Apollonian and Dionysian

Is our world in order or chaotic?

It depends on how we see the world. If we are Apollonian, it should be in order. If Dionysian, it could be chaotic.

It is one of the well-known dichotomies in Greek mythology, and one of the key concepts in understanding works of art, mainly invoked by Friedrich Nietzsche.

Indeed, it might be said of Apollo that the unshaken faith in that principium and the peaceful stillness of the man caught up in it have found their most sublime expression in him, and we might even describe Apollo as the glorious divine image of the principium individuationis, from whose gestures and looks all the delight, wisdom and beauty of ‘illusion’ speak to us.

In the same passage Schopenhauer has described the tremendous dread that grips man when he suddenly loses his way amidst the cognitive forms of appearance, because the principle of sufficient reason, in one of its forms, seems suspended. If we add to this dread the blissful ecstasy which, prompted by the same fragmentation of the principium individuationis, rises up from man’s innermost core, indeed from nature, we are vouchsafed a glimpse into the nature of the Dionysiac, most immediately understandable to us in the analogy of intoxication.

The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche

While Nietzsche primarily used this comparison between visual art and music, it must be fundamentally for our world and life.

Both Apollo and Dionysus are sons of Zeus. Apollo is the god of the sun, symbolizing rational thinking and order, appealing to logic, prudence, and purity. Dionysus is the god of wine and dance, expressing irrationality and chaos, appealing to emotions and instincts.

Like other dichotomies such as Yin and Yang, or even Cain and Abel, this Greek version could be a cosmic pair for the universe. It is so archetypal.

For Apollonians, the world should be in order. There must be principles, reasons, theories, mechanisms, even intentions on how the universe works as it should. For them, the world should be a black box. This black box, however, is what we can open eventually and see the secrets exposed. They are optimistic and sober, if not naive.

For Dionysians, the world should be chaotic, by nature, facing mysteries, enigmas, and irrationalities that overwhelm us. We are dancing with such universe; at the same time, we can’t help but dance with it. We feel so free and yet so helpless. For them, the world should be a black box as well. This black box, however, seems forever unknown.

As an Apollonian, we are scientists; as a Dionysian, we are artists. In the former, we are sober. In the latter, perhaps we are drunk.

Like Yin and Yang, or even Cain and Abel, we can’t be either-or but both. We are Appollnians; at the same time, Dionysians.

So, is our world ordered or chaotic? The answer is obvious. It could be both. And yet, it depends on who we are, either Apollonians or Dionysians. It could be interchangeable.

It seems the continental philosophies belong to the Dionysian side, even though Nietzsche used both as a pair in his discourses. Using such cosmic, archetypal pair itself looks so Dionysian in the first place.

Being an Apollonian, we tend to think we must always be Apollonians. Being rational, we must always be so.

Being Dionysians, however, we tend to think we could be more inclusive; hence, we could be both. We could disbelieve and believe in God at the same time. We can be atheists, theists, pantheists, and more at the same time.

Using a word like philosophy of life, our Dionysian souls tend to be eloquent in articulating our life, world, and universe. In it, philosophers can act like artists. In the logical-positivistic traditions, on the contrary, philosophers tend to be more like an Apollonian. In it, they try to act like scientists and mathematicians.

Our Apollonian minds tend to be indifferent, even cynical about what we can see and can’t. We can easily recall this aphorism by Ludwig Wittgenstein, denying the metaphysical articulations.

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.
(Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.)

Ludwig Wittgenstein

From our Apollonian, rational analytic eyes, the metaphysical domain could be merely our dreams. Whatever we say and how many words we consume, all our efforts would be in vain unless and until we can prove them as truth.

It seems to me; however, this indifferent, cynical pretentiousness could ironically show the very Dionysian aspect of Wittgenstein himself.

For example, when one says there is no such a thing as love, this statement itself could ironically sound more emotional, and more passionate, implying one’s cynicism.

On the other hand, if someone is eloquent enough about love and believe it without doubt, then this statement could paradoxically sound more superficial , and more sentimental, even corny.

Trying to be an Apollonian in his analytic discourse, Wittgenstein unintentionally exposed his Dionysian side.

In various modern, postmodern, pop cultures, on the other hand, their efforts to be a Dionysian could ironically end up as being an Apollonian. That’s to say, love would lose its depth, merely being consumed by marketing gimmicks.

When we face the reality of life and death, we’re supposed to be a Dionysian. If and when, however, such life and death could become consumable in the pop action movies, then, we would end up as mere consumers. We consume them as if these are our favorite sweets for happy weekends. We are far from a Dionysian.

In a meta, reflexive perspective; however, once we face the reality that we are merely consumers, then in this very despair, we would start questioning seriously and existentially:

What is our life? What is the meaning of our life? Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

By struggling with the shallowness of our lives, we could not help but become a Dionysian.

So again, is our world ordered or chaotic?

It depends on how we see the world. If we are Apollonian, it should be in order. If Dionysian, it could be chaotic. And we are inherently both, not either-or.

But then, trying to be Dionysian, we end up as being Apollonian. Trying to be Apollonian, on the other hand, we could see a glimpse of Dionysian enigma.

Saying our world is in order, we would realize our Dionysian souls being oppressed. Saying our world is chaotic, we would notice the superficiality of our Apollonian mind.

Understanding God also has the same dilemma and paradox. Once the words of God become superficially consumed, we will miss their real depth. Confronting such superficiality in despair, however, we would possibly restore our real intention and passion for seeking the depth of His words.

Images: Sarcophagus with the Triumph of Dionysus ca. 190; The Triumph of Bacchus, by Diego Velázquez, c. 1629

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