Do you ever feel like you have two opposite voices inside your head? A rational one that loves order and predictability, and an irrational one begging for the chaos and excitement?
Which one do you listen to the most?
This seems to be a common phenomenon that lives in all of us. It is often portrayed in movies or cartoons as an angel and a demon, hovering next to our ears, trying to persuade us that their course of action is the right one to choose this time around.
Most of us feel like we are (probably) good people, because we listen to the rational voice more often than not. After all, we have routines to follow and responsibilities to bear; we do what is expected of us, so that everything around us stays as we expect it to be. We play the game.
And yet, for some strange reason, the tempting voice of chaos never seems to go away. It keeps asking of you, filling your head with fantasies best kept private.
Quit your job. Take that trip. Drive faster. Yell louder. Hit harder.
It’s a good thing we don’t often listen to these impulses. After all, societies exist to provide shelter from the unknown. They make things predictable and orderly. If we were nothing but impulse, we would be nothing but savages.
And so, we accept this and grow old, having never dared to stare back at our demons… until we have no other option.
The problem comes when we start ignoring the depth of this chaotic voice. Since we have labelled it as evil, we view it as inherently dangerous, ruthless and irresponsible.
No matter how much we may try to avoid its influence, the voice will find a way into our heads. It is just a matter of when.
Your wife will still fantasize about Fifty Shades of Grey. Your husband will still daydream about that flight attendant he once saw. Your kids will still be attracted to try everything that is forbidden. You will still feel the urge for chaos and drama on a boring Sunday.
You live your days putting on a holier-than-thou mask, only to come home at night and watch the overly morbid and invasive news coverage of the child murdered last week, followed by some buttery popcorn and Fight Club.
If you still are not convinced that this is the case, I invite you to go to any night club during the weekend and watch what happens when our most rational voice is silenced by easy access to narcotics.
In many ways, our outer appearance acts as a veil to our most inner cravings. Rare is the day in which we dare to take a good peek.
I would like to share why this duality is crucial to understanding ourselves. It is a dynamic that we should not judge nor inhibit, but embrace. I will argue that, to make our lives flourish, we should paradoxically move closer to chaos.
Moving forward, we will not define these influences as angelical and evil anymore—as these terms carry too much weight already. Instead, we will look at this issue through the eyes of one of the greatest minds humanity has come to know.
But first, we need a bit of context.
In 19th century Europe, the epistemological view of rationalism was in decline.
Epistemology is a major branch in philosophy. The name comes from the Greek words episteme, meaning knowledge, and logos, meaning study. So, epistemology is the study of knowledge. When you ask, “What do we know to be true?” or “How do we come to know this?” you are participating in epistemology.
Now, rationalism is a view within epistemology. It holds reason as the one true source of knowledge. Rationalists believe our most powerful weapon is our logic, and that we can all discover how to make our lives better by thinking and studying ourselves. They don’t care about the supernatural. Instead, they work like scientists of the mind: running hypotheses and looking for evidence, iteration after iteration.
Classical rationalism was led by some of the most brilliant philosophers in history. Kant wrote on metaphysics, Spinoza published his masterpiece Ethics, and Descartes coined his famous Cogito Ergo Sum—I think, therefore I am.
But even though these thinkers had become increasingly popular during the European Enlightenment Era, their fame was starting to dwindle by the time the 19th century came along. People became skeptical about the potential of rationality and science.
Could everything really be explained through a magnifying glass? Could science really transform human nature? Could we really be truly rational?
The West found itself in a tug of war. On the one hand, Christianity was losing its power and influence. On the other, science was struggling to give meaning to people’s lives. This clash is perfectly illustrated by the contemporary story of Frankenstein, where man tried to play God through science—and gave birth to a monster.
In time, Europeans became overwhelmed. They couldn’t find answers on traditional spirituality, but science did not prove much more useful either.
Soon, people became drawn to dark fantasies; no longer chained by religious guilt, they started digging into a world that seemed forgotten: chaos, the satanic, the demonic… these forbidden fruits were suddenly more tempting than ever before.
But out of all the people who dove into the darkest crevices of our minds, one man will always be remembered for daring to go the deepest.
That man was Friedrich Nietzsche.
Whether you consider him a philosopher, a thinker or an artist, if you have read the man, you know his work is very controversial. It still is to this day. His writings have stirred the conscience of thousands, and his ideas have tormented generations.
And yet, his name remains as relevant as ever. To top it all off, it seems Nietzsche himself knew how important his work would be, and how delicate his task was. He wrote:
I know my fate. One day my name will be associated with the memory of something tremendous—a crisis without equal on earth, the most profound collision of conscience, a decision that was conjured up against everything that had been believed, demanded, hallowed so far.
I am no man, I am dynamite.— Friedrich Nietzsche (Ecce Homo)
But what can an old German philosopher show you about yourself? How can he help you understand your darkest thoughts? What do Nietzsche, alcohol, dance and sex have in common?
Probably more than you think.
At the young age of 28, Nietzsche published his first major work: The Birth of Tragedy. In it, he explains why the Ancient Greeks had, at one point, found a beautiful balance between two incredible forces.
You might remember a thing or two about Greek mythology, like the fact that they had many Gods. Zeus, Poseidon, Aphrodite… most people back then believed in as much as 12. But out of that dozen, Nietzsche thought two were the most important ones: the gods Apollo & Dionysus. According to him, it is these two who can help us understand ancient Greek culture the best.
On the surface, Apollo is pretty much the perfect god—what many of us would want to be. Young and athletic, Apollo is the God of light, reason, wisdom, music and medicine. He is calm and collected. He brings order to the world and is beloved by many. If you have seen the 2004 film Troy, you might remember Apollo is the God praised by the Trojans (not so much by Achilles).
Contrast this with Dionysus. Old, big beard—Dionysus is the God of wine, drunkenness, madness, instinct and orgiastic ecstasy. He is unpredictable. Legends say his mere presence makes those around him insane. His savagery was without mercy, and the myths surrounding his followers always seem to involve bloodbaths and sheer brutality.
Surely, not a God worth emulating, right?
But if that were true, then how come Nietzsche wrote:
Herewith I again stand on the soil out of which my intention, my ability grows—I, the last disciple of the philosopher Dionysus.Friedrich Nietzsche (Twilight of the Idols)
Was he fond of drink and debauchery himself?
Nope. In fact, Nietzsche was notoriously opposed to drinking alcohol. He thought all the short-term benefits from its consumption—becoming more charismatic, laughing more, dancing more—were just a quick way out of actually becoming that person we want to be.
You drink to become more charismatic because you aren’t charismatic enough when sober. You drink to let loose on the dancefloor because you are too scared to confront it when not. He famously said there were “two great European narcotics: alcohol and Christianity.”
Okay, so, was Nietzsche a bloodthirsty murderer then? After all, he wrote The Antichrist, didn’t he?
He did—and he wasn’t.
Nietzsche lived a rather quiet life, spending his days in great solitude in the Swiss alps. We know from those who met him that he did not really stand out. He was quite short, reserved and especially polite. For most of his life, he was also extremely ill. He suffered from constant migraines, stomach cramps, spasmodic vomiting, severe insomnia and more.
Despite all of these challenges, he wrote. He wrote until his weakened eyes burned. One of his acquaintances recalled a chitchat he had with him as follows:
We began a very banal conversation about the climate, living accommodations, and the like. Then he told me, without the least pretention or conceit, that he always felt himself to have a task and that now, as far as his eyes would permit it, he wanted to get out of himself and work up whatever might be in him.Walter Kaufman (The Portable Nietzsche)
We could all learn from a man who had every reason not to write and decided to do it anyway. Nietzsche went beyond any excuse and used his suffering as fuel for psychological and philosophical insight. One can wonder whether he would have produced seminal work at all had his condition not been part of the equation.
But let’s not get carried away.
If Nietzsche was not an alcoholic nor a psychopath, why would he then claim to be a disciple of Dionysus? I’m afraid the matter is not as simple as I described earlier.
To truly understand why Apollo, and in particular Dionysus, are such a big deal, we must quickly turn to a principle in philosophy that was introduced by Heraclitus in ancient Greece: The Unity of Opposites, or Coincidentia Oppositorum, as it was later called.
In simple terms: Everything always has its opposite within itself. Heat and cold are two sides of the same coin. So are winning and losing, or day and night. Heraclitus said it best:
The road up and the road down are the same thing.Heraclitus (Refutations)
‘PhilosophizeThis!’ gave a great example on their podcasts about Nietzsche, saying that love and greed—what appear to be polar opposites—can actually be one and the same.
Think about it this way: You are a devoted car collector, owning every commercial Ferrari model… except one. You are completely in love with the brand and have been longing for that missing model forever. One day, you spot a man driving it, and you offer to buy it from him, but it’s not for sale. You offer more and more money, but the owner just won’t sell it to you. Unbelievable! You love that car! That greedy old bastard is so ungrateful! He won’t empathize with you and wants the car all for himself!
Sure. But maybe you are just a hypocrite overridden by greed, and he’s just a man who also loves his car.
You get the point.
This idea of opposites can be applied to Greek mythology as well.
Remember how we mentioned Apollo was the god of medicine? This also gave him the power to bring plagues to those who angered him. He fought mercilessly against the Greeks in Homer’s Iliad, murdering thousands. He could be fair—and equally terrifying.
The same principle applies to Dionysus; to just call him an alcoholic murderer doesn’t do him justice. In popular tales, he also played the role of The Liberator, having the power to free those wrongly encaged. He fought against injustice, extreme order and the mundanity of daily life. He brought flavor to a bland existence.
It is clear now that things are not that simple, and there is always more than meets the eye. So, to capture the complexity of this duality, Nietzsche coined two famous terms…
Nietzsche associated a word with each of the gods. Everything that was related to Apollo became Apollonian, and those things associated with Dionysus became Dionysian.
What is interesting about The Birth of Tragedy is that it uses art to really understand what these opposites represent. What might first seem like a very esoteric argument becomes surprisingly relatable and powerful when viewed through the appropriate lenses.
It is best to think of the Apollonian and the Dionysian not as gods, but as forces. Ones that are in constant conflict.
Nietzsche defines the Apollonian as a force of order. It is born out of our ability to reason. It embodies a concept called principium individuationis, the principle of individuation. In simple terms, the Apollonian has the power to separate the world into individual beings. In the world of art, the Apollonian is sculpture. It structures reality itself, making things distinct from one another.
This is important because, consequently, the Apollonian makes us —you, I, human beings—aware of our separateness. You are aware that you exist as an entity that is separate from other people. There is something about you that is uniquely yours, that you cannot question.
This is very exciting, but also quite daunting. Because you are self-aware, you are now self-conscious too. Like a nervous actor on stage, you realize you are playing a part in the theater of life. If you are too busy thinking about how you stand, look, or move, chances are you will forget your next line.
If the Apollonian is a force of order, then the Dionysian is a force of chaos. It does not structure the world around you, it fights to do the exact opposite. The Dionysian is music—ungraspable and enrapturing. When the Dionysian shines, we lose our sense of individuality. We become unaware of our own self, if only for a few breaths.
Dionysus is the god of wine for a reason: under its influence, we muffle the voice of self-consciousness. We think less. We just go. But drink too much of it and you will drown the voice entirely. Suddenly, you stop caring about social norms. Now you are shouting like an animal. Now you passed out.
Have you ever wondered why we all seem to be disgusted by those who drink to the point where they lose self-awareness? I don’t think it’s just because they are loud or because they turn their stomachs inside out. It goes a little deeper than that.
To our Apollonian eyes, they are filthy beasts. If you have ever been the one to drink too much, then you will most likely have felt a deep embarrassment the coming morning. And rightly so. Self-awareness is the one thing that is truly yours, and you gave it away for a night. Just like that. You forced your friends to be mindful of themselves and of your ragdollian existence.
Getting wasted is a desperate effort to suppress all the Apollonian that is in you, so you can return back to nature; it’s a hail Mary attempt to lose all responsibility and go back to the safety of the womb. That’s why you are basically a baby when drunk. That’s why it’s so humiliating—because you haven’t accepted that you can’t go back.
But the same goes the other way around.
We hate the people who just can’t seem to let go. They are hyper-aware of their existence, so they think everyone else is, too. The extreme Apollonian types are the most insecure. The over-civilized. They are scared of doing anything that subjects them to any judgement by others, because they already carry the burden of their own self-judgement.
We have all been there. I have, in the past, rolled my eyes at people who dance without a care in the world. It’s an easy way to mask and repress jealousy. Deep down, we respect those who lose their sense of self… as long as they do it out of their own will. Not because of alcohol or drugs, but because they could not help but pour their existence into what they were doing.
You might compare Nietzsche’s work to other interpretations of human nature. Christianity, for example, sees Man as stuck between two worlds. Not really an animal, not really a God. Not solely driven by instincts, but not fully rational either. We are (arguably) the creature that is most aware of its own existence. This makes us have needs that go far beyond mere survival. Unlike bats or flies, we are not only driven by instinct; unlike sheep or chickens, we need more than just food and shelter to thrive.
German philosopher Erich Fromm put it beautifully when he wrote:
We live, we are not lived.Erich Fromm (The Sane Society)
We are sitting on the driver’s seat. For better or worse, we bit into the forbidden apple and were kicked out of paradise, out of true natural life—never to return again.
However, what is beautiful about Nietzsche’s terms is that they don’t carry any judgmental weight on them. They have not been tainted by religious finger-pointing morality, so one is not good and the other evil. There is no black and white.
According to Nietzsche, both the Apollonian and the Dionysian forces are as complex and relevant as they are necessary, and to live a life worth living, we should try to understand and cultivate both of them.
One of the most attractive traits of the Apollonian force is its reliance on rationality. It is a common desire among us to become as rational as possible; to let what Apollo has to say sink in and become his most promising disciple.
This makes sense and is why we love witnessing displays of extreme levelheadedness. We love watching James Bond keep his cool during a car chase. We secretly admire those able to control all their emotions at will. Those who don’t cry and never crumble. Those who take the wheel.
All these things do, in fact, deserve our admiration. Nietzsche would have probably enjoyed watching Casino Royale as much as you and I did. But he would have also asked one question after the credits rolled:
At what cost?Friedrich Nietzsche (On Casino Royale*)
Let’s quickly look at this issue from the perspective of economics.
If you have ever taken an econ class, you will most likely have heard of something called opportunity costs. This simple concept teaches us the non-obvious cost of purchasing a product or engaging in an activity. Basically, it’s what you miss out on.
The opportunity cost of going to the cinema with your friends is giving up a cozy afternoon at home. The opportunity cost of booking a better room in that fancy hotel is having to fly in economy class instead of business. Everything has an opportunity cost.
So, what is the opportunity cost of becoming hyper-rational? Missing out on very human emotions.
Picture someone living with a purely rational mind, with clear thoughts and no emotional disturbance. Now picture his house burning down, will he feel sorrow in response? Why would he? Those are just material possessions.
Now imagine his heart getting broken, will he shed a tear then? Why would he? People come and go. These things are outside of his control, which means they are none of his concern. He will passively watch them unfold.
So far, the trade-off doesn’t seem too unattractive. You give up emotional reaction, you get clarity and inner peace in return. Win-win, right?
Picture that same individual again. Is he smiling when his daughter walks her first steps, or utters her first words? Is he crying at his son’s first piano recital? Are he and his wife singing Bohemian Rhapsody at the top of their lungs when out on the road?
The Apollonian force guards us from the unknown. It is an armor we wear, but one we should also be weary of. All soldiers should take off their armor when they come back home. In many occasions, standing naked and vulnerable is the strongest act of courage.
Listening only to Apollo means watering down the most intense experiences in life. Becoming unreactive to your father’s death means becoming unreactive to your son’s birth. This is why we need Dionysus. This is why, in the words of Nietzsche:
One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.Friedrich Nietzsche (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)
Many of us, like himself, should look up to Dionysus and his unusual wisdom. Once we see past the horrid tales of blood that first catch our eyes when reading about him, we discover a frightening depth worth diving into.
The Dionysian is enrapturing and liberating. It urges you to let go of all rational control and carries you away with it. You cut the stream of self-conscious thought dry. You give up. Suddenly, you become part of the music you’re listening to. In that instant, you are the music, you are the sex, you are the uncontrollable laughter or the exhausting cry of despair.
What the Greeks got right—and wrong
This is why Nietzsche thought the Greeks had found the perfect balance between both forces. They hit the nail on the head by glorifying Dionysus. They knew life could be ruthless and full of suffering, but they never shied away from that fact. Quite the opposite. They took all those elements and made a god out of them. They came up with someone able to embody, as Walter Otto said, “the fullness of life and the violence of death”.
They praised him, and this religious devotion seeped into their culture as well. Particularly in two areas. There is no better way of exemplifying the significance of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy than to talk about how the Greeks viewed, well, birth and tragedy.
Perhaps unlike we do nowadays, the Greeks glorified human birth as the ultimate form of suffering. They did not see it as a burden that women had to bear, but as a beautiful privilege. And why wouldn’t they? Human birth is the culmination of the Dionysian: when utter pain meets the highest form of creation. The experience is worth the agony, and then some.
Birth is the biggest reminder that human existence demands a great deal of pain—our mere survival depends on it. Rather than shying away from it, the Greeks often glorified the human body as it came to the world: naked and unashamed.
Secondly, they also had a thing for tragedies. Crowds loved showing up to the theater to witness horrid tales like that of Oedipus Rex. These were a perfect mix of the Apollonian and Dionysian forces. They reminded people of their own mortality. It made them deeply aware of the suffering life could bring.
Yet the chaos of the stories was compensated by the logic and structure of the play’s poetry, as well as by the skill of the actors and chorus. These two currents mixed together to create something beautiful. The suffering, once more, was not just suffering—it was art. The spectators witnessed deeply unpleasant thoughts being presented in aesthetically mesmerizing ways. A traditional Greek tragedy is a roller-coaster of emotion that starts with a liberating catharsis and ends with serene acceptance.
Ancient Greece had a better relationship with suffering than we do in our current age.
In Nietzsche’s eyes, they eventually messed it up by becoming too Apollonian. On the one hand, the rise of Socratic philosophy seduced people into a repression of their animal nature and a glorification of the logos.
On the other, the proliferation of Euripides’ plays—which, rather than focusing on great tragic heroes put the emphasis on the common man—made the spectators feel like they could judge the characters on the play. People started projecting their own moral judgement onto them, so they were never able to lose the sense of individuation like they did before.
They got caught up in their own heads, never to let go again.
Hopefully by now I have been able to explain why this duality is so important, as well as why we should not be quick to judge our inner voices. They are not good nor evil, they are manifestations of the Apollonian and Dionysian forces that live within us… perhaps literally so.
American academic Camille Paglia wrote in her bestselling book Sexual Personae that the tug of war between the Apollonian and Dionysian forces is not esoteric pseudo-psychology—it has a basis in physiology.
Even though we barely scratch the surface of human brain understanding, one thing seems to be quite clear: some of its parts are older than others. The oldest parts are the most reliable ones and run things on their own. They are often referred to as the reptilian brain and the limbic system. These dictate much of what our bodies do.
You don’t consciously beat your heart or run your digestive cycle. You don’t consciously freak out when jump-scared. We are not a part of them. Our self-consciousness is never required.
In contrast, it seems like the higher cortex—or at least a sophisticated interaction between it and other sections of your brain—has given birth to complex thinking and self-consciousness. It is thanks to its intricacy that we have risen to the very top of the animal hierarchy: because we can think like no other.
We invented elaborate languages, writing systems and a network through which to instantly share our thoughts worldwide. We can make slow and calculated decisions; we are reasonably good at predicting outcomes and can be incredibly creative. We make these things happen, consciously.
I’m sure this dichotomy rings a bell. There is a chance that the quarrel between Apollo and Dionysus exists within us because we disrupted our archaic brain by throwing consciousness into the equation. A lot has happened since the early days of tribalism, and our biology is struggling to keep up.
We can either accept this fact or keep lying to ourselves. We can either address it or keep writing fairy tales. Tales about our purity and goodness. Tales about how godly we are. But we are not, and that is a painful truth written all over the 20th century. We must learn from it: ignorance, here, is not bliss—it is doom.
You cannot lock away the god of liberation. Trying to suppress him will only delude you into thinking you are caging a demon—when in reality you are caging yourself.
But let us not become discouraged: just because we currently suck at mediating the forces within us does not mean we are hopeless. Rather than repressing the Dionysian until it cannot hold back any longer, let us accept it once more and learn from what it has to offer. Let us study the way of the ancient Greeks. Let us use its power productively. It can teach us how to live creatively, how to feel deeply, how to take in existence in all its frightening beauty. It is time we respect our nature for what it is, and not for what we want it to be.
Dionysus will come knocking on your door very soon. You will be tempted to kick him out. Don’t. Instead, remember the words of the man who wrestled with him more than we ever will:
Be careful when you cast out your demons that you don’t throw away the best of yourself.Friedrich Nietzsche (Correspondence)