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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Nietzsche: Bitter truth or happy illusion?


“If you wish to strive for peace of soul and happiness, then believe; if you wish to be a disciple of truth, then inquire.” So Friedrich Nietzsche, aged only 19, ends a touching letter to his younger sister Elizabeth.

Nietzsche, son of a (by then dead) Lutheran pastor from a small, conservative town and family, was at this time a student in Bonn, drinking too much (and getting a beer belly) in his fraternity and even engaging in the odd duel and dropping by the odd brothel. Above all, however, he was expanding his mind. And with that came certain ideas.

Ideas about God, in particular. They horrified his mother and younger sister, who otherwise adored Fritz. Fritz, as we now know, would go on to become the bad boy of philosophy, the man who told us that God is dead and so forth. Those would be the ideas for which I consider him one of the world’s greatest thinkers. But at this point, he was just a sweet older brother, being tender with his li’l sis.

Elizabeth, hoping to bring him back to the church, had written him that

it is much easier not to believe than the opposite, and the difficult thing is likely to be the right course to take…

(I am quoting all this from pages 58-60 in Julian Young’s excellent “philosophical biography” of Nietzsche, which I am currently devouring.)

To which brother Fritz answered:

… Concerning your basic principle, that truth is always to be found on the side of the more difficult, I agree in part. However, it is difficult to believe that 2 x 2 does not equal 4. Does that make it therefore truer?

On the other hand, is it really so difficult simply to accept as true everything we have been taught, and which has gradually taken firm root in us, and is thought true by the circle of our relatives and many good people, and which, moreover, really does comfort and elevate men? Is that more difficult than to venture on new paths, at odds with custom, in the insecurity that attends independence, experiencing many mood-swings and even troubles of conscience, often disconsolate, but always with the true, the beautiful and the good as our goal?

Is the most important thing to arrive at that view of God, world and reconciliation which makes us feel most comfortable? Is not the true inquirer totally indifferent to what the result of his inquiries might be? When we inquire, are we seeking for rest, peace, happiness? Not so; we seek only truth even though it be in the highest  degree ugly and repellent.

Still one final question: if we had believed from our youth onwards that all salvation issued from someone other than Jesus, from Mohammed for example, is it not certain that we should have experienced the same blessings? It is the faith that makes blessed, not the objective reality that stands behind the faith. I write this to you, dear Lisbeth, simply with the view of meeting the line of proof usually adopted by religious people, who appeal to their inner experiences to demonstrate the infallibility of their faith. Every true faith is infallible, it accomplishes what the person holding the faith hopes to find in it, but that does not offer the slightest support for a proof of its objective truth.

Here the ways of men divide: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and happiness, then believe; if you wish to be a disciple of truth, then inquire.

There are some timeless ideas in this innocent passage. For instance, Nietzsche already phrased (more eloquently, I might add) what would become Richard Dawkins’ opening attack in The God Delusion in our time.

And he expressed (again, more eloquently) what every free thinker feeling the pressures of political correctness has felt since. (Compare, for instance, Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary biologist at the LSE I like to read.)

Yes, there is indeed a choice to be made.

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Great, if not greatest, thinker: Nietzsche

I vote on values

I vote on values

In this, the fourth, post in The Hannibal Blog‘s search to find the world’s greatest thinker ever, let’s examine another criterion: In order to be the greatest, does the thinker have to be the most expansive–ie, largest–in scope?

My short answer is No, but, as with the previous criterion, there is a catch.

The answer is mostly No because the great is the enemy of the good. Intellectual overstretch is a problem, and most of the great thinkers in history were great precisely because they chose one well-defined are of human interest for their contribution.

The converse is also true. As you will by now have guessed, I am a fan of Einstein’s. But Einstein’s light began dimming at the exact point, in mid-career, when he began to look for a theory of everything, a grand unifying theory, an idea that would explain not just something but all things. Up to that point, he had chosen one thing at a time (light, gravity, time, etc) and had done, ahem, rather well.

So let’s begin a short and explicitly incomplete sub-series of posts on truly great thinkers who shed light on one particular area of interest. Consider these the “honorable mentions” in my search. (There will also be a runner-up, and then of course a winner. If you consider this suspenseful, I feel flattered.) I have no doubt that you will let me have it, as always, in the comments. Today:

Friedrich Nietzsche

Area of interest: The origins of “morality”

Why great: Because he exposed so much of bourgeois “values” as the hypocritical piffle that it is. With highly original and ingenious methods (tracing the evolution of words), Nietzsche described the process in which “healthy” and natural values become inverted and perverted in the process of “civilization”. The masses of the downtrodden feel ressentiment at the strong and healthy, and finally stage a slave revolt in which the high is redefined as low, the good as evil, the strong as cruel; and, conversely, the weak as good, the impotent as chaste, the poor as humble et cetera.

Comment: As with all thinkers, you don’t need to believe it all; but keeping Nietzsche in mind is fantastic armor against some of the glib moralistic bilge that assaults us daily.