In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche, following Schopenhauer, characterizes our experience of individuality (principium individuationis) as an illusion. He makes use of the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus to personify both sides of our humanity. Nietzsche’s ideal in this work was 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 part of nature, of our surroundings, of society but 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 would either make one too restrained (and therefore not 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 one finds that desired balance in their life to obtain the ideal state of humanity.
The first part of this human balancing act is the Apollonian, which is an element which Nietzsche illustrates by using the Greek god Apollo. In Greek mythology, Apollo is known 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 images. 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 this principle which is within his domain is itself an illusion. The Apollonian element 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.
This second element that balances out 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 the dreams and illusions, Dionysus represents the overpowering truth. He oversees the events when the principle of individuality breaks down – he is the one who is associated with nature, energy, music. The modern concert experience when one experiences the loss of self traded for unity with the crowd is much like the Bacchanalian orgy and the Dionysiac festivals of the Greeks. They share that 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 unit of a group. In this, “each person feels himself to be not simply united… with his neighbour, but quite literally one with him.” Where 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 those the illusion of the principium individuationis. In Dionysiac revelry, one loses one’s identity, one’s separation from the crowd, from nature, and instead becomes one with it.
However, looking at both elements separately does not give the whole picture. Nietzsche strongly emphasizes that the Apollonian and the Dionysian elements must be balanced with each other. Whereas the Apollonian structured existence has its advantages and is the representation of control and order, the Dionysian is needed in order for one to truly embrace the oft-raucous pleasures of life. The Apollonian by itself is defined as the rejection of the pleasures, of excess in its various forms. However, without the Dionysian, things become overly spartan and ascetic, exemplified by Nietzsche in the form of highly structured and unemotional Doric art. It 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 barbaric – it is indeed energetic and pleasurable, but without control becomes over-encompassing, savage. It is utterly unstructured and unreined – and a purely Dionysian existence is without order. The Dionysian on its own is just endless seeking of pleasure, without any higher meaning, a completely hedonistic existence that has no purpose except for further pleasure. The purely Dionysian music threatens to deafen us, overpower us. This purity too, is thus undesirable.
Therefore, the solution is to combine the two elements and balance them 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, held together. Without any order, music will overwhelm us – “shake us to our very foundations.” 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 like the rider on top of the horse. The Dionysian is pure power and hedonism, and offers a complement of will and life to the overly structured Apollonian. It is 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 and carry through that initial spark of desire to create 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, 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.
A critical component of the individual that is needed for individuals to be protected from destruction is the Apollonian element of principium individuationis. This element is illusory, and yet is a critically necessary one. This concept is held up by Apollo 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 despair. The Dionysian element of ultimate truth is in this simile, the sea itself and our unity with it. The boat disappears as it is not real, and one is cast at sea, drowning in it because they lose themselves. However, with the Apollonian perspective, one is completely at peace because they feel safe in their separation from the rest of the world and its ‘suffering and misery.’ It is very apt that Nietzsche describes the Dionysian emotionality as overpowering because precisely this cognisant understanding of oneness with nature and thus personal insignificance is what makes it so terrifying. It is scary 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 it, those scary parts are distinct from us, are not part of us and do not affect us. The illusion of individuality is necessary in order for one not to feel overwhelmed by the feeling of our melancholy 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, as self-forgetting. When we feel self-effaced, it is very difficult for us to feel either 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 is extremely freeing and comforting. 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 as a relative part of all of humanity. This is subjectivity versus objectivity; although objectively we are insignificant and highly unlikely to be original and separate from the rest of nature, subjectively we feel that we are the most important and 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 give a person structure and energy at once. The duality explains how one can be focused and driven at once. Although, undeniably, each individual is part of something infinitely larger than themselves that fact is contained within the Dionysian truth. This truth is terrifying and hard to come to terms with without falling into hopelessness. To deal with this fact, the Apollonian aspect steps in and provides the necessary illusion of principium individuationis. Through this Apollonian delusion, one can feel harmonious and feel distinct from the rest of nature. The balanced person therefore is living through 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 a too intoxicated, too hedonistic, unstructured, meaningless existence under rule of the Dionysian. To combine and make compatible the two distinct, opposite parts is necessary for the ideal person and it is through this very balance, that an individual can find the ideal stability necessary for a meaningful, productive existence.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Birth of Tragedy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.