In his important work The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Friedrich Nietzsche interpreted the dynamism of ancient Greece as a tension between two principles, which he saw represented in the gods Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo, the celebrated solar god of light, logic, and the visual arts, stood in mythologic opposition to Dionysus, the equally celebrated (but usually at night) god of wine, dance, and music. Nietzsche proposed that Greece and subsequent Western culture can be understood, if not exactly comprehended, as the struggle between these two principles, coming to theatrical form in the great Attic tragedies of the 5th century BCE.
Nietzsche’s notorious contempt for Socrates was based on how that philosopher championed the ascendancy of rational, calculating, and strategic thinking (the skills of logic) over our emotional, spontaneous, and intuitive experience (the force of feeling). With the rise of technical reason and science, both capitalizing on the mind’s objective distancing from reality, our more primal and embodied creative passions were gradually suppressed in pursuit of knowledge.
Indeed, Nietzsche himself took up the revolution on behalf of Dionysus and his wild iconoclastic (image-shattering) ecstacies, fulfilled, he believed, in his emancipative “will to power.”
There is a fascinating analogue of Nietzsche’s Apollonian-Dionysian tension in what we have learned about the human brain. Its right and left hemispheres are distinguished by the very different ways they process information, interpret experience, and engage with reality. In fact, our brain’s two hemipheres carry almost exactly the same counter-values as did Dionysus and Apollo of Greek mythology.
Our right hemisphere is more active in the early months and years of life, establishing sympathic connections with our mother and other family relations. Interestingly there are more downward neural projections in the right hemisphere to our body and its visceral state than there are in the left. Emotional attachment and an intuitive sense of security (or anxiety) are facilitated more in the right side of our brain than the left.
The spontaneous (“always now”) quality of experience is something we see in young children, and can perhaps still remember from our own early life.
Around the years 4-7 our brain development starts to shift decisively to the left. During this time we are active in mastering language, using technology, memorizing procedures, and navigating the artificial systems of social life. This “consensus reality” of our culture is really a logical construct of meaning that we all agree on and cooperate within. We must quickly become proficient in the skills of critical thinking and object relations, how to calculate values and work out strategies for getting around in the world.
This might be where we spend the rest of our life: firmly settled in the left hemisphere, managing our roles, our goals, and the social identity we have taken on. To Nietzsche – and I tend to agree with him on this – a life that is well-managed, locked in routines and standing in lines, is not really much of a life. Certainly it’s not a full life, not the fullness of life, or a very fulfilling life.
This realization descends upon many like a hammer at midlife, when we are coming to terms with the fact that our life is more than half over. Or it might crash in on us as we near retirement, only to realize that we don’t really know who we are – or perhaps that we’ve been so invested in managing who we are that we’ve lost our soul or true self.
These are typical phases in life when our left-sided obsessions suddenly feel hollow, empty, and pointless; but it can happen any time.
Such disillusionment can be profoundly unsettling, and it may compel us to grip down with determination to “make this thing work.” But if the natural course of our development intends to move us beyond where we happen to be, and have been perhaps for quite some time, “making it work” is only likely to deepen our distress and disorientation. For a while we may impose left-sided (rational, strategic, top-down) solutions, but these can’t resolve our problem, simply because they can’t see what the problem really is.
Instead of thinking of it as a “problem,” however, I propose that we can much more productively see it as an opportunity – to wake up, break through, and finally become whole. In the illustration above I have added a vertical axis to Nietzche’s horizontal polarity of Dionysian and Apollonian principles. This second axis represents the polarity of our spiritual intelligence, which I will identify with the archetypes of Buddha and Christ.
Our right-to-left crisis, I am suggesting, can find its resolution only by a transformational shift to the (vertical) dynamics of spirituality.
Buddha personifies the contemplative, grounded, and mystical dimension of consciousness. Because it invites us – I could just as well say it “requires” us – to release our attachment to personal identity (ego), personal beliefs, and our personal construct of meaning (the world we inhabit), this contemplative descent of consciousness to its own ground finally comes to rest in a mystery below the reach of words. This is what the term “mystical” connotes, from muein, meaning “to close” (the mouth) or to render one speechless.
Deep within, in the grounding mystery of being-itself, is where our soul resides. There are no words here, no thoughts even. Just a sense of boundless presence and undisturbed tranquillity, captured in the Buddhist term nirvana: “no wind,” like a placid pond where the thousand-petaled lotus rests in quiet solitude.
At the opposite pole is the archtype of Christ, who personifies the transpersonal, communal, and ethical dimension of consciousness. Ascending the axis also invites us beyond the ego, but in this case it will be included (not released) in a unity of beings (rather than the ground of Being), where our unique identity participates in and contributes to a higher wholeness. The term “ethical,” from ethos, refers to the unique spirit or character of community and each individual’s responsibility to it.
The symbol of a chalice comes directly out of the story of Jesus (honored as “the Christ”), who was celebrated (as well as condemned by critics) for his practice of inviting to the table any who would come to break bread and share his cup of wine. In Christianity this is still commemorated in the sacrament of the Eucharist, which effectively unites in one community all who partake, as Jesus himself originally intended.
Because the dynamic of this unity is transpersonal, transcending and shared among persons, this is where spirit is active, as the breath or wind (spiritus) that moves among them.
All together the archetypes of Dionysus, Apollo, Buddha and Christ provide an intriguing matrix for understanding our human journey. Growing from children into adults, finding our way in the world, eventually realizing there must be more, and then possibly waking up to authentic life: each of us is somewhere on the adventure of becoming whole.