The philosophical muse: Nietzsche and his relevance today

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Inspired by someone I know who has discovered the beauty of philosophy I started to read Birth of Tragedy again to see if after 27 years Nietzsche would still sing to me, and he did. What a serenade!

A great thinker of all times, Nietzsche starts Birth of Tragedy by introducing the Apollinian and the Dionysian forces as the parents of art. Two polar opposites born from Greek deities procreating to create a medium for humans to understand their suffering.

'We shall have gained much for the science of aesthetics, once we perceive not merely by logical inference, but with the immediate certainty of vision, that the continuous development of art is bound up in the Apollinian and Dionysian duality - just as procreation depends on the duality of sexes, involving perpetual strife with only periodically intervening reconciliation.' (Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche, Section 1.)

He describes these two opposite deities as duality, likened to the opposition of gender. Contrasts borrowed from the Gods of man, recreated by man through art, mirroring life as sculpture and music.

'The terms Dionysian and Apollinian we borrow from the Greeks, who disclose to the discerning mind the profound mysteries of their view of art, not, to be sure, in concepts, but in the intensely clear figures of their gods. Through Apollo and Dionysus, the two art deities of the Greeks, we come to recognize that in the Greek world their existed a tremendous opposition in origin and aims, between the Apollonian art of sculpture and the nonimagistic, Dionysian art of music.' (Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche, Section 1. Translated by Walter Kaufmann 1966)

Apollo, the mythical Greek god of light and dreams. The god of form, tangible aesthetics and control. The god of refined beauty and balance. The veil. The complete opposite of Dionysus the great Greek god of intoxication. The god of passion and chaos. The organic and fluid beauty of monsters.

Contrasts, yes, but opposites which are part of a whole. Dichotomy not duality. Like Yin and Yang. Where they are separate but one. Each with a part of the other - defining the union. 

'These two different tendencies run parallel to each other, for the most part openly at variance; and they continually incite each other to new and more powerful births, which perpetuate an antagonism, only superficially reconciled by the common term "art"; till eventually, by a metaphysical miracle of the Hellenic "will" they appear coupled with each other, and through this coupling ultimately generate equally Dionysian and Apollinian form of art - Attic tragedy.' (Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche, Section 1. Translated by Walter Kaufmann 1966)

And there you have, in this unison, the Birth of Tragedy.  One paragraph in, Nietzsche delivers on his title. Succinctly. Leaving the remaining text to unpack this premise.

In this first 200 words Nietzsche reveals the birth of Attic Tragedy (another term for 5th Century BC Greek Tragedy). Why is this important? Because Greek Tragedy is born from the ancient rituals celebrating Dionysus combined with the worship of the God of Light, Apollo (not to be confused with the 'God of Light' from the Game of Thrones). And Greek Tragedy is important because as an art form it influenced the theatre of Ancient Rome and everything beyond. It is art mirroring life, which has evolved (or perhaps dissolved) into the movies and Netflix series we watch today. Art forms which remain a way for us to understand the human condition.

The Apollinian and Dionysian remain powerful dichotomous forces which can help us unpack and understand our world today beyond art. The Apollinian (form and structure) of science has recently come together with the Dionysian (and organic nature) of Buddhism. This gentle coupling, equally Apollinian and Dionysian, is unlocking our understanding of neuroplasticity.

Science and Buddishm (like their Apollinian and Dionysian counterparts) are dichotomy over duality. That is, they are two equal parts of a whole rather than just being opposite forces at continual odds with each other.  Their commonality described eloquently by the Dalai Lama in Sharon Begley's 2007 book 'The Plastic Mind':

'Although modern science and the Buddhist contemplative tradition arose out of quite different historical, cultural, and intellectual circumstances, I have found that they have a great deal in common. By some accounts, both traditions are motivated by an urge to relive the hardships of life. Both are suspicious of the notions of absolutes, whether these imply the existence of a transcendent creator or an unchanging entity such as a soul, preferring to account for the emergence of life in the world in terms of the natural laws of cause and effect. Both traditions take an empirical approach to knowledge.'

And also by Begley herself:

'Although science and religion are often portrayed as chronic opponents and even enemies, that misses the mark for science and Buddhism. There is no historic antagonism between the two...Instead, Buddhism and science share the goal of seeking the truth...For science, truth is always tentative, always subject to refutation by the next experiment; for Buddhism - at least, as the Dalai Lama sees it - even core teachings can and must be overturned if science proves them wrong. Perhaps the most important, Buddhist training emphasized the value of investigating reality and finding the truth of the outside world as well as the contents of one's minds.' (The Plastic Mind, Sharon Begley, p11.)

Science and Buddhism are working together to unlock the power of our mind. The transformative nature of Buddhism (reflecting the intoxication effects of Dionysian forces) is being analysed and researched within the rigour (form and structure of Apollinian forces) of science.

'It is a fundamental Buddhist principle that the human mind has tremendous potential for transformation. Science, on the other hand, has until recently, held to the convention not only that the brain is the seat and source of the mind, but also that the brain and its structures are formed during infancy and change little thereafter. Buddhist practitioners familiar with the workings of the mind have long been aware that it can be transformed through training. What is exciting and new is that scientist have shown that such mental training can also change the brain.' (Dalai Lama, Forward, The Plastic Mind, Sharon Begley.)

This has far reaching implications.

The repercussions of this will not be confined merely to our knowledge of the mind: They have the potential to be of practical importance in our understanding of education, mental health, and the significance of ethics in our lives.' (Dalai Lama, Forward, The Plastic Mind, Sharon Begley.)

Recently I stumbled on an echo of this sentiment, by modern day philosopher (who I swear is Nietzsche reincarnated) Jason Silva in his slam-like stream of consciousness provocation Dissolving the ego: How psychedelic treatment could revolutionalize mental health. Silva speaks with great passion and conviction of the possibilities of the Dionysian intoxication (psychedelic treatment) unlocking us from the veil of Apollinan conciousness (the ego) which has held mankind with such a firm grip hiding the 'Dionysian world from his vision' (Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, p41). 

We have been blinded by the God of Light, our ego, what Nietzsche references through Schopenhaur as the 'principium indiviudationis' and the Apollinian power of illusion. The ego has become, as Silva says, a tyrant. With an ego in overdrive we lose our agency, our free will. To overcome this, we need to add to this, what Neitzsche describes, and Silva calls for:

'...blissful ecstasy that wells from the innermost depths of man, indeed of nature, at this collapse of the principium individuationis, we steal a glimpse into the nature of the Dionysian, which is brought home to us most intimately by the analogy of intoxication.' (Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche, Section 1, p36. Translated by Walter Kaufmann 1966)

This intoxication, is Silva's psychedelic treatment deployed responsibly, the effects expressed by Nietzsche:

'Either under the influence of the narcotic draught, of which the songs of all primitive men and people speak, or with the potent coming of spring that penetrates all nature with joy, these Dionysian emotions awake, and as they grow in intensity everything subjective vanishes into complete self-forgetfulness'. (Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche, Section 1, p36. Translated by Walter Kaufmann 1966)

Where the Apollinian forces override the Dionysian, and there is too much 'ego' man is slave to himself.  When the veil is lifted by Dionysian forces of intoxication the slave is a free man. Man is free from self. Free from suffering and if you believe Silva, a way to reduce the mental health issues faced by many today.

This is not a call for everyone to get drunk or take psychedelic drugs recreationally. As Silva mentions, studies are happening through the Psychedelic Research Group and other major medical institutions like John Hopkins for psychedelic treatment for depression and anxiety.

Dionysian transformation can also be achieved through 'the very element which forms the essence of Dionysian music' (Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche, p40). Yes music, and also it can be achieved through what Silva references as occasions of mystical experience where you 'become the music'. The Dionysian state is achieved through the other examples Silva mentions: flow state, travelling somewhere new, diving into a new relationship. It is also achieved through the Dionysian rituals of transformation, which  - circling straight back to Buddhism - can happen through meditation. Something science has confirmed has the power to change the mind, and in turn, the brain.

'One of the questions raised by the Dalai Lama was particularly provocative: can the mind change the brain? He had raised this point many times with scientists over the years, usually receiving a dismissive answer. After all, one of the cardinal assumptions of neuroscience is that our mental processes stem from brain activity: the brain creates and shapes the mind, not the other way around. But the data reported here now suggests there may be a two-way street of causality, with systematic mental activity resulting in changes in the very structure of the brain.' (Preface, Daniel Goleman, The Plastic Brain, Sharon Begley.)

Silva echoes this in his example of what neuroscience has discovered when we are in a state of flow, in the zone or the pocket. In the 'state of rhapsody, wonderment and awe our dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex goes off line', the 'default mode network is shut off' the 'ego's throne' is cut off.

So in short, the Greeks of 5th Century BC knew; the Buddhists have known since at least the 6th Century BC; Nietzsche knew in 1872 and Jason Silva knows in 2018. They all know that to transcend into the chaos of the Dionysian, keeping the Apollinian ego in check, is the answer to human suffering.

Now you know too.