What Is the Apollonian and Dionysian In Nietzsche’s Philosophy?

The Apollonian and the Dionysian are key terms in Nietzsche’s philosophy of aesthetics, referring to two opposing tensions within art.

Jan 13, 2022By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology
nietzsche photo maenads painting


The Apollonian and Dionysian are terms used by Friedrich Nietzsche in his work the Birth of Tragedy (1872) to denote two opposing tensions in art. The Apollonian, after the Greek god Apollo, represents a calm, reasoned, and structured form of art while the Dionysian, after Dionysus, is a deeply emotional and ecstatic one. Although these two are opposites, Nietzsche believed that there was a point when they were brought together into a distinctive art form expressed through the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles. Before we go into more detail, let’s take a quick look at Nietzsche’s aesthetic philosophy in the Birth of Tragedy.


Nietzsche’s Philosophy and the Birth of Tragedy 

friedrich nietzsche portrait
Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche, 1870-1900, via British Museum


One hundred twenty-one years have passed since Friedrich Nietzsche’s passing in Weimar. There is little doubt that Nietzsche’s philosophy was rebellious. He proclaimed that “God is Dead” in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883) and wrote the highly controversial Antichrist (1895), while also seeking to expose and deconstruct the very foundations of morality. In his early years, Nietzsche was inspired by thinkers like Hegel, Kant, and Schopenhauer, whom he later came to despise. But let’s cut to the chase.


The Birth of Tragedy was Nietzsche’s first and arguably most accessible book. It resulted from some lectures he delivered back when he taught classical philology at the University of Basel. Nietzsche decided to publish his ideas after encouraging feedback from Richard Wagner and his wife, Cosima. The first few copies were released in 1871 under the title Socrates and Greek Tragedy. In 1872, it was properly published and distributed under the title The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music.  


friedrich nietzsche philosophy birth of tragedy first edition
Birth of Tragedy first edition, 1872, via Wikimedia Commons


The Birth of Tragedy is a strange book. Nietzsche quotes a lot of Schopenhauer and employs Hegelian ideas to talk about art using ancient Greek tragedy like a case study which he ultimately connects with Richard Wagner’s opera. Of course, the older Nietzsche would regret all of this. In 1886, the revised edition of the Birth of Tragedy included a section called “An Attempt at Self-Criticism” written in 1770-1. There Nietzsche wrote with apparent regret that:

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“I sought laboriously to express strange and new evaluations with formulas from Schopenhauer and Kant—something which basically went quite against the spirit of Kant and Schopenhauer, as well as against their tastes!”
An Attempt at Self-Criticism, 6


Furthermore, in his final work, Ecce Homo, Nietzsche also wrote that the Birth of Tragedy:


“…smells offensively of Hegel; only in one or two formulae is it infected with the bitter odor of corpses which is peculiar to Schopenhauer.”
Ecce Homo, 69


What Is the Birth of Tragedy About? 

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Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon, by Caspar David Friedrich, 1824, via Alte Nationalgalerie


In short, it is an essay on aesthetics. Right from the beginning, we learn that one of the book’s main premises is that “only as an aesthetic phenomenon is an existence and the world eternally justified” (p. 50). Nietzschean philosophy traditionally sees existence as pain and chaos. Only art can make this pain bearable and Nietzsche finds that there are two artistic paths within art, the Apollonian and the Dionysian. After exploring them thoroughly, he concludes that the Greek tragedy was the only point in history when these two opposing tensions were brought together. However, he also claims that his contemporary German music is on its way to reviving the Apollonian-Dionysian union through the operas of Richard Wagner, but this is a topic for another discussion.


Dreams and Apollo in Nietzsche’s Philosophy

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The Triumph of Aurora, showing Apollo in his sun chariot, modern copy after Guidon Reni, via Sotheby’s


The Apollonian and the Dionysian arise from two fundamental perceptions of the world, which we will call art-worlds.


The first art-world is the dream-world. The dream-world is related to the experience of… dreaming. For Nietzsche’s philosophy, the dream-world is one of a cheerful acquiescence. Our dreams are filled with illusions. However, the very fabric of these illusions draws us in, to the point where, sometimes, we attempt to keep dreaming even if we understand that we are in a dream (think lucid-dreaming). Dreams are, by their very nature, structured experiences and this structure allows for distinctions to be made. One of these distinctions is that of the self and the other, the subject and the object. The Greeks embodied the sphere of dreams in their god Apollo.


Apollo is the god of prophecy, light, and music. He is the son of Zeus and Leto and the twin brother of Artemis. Apollo is a god who offers protection and speaks through his oracle at Delphi, providing guidance to those who seek it. For Nietzsche, Apollo is a deity related to calmness and reason.


Drunkenness and Dionysus

maenads painting
Maenads, by John Collier, 1886, via ArtUK


Drunkenness (or intoxication) is a whole different experience but, like the world of dreams, it is an experience based on illusions or misrepresentations of reality. Drunken reality is instinctive. Unlike the structured, ordered illusion of the dream, drunkenness is deeply emotional and irrational. Within this chaotic reality, the subject is dissolved, becoming one with its surroundings. As a result, drunkenness is an experience of oneness or as Nietzsche calls it primordial unity. Dionysus is the god who embodies this type of experience.


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Bacchus or Dionysus, by Caravaggio, via Uffizi Galleries


Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Semele. He was the god of wine, fertility, ritual/creative madness, and tragedy. Unlike Apollo, he was not part of the Olympian gods from the beginning. Dionysus is an eastern deity whose cult spread from the East, and his cult was firmly connected with these eastern origins. Nietzsche’s philosophy presents Dionysus as a god who brings divine madness and ecstatic unity.


Apollo and Dionysus are both brothers (from Zeus) and gods of music. However, the forms of music they represent are different and by extension, as we saw, the art-worlds they inspire couldn’t be more different:


“The music of Apollo was Doric architectonics in tones, but in merely suggested tones, such as those of the cithara [guitar]. The very element which forms the essence of Dionysian music (and hence of music in general) is carefully excluded as un-Apollonian; namely, the thrilling power of the tone, the uniform stream of the melos, and the thoroughly incomparable world of harmony.” 


Apollonian and Dionysian Principles 

leonid ilyukhin apollo dionysus painting
Apollo and Dionysus, by Leonid Ilyukhin, via leonid_ilyukhin.artstation.com


The Apollonian is the art of light and calm reason. It is also the art that, through its structure, takes the subject out of its context, away from its community. It naturally raises walls between the subject and the other. Nietzsche calls this the principle of individuation or the principium individuationis, a key quality of the Apollonian. He also claims that sculpture is the most Apollonian art, because of its structured nature.


On the other hand, the Dionysian is the art of madness, emotion, ecstasy, and above all, unity. The Dionysian is a force that unites humans as well as humans and nature. Within a Dionysian state of ecstasy, there are no lines. Everything becomes one under the experience of primordial unity. The principium individuationis here is dissolved and the communion between different subjects is realized. The emotional character of the Dionysian is better manifested through music:


“Change Beethoven’s “jubilee-song” into a painting, and, if your imagination be equal to the occasion when the awestruck millions sink into the dust, you will then be able to approach the Dionysian.” (p. 27)


The Terrible Wisdom of Silenus

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The drunken Silenus brought before King Midas, Circle of Sebastiano Ricci, 19th century, via Christie’s


For Nietzsche’s philosophy, the fundamental state of the world is one of chaos. Humanity is alone, facing the whims of fate, the forces of nature, and its own helplessness. According to Nietzsche, this truth is perfectly expressed by the Greek anecdote known as the ‘terrible wisdom of god Silenus’. According to a Greek myth, when king Midas captured Silenus, he asked him what the best thing humans could go after was. Silenus refused to answer, but Midas persisted. In the end, the god replied:


“Ephemeral offspring of a travailing genius and of harsh fortune, why do you force me to speak what it were better for you men not to know?

For a life spent in ignorance of one’s own woes is most free from grief. But for men, it is utterly impossible that they should obtain the best thing of all, or even have any share in its nature (for the best thing for all men and women is not to be born); however, the next best thing to this, and the first of those to which man can attain, but nevertheless only the second best, is, after being born, to die as quickly as possible.” 


But if existence is so unbearable, how can humans cope? The first thing that the Greeks did, says Nietzsche, was to create gods. They deified everything around them, natural or not, good or bad. The Greek gods had human traits. They were just as moral as they were immoral, they went after virtue as much as they sinned. The fact that the gods lived the same lives as humans affirmed the lives of the mortals. Among these gods was Apollo, and he was the source of rationality and attraction to beauty which made life worth living. Within the world of Apollo, the wisdom of Silenus was reversed. The worst of all was to die before getting the chance to live.


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Transfiguration, by Raphael, 1518-1520, via Musei Vaticani


Those caught in the Apollonian dream could not hear the screams and the anguish that consumed everything outside the light, an image that Nietzsche believed was perfectly captured by Raphael in his Transfiguration.


The light of civilization had triumphed and it seemed as if the barbaric had been beaten. And then came Dionysus, the cult of whom spread from the East. Like wildfire, the madness of the wine god brought with it a glimpse of the world that lies outside the Apollonian and a new solution that promised to reconcile man with nature in a mystical primordial unity. The two forces fought each other until something spectacular happened. They recognized the existence of each other “… and lo! Apollo could not live without Dionysus!” (p. 41). The one began carrying traces of the other and through their struggle, a new form of art emerged.


Union! Tragedy Is Born

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The dance of the Bacchants, by Charles Gleyre, 1849, via Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne


Theatre is an ancient Greek invention; this much is known. However, not everyone knows that theatre evolved out of the dithyramb, a ritual hymn including dancing, in honor of Dionysus. Thespis was the first person in history to step out of the dithyramb’s singularity. He began speaking in verse as an individual and representing a certain character. This was the birth of tragedy. Due to this special origin story, the ancient Greek tragedy was always a combination of epic and lyric poetry. Individual actors played a role but also interacted with the chorus, a group of performers singing in one voice thought to represent the average spectator.


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Mosaic with tragic Comic Masks, from Hadrian’s Villa, 2nd Century CE, via Wikimedia Commons


In the dithyramb, Nietzsche’s philosophy saw a purely Dionysian endeavor. Thespis’ stepping out of the dithyramb to embody a certain character was a process of individuation and, as a result, an Apollonian intrusion. Consequently, the Greek tragedy was born out of the fusion or rather the dialectic synthesis of the Apollonian and the Dionysian.


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The chorus for Peter Hall’s 2002 Bacchai, via Google Arts & Culture


Nietzsche further traced the Apollonian part in the protagonist and the way they sought to reason with their existential angst and make sense of reality. The Dionysian was found in the chorus and the chaotic nature of things through which the protagonist had to move as well as the very concept of fate or moira, which no one could escape. Also, whereas the protagonist would always be transformed by the end of the play, the chorus always remained the same, representing the audience’s common fears, hopes, and aspirations. Nietzsche believed that this function of the chorus created an impenetrable wall, shielding the audience from reality and allowing them to safely negate their individual identity and approach Dionysian existential suffering in an Apollonian way. In essence, the tragedy permitted the audience to indirectly experience reality through art, making the truth more bearable.


Socrates: The Bad Guy in Nietzsche’s Aesthetic Philosophy 

luis david death socrates painting
The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1787, via Met Museum


In Nietzsche’s philosophy, the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles captured the perfect synthesis of Apollonian and Dionysian art. This, however, changed with Euripides and the New Attic Comedy. Euripides diminished the value of the chorus and brought the spectator on stage by replacing the ideal protagonists of Aeschylus and Sophocles with ordinary individuals. Consequently, the audience was forced to confront the horrors of existence without the chorus’ balancing power. In Nietzsche’s eyes, Euripides acted in alignment with Socrates’ moral ideals. The German calls Euripides the poet of aesthetic Socratism and goes as far as to blame him for turning Socrates into the second protagonist of his tragedies. Socrates’ pursuit of truth and absolute knowledge could not coexist with the irrationality of Dionysus on stage. Thus, Euripides destabilized the union of Dionysus and Apollo or as Nietzsche writes:


“Dionysus had already been scared from the tragic stage, and in fact by a demonic power which spoke through Euripides. Even Euripides was, in a certain sense, only a mask: the deity that spoke through him was neither Dionysus nor Apollo, but an altogether new-born demon, called Socrates.” (p. 95)

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By Antonis ChaliakopoulosMSc Museum Studies, BA History & ArchaeologyAntonis is an archaeologist with a passion for museums and heritage and a keen interest in aesthetics and the reception of classical art. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History and Archaeology from the University of Athens (NKUA) where he is currently working on his PhD.