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Apollonian and Dionysian

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The Apollonian and Dionysian is a philosophical and literary concept, or dichotomy, based on certain features of ancient Greek mythology. Many Western philosophical and literary figures have invoked this dichotomy in critical and creative works.

In Greek mythology, Apollo and Dionysus are both sons of Zeus. Apollo is the god of the Sun, of dreams and of reason, while Dionysus is the god of wine, ecstasy and intoxication. The Greeks did not consider the two gods to be opposites or rivals, although often the two deities were interlacing by nature.

The Apollonian is based on individuality, and the human form which is used to represent the individual and make one being distinct from all the others. It celebrates human creativity through reason and logical thinking. By contrast, the Dionysian is based on chaos and appeals to the emotions and instincts. Rather than being individual, the barriers on individuality are broken down and beings submerge themselves in one whole.

German philosophy

Although the use of the concepts of the Apollonian and Dionysian is famously linked to Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, the terms were used before him in German culture.[1] The poet Hölderlin spoke of them, while Winckelmann talked of Bacchus, the god of wine.

Nietzsche's aesthetic usage of the concepts, which was later developed philosophically, first appeared in his book The Birth of Tragedy, which was published in 1872. His major premise here was that the fusion of Dionysian and Apollonian "Kunsttrieben" ("artistic impulses") forms dramatic arts, or tragedies. He goes on to argue that this fusion has not been achieved since the ancient Greek tragedians. Nietzsche is adamant that the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles represent the apex of artistic creation, the true realization of tragedy; it is with Euripides that tragedy begins its downfall ("Untergang"). Nietzsche objects to Euripides' use of Socratic rationalism in his tragedies, claiming that the infusion of ethics and reason robs tragedy of its foundation, namely the fragile balance of the Dionysian and Apollonian.

The relationship between the Apollonian and Dionysian juxtapositions is apparent, Nietzsche claimed in The Birth of Tragedy, in the interplay of Greek tragedy: the tragic hero of the drama, the main protagonist, struggles to make order (in the Apollonian sense) of his unjust and chaotic (Dionysian) fate, though he dies unfulfilled in the end. For the audience of such a drama, Nietzsche claimed, this tragedy allows us to sense an underlying essence, what he called the "Primordial Unity", which revives our Dionysian nature — which is almost indescribably pleasurable. Though he later dropped this concept saying it was "...burdened with all the errors of youth" (Attempt at Self-Criticism, §2), the overarching theme was a sort of metaphysical solace or connection with the heart of creation.

Different from Kant's idea of the sublime, the Dionysian is all-inclusive rather than alienating to the viewer as a sublimating experience. The sublime needs critical distance, while the Dionysian demands a closeness of experience. According to Nietzsche, the critical distance, which separates man from his closest emotions, originates in Apollonian ideals, which in turn separate him from his essential connection with self. The Dionysian embraces the chaotic nature of such experience as all-important; not just on its own, but as it is intimately connected with the Apollonian. The Dionysian magnifies man, but only so far as he realizes that he is one and the same with all ordered human experience. The godlike unity of the Dionysian experience is of utmost importance in viewing the Dionysian as it is related to the Apollonian because it emphasizes the harmony that can be found within one's chaotic experience.

In anthropology

Anthropologist Ruth Benedict used the terms to characterize cultures that value restraint and modesty (Apollonian) and ostentatiousness and excess (Dionysian). An example of an Apollonian culture in Benedict's analysis was the Zuñi people as opposed to the Dionysian Kwakiutl people.[2] The theme was developed by Benedict in her main work Patterns of Culture.

Paglia's usage

American humanities scholar Camille Paglia writes about the Apollonian and Dionysian in her controversial 1990 bestseller Sexual Personae.[3] The broad outline of her concept is borrowed from Nietzsche, an admitted influence, although Paglia's ideas diverge significantly.

The Apollonian and Dionysian concepts comprise a dichotomy that serves as the basis of Paglia's theory of art and culture. For Paglia, the Apollonian is light and structured while the Dionysian is dark and chthonic (she prefers Chthonic to Dionysian throughout the book, arguing that the latter concept has become all but synonymous with hedonism and is inadequate for her purposes, declaring that "the Dionysian is no picnic."). The Chthonic is associated with females, wild/chaotic nature, and unconstrained sex/procreation. In contrast, the Apollonian is associated with males, clarity, celibacy and/or homosexuality, rationality/reason, and solidity, along with the goal of oriented progress: "Everything great in western civilization comes from struggle against our origins."[4]

She argues that there is a biological basis to the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy, writing: "The quarrel between Apollo and Dionysus is the quarrel between the higher cortex and the older limbic and reptilian brains."[5] Moreover, Paglia attributes all the progress of human civilization to masculinity revolting against the Chthonic forces of nature, and turning instead to the Apollonian trait of ordered creation. The Dionysian is a force of chaos and destruction, which is the overpowering and alluring chaotic state of wild nature. Rejection of – or combat with – Chthonianism by socially constructed Apollonian virtues accounts for the historical dominance of men (including asexual and homosexual men; and childless and/or lesbian-leaning women) in science, literature, arts, technology and politics. As an example, Paglia states: "The male orientation of classical Athens was inseparable from its genius. Athens became great not despite but because of its misogyny."[6]

Post-modern reading

Nietzsche's idea has been interpreted as an expression of fragmented consciousness or existential instability by a variety of modern and post-modern writers, especially Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze.[7][8] According to Peter Sloterdijk, the Dionysian and the Apollonian form a dialectic; they are contrasting, but Nietzsche does not mean one to be valued more than the other.[9] Truth being primordial pain, our existential being is determined by the Dionysian/Apollonian dialectic.

Extending the use of the Apollonian and Dionysian onto an argument on interaction between the mind and physical environment, Abraham Akkerman has pointed to masculine and feminine features of city form.[10]

Michael Pollan

The dichotomy is a major theme in Michael Pollan's book, The Botany of Desire in which he details humanity's attempt at controlling nature through large-scale production of food crops. He argues any attempt to bring control to a single variable in a natural system only results in more variables to which disorder and entropy will reign. Thus, all control is partial, temporary and largely illusory. Some farmers accept this and use strategies like crop rotation, variety and secondary crops which complement their main crops with beneficial insects and such. Other farmers try to sustain monocultures, which is the ultimate attempt at order among chaos, and must depend on chemicals or genetic tampering to defend against encroaching disorder. Farmers who embrace the chaos are usually far more successful and less beholden to corporations, but can't match the production or homogeneity necessary to supply restaurant chains.

Stephen King's usage

American novelist Stephen King uses Apollonian and Dionysian analysis in Danse Macabre (1981),[11] a non-fiction survey of horror literature that was expanded from King's lecture notes for creative writing and literature courses he taught at the University of Maine in the late 1970s. Though wary of indulging in what King describes as "academic bullshit", he nevertheless argues that mythology can illuminate recurring themes in horror, saying: "I used the terms Apollonian (to suggest reason and the power of the mind) and Dionysian (to suggest emotion, sensuality and chaotic action)".[12]

See also

Apollo (Apollonian or Apollinian): the dream state or the wish to create order, principium individuationis (principle of individuation), plastic (visual) arts, beauty, clarity, stint to formed boundaries, individuality, celebration of appearance/illusion, human beings as artists (or media of art's manifestation), self-control, perfection, exhaustion of possibilities, creation, the rational/logical and reasonable.

Dionysus (Dionysian): chaos, intoxication, celebration of nature, instinctual, intuitive, pertaining to the sensation of pleasure or pain, individuality dissolved and hence destroyed, wholeness of existence, orgiastic passion, dissolution of all boundaries, excess, human being(s) as the work and glorification of art, destruction, the irrational and non-logical.


  1. Adrian Del Caro, "Dionysian Classicism, or Nietzsche's Appropriation of an Aesthetic Norm", in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 50, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1989), pp. 589–605 (English)
  2. BENEDICT, R. (1932), CONFIGURATIONS OF CULTURE IN NORTH AMERICA. American Anthropologist, 34: 1–27. doi: 10.1525/aa.1932.34.1.02a00020
  3. Paglia, Camille (1990). Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertitit to Emily Dickinson, New York: Vintage Books.
  4. Paglia, 1990, p. 40
  5. Paglia, 1990, p. 96
  6. Paglia, 1990, p. 100.
  7. Michael, Drolet. The Postmodernism Reader. 
  8. Postmodernism and the re-reading of modernity By Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, Margaret Iversen, Manchester University Press,1992, ISBN 978-0-7190-3745-0 p. 258
  9. Thinker on Stage: Nietzsche's Materialism, translation by Jamie Owen Daniel; foreword by Jochen Schulte-Sasse, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1989. ISBN 0-8166-1765-1
  10. Akkerman, Abraham (2006). "Femininity and Masculinity in City-Form: Philosophical Urbanism as a History of Consciousness". Human Studies 29 (2): 229–256. doi:10.1007/s10746-006-9019-4. 
  11. King, Stephen (1981). Stephen King's Danse Macabre. New York: Everest House, ISBN 0-89696-076-5.
  12. King, 1981, p. 181.


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