Apollonian vs. Dionysian - The Superior Person's Balancing Act The balancing act of the Apollonian and the Dionysian as aspects of personality

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche, following Schopenhauer, characterizes our experience of individuality (principium individuationis) as an illusion, making use of the Greek gods of Apollo and Dionysus to personify the two sides of our humanity. The ideal man, as characterized by Nietzsche in this work, is a human being in which the Apollonian and Dionysian elements were brought into some kind of harmony with each other. Is our individuality an illusion? What could it mean to reconcile the Apollonian and Dionysian sides of our existence?

It is evident and has been often said by many thinkers that the nature of humanity is intricate. In Nietzsche’s work, “The Birth of Tragedy,” he strives to characterize it using the duality of the Apolline and the Dionysian to explain its complexity, while also defining our experience of individuality as an illusion. According to him, we are part of something more than ourselves – that is, all individuals are undeniably a part of superstructures such as nature, our surroundings, and/or society, but nevertheless, feel the need to believe that they are not. Nietzsche explains that the nature of the balanced person is mirrored by the balance between the Apollonian and the Dionysian elements. Too much of one or the other part would either make one too restrained (and therefore would prevent one from truly living their life to the fullest), or, on the other hand, too barbaric. It is precisely through the equilibrium of the two portions, and through the use of the illusion of the principle of individuality, that people are capable of finding that desired balance in their life and thusly, obtain the ideal state of humanity.

The first part of this human balancing act is the Apollonian, an element which Nietzsche illustrates through the use of the god Apollo, known in Greek mythology, as the God of dreams, amongst other things. The dream-like state is one of reflection upon the chaos of daily life, of structure through imagery. Apollo thus represents order, stoicism, and calm dispassionate reflection on life. It is precisely through the Apollonian element that one experiences the principle of individuality. It is worth noting that as Apollo is the God of dreams, it consequently follows that as this principle lies within his domain, it is itself an illusion. The Apollonian element therefore serves as a sort of veil that guards against the Dionysiac which threatens to break through it. Whereas the Apollonian element represents the individual, the Dionysiac element is that of the non-individual, of nature, of the collective unconscious.

This second element that balances with the Apollonian is overseen by Dionysus, used by Nietzsche as the antithesis of Apollo – of revelry and intoxication in place of rigid, formal structure. At the same time, whereas Apollo represents dreams and illusions, Dionysus represents overpowering truth. It is Dionysus who oversees the events that occur when the principle of individuality inevitably breaks down – it is he who is associated with nature, energy, and music. The modern concert experience when one experiences the loss of self, traded as it is for unity with the crowd, is much like the Bacchanalian orgy and the Dionysiac festivals of the Greeks. These events share in common the breakdown of the individual in favour of the unity of the many; the complete, ecstatic, and voluntary disintegration of the many selves into the one cohesive group-unit. In this, “each person feels himself to be not simply united… with his neighbour, but [becomes] quite literally one with him.” Wherein Apollo represents reason and structure, Dionysus represents energy and self-abandonment. The Dionysiac element makes us recognize ourselves as an inseparable part of nature, which consequently makes us lose our Apollonian illusions, chief amongst which is the illusion of the principium individuationis. In Dionysiac revelry, one loses one’s identity, one’s separation from the crowd, from nature, and instead feels unity with the greater whole.

However, merely analyzing each element separately fails to show the whole picture, as Nietzsche strongly emphasizes that the Apollonian and the Dionysian elements must be balanced with one another. Whereas the Apollonian structured existence has its advantages and is the representation of control and order, the Dionysian is argued to be necessary in order to allow for an individual to truly embrace the often-raucous pleasures of life. The Apollonian by itself is defined as the rejection of the pleasures and of excess in its various forms. However, without the Dionysian, life becomes overly spartan and ascetic, exemplified by Nietzsche in the form of highly structured and unemotional Doric art. Such an existence is life-denying in that it rejects the many joys of the Dionysian embracement of nature. At the same time, a purely Dionysian existence is argued by Nietzsche to be barbaric – it is indeed energetic and pleasurable, but in the absence of control, becomes over-encompassing, savage. It is utterly unstructured and unreined – and a fully Dionysian existence is thus without order. The Dionysian on its own is just endless pursuit of pleasure without any higher meaning, a completely hedonistic existence that has no purpose except to find further pleasure. "Chasing some girls, alright, chasing cocaine through the backrooms of the world," to quote Bejar. The purely Dionysian elements threaten to deafen and overpower us. Thusly, this purity too, is thus undesirable.

Therefore, the solution is to combine the two elements and bring them into balance with one another. This desired balance is exemplified by the presence of both in music. On one hand, music is raw power, unbridled emotion, a “released and satisfied willing… always an emotion, an agitated state of mind.” On the other, music requires structure to be composed, to be held together. Without any order, music will overwhelm us – “shake us to our very foundations,” as in the most experimental works of Merzbow. In parallel to this analogy of music, so too should human existence be in balance between the Apolline and the Dionysian. The Apolline offers order and restraint and is compared to the rider atop the horse. The Dionysian is pure power and hedonism, and offers a complement of will and life to the overly structured Apollonian. It is therefore through the duality of the two elements that an individual can be powered with energy and driven forward by the Dionysian side, while still remaining ordered and controlled enough to harness that energy to achieve something concrete, or in other words, to find the ability to carry through the initial spark of desire towards creating something of lasting significance. It is only through the combination of the two that one can remain suspended in balance, without being driven too far to intoxication by the Dionysian, or into a frigid, detached, and restrained dream-state on the Apollonian side. If one is overly Dionysian, one lacks structure and control over oneself to accomplish anything, and if one is overly Apollonian, one lacks energy, virility. The two must coexist, and although they are diametric opposites, they need to complement each other to make a person a complete, truly whole individual. Else, one is threatened with the possibility of being left with "only vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself and falls on the other."

A critical component of the self that is needed for individuals to be protected from destruction is the Apollonian element of principium individuationis. Although it has been previously established that this element is in fact illusory, it is nevertheless an element of critical importance. This concept is held up by Apollo who is responsible for dreams and illusions, and challenged by Dionysus who is focused on truth and reality. The reason for the necessity of the element is explained by the simile of “the boatsman… in his small boat, trusting his frail craft in a stormy sea that is boundless in every direction… so in the midst of a world full of suffering and misery the individual man calmly sits, supported by and trusting in the principium individuationis.” What is meant by this is that the illusion of our individuality protects us from being engulfed by the nature that surrounds us. One needs to believe that they are somehow separate and distinct from the rest of nature in order to not succumb to a certain form of existential despair. The Dionysian element of ultimate truth in this simile is the sea itself and our unity with it. The boat disappears as it is not real, and one is then cast out to sea, drowning in it as they lose themselves. However, with the Apollonian perspective, one finds themselves in an equanimous state, completely at peace because one feels safe in their separation from the rest of the world and its “suffering and misery.” It is apt that Nietzsche describes the Dionysian emotionality as overpowering because precisely this cognisant understanding of oneness with nature and thus one's own insignificance is what makes the realization so terrifying. It is frigtening to feel completely connected, completely undetached from all else, particularly when one recognizes all the horrors of the world. However, if one feels separate from the world, those fearsome parts remain distinct from us, are separate from us, and cannot affect us. The illusion of individuality is thusly necessary in order for one to not feel overcome by the melancholic feeling of our insignificance. We need to feel that we are individuals so as to not suffer from existential despair that would source from the realization that we are not truly unique, wholly self-contained selves. Nietzsche describes the Dionysian state as not-altogether-pleasant intoxication and as self-forgetting. When we feel self-effaced, it is very difficult for us to feel in control of our destiny, or, in fact, to believe in our self-significance at all. Through the illusory principle of individuation, however, we can feel like distinct unique beings and that feeling is both comforting and liberating. No matter how small we are, if we have our own lifeboat, we do not feel utterly lost at sea, even if that is the true nature of our existence - as individuals that are a relative part of all of humanity that exists today, as well as all those that are long-gone and those that are yet to come. This is the contrast between subjectivity and objectivity; although objectively we may be insignificant and are highly unlikely to be original and separate from the rest of nature, subjectively, we feel buoyed by our feelings of self-importance and it is this emotion that keeps us afloat.

Thus, per Nietzsche, the ideal complete person is made up of two parts: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. These two elements combine to simultaneously give a person structure and energy and it is this duality that explains how one can be focused and driven at once. However, it is undeniable that each individual is part of something infinitely larger than themselves and this fact is contained within the Dionysian truth. This reality is terrifying and hard to come to terms with without falling into hopelessness. To deal with this, the Apollonian aspect provides the necessary illusion of principium individuationis. Through this Apollonian delusion, one can feel harmonious and distinct from the rest of nature. The balanced person therefore lives through the use of the equilibrium of the dual opposing elements of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Too much of one or the other would throw the balance out and would lead to either an overly structured, orderly, unemotional existence under rule of the Apollonian, or an overly intoxicated, hedonistic, unstructured, and meaningless existence under rule of the Dionysian. To combine and make compatible the two distinct, opposite parts is then one of the crucial aspects of leading a meritable life and it is through this very tenuous balance that an individual can find that elusive stability necessary for a meaningful, productive existence.

Works Cited



Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Birth of Tragedy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.