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 reason and the rational, while Dionysus is the god of the irrational and chaos. The Greeks did not consider the two gods to be opposites or rivals, although often the two deities were entwined by nature.
The Apollonian is based on reason and logical thinking. By contrast, the Dionysian is based on chaos and appeals to the emotions and instincts.
Although the use of the concepts of the Apollonian and Dionysian is linked to Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, the terms were used before him in German culture. 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 "Kunsttriebe" ("artistic impulses") form 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's use of Socratic rationalism (the dialectic) 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.
To further the split, Nietzsche diagnoses the Socratic Dialectic as being diseased in the manner that it deals with looking at life. The scholarly dialectic is directly opposed to the concept of the Dionysian because it only seeks to negate life; it uses reason to always deflect, but never to create. Socrates rejects the intrinsic value of the senses and life for "higher" ideals. Nietzsche claims in The Gay Science that when Socrates drinks the hemlock, he sees the hemlock as the cure for life, proclaiming that he has been sick a long time. (Section 340.) In contrast, the Dionysian existence constantly seeks to affirm life. Whether in pain or pleasure, suffering or joy, the intoxicating revelry that Dionysus has for life itself overcomes the Socratic sickness and perpetuates the growth and flourishing of visceral life force—a great Dionysian 'Yes', to a Socratic 'No'.
The interplay between the Apollonian and Dionysian is apparent, Nietzsche claimed in The Birth of Tragedy, from their use in Greek tragedy: the tragic hero of the drama, the main protagonist, struggles to make order of his unjust fate, though he dies unfulfilled in the end. For the audience of such a drama, Nietzsche claimed, this tragedy allows to sense an underlying essence, what he called the "Primordial Unity", which revives our Dionysian nature — which is almost indescribably pleasurable. However, 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. The theme was developed by Benedict in her main work Patterns of Culture.
In scientific discovery
Albert Szent-Györgyi, who realized that "a discovery must be, by definition, at variance with existing knowledge," divided scientists into two categories: the Apollonians and the Dionysians. He called scientific dissenters, who explored "the fringes of knowledge," Dionysians. He wrote, "In science the Apollonian tends to develop established lines to perfection, while the Dionysian rather relies on intuition and is more likely to open new, unexpected alleys for research...The future of mankind depends on the progress of science, and the progress of science depends on the support it can find. Support mostly takes the form of grants, and the present methods of distributing grants unduly favor the Apollonian."
American humanities scholar Camille Paglia writes about the Apollonian and Dionysian in her 1990 bestseller Sexual Personae. 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."
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." 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."