Apollonian and Dionysian

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Apollonian and Dionysian is a philosophical dichotomy most commonly associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, which is inspired by but not based on Greek mythology.

It is a dualistic concept, according to which there is a perpetual struggle between two sets of opposing forces or ideals; one associated with Apollo, the god of the Sun, the other associated with Dionysus (equivalent to the Roman Bacchus), the god of drunkenness. In his Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche wrote that art is based on a critical balance of these two forces, analogizing it with sex:

The further development of art is bound up with the duality of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, just as reproduction depends upon the duality of the sexes.

The dichotomy[edit]

The Apollonian force is defined by its reliance on reason, order, control, individuality, and sober thought, and seeks to bring philosophic order to the universe. Nietzsche, being most concerned with art in his treatment of the concept, identified the visual arts as embodying an Apollonian force.

More broadly, modern science with its scientific method and methodological naturalism could be seen as an Apollonian force, deriving orderly laws and principles to approximate, as closely as possible, the operation of the universe. The Age of Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason, science, and the power of thought, was driven by a decidedly Apollonian philosophy. Nietzsche refers to philosophy itself as Apollonian.

The Dionysian force is that which embraces mysticism, emotion, chaos, "world harmony," and "collective unity". Nietzsche's general take on the Dionysian is that it is pleasantly like being drunk.[note 1]

As an example of the thoroughly Dionysian, Nietzsche cites the early modern European dancing mania: enormous throngs of people dancing wildly through the streets to the point of collapse, not knowing where they were going or why they were dancing. Another example of a Dionysian philosophy is Romanticism, the counter-Enlightenment movement that emphasized human intuition and opposed the scientific rationalization of nature.

Camille Paglia's interpretation[edit]

Paglia in 2017

Camille Paglia, the noted "dissident feminist", in her 1990 book Sexual Personae, expands on the idea of the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy. For Paglia, much of Western culture can be understood as a complicated interplay and struggle between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. She associates Apollonian with rationality, celibacy, intellectualism, restraint, and goal-oriented progress; the Dionysian (or Chthonian) is associated with irrationality, ecstasy, ignorance, anti-intellectualism, sloth, sexual indulgence, and unrestrained procreation. Paglia associates Dionysian principles with Pagan religions and Apollonian principles with Judeo-Christianity noting, for example, that Paganism celebrates that use of images in worship while Christianity and Judaism tend to discourage such images (Catholicism and the Orthodox churches are exceptions, being partly outgrowths of Roman paganism).

But Paglia takes the dichotomy one step further than Nietzsche, by associating the Apollonian with men and the Dionysian with women, and then hypothesizing that all progress in civilization was made by Apollonian forces, viz., men rebelling against the Dionysian wildness of women.

Paglia argues that historical fact of male domination is arts, politics and science is ultimately rooted in sexual anxiety. Men are born of and dominated by their mothers during childhood before entering puberty and beginning their lifelong fascination with and fear of women's sexual and reproductive power. Feeling the risk of engulfment by female nature, men are compelled to emphasize their distinct identity with creative and intellectual pursuits. Yet men's anxieties are never far from the surface, given that male fascination with women has been the single most enduring feature of Western art. Women, in contrast, have traditionally devoted most of their mental and physical energy to pregnancy, nursing, childrearing, etc., and have thus lacked the time and energy that men have been able to devote to other pursuits.

As evidence of her thesis, Paglia makes several key observations:

  1. Male-dominated cultures have made more enduring contributions, whether good or ill, to world culture than female-dominated cultures (e.g., Classical Athens vs. Minoan Crete[note 2]).
  2. Women who have made enduring contributions to art, science, politics and feminism tended to be lesbian or childless, and/or have been wealthy enough to hire wet nurses and nannies to handle the energy sapping and time-consuming details of childrearing (e.g., Sappho, Hildegard of Bingen, Elizabeth I of England, Catherine the Great, Queen Victoria, Emily Dickinson, Jane Ellen Harrison, Mother Theresa, Simone de Beauvoir, Katherine Hepburn, Amelia Earhart, Frida Kahlo, Oprah Winfrey, Andrea Dworkin, Mary Daly, Sonia Sotomayor, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Streisand, etc.).

Paglia agrees that women have often been unjustly excluded from some careers and fields of study, but nonetheless argues that her thesis accounts for male domination of arts and culture more accurately than the strong Marxist and social constructionist claims of second-wave feminists who, she notes, tend to ignore or denigrate basic science and biology:

Women have been discouraged from genres such as sculpture that require studio training or expensive materials. But in philosophy, mathematics, and poetry, the only materials are pen and paper. Male conspiracy cannot explain all female failures. I am convinced that, even without restrictions, there still would have been no female Pascal, [John] Milton, or Kant. Genius is not checked by social obstacles: it will overcome. Men's egotism, so disgusting in the talentless, is the source of their greatness as a sex. Women have a more accurate sense of reality; they are physically and spiritually more complete. Culture […] was invented by men, because it is by culture that they make themselves whole. Even now, with all vocations open, I marvel at the rarity of the woman driven by artistic or intellectual obsession, that self-mutilating derangement of social relationship which, in its alternate forms of crime and ideation, is the disgrace and glory of the human species.[1]

Gloria Steinem, icon of second-wave feminism — and, incidentally, childless — being awfully put out by Paglia's thesis, stirred up a tempest in a teacup, with Steinem comparing Paglia to Adolf Hitler and Paglia comparing Steinem to Joseph Stalin.[2]

In These Words Are True and Faithful, Eugene Galt puts a distinct spin on Paglia's analysis. He associates the Apollonian and Dionysian with the two main characters. However, contrary to what might be expected, he associates the Dionysian with the hypermasculine Ernie Butler and the Apollonian with the, well, less hypermasculine Sam Overton. This is believed to be the first work of LGBT literature that explicitly tackles the issue. A later work of fiction in the same vein is Apollo & Dionysus by Buck Jones.

Further reading[edit]

  • Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, 1872.
  • Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae, Yale University Press, 1990.


  1. Apologies to Douglas Adams.
  2. To be fair to the Minoans, the extent of Minoan influence on Mycenaean Greece is highly debated among classicists.


  1. Paglia, Camille (1991). Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, NY:Vintage, p 653
  2. Camille Pagilla: Bigmouth Strikes Again. Archived from Diva Magazine, 2010.