Somewhere between Apollo & Dionysus


Friedrich Nietzsche not only loved Greek art and culture per se but he was also, as we discussed the other day, always searching for timeless lessons from the Greeks to help us understand modernity and ourselves.

He found one such lesson in an apparent duality that ran through all of Greek art: the tension between two gods who were also two archetypes and half-brothers: Apollo and Dionysus.

Think of them as a Greek Yin and Yang.

Apollo, the god of the sun and wisdom, as well as poetry and music, would be the equivalent of the Chinese yang (ie, the bright, masculine sun).

Dionysus, the god of wine, intoxication, ecstasy, passion and instinct, would be the equivalent of the Chinese yin (ie, the dark, feminine moon).

Obviously, I am stretching that analogy, so don’t get too wound up about it. If you prefer, you can think of them in our contemporary pop-psychology terms of left brain (Apollo) and right brain (Dionysus).


So why should this duality be so interesting, for the Greeks or for us?

From Homer to John Wayne: The Apollonian

Nietzsche saw in these two archetypes two approaches to art, and indeed life.

Homer, for example, followed his Apollonian instinct in writing the Iliad and Odyssey in the 8th century BCE. How so? Because he glorified the war against Troy and the subsequent nostos (homecoming) of Odysseus. He made these stories beautiful, as Apollo was. He gave the Greeks and us role models.

He made the Greeks proud to be Greeks, proud to descend from whichever hero in the long catalogue of ships they traced their lineage to. He made them aware of their individuality, of the structures of society, of its fundamental order to which, after intervening episodes of wrath (see: Achilles), everything must return.

Julian Young in his biography of Nietzsche compares this to, for example, our Westerns (the ones with John Wayne more than those with Clint Eastwood). There, too, you see people dying, but they die in a stylized, Homeric way: The bullet hits and they tumble from their horses, looking good as they do so. They are our heroes, beyond the sordidness of reality.

Young gives another modern example: women’s magazines. Those are full of celebrities (our goddesses?) with their tales of disease, divorce, death and drugs. The subtext is ugly, and yet it is presented to us as glamour.

Nietzsche calls this being “superficial out of profundity.” Apollonian art does not censor facts (such as death) but perspectives. It involves a certain amount of self-deception, but it is uplifting. It deifies everything human, whether good or bad. And so it is, yes, religion.

From Sophocles to the rock concert: The Dionysian

By contrast, Aeschylus and Sophocles (but not Euripides, see below) followed their Dionysian instincts in the tragedies they created the fifth century BCE. This might have been expected: Those tragedies were, after all, performed once a year at the festival of Dionysus.

Dionysian art is about the abandonment of order, or ecstasy (ex-stasis = standing out of everyday consciousness). It transcends words or concepts. This is why it tends to involve visuals and music.

Music was in fact an important part of Sophocles’ and Aeschylus’ tragedies (we just don’t know how it sounded, what a pity!). Apparently, the audience sang along with the chorus and became one with it.

The individuals there would have become hypnotized by the sound (rather as yogis feel a certain ‘vibe’ when chanting Om with others). In fact, they would have, as one says, lost themselves in the crowd. They would have stopped feeling separate and individual, Athenian or Greek. They would have had (Freud’s) oceanic feeling.

Credit: Nambassa Trust and Peter Terry

Young compares this to our rock concerts or raves, to our football and soccer stadiums. Dionysian art is a trance and a trip, usually good, sometimes bad.

It is, in contrast to some Apollonian art, apolitical and devoid of any message. The Athenians participating in Sophocles’ tragedies stopped caring about worldly affairs. They became almost apathetic.

This was the only way they could bear to see their heroes — those same Apollonian heroes — torn down and devastated, knowing that they themselves might meet the same fate, understanding that reality was sordid, that it was primal and dark, and that it demanded to be accepted in that way. And they found a beauty in that feeling, too. So it, too, was a form of religion.

From Socrates to Princess Diana: What Nietzsche decried

Nietzsche loved both the Apollonian and the Dionysian, understanding that, like yin and yang, neither can ever be denied.

What he did not like, however, might surprise you: Socrates.

Why? Because Socrates represented, to Nietzsche, the religion of reason — not Apollonian wisdom but cold, methodical logic. In that sense, Nietzsche believed that Socrates “killed” Attic tragedy and Homeric poetry, and the playwright who represented that trend (to Nietzsche) was Euripides, the youngest of the three great tragedians.

Our own age, Nietzsche might say, is “Socratic” in the sense of scientific and myth-less, neither Apollonian nor Dionysian. Because we can’t act out these two instincts, we instead cobble together what Young calls “myth fragments”. We don’t release urges, as the Greeks did, but instead look for thrills, for sex and drugs and trips. We sky- and scuba-dive, we get a new app.

We worship neither Dionysus or Apollo but idols like Princess Diana. How appropriate, since Diana was the Roman Artemis, sister of Apollo.

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In praise of sublime Greek violence

Nietzsche turned 26 as the Franco-Prussian war was raging (above). He saw this bloodshed as a failure of culture. So he started thinking more deeply about culture and its most fundamental mandate: dealing with human violence. And he arrived at some very interesting insights.

He did this by weaving together two strands of his thinking:

  1. the nature of violence in humans, and
  2. the nature of ancient Greek civilization

This is a great example of the benefits of cross-fertilization between areas of expertise. That’s because Nietzsche was not yet what we would call a philosopher. Instead he was, by training and profession, a philologist, which at that time in Europe basically meant a classicist — somebody who studies antiquity, which in turn mainly meant studying the Greeks.

Nietzsche absolutely adored the Greeks of the classical era (as we do here on The Hannibal Blog). He believed that they were the first to elevate humanity by transcending violence. Here is how.

(This is based on pages 139-141 of Julian Young’s excellent philosophical biography of Nietzsche, which I am currently reading.)

I) Violence

First, according to Nietzsche, the Greeks were honest about the human instinct to violence, and that’s a great start.

The Greeks knew that they were just as capable of violence as the barbarians. (Just read Homer’s account of Achilles’ wrath, or Thucydides’s account of the rape of Melos.) So they accepted that violence was simply part of human nature. The question was what to do about that knowledge.

Pause here for a moment:

a) 19th-century context

In Nietzsche’s own time, this was already a radical interpretation. First, European academe (of which he was part) basically viewed the Greeks as serene and enlightened über-thinkers, as beyond violence. And second, European society (of which he was also part, at least at the outset) had adopted a Christian morality (which Nietzsche would later in his life set out to debunk) that considered violence sinful and tried to eliminate or even deny it. So Nietzsche was already being politically incorrect.

b) Our contemporary context

While no longer politically incorrect, this view is still controversial today.  Which is to say that we are still arguing about whether we are at heart peaceful, like our cousins the bonobos, or violent, like our other cousins the chimps. (Video via Dan.)

In any case, the Greeks recognized the chimps in us humans, but then went a crucial step further.

II) Agon

That step was to redirect and sublimate whatever violent energy there is in humans.

Rather than denying or suppressing human aggression (what Nietzsche would later call the “will to power”), the Greeks purified it through the filter of culture.

The result was agon — strife or, better, competition. That’s agon as in agonize, agony, protagonist and antagonist, et cetera.

Classical Greece was perhaps the most agonistic — meaning competitive — civilization in world history, surpassing even modern America. Everything was a competition:

  • poets such as Homer and Hesiod competed with words,
  • playwrights such as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides competed with their tragedies — literally for an award given out during the Dionysian festivals at which their plays were performed,
  • Socrates and Plato competed with the Sophists, and the Sophists with one another,
  • orators like Demosthenes and Aeschines competed with their rhetoric, and
  • athletes competed at the Olympic Games.

The result was beauty such as this discus thrower, sculpted by a competitive artist of a competitive athlete:

Agon pervaded every single aspect of Greek culture. It was the nasty goddess of strife, Eris, reincarnated as “good Eris”. Bad Eris had started the Trojan War. But Good Eris, according to Hesiod,

drives even the unskilled man to work: and if someone who lacks property sees someone else who is rich, he likewise hurries off to sow and plant… Even potters harbor grudges against potters, carpenters against carpenters, beggars envy beggars and minstrels envy minstrels.

You can choose to see infinite parallels in our own time and lives. For example, culture succeeds when Good Eris enters a courtroom in an adversarial justice system such as America’s. Culture fails when Bad Eris takes her place.

In the name of peace, may humanity study the Greeks and learn to ‘agonize.’

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Homeric storytelling (2): the midlife crisis


Homer, as I said in the previous post, is one of the great story-tellers because in The Iliad he gave us a heart-rending and timeless look at wrath. Now look at what he did in the Odyssey! Wow. Those two stories could not be more different.

There is a theory on the periphery of academia (is that a redundancy?) that the Iliad and Odyssey were actually written by different authors. The Iliad, in this theory, was authored by a man; the Odyssey by a woman. I don’t know and I don’t care, but the mere hypothesis is telling because the two stories are so very different.

The Iliad is about young men being heroes. They either win or die, heroically. It is a story written, if not by a young man, certainly for young men.

The Odyssey is a story about and for older people: It is about trying to return to something lost and traversing a liminal realm known today as the midlife crisis. (Just think of the main character in James Joyce’s Ulysses.)


The return is a classic theme of the monomyth theory by Jung and Campbell. For example, there is an entire genre of plays and stories that have to do with the heroes of the Trojan War, now as older men, trying (and often failing) to return home. Agamemnon comes home to be murdered by his wife in his own bathtub. Aeneas wanders all around the Mediterranean. Ditto Odysseus.

I’ve heard that the Odyssey is often used in seminars for Vietnam vets. Apparently the story speaks to them in a particularly direct and intimate way.

Midlife liminality

Limen is the Latin word for threshold. The Greeks and Romans often put little statues of Hermes/Mercury near their thresholds, because they believed that crossing thresholds was of particular significance and had its own divinity. The biggest thresholds are death and middle age (the “death” of the young hero and “rebirth” as old man.)

The Odyssey is about this extended liminality of midlife. Odysseus (like Aeneas) literally walks through Hades, the underworld of the dead, with Hermes. For ten years, he has a full-blow midlife crisis: Dangerous women, crazy ideas, irresponsible behavior. But he also yearns for stability and reconnection with his son, Telemachus, and wife, Penelope, whom he last saw twenty years ago. His home is in chaos; his status is in question; he no longer knows who he is and must redefine himself. This is midlife!

So don’t be fooled by the colorful stories of Sirens (pictured above) and Cyclops and what not. All of those famous adventures are part of a story within the story, a speech that Odysseus himself gives to his hosts to explain what he has been through. It is assumed that he is spicing some of his adventures up for the telling.

But most of the Odyssey is about his son Telemachus trying to find his absent father, about Odysseus trying to come home, and then about trying to reestablish himself at home.

So how does my story-telling theory fare? The Odyssey is less simple than the other stories I’ve featured so far, but that’s because it aims at older audiences that savor complexity; it has great momentum; and, yes, it has a universal idea.

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Homeric storytelling (1): wrath


What an intriguing cast of characters this thread on story-telling is becoming: Scheherazade, Ira Glass, Herodotus and Truman Capote, the Grimm Brothers… I like this mixing of high-brow and populist; grown-up and children’s; oral, audio and written; ancient and contemporary…. After all, it’s all story-telling. So let’s move on to Homer.

What makes the Iliad (and, in the next post, the Odyssey) such an enduring story?

For the time being (because you’ve not yet dissuaded me), I will continue to apply my emerging theory: the Iliad is a great story because it has:

  • simplicity
  • momentum and
  • universality.

What could be simpler than to tell your audience what your story is about in the very first word! The first word in the original Greek is menis (as in mania), which means wrath. The wrath of Achilles and of all mankind is what the Iliad is about. The Trojan War is “merely” the backdrop.

We meet the characters: Achilles and Agamemnon, childish and vain, but awesome to behold. Here is our hero and he is … sulking! We get tense. This isn’t good. Something awful will happen. But what?

Then, a delay. And what a build-up. We have looong sections listing all the heroes and ships that sailed to Troy. To us this is boring, but to the ancients this was an occasion for cheering, because each and every Greek was waiting for his ancestor to be named. The list signaled the grandness and the inclusiveness of what was about to unfold.

Then, action: Gory, individualized fighting, with spears piercing through breasts and swords cutting off limbs. The excitement and horror build.

Before long, we are disgusted. Achilles takes things too far. He defaces Hector’s corpse, and one just doesn’t do this. We sympathize with both heroes (Achilles = wrath; Hector = duty) and both sides in the war at this point. We suffer as humans, because we see how wrath has destroyed civilized behavior.

And this is the thought that gives the story universality. We come down from the thrill of the violence and are exhausted. We yearn for civility. And we get it. The Greeks stage funeral games for Achilles’ fallen friend, and now at last we see conflicts resolved without violence. It is as though everybody, even Achilles had learned.

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