,’ even though we cannot pinpoint exactly why the painting is beautiful or why it has the value we place upon it. This leads Kant to suppose that art is ‘purposefulness without a purpose.’ It seems that we judge the art in a teleological way (based on its design), such as the science discussed in The Critique of Pure Reason, but not in a way that requires it to achieve any ends, which harks back to the Kingdom of Ends discussed in The Critique of Practical Reason, where Kant states we should respect other human beings for their intrinsic value, and ends within themselves, rather than means. We can therefore see how this conception of art can help bridge the gap between Kant’s first two critiques.

It is the notion of purposefulness without a purpose which stirs Kant to claim ‘beauty is the form of finality in an object, so far as perceived in it apart from the representation of an end.’ So, as discussed above, Kant is claiming that art should be respected for its intrinsic value, and has no purpose other than to be art. He is resolute in distinguishing art from craft, for when one crafts something for a specific purpose, one instantly judges it on its ability to serve that purpose, rather than its own beauty, and therefore, he believes, it cannot be classified as art. He is also eager to distinguish art from entertainment, claiming that the latter is merely agreeable, with the former providing pleasure simply from viewing it.

Several interesting questions arise from this concept of art. Many items, it could be claimed without too much controversy, could be viewed as both beautiful as well as practical, such as ornate china plates. One particularly interesting example is that of propaganda: art with the specific purpose of conveying political ideals and coercing others into adopting similar values. Such a specific purpose clearly implies that Kant would consider propaganda paintings, film etc. to be craft, rather than art. This perhaps seems peculiar, as many would be tempted to argue that paintings that show artistic skill are art. Indeed, Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, has been frequently cited by critics as one of the best films of all time, due to its innovative lighting and cinematography. Aside from propaganda, we can look at the paintings of Thomas Jones, which varied from the ‘mainstream’ landscapes that were painted to be commercial, and the paintings of more unusual scenes, such as those focusing on unremarkable brick buildings (‘Building in Naples’). Surely Kant would only deem the latter of these art, for they were painted just for the sake of being painted, whereas the former were painted for the purpose of profit, thus could not be considered to be art?

Kant attempts to circumvent this issue by bringing in the matter of ‘dependent beauty.’ This is distinguished from the kind of free beauty already considered, that with which the object has no easily identified, specific purpose, whereas dependent beauty ‘presuppose(s) such a concept [of what an object should be] and, with it, an answering perfection of the object.’ So under this conception, perhaps the propaganda as listed above could be considered to have dependent beauty, even if it lacks the free beauty that Kant holds in higher esteem. However I still consider this problematic. Kant fails to give us a defined rule as to what can or can’t have dependent beauty (for example, could an intricately carved hammer be considered art, even if its carving were designed for practicality?). Furthermore, Kant’s assertion that flowers have free beauty is confusing, as we have already seen that these do indeed have a specific purpose in nature, the colour and scent attract insects, and therefore beauty and purpose are inextricably related. Kant explains this by saying that only botanists would be interested in or observant of such a purpose. However, this, in my opinion, doesn’t align with Kant’s overall concept of beauty, in which he claims ‘that which, apart from a concept, pleases universally’. If beauty is universal, then why do most see the free beauty in a flower whereas a botanist would only be capable of admiring its dependent beauty, bound as it is by its need to be efficient at fulfilling the task it was designed for?  These notions call into question the adequacy of Kant’s account of beauty.

Closely related to Kant’s conception of purposefulness without purpose is his proposal that art must be ‘disinterested’ that is when examining art, we expect no additional desire or benefit from it other than that of the natural pleasure art provides. For example, one may look at a painting of a forest and think of how much money the various woods or land could make. Clearly, this is not a disinterested standpoint, and to see the art’s beauty, one must instead look at the painting in a ‘merely contemplative’ fashion. This notion, too, conjures several issues, as pointed out by Cooper. He refers to Bell’s concern that to have the kind of ‘pure aesthetic experience’ that Kant seems to reason as proper, we must examine a piece of artwork as though ‘it were not representative of anything’, as well as having ‘no concern for content and meaning’, as it can easily be argued that such values contradict the kind of disinterest that Kant is asking of us, even if our interest is only that of viewing a sensible landscape. This is quite clearly an issue with many paintings and novels, both of which generally strive to resemble reality in some way. Under Kant’s conception, it seems that such artwork cannot be considered beautiful, at least by the majority. Similarly, Cooper claims that, according to Kant’s conception, ‘art should not aim to be expressive of emotion.’ Again, this would require that the audience have a certain interest in the painting, or that the artist is seeking to convey such an emotion, both of which deviate from Kant’s conception of disinterest, a problem with many modern works of art which quite clearly convey and evoke emotions for many people.

It is possible to imagine certain arguments that Kant may have put across in response to these criticisms, such as, Cooper imagines, stating that ‘the feeling of the sublime – itself an aesthetic one – is an ‘outflow of vital powers’ and may be ‘regarded as emotion’. While I find this argument weak to being with (for it seems that much art raises specifically identifiable emotions in people, which don’t appear to be confused with the ‘outflow of vital powers’), Kant’s desired disinterest and ‘indifference to its objects’ actual existence’ is perhaps the more pressing flaw. This is because, while examining a cathedral, for example, one may admire its masterly crafted architecture, its inner peacefulness, or its age-old stone. Clearly, were one to find out that this is in fact a cardboard replica, the admiration for such things, and their perceived beauty, would vanish. It therefore seems that Kant’s idea of disinterestedness when examining art is, at best, incomplete, and must be adjusted if we are to continue to consider his conception of art.

Cooper suggests, and I believe somewhat effectively, that rather than ‘disinterestedly’, a more effective  way to consider art and its beauty would be through examining ‘an object ‘for its own sake.’ This would seemingly fall in line with Kant’s idea that we shouldn’t look for  material benefits from a piece of art, or what practical use we can gain from it, while at the same time permitting us to still consider representation and emotion as plausible, and arguably crucial, components of various works of art. I don’t believe this to be a complete explanation of how we should view art, for it still remains questionable as to where my interest in the object ‘for its own sake’ becomes a kind of interest that Kant would disapprove of such as in the case of propaganda – surely we can appreciate the art for its own sake while simultaneously appreciating its effectiveness in conveying certain political ideals. However, it does demonstrate how Kant’s theory can be edited to perhaps make a more robust conception of beauty.

To conclude, Kant’s conception that ‘beauty is the form of finality in an object’ conjures an interesting take on the value of art, and how it should be evaluated. Perhaps in times, when one could argue there was less pressure for art to be commercially successful or fulfil a given purpose such as in the case of propaganda, this would be an effective way to evaluate an objects beauty. However, in modern times, when art is so varied and with so many different purposes and forms, it seems as though we cannot conclusively claim that only objects with purposefulness without a purpose are the only beautiful things, and I believe that this is what causes Kant’s conception of beauty to be inadequate.