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The Apollonian and Dionysian is a philosophical and literary concept, or dichotomy, based on certain features of ancient Greek mythology. Many Western philosophical and literary figures have invoked this dichotomy in critical and creative works.

In Greek mythology, Apollo and Dionysus are both sons of Zeus. Apollo is the god of the Sun, of dreams and of reason, while Dionysus is the god of wine, ecstasy and intoxication. The Greeks did not consider the two gods to be opposites or rivals, although often the two deities were interlacing by nature.

The Apollonian is based on individuality, and the human form which is used to represent the individual and make one being distinct from all the others. It celebrates human creativity through reason and logical thinking. By contrast, the Dionysian is based on chaos and appeals to the emotions and instincts. Rather than being individual, the barriers on individuality are broken down and beings submerge themselves in one whole.

Although the use of the concepts of the Apollonian and Dionysian is famously linked to Nietzsche‘s The Birth of Tragedy, the terms were used before him in German culture. The poet Hölderlin spoke of them, while Winckelmann talked of Bacchus, the god of wine.

Nietzsche’s aesthetic usage of the concepts, which was later developed philosophically, first appeared in his book The Birth of Tragedy, which was published in 1872. His major premise here was that the fusion of Dionysian and Apollonian « Kunsttrieben » (« artistic impulses ») forms dramatic arts, or tragedies. He goes on to argue that this fusion has not been achieved since the ancient Greek tragedians. Nietzsche is adamant that the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles represent the apex of artistic creation, the true realization of tragedy; it is with Euripides that tragedy begins its downfall (« Untergang« ). Nietzsche objects to Euripides’ use of Socratic rationalism in his tragedies, claiming that the infusion of ethics and reason robs tragedy of its foundation, namely the fragile balance of the Dionysian and Apollonian.

The relationship between the Apollonian and Dionysian juxtapositions is apparent, Nietzsche claimed in The Birth of Tragedy, in the interplay of Greek tragedy: the tragic hero of the drama, the main protagonist, struggles to make order (in the Apollonian sense) of his unjust and chaotic (Dionysian) fate, though he dies unfulfilled in the end. For the audience of such a drama, Nietzsche claimed, this tragedy allows us to sense an underlying essence, what he called the « Primordial Unity », which revives our Dionysian nature — which is almost indescribably pleasurable. Though he later dropped this concept saying it was « …burdened with all the errors of youth » (Attempt at Self-Criticism, §2), the overarching theme was a sort of metaphysical solace or connection with the heart of creation.

Different from Kant‘s idea of the sublime, the Dionysian is all-inclusive rather than alienating to the viewer as a sublimating experience. The sublime needs critical distance, while the Dionysian demands a closeness of experience. According to Nietzsche, the critical distance, which separates man from his closest emotions, originates in Apollonian ideals, which in turn separate him from his essential connection with self. The Dionysian embraces the chaotic nature of such experience as all-important; not just on its own, but as it is intimately connected with the Apollonian. The Dionysian magnifies man, but only so far as he realizes that he is one and the same with all ordered human experience. The godlike unity of the Dionysian experience is of utmost importance in viewing the Dionysian as it is related to the Apollonian because it emphasizes the harmony that can be found within one’s chaotic experience.

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