A philosophical muse - Nietzsche's other lover


It is said that Nietzsche only ever had one love affair. One with the beautiful Lou Andreas-Salomé. A striking and intense Russian intellect, she captured Nietzsche’s heart. And his mind; some suggesting she was partly the cause of him losing it.

How could this possibly be? A great thinker of our time, a man of philosophical brilliance, with prophetic ideas, losing his mind over love? Not such a ridiculous idea, when you pause to think for a moment on the power of love.

Yes, Nietzsche is described as having loved Lou Andreas-Salomé. It is said he loved her with all his heart and was left a broken man by her lack of romantic interest in him. But Lou was not Nietzsche’s only love affair to define him. Like Lou, another had a significant influence on his work. This second love affair, however, was not one with a woman. Nor a man. (And certainly not the theoretical man.) In actuality, it wasn’t with another person but a love affair with a set of ideas. Nietzsche was in love with the ancient mysticism of Eastern Philosophy. A love affair he was true to in his writings - in particular Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

In his early writings, I see hints of Nietzsche bringing together the philosophical ideas of Ancient Greek and Eastern thought. Particularly in The Birth of Tragedy, where he introduces the notion of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, their duality and how in coming together they form the highest art form, Greek Tragedy, and an answer to human suffering. Based on Greek Gods, Nietzsche uses the archetypal energies and associated symbols of Apollo and Dionysus to express his ideas. It is through the coming together of the Apollonian and the Dionysian that we achieve the aim of the Greeks of the sixth century B.C., what Fritjof Capra in his exploration of the parallels between physics and Eastern mysticism, ‘The Tao of Physics’, eloquently expresses as the Milesian “endeavour of seeing the essential nature of all things”.

Capra highlights the link between Ancient Greek thought and Eastern mysticism in his first chapter of this book.

“The endeavour of seeing the essential nature of all things…is also the central aim of all mystics, and the philosophy of the Milesian school did indeed have a strong mystical flavour. The Milesians were called ‘hylozoists’, or ‘those who think matter is alive’, by the later Greeks, because they saw no distinction between animate and inanimate, spirit and matter. In fact, they did not even have a word for matter, since they saw all forms of existence as manifestations of the ‘physis’, endowed with life and spirituality. Thus Thales declared all things to be full of gods and Anaximander saw the universe as a kind of organism which was supported by ‘pneuma’, the cosmic breath, in the same way as the human body is supported by air.

The monistic and organic view of the Milesians was very close to that of ancient Indian and Chinese philosophy, and the parallels to Eastern thought…” (Capra, pp24-25,1989)

Capra goes on to explain that these parallels between the ideas of Ancient Greeks and Eastern thought became stronger in the philosophy of Heraclitus of Ephesus.

“Heraclitus believed in a world of perpetual change, of eternal ‘Becoming’. For him, all static Being was based on deception and his universal principle was fire, a symbol for continuous flow and change of all things. Heraclitus taught that all changes in the world arise from the dynamic and cyclic interplay of opposites and he saw any pair of opposites as a unity. This unity, which contains and transcends all opposing forces, he called the Logos.” (Capra, p25, 1989)

Logos. The Apollonian and Dionysian at play. Two opposites in unity. Transcending opposing forces. In Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, man transcends his suffering in the unity of these two Greek archetypal energies, paralleling the archetypal energies of the East.

Logos. Apollonian and Dionysian. Yin and Yang.

Apollo, the god of dreams, the ego, the veil, the god of light is the archetypal energy of Yang. Dionysus, the god of wine, the god of chaos, of music and madness, god of the dark is the archetypal energy of Yin. Perhaps, Nietzsche’s love affair with Eastern philosophy began without him even realising it - through the Greeks who paralleled Eastern mysticism.

I couldn’t help but think about Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy and Thus Spoke Zarathustra, as I read Capra’s first chapter in his book, which shares the journey of physics stemming from the Ancient Greeks. In this chapter, Capra takes us on a journey of Milesian thought and what followed: a reaction starting with Parmenides who called his ‘basic principle the Being and held that it was unique and invariable’ (Capra p25, 1989), which led to the ‘dualism between mind and matter, body and soul’ (Capra p26, 1989) and then to the Aristotelian model which occupied the Western world for two thousand years, and gave birth to the ideology of the Christian Church.

Throughout Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche speaks of the Socratic man, Socrates and science. How the poet Euripides and the rational man, Socrates, questioned the power of myth and the Dionysian; and then destroyed Greek Tragedy and the union of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Socrates and science overcame great art, and removed from man the chance to gaze into the Dionysian abyss.

'“Let us now imagine the one great Cyclops eye of Socrates fixed on tragedy, an eye in which the fair frenzy of artistic enthusiasm has never glowed. To this eye was denied the pleasure of gazing into the Dionysian abysses. What, then, did it have to see in the “sublime and greatly lauded” tragic art, as Plato called it? Something rather unreasonable, full of causes apparently without effects, and effects apparently without causes; the whole, moreover, so motley and manifold that it could not but be repugnant to a sober mind, and a dangerous tinder for sensitive and susceptible souls.” (Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, Kauffman Translation, 1969, Vintage, p89)

Socrates, the great grandfather of science, wearing the Aristotelian veil, takes us away from unity of opposing forces and feeds the Yang energy of the world.

“Socrates, the dialectical hero of the Platonic drama, reminds us of the kindred nature of the Euripidean hero who must defend his actions with arguments and counterarguments and in the process often risk the loss of our tragic pity…

“Virtue is knowledge; man sins only from ignorance; he who is virtuous is happy.” In these three basic forms of optimism lies the death of tragedy. For now the virtuous hero must be a dialectician; now there must be a necessary, visible connection between virtue and knowledge, faith and morality…” (Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, Kauffman Translation, 1969, Vintage, p91)

Further into The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche, in resolving the death of tragedy at the hands of the rational man, moves to its rebirth, again reinforcing the importance of the unity of opposites:

“I will speak only of the noblest opposition to the tragic world conception - and by this I mean science, which is at the bottom optimistic, with its ancestor Socrates at its head. A little later on I shall also name those forces which seem to me to guarantee a rebirth of tragedy…

“I shall keep my eyes fixed on the two artistic deities of the Greeks, Apollo and Dionysus, and recognize in them the living and conspicuous representatives of two worlds of differing in their intrinsic essence and in their highest aims.” (Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, Kauffman Translation, 1969, Vintage, p99)

A rebirth of tragedy, through overcoming the theoretical man.

“…great men, universally gifted, have contrived, with an incredible amount of thought, to make use of the paraphernalia of science itself, to point out the limits and the relativity of knowledge generally, and thus to deny decisively the claim of science to universal validity and universal aims.

“With this insight a culture is inaugurated that I venture to call a tragic culture. Its most important characteristic is that wisdom takes the place of science as the highest end - wisdom that, uninfluenced by the seductive distractions of the sciences, turns with unmoved eyes to a comprehensive view of the world, and seeks to grasp, with sympathetic feelings of love, the eternal suffering as its own.” (Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, Kauffman Translation, 1969, Vintage, 112)

Nietzsche declares with his typical ironic humour and symbolism, which makes his writing and ideas such a joy to read, the death of Socratic thought, and an embracing of the earlier Milesian Greeks, and Eastern view of life.

“Yes, my friends, believe with me in Dionysian life and the rebirth of tragedy. The age of the Socratic man is over; put on the wreaths of ivy, put the thyrsus into your hand, and do not be surprised when tigers and panthers lie down, fawning, at your feet. Only dare to be tragic men; for you are to be redeemed. You shall accompany the Dionysian pageant from India to Greece. Prepare yourself for hard strife, but believe in the miracles of your god.” (Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, Kauffman Translation, 1969, Vintage, p112)

And here Nietzsche first speaks to the Superman. The Übermensch. The few among the herd who can overcome. Who will journey to Eastern mysticism (India) to the Milesian thought (Greece) and transcend self.

This is where The Birth of Tragedy is a prelude to Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Nietzsche’s Übermensch has been mistaken for an evolutionary overcoming in Darwinistic terms. But examination of passages in the beautiful prose of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, shows links to man’s overcoming in line with Eastern philosophy and the notion of transcendence.

In 1637 Descartes wrote ‘Cogito ergo sum’ - ‘I think, therefore I exist’. Which, according to Capra:

“…has led Westerners to equate their identity in their mind, instead of with their whole organism. As a consequence of the Cartesian division, most individuals are aware of themselves as isolated egos existing ‘inside’ their bodies. The mind has been separated from the body and given the futile task of controlling it, thus causing an apparent conflict between the conscious will and the involuntary instinct.” (Capra, p28)

This is where the herd is. And what Zarathustra insists man must overcome. This conflict between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. A conflict between Yin and Yang.

This conflict, alongside the mechanistic Western view, is in contrast to the organic world view of Eastern mystics. The mechanistic Western view, or to use Nietzsche’s play of words and double meaning in Birth of Tragedy the ‘deus ex machina’: a common plot device of Greek tragedy to resolve a hopeless situation (man’s existence) and as Nietzsche describes it when referring to the the ‘cheerfulness of the theoretical man’:

“..the god of machines and crucibles, that is, the powers of the spirits of nature recognized and employed in the service of a higher egoism; it believes that it can correct the world by knowledge, guide life by science, and actually confine the individual within a limited sphere of solvable problems, from which he can cheerfully say to life: “I desire you: you are worth knowing

“It is an eternal phenomenon: the insatiable will always finds a way to detain its creatures in life and compel them to live on, by means of an illusion spread over things. One is chained by the Socratic love of knowledge and the delusion of being able to thereby heal the eternal would of existence…” (Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, Kauffman Translation, 1969, Vintage, p109)

In contrast, Capra describes the world view of the Eastern mystics as:

“all things and events perceived by the senses are interrelated, connected and are but different aspects or manifestations of the same ultimate reality.” (Capra p29)

And it is this, that Zarathustra, at forty years of age, after ten years of solitude comes down the mountain to share because he is weary of wisdom like:

‘a bee that has gathered too much honey’ (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Hollingdale Translation, Penguin, 1967, p39).

Capra goes on to explain:

“Although the various schools of Eastern mysticism differ in many details, they all emphasize the basic unity of the universe which is the central feature of their teachings. The highest aim for their followers - whether they are Hindus, Buddhists or Taoists - is to become aware of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things, to transcend the notion of an isolated individual self and to identify themselves with the ultimate reality. The emergence of this awareness - known as ‘enlightenment’ - is not only an intellectual act but is an experience which involves the whole person…” (Capra p29)

And this is what Zarathustra means when he speaks of “God is dead” and “Man is something that should be overcome.” In short, the Christian Church belief in a god, and a higher being separate from self, a discontented God above, with its founding in the Aristotelian view of life, is no longer. God outside of self is dead. And in accepting this, and man seeing himself as god, he will overcome himself - and bring chaos back to the overbearing form of the Apollonian. Bring night to day, dark to light, Yin to Yang. A balance.

“I tell you: one must have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star. I tell you: you still have chaos in you.” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Hollingdale Translation, Penguin, 1967, p39).

Is Nietzsche, through Zarathustra, calling in this passage for mankind to tap into their Dionysian energy? The archetype of chaos, the god of dance and wine. Is he calling for us to give birth to the god within?

With too much ego from the ancient Greek God of the Sun, Apollo - the god of illusion, covering with his veil the suffering of man, to make life bearable, the Christian afterlife, is seen by Nietzsche as an illusion:

“Once Zarathustra too cast his deluded fancy beyond mankind, like all afterworldsmen. Then the world seemed to be the work of a suffering and tormented God.” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Hollingdale Translation, Penguin, 1967, p58).

Reading a passage from Capra’s The Tao of Physics about knowledge, reminded me of a passage in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, an early chapter, lessons in overcoming. Capra discusses the Buddhist concept of ‘absolute knowledge’:

“What the Eastern mystics are concerned with is a direct experience of reality which transcends not only intellectual thinking but also sensory perception. In the words of the Upanishads,

What is soundless, touchless, formless, imperishable,
Likewise tasteless, constant, odourless,
Without beginning, without end, higher than the great,
stable -
By discerning That, one is liberated from the mouth of

Knowledge which comes from such an experience is called ‘absolute knowledge’ by Buddhists because it does not rely on the discriminations, abstractions and classifications of the intellect which, as we have seen, are always relative and approximate.” (Capra, p36)

There is something in this, that brings me straight to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in the chapter ‘Of Joys and Passions’:

“My brother, if you have a virtue and it is your own virtue, you have it in common with no one.
To be sure, you want to call it by a name and caress it; you want to pull its ears and amuse yourself with it.
And behold! Now you have its name in common with the people have become of the people and the herd with your virtue!
You would be better to say: “Unutterable and nameless is that which torments and delights my soul and is also the hunger of my belly.” (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Hollingdale Translation, Penguin, 1967, p63).

Don’t talk about it, or it will be useless. Make it nameless. Transcend the intellectual thinking of your virtues.

I cannot help but think of the Buddhist concept of ‘living in the present’ when I think of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence. Is our ‘monkey mind’ the equivalent of Nietzsche’s buffoon who distracts the tight-rope walking by leaping over him, making him lose his head and balance, falling to his death? The same ‘monkey mind’ which, swinging from tree to tree, takes us from thought to thought, distracting us from our intentional attention of the present and the freedom this affords us?

Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, where every moment infinitively repeats itself, forces a focus on what John Hollingdale refers to in his introduction to Thus Spoke Zarathustra as “states of being over purpose”.

“The doctrine of eternal recurrence of all events was formulated by Nietzsche as follows: ‘The sum total of energy in the universe is determinate, it is not infinite. Consequently the number of positions, changes, combinations of this energy, although tremendously large and practically “innumerable”, is nevertheless also determinate and not infinite. But time, in which the universe exercises its energy, is infinite, that is, the energy is always the same and always active: until this moment an infinity has already elapsed, that is, all possible developments must have already been in existence. Consequently, the development at this moment must be a repetition, so too that which it produces and that from which it arises, and so forwards and backwards. Everything has already been in existence innumerable times, inasmuch as the total arrangement of all forms of energy every recurs.’…

“H.A. Reyburn has tabulated three principal consequences of this belief in the following way: ‘In the first place, the doctrine effectively removed purpose from the world, and the conception of an end of things…’

“It is this first consequence here mentioned that is the most important for an understanding of the eternal recurrence and of its connexion with the doctrine of the Superman. For in both conceptions, Nietzsche is seeking to minimize the importance of ends, of purposes, and of actions and maximize the importance of states of being." (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Hollingdale Translation, Penguin, 1967, p25).

The quality of your present experience, the present moment, not the past or the future, is what is important.

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.