Religion and Philosophy

Nietzsche’s Olympian Synthesis

By Gwendolyn Taunton

Dionysus with more than a hint of Apollo.

Lucidity’s task: to attain a correct despair, an Olympian ferocity.
Emil Cioran

Understanding the role Tradition could or should play in the modern era is a central topic in the study of philosophy. Today, in a world where God is almost, but not quite dead, how can we translate traditional beliefs into an appropriate form suitable for the people of the present age? To answer this question we must examine the nature of spiritual experience itself and look at different approaches to the divine in antiquity. Surprisingly one of the best starting points for developing a rapport with Tradition suitable to the modern West emerges not from Traditional texts themselves, but from Nietzsche. Despite Nietzsche’s overt denunciation of Christianity and the often proclaimed consequence of the ‘Death of God,’ Nietzsche’s work penetrates very deeply into the core of religious philosophy and this area of his thought is usually misrepresented. A substantial amount of Nietzsche’s writing can be seen not as wishing to break Tradition, but instead wishing to reinvigorate it by introducing elements of what he believed was a stronger model for religious belief — a vital form of spiritual thought that would prevent cultural decay.

Much of the misinterpretation of Nietzsche arises from confusing his rejection of the Christian Tradition with a rejection of Tradition itself, which was not the case. Other more obscure references suggest that Nietzsche himself did not believe that society was ready to embrace the ‘Death of God,’ and this is cited in one of his most famous pieces of writing, the Parable of the Madman.

“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us — for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Here, the ‘Death of God’ is not seen as a victory, but as a mistake. Humanity is not portrayed as Nietzsche’s higher type (Ubermensch) who were to become Gods incarnate themselves, but instead as killers whose hands are stained with the blood of Nietzsche’s own literary crime. God is dead, but the people are not mentally or spiritually strong enough to be capable of living without the idea of God. With God ‘dead’ humanity is lost; the premature death of God becomes a murder, transformed into a criminal act against humanity, rather than its salvation. The ‘Death of God’ morphs from Nietzsche’s original premise of creating the Ubermensch into an act of cruelty, not towards God, but to humanity itself. This is the root of the cultural crisis of the European world.

Nietzsche’s theories on Tradition, however, are far more complex than this, and influenced far more by his love of the Hellenic Tradition than they are by his antipathy towards Christianity, and it is only in this context that they can be understood. Nietzsche’s ideas were not formed in a vacuum – indeed many of his concepts evolved from earlier sources, which were very much in vogue within academic circles of his era. One of these was the rise to prominence in the nineteenth century of what can only be referred to as Germanic Philhellenism – a type of cultural revival where the Germans of this time looked back to Ancient Greece for sources of inspiration to restore their own culture. Vassilis Lambropoulos claims in The Eurocentrism that these new “educated Germans saw themselves as the modern Greeks, the inheritors of ancient culture.”[2] It was quite common in Germany at this time to draw upon Ancient Greek motifs and view them as the apex of European civilization – thus in scholastic circles many theories began to emerge which were not inherently religious, but did draw strong parallels between Hellenic Tradition and the nature of civilization.

This new German movement begins with the Grechenbild and the works of J. J. Winckelmann, who claimed that the path to Germanic greatness lay in “imitating the ancients […] the Greeks in particular, and the generation of German thinkers reconstitutes its image of German identity and its possibilities.”[3] Unlike Nietzsche, Winckelmann’s new Germanic ‘Greece’ was based on very much a sedate, peaceful, and classical society. For a while this view held dominance in intellectual circles and was not challenged until Friedrich Creuzer’s Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Volker, besonders der Greichen (Symbolism and Mythology of the Ancients, Especially the Greeks) was released, which portrayed a very different depiction of Ancient Greece, that uncovered a buried, nocturnal Greece of bloody sacrifices, intoxicating orgies, primitive hunting rites and other liturgies that burst asunder Wickleman’s dreams.[4] Challenging Wincklemann, Creuzer created an opposition in Hellenic Tradition between the later ‘Olympian’ gods of Homer and earlier primordial ‘Chthonic’ deities concerned with the dark powers of the earth and the underworld.[5] In contrast to Wincklemann’s Apollo, the dark god Dionysus was born into Germanic philosophy, becoming ‘the Weltseele, the Demiurge who was the creation of the material world and became intertwined with its suffering.’[6] This would in turn influence the scholar J.J. Bachofen in works such as Versuch uber die Grabersymbolik der Alten (Essay on the Symbolism of Ancient Tombs), Das Mutterrecht (The Mother Right), and Die Sage von Tanaquil (The Saga of Tanaquil), which establish an opposition between earth-based, feminine forces (Telluric) and masculine, sky-based forces (Uranic) in an obvious parallel to Creuzer’s original paradigm between the Chthonic and Olympian deities.[7] In the world of Tradition, this would later be developed by Evola as an extension of both Nietzsche and Bachofen’s thought. Nietzsche remains today as the most well-known representative of this lineage of German philhellenism, however, for as Max Baeumer remarks:

“The tradition of Dionysus and the Dionysian in German literature from Hamann and Herder to Nietzsche — as it has been set forth for the first time from aesthetic manifestoes, from literary works, and from what today are obscure works of natural philosophy and mythology — bears eloquent witness to the natural-mystical and ecstatic stance of German Romanticists which reached its final culmination in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche.”[8]

It is Nietzsche who fully establishes the tension and dialectic between Dionysus Zagreus of the ‘wild dithyrambos […] full of labyrinths’ and ‘the god of light Phoebus Apollo, the disciplined, well-ordered paean.’[9] In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche directs his critique against philhellenic classicism and ‘Winckelmann’s dream of Apollonian purity’ by excavating a different Greece, one that is archaic, rather than classical.[10] This form of deconstructive archaeology of the ‘classical’ would serve as a determining cultural force in Germany and a ‘discovery of the archaic,’ a force whose repercussions would sound in the work of classics (Walter F. Otto), literature (the George Circle), philosophy (Heidegger), politics (Alfred Baeumler), Wiemar Republic thinkers and artists,[11] and eventually on Traditionalism via Julius Evola. Before further examining how Nietzsche’s Apollonian/Dionysian polarity impacts on the nature of Tradition and modernity, however, it is first necessary to look at the work of Schopenhauer, who, next to Heraclitus, is the philosopher with whom Nietzsche has the greatest affinity. It is only by examining Schopenhauer that the intricate nature of Nietzsche’s Will to Power and the Dionysian impulse can be fully understood.

To Schopenhauer dealing with death is the first, and most essential, function of any authentic Tradition.[12] It is in this sense, by failing to provide a solution to the problem of death, that Schopenhauer regarded Judaism and Graeco-Roman ‘paganism’ as failed religions since they lack a properly developed doctrine of immortality.[13] To Nietzsche’s mind of course, Graeco-Roman Tradition did provide such a doctrine, for Dionysus, like Christ, is a ‘dying god’ – he dies to be reborn through sacrifice, and in the Greek myths of Dionysus comparisons are drawn between the concepts of earthly life (Bios) and eternal life (Zoë) found in the Dionysian Mystery Traditions of Ancient Greece. The Dionysian aesthetic presented in Nietzsche’s work is therefore also to be interpreted as an answer to the problem of redemption (a response to the Schopenhauerian philosophy of redemption), and to the problem of how man can justify his own individual existence in the face of the ‘terrifying’ and ‘absurd’ abyss of life.[14]

Dionysus from a Roman sarcophagus (click to enlarge).

Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation had an enormous influence on Nietzsche and this idea is fused with his archaic image of Dionysus. There is a passage where Schopenhauer (usually known for his pessimism) celebrates the oneness of the Will and thus the ultimate oneness and unity of all being.[15] It is this element that Nietzsche explores – that the Will is positive. The Schopenhauerian structure remains, but its meaning is reversed; instead of deploring the Will, we should celebrate and proclaim its message.[16] In Schopenhauer’s terms, the former is the World as Will, as the creative energy of the universe, and in Nietzsche’s understanding, it is the Dionysian, with the latter being, in Schopenhauer’s terms, the world as Representation, in Nietzsche’s terms the Apollonian, the world as contemplation, observation, and judgment of what the Will has created and creates.[17] Dionysus is both Will and Representation in one, conforming precisely to Schopenhauer’s notion of the Will, forever active in its representations and the individuated phenomena of what appears to us as the world, which, through and in the Will, is an interconnected whole.[18] This new interpretation, where Dionysus symbolizes the unconscious and the Will to Power, manifests as a dynamic energy, in eternal flux and change, the Heraclitean panta rei.[19] It is not something to be commiserated, but a source of vital primordial power. Thus life owes its being to the ecstatic Dionysian pleasure of the Will as incessant creator.[20]

These ideas would eventually develop further in Nietzsche’s work, and are the pinnacle of the archaic or primordial aspect in the school of German philhellenism. The feature of this for which Nietzsche is renowned is his famous Dionysius/Apollo dichotomy in The Birth of Tragedy – which is in truth far more philosophical than mythological, despite drawing its impetus from the Hellenic Tradition. Usually these two Gods are examined in their relation to the art world – but their opposition echoes back to another world; that of Tradition and the nature of one’s relation to the numinous. Apollo communicates to his brethren through the sedate art of dream; Dionysus whispers the words of madness to one’s ear – the state of mind though which Dionysus communicates is via intoxication,[21] whether this is in the form of theatre, music, altered states of consciousness or any other medium; what lies behind the Dionysian element is the expression of pathos or tragic sentiment. Greek rationality (geist) is a sublimation of the driving force of the Dionysian melting with nature; the Greeks had cast their emotions into the form of the tragedy, which would become the highest refinement of the condition humana.[22] As Nietzsche himself says;

“In order to grasp these two tendencies, let us first conceive of them as the separate art-worlds of dreams and drunkenness. These physiological phenomena present a contrast analogous to that existing between the Apollonian and the Dionysian.”[23]

In the Apollonian Nietzsche saw the rational clarity that comes from the sphere of the dream — together with ecstasy (rausch) as the basic condition of true art. “Apollo, as the God of all creational powers, is at the same time the divinizing God […] He, with his root meaning ‘the shining one,’ the god of light, also rules over the beautiful appearance of the world of fantasy.”[24]. The Dionysian is virtually the opposite:

“Dionysian art […] is based on the play with intoxication/ecstasy [rausch], with rapture [verzückung]. There are two powers in particular that trigger the self-forgotten ecstasy [rausch] of the naïve man of nature — the drive of spring and the narcotic drink. Their impacts are symbolized by the figure of Dionysus. The principium individuationis in both states is broken; the subjective disappears entirely against the force of the general-human, even the general-natural that is breaking forth.”[25]

The representations of Dionysus appear irrational or subconscious, those of Apollo rational and conscious. Furthermore, Apollo is a god of boundary drawing – both ethical and conceptual – he is the god of the principium individuationis.[26] Apollo, therefore represents a sense of unity but also of restriction. Dionysus, by way of contrast, expands his horizons by transcending boundaries – hence for the Dionysian religious type ‘intoxication’ is the transcendence of the mundane and of all imposed limits.[27] Being essentially a dyad, the two function as the different ends of the same planar polarity; in truth neither can exist without the other – Apollo and Dionysus represent what Nicholas Cusanus termed as the coincidenta oppositorum, the co-existence of opposite qualities and attributes.[28] There is in truth no clear boundary between the Apollonian nature and the Dionysian nature; there is always within one an element of the other, for as Nietzsche says “There is no Dionysian appearance (schein) without an Apollonian reflection (wierderschein).” It is from this fluctuating tension between the two poles that most contradictions in Nietzsche’s philosophy arise, such as his elitism and pro-aristocratic bias as an Apollonian element radically contradicting the orgiastic oneness of the Dionysian.[29] As Nietzsche’s philosophy develops, the figure of Apollo disappears and seemingly fades; but this disappearance is illusory. As his theories mature, Nietzsche merged the figure of Apollo into his rendition of Dionysus. Thus Nietzsche’s conception of Dionysus becomes singular at a higher level of understanding, where the two forces work in harmony and are no longer divided at the conceptual level – Dionysus and Apollo merge as one, and this composite force Nietzsche now refers to solely as ‘Dionysus’. Seen in this light, the Apollonian individual is only apparently the opposite of the Dionysian whole, but is in actuality only the temporary result of the Dionysian activity.[30]

Dionysus found in the Tiber at Rome.

The Will to Power, when made manifest, is the union of both the conscious Apollo and the subconscious Dionysus. In this composite Nietzschean deity, Apollo, it is true, loses his name to the other God, but by no means loses the power of his artistic creativeness, forever articulating the Dionysian chaos in distinct shapes, sounds and images, which are Dionysian only because they are still aglow with the heat of the primeval fire.[31] It is a union also known to the Hellenic Tradition via the tragic figure of Orpheus, who was related to both Gods, for as Walter Strauss notes: “For Orpheus is truly a reconciler of opposites: he is the fusion of the radiant solar enlightenment of Apollo and the somber subterranean knowledge of Dionysus.”[32] Like Orpheus, the final form of Nietzsche’s Dionysus is a composite synthesis of the two Gods. The apparent opposites are, in the Hegelian sense of the word, aufgehoben, repealed as two phases of the all-inclusive whole of being.[33] This is a line of dialectical thought that Nietzsche inherited from Hegel, but minus Hegel’s teleological basis, which Nietzsche scorned.[34]

There is another level to the dichotomy, with writers often allocating a form of sexual metaphysics which is then overlaid atop Dionysus and Apollo, with Dionysus usually being considered to be the ‘feminine’ representation. This idea is introduced via the chthonic and archaic connections found earlier in Bachofen and Creuzer, being continued later by Nietzsche, and then revised again by Evola. Bachofen associates Dionysus with potent male sexuality inseparable from the earth, and thus with the first (tellurian) and the second (which he designates matriarchal) stages of existence, because written and iconographical evidence links the God to women: “The phallic god [Dionysus] cannot be thought of separately from feminine materiality.”[35] The mythological information on these associations is quite complex and it is our intention not to dwell on the mythological narrative but instead on Nietzsche’s philosophy which is a reinvention of it. It is erroneous to regard Nietzsche’s Dionysus as a mythological figure – it is a philosophical concept based on the Hellenic god, not the deity himself. To study this, one must be well-versed both in German philosophy and in Ancient Greek myth. Suffice to say that both gods are male and have a presence of sexual ambiguity to them – Dionysus via his occasional depiction as a hermaphrodite and Apollo via a high proportion of homosexual relationships. This complicates the proposed clear demarcations of sexuality of both Gods, as was implied by Bachofen and Evola. Moreover, there is nothing feminine in Nietzsche’s depictions of the Will to Power or Dionysus, which if anything, are in fact ‘hyper-masculine’.

These past attempts to apply mortal sexuality/physiology to Gods, are however, no more absurd than some of the dualistic notions that have been advocated in modern discussions of ‘gender.’ The word itself, ‘gender,’ is firstly, by way of explanation, an artificial construct. These ideas of gender duality first begun to spread their ideological roots in modernity when Ortner first wrote the words “Is female to nature what male is to culture?” The context of this work was based on an assumption that the category female is metaphorically connected to nature while that of male is connected to culture.[36] The logic of this notion rests on the basis that women as reproducers remain bound to nature, while men, who cannot reproduce, produce and are therefore bound to culture.[37] This is an obvious progression on Bachofen which interestingly enough forms another dyad – the opposition between anatomical sex and the new terminology of ‘gender.’ For many theorists in this area, sex is seen to be real (nature) and gender is artificial (culture).[38] In terms of relating sex and/or gender back to the original Apollo/Dionysus dichotomy, this duality is easily compared. Gender, as an artificial and hence cultural construct, could be linked back to the supra-rational Apollonian sphere. Sex, as the more natural category of definition would lie in the realm of the natural Dionysian influence. It is also worth noting at this point that Nietzsche himself, at the beginning of The Birth of Tragedy compares the contrast of the Apollonian and the Dionysian elements to that of the sexes: “the continuous development of art is bound up with the Apollonian and Dionysian reality: just as procreation depends on the duality of the sexes, involving perpetual strife with only periodically intervening reconciliations.”[39] The fact that even at this early stage in his philosophy, Nietzsche is aware enough of the similarities between the two rival deities and the relationship between the sexes, and that he chooses to employ this metaphor is clearly another reference to the influence of Bachofen.

Nietzsche’s heroic ideal of human life is ultimately a Traditional one. It is a kind of imitatio Dei, the imitation or rather the incarnation in the human individual of the Dionysian divinity, as which the Will appears. Nietzsche’s project for man is the latter’s ever closer approximation to full embodiment of that divine energy that is the Will.[40] Because of this aspect to the Apollo/Dionysus coupling it is possible to juxtapose them with another philosophical pair found in the works of Soren Kierkegaard. Though it seems incongruous to compare Nietzsche’s philosophy of religion to Kierkegaard, this makes a more feasible model for the examination of Tradition in regards to the problem of modernity than is currently expressed via previous Traditionalist authors themselves.

In modernity three distinct spheres of culture are referred to; respectively these are known as the culture spheres of science, morality, and art – the basis of which is derived from the works of Kant (Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Pure Practical Reason, and Critic of Judgment).[41] The three existence spheres formulated by Kierkegaard, the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious, seem to have been composed in a similar spirit to the three culture spheres of Kant. What is of great significance in the work of Kierkegaard is that he identified two separate strands of religious thought: Religiousness Type A and Religiousness Type B. These two diametrically opposed forms of Tradition can be defined in the following way: Religiousness Type A can be understood to embody the fourth cultural sphere that has been glossed over by the makers of modernity; while Religiousness Type B provides a critical principle and transcending perspective on the culture-spheres as culture-spheres, including religion as a culture-sphere along with those of science, morality and art.[42] To further clarify the distinction between the two types, Religiousness A could be best described as an externalized mode (exoteric), in which rituals and the regulations of social roles play a part. By contrast, in Religiousness B the stress is not so great on that of the communal role (or principle of communitas as it was called by anthropologist Victor Tuner), but is instead more reliant on the role of the individual (esoteric). What matters in Religiousness Type B is the principle of being religious itself, and not the adherence to any particular doctrines and practices formulated as in Religiousness Type A. What is being expressed by these two polarities is a pattern of religious thinking which is quite similar to the contrasting roles of Apollo and Dionysus that formed the basis of Nietzsche’s work, The Birth of Tragedy. This pattern occurs because firstly, they both are gods of aesthetics, and secondly they also provide different paths to the divine. Both occupy similar roles – but one (Apollo) is the god of Sculpture, of art with form. Dionysus, by contrast presides over music – his influence is unseen; it is only heard or felt. What he represents cannot be captured in form, for even in his role as the God of the Theatre, he is always masked. The face of Dionysus is never seen. Apollo is approached via the rational arts of prophecy and dreams; Dionysus through altered and ecstatic states of consciousness. If we were to describe them in terms of Religiousness Type A and Religiousness Type B, the polarity would be clear, with the Apollonian nature of man at one end and the Dionysian at the other. To a certain extent they can also be seen to embody the opposition of science and religion, which occurs frequently in modernist/post-modernist thought – Apollo can be seen to portray the scientific, rational mind and Dionysus the raw, subliminal creative power that can only be evoked through direct experience.

To complete the pattern and the associations mentioned here, we need to return to Nietzsche’s theories on religion. His famous grand proclamation, “God is dead,” is of course well known; what is lesser known, however, is the complex chain of references that connect this statement to other key points within his philosophy. One of these is found within the poem Ariadne’s Lament, in which the poem hints at another concept of Nietzsche’s known as the ‘the ladder of religious cruelty’.[43] The three rungs of this ladder represent three stages in the development of the sacrifice: in times of archaic religion people sacrificed humans to their gods; in times of moral belief people sacrificed their strongest drives and instincts to their gods; in a time yet to come people will sacrifice god himself (representative of any belief in consolation and salvation) as a final act of cruelty against themselves.[44] This three step model of the evolution of Tradition is important as it ties in with the earlier cited Parable of the Madman. The ‘death’ of God is an act of cruelty performed by man, against man – it is a crime against humanity, and not against God. These three together, are the stages of cruelty in religious thought, culminating in the present stage of modern error.

The more one examines the philosophy of Nietzsche and his personal beliefs on Tradition, the more it becomes clear that he favors a synthesis of the Apollonian pole and the Dionysian one. Furthermore, his rejection of Christianity in preference of a highly individualized conception of the Dionysian Mystery Tradition paints a very clear picture of Nietzsche’s own religious essence – in the terminology of Kierkegaard what Nietzsche is expressing is a strong emanation of Religiousness Type B. Moreover, not only can Religiousness Type B be connected with Nietzsche’s own beliefs, they can be directly tied to the relationship between Apollo and Dionysus themselves. The essence that emanates from the Apollonian current is an external mode of worship: his formal rites could be seen and were accessible to all, and as the god of sculpture/form his aesthetics could be experienced by all. Those of the Dionysian current, by contrast, are not seen. They can only be ‘felt’, either through music or via the Dionysian mode of worship, which involved induced states of ecstasy. As this could only be experienced on an individual basis, it was not accessible to all. Thus it can be seen that the Dionysian evokes an internal form of esoteric Tradition and aesthetics, whilst the Apollonian invokes an exoteric form of Tradition and aesthetics. In terms of both art and religion this is the primary difference between the two deities. By employing the comparison between Apollo and the masculine element, and Dionysus as the feminine element,[45] Religiousness Type A then becomes associated with the masculine exoteric and Religiousness Type B with the feminine esoteric.

With the ever increasing decline of interest in exoteric Tradition, the Occident is also experiencing a current rise of interest in esoteric Tradition – it would therefore appear that in the modern world, Religiousness Type B is currently dominant over Type A. And if the pattern holds true it will be the individual, esoteric Traditions of Religious Type B and the primordial current of Dionysus that are destined to be the victor in defining the civilization of the future, not the classical Traditions of Apollo who cannot transgress their restraints to revolt against the modern world. The way forward lies, like it did for the Germans, in embracing ideas from the ancient past but not repeating them, instead translating them into new systems and values. The Re-evaluation of Values of which Nietzsche speaks of as the great reshaping of civilization can only be born of the revolutionary Dionysian and Promethean spirit – which in truth is the combination of the Dionysian Will to Power and the rational control of Apollo in perfect synthesis. To save Tradition, Tradition must now transgress its own self-imposed boundaries or perish forever at the hands of the murderers of God in the Götzen-Dämmerung.

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