Apollonian refers to something or someone presenting the main characteristics of Apollo. Apollo was one of the gods of the ancient Greeks, son of Zeus and Leto, and twin brother of Artemis. He was the divinity linked to sunlight but also to the punishment of impiety by the infliction of diseases, protecting health, music, and divination. His Oracle at Delphi was the most consulted one in the ancient world, by persons as well as by whole cities. Apollo was therefore considered as a “guide,” in political and moral matters. At the 7th to 6th century BC, those who were called “the seven wise men” of Greece dedicated to the Delphic Oracle the quintessence of their wisdom, in the form of brief recommendations, which were supposed to illustrate the “apollonian” way of behaving in life. The most well-known of these “delphic precepts” are “Know Thyself,” and “Do Nothing Excessive.”
Inspired by some of the god’s characteristics, the German philosopher and classicist Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) presented his personal interpretation of what might be called “apollonian.” In his book The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik, 1871), Nietzsche considered Apollo as the divine representation of the perfectly plastic beauty (found in the arts of sculpture and epic poetry) of the principles of measure and “individuation.” The “apollonian” way of being underlines the value of the individual and creates the cities.
Dionysus, son of Zeus and Semele, the god of wine, natural fertility, orgiastic festivals, and sacred frenzy, who officially occupied the Delphic Oracle during wintertime, while his brother Apollo was visiting the Hyperboreans, was used by the German philosopher as the symbolic counterpart of Apollo. Nietzsche qualified as “dionysian” the art of music, but also the will for life itself, the dynamic and explosive essence of nature, a whole to which man is integrated. Dionysian ecstasy delivers man from the limits of his own self and guides him to the original happy unity with the universe. The “dionysian” vision isn’t bound to moral restrictions; it follows the eternal game of life, beyond the notions of good and evil. Nietzsche presented himself as “dionysian” in his way of thinking and being.
With reference to his teacher’s Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) categories, established in his work The World as Will and as Representation (Die Welt als Wille und als Vorstellung, 1819), the “will” of the world is “dionysian,” whereas the “representation” is “apollonian.”
For Nietzsche, the ancient Greek tragedy resulted from the harmonious meeting of the “apollonian” and the “dionysian” spirit. Its extraordinary aesthetic and metaphysical quality is due to the fact that the tragic poets (up to Euripides, who “destroys” tragedy, according to the philosopher, by introducing too much reasoning on the stage) realized the perfect equilibrium between myth and music, between the original natural passions and their idealized representation.
Nietzsche thought that all true art should be able to do the same. His aesthetic theories are directly connected to his metaphysics, as art, especially music, is for him one of the most important means of revealing the nature of the world and of the human condition.
Goold, G. P. (Ed.). (1972). Diogenes Laertius: Lives and opinions of eminent philosophers (Rev. ed., R. D. Hicks, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.