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His Tears Have Given Birth to Men:
Freud, Nietzsche and the
Dionysian Instinct

by David Allen Cook

As mankind and civilization continue to develop, one is often struck by the extremes that have been reached by the human race. On one hand, man has put his heart and soul into great works of art, created engineering marvels, saved countless lives with advances in medicine, and produced great leaders and ideas in an effort to unite the world in peace and prosperity. On the other hand, man has also created severe rifts in the quality of life between those who have and those who have not, crime, violence and warfare have grown increasingly brutal and frequent, and the earth's environment has become dangerously polluted and overburdened. Thus, the dual nature of the human being is perhaps one of the most significant riddles to be answered as mankind struggles to understand from whence he has come and to where his ultimate destination will take him.

Two great thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), provided provocative ideas on the subject of human behavior that continue to have a tremendous impact on the way man views himself and the creative-destructive products of his mind. Both Nietzsche and Freud viewed man's character as a continuum of behavior on an axis between the diametrically opposed and yet mutually dependent elements of the rational (Apollonian) and the irrational (Dionysian). A closer examination of these two great intellects' attitudes toward the Dionysian instinct in man will reveal similarities and differences, but both men saw it as the essential driving force behind human thought and behavior.

In his work, The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche uses the analogy of the Greek theater to reject the idea that man is ruled by rational principles. Rather, like a Greek tragedy, life can be unfair, ironic and cruel to the point of absurdity, and the lines between good and evil are sketchy at best (Kreis). Thus, the great appeal of the Greek tragedy is that it mirrors the inherent tension between the two central principles of Greek culture, the Apollonian and the Dionysian. For Nietzsche, the Dionysian represents a kind of "raw energy" from which everything has its origins. It embodies overwhelming emotions such as terror and ecstasy, in which the intensity of the experience temporarily obscures the separation between the individual and the feeling itself. Therefore, in its pure state, the Dionysian is powerful, yet equally destructive without a means by which to control or focus it.

In contrast, the Apollonian impulse is a natural counter needed to make sense of the Dionysian by creating a structure through which it can be objectified. However, Nietzsche warned that these rational concepts are but flimsy illusions designed to "make existence appear intelligible and thereby justified" (Nietzsche 93), and "but a thin veil hiding from [man] the whole Dionysian realm" (Nietzsche 28). Therefore, Dionysos represents existential reality and Apollo gives man the means to live this reality without being swallowed up by it, by providing the impulse to beauty necessary to free him from the self-destructive forces of his base instincts ("Apollo").

Schopenhauer likened this relationship to a rowboat on the raging sea where "a man sits [...] trusting his frail craft, so, amidst the furious torments of this world, the individual sets tranquilly, supported by the principium individuationis and relying on it" (Nietzsche 22). Nietzsche saw, however, that this delicate balance was destroyed with the growing influence of "esthetic Socratism" in which "whatever is to be beautiful must also be sensible" (Nietzsche 79). As drama, art, science and philosophy began to emphasize Apollonian elements at the expense of the Dionysian, the fathomless and liberating powers of the irrational were reduced to the rigid but reassuring confines of rationalism.

Freud also recognized the power and influence of non-rational impulses on human thought and behavior. In his treatise, Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud put forward the idea that, as "essentially biological creatures with strong instincts," man suffers a kind of neurosis deriving from the guilt created by the conflict between his true desires and the limitations imposed by society (Johnston). These instincts, labeled by Freud as the id, constantly demand gratification, exhibit no values, have no awareness of good or evil, and generate feeling of anger, frustration and unhappiness if denied (Kreis). Thus, Freud saw these Dionysian tendencies as the unconscious root of conscious thoughts and behavior. However, unlike Nietzsche, who felt that the irrational should be exalted as the ultimate expression of humanity, Freud felt that these animal instincts were a potential danger to mankind (Kreis). Therefore, Freud was more interested in creating a scientifically-based approach to help reconcile the inevitable conflict between the reckless satisfaction demanded by primal urges and the rigid conformity imposed by civilization.

Freud felt that although primitive man may have been more psychologically healthy because he was able to revel in unrestricted desires, as a consequence, he could not expect to enjoy these pleasures for any length of time. Further, only the most powerful could actually enjoy these freedoms while the vast majority suffered under unchecked domination. To Freud, civilization is, therefore, an important step toward the leveling of the playing field in which man must "exchange a portion of his possibilities for happiness for a portion of security" (Freud 73). Thus, society's authority turns one's aggression inward unto himself (ego) and the all-knowing super-ego emerges as an internal watchdog to control behavior through a sense of guilt. However, Freud hoped to expose the destructive tendencies of this internal conflict and to show that "the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt" (Freud 97). Although Nietzsche and Freud both saw the limitations imposed by the Apollonian as a natural reaction to the power of the Dionysian, Nietzsche saw it as an abomination while Freud saw it as a necessary evil.

The struggle between Dionysos and Apollo might also be seen to represent the schism between myth and truth. Nietzsche saw the truth as something deep within the Dionysian realm making it ultimately unknowable in terms of logic and reasoning, but accessible intuitively through interaction with the Apollonian. Thus, the Dionysian artist and the Apollonian-Socratic thinker find themselves approaching the same task with very different results. As Nietzsche observed, "While the artist, having unveiled the truth garment by garment, remains with his gaze fixed on what is still hidden, theoretical [Socratic] man takes delight in the cast garments and finds his highest satisfaction in the unveiling process itself, which proves to him his own power" (92).

This brings to mind the Zen Buddhist concept that the methods used to reach enlightenment are not the same as enlightenment itself. This is demonstrated by the saying, "To point a finger at the moon is needed, but woe to those that take the finger for the moon" (Suzuki 19). In other words, intellect is a useful tool, but it must not be mistaken for reality.

Nietzsche felt that the conflict between Dionysian and Apollonian elements were necessary, especially as "the eternal and original power of art" (Nietzsche 145), but he also saw the over-reliance on rational thought as the bane of man's existence. He was disgusted by the "illusion that thought, guided by the thread of causation, might plumb the farthest abysses of being and even correct it" (Nietzsche 93) and maintained that "every culture that has lost myth has lost, by the same token, its natural, healthy creativity" (Nietzsche 136). Thus, Nietzsche contended that objective truth is just a mental construct that creates a false sense of comfort. Rational thought, spurred on by its perpetual desire to fully explain everything, eventually reaches its tether and "curls about itself and bites its own tail" (Nietzsche 95). With logical explanations exhausted, the Apollonian structure topples under its own awkward weight and the only recourse is to return to the Dionysian.

Thus, Nietzsche felt that to understand man's suffering, one must have "a recognition that whatever exists is of a piece, and that individuation is the root of all evil" (Nietzsche 67). Dionysos, therefore, offers real salvation from man's dilemma by showing him that he does not suffer alone. The chaotic depths of Dionysos are what unifies mankind so that when "the gospel of universal harmony is sounded, each individual becomes not only reconciled to his fellow but actually at one with him" (Nietzsche 23). For Nietzsche, the true value of Apollo is not to explain away Dionysos, but to give it a "fair semblance which at any moment make[s] life worth living and whet[s] our appetite for the next moment" (Nietzsche 145).

Freud, on the other hand, saw myth as one of the reasons for man's deep dissatisfaction with life. Early man envisioned the mythical gods imbued with omnipotence, omniscience and, thus, all those things unattainable or forbidden to mortal men (Freud 44). However, with the rise of rational thought and the accompanying explosion of technological progress, man eventually found himself able to do almost everything these gods were imagined capable. Man had, as Freud put it, "become a god himself" (44). Nonetheless, despite all of man's technological advances, Freud observed that man is no more better off and "does not feel happy in his Godlike character" (44). By creating a myth that he was eventually able to equal, man had reached the pinnacle of being and yet found the world in utter chaos. Thus, Freud found that man's suffering originates in his failure to rationally understand the conflicting elements that dictate his thoughts and actions. Mankind must understand itself as group of individuals struggling with "the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species" (Freud 82). Thus, Freud had difficulty in believing the spiritual sentiment that there exists a brotherhood of man in which the "oceanic feeling" of oneness was possible. He further felt that feelings could be scientifically analyzed by describing their physiological signs (Freud 11), and that the idea of universal love was alien to an individual's human nature (Freud 70).

Whereas Freud thought the golden rule might be more aptly put, "Love thy neighbor as thy neighbor loves thee" (Freud 70), Nietzsche might have countered with, "Until you stop discriminating between thy and thee, it is impossible to know love." Although Freud agreed that happiness in life was found in the enjoyment of beauty, he included "scientific creation" along with artistic expression (Freud 33). He identified human suffering as the result of the superior power of nature, the impermanence of the human body, and the inability to regulate human relationships (Freud 37). Thus, one could conclude that Freud might feel the best way to address these problems would be through increased applications of technology, medicine and the social-psychological sciences. Although Freud felt that Dionysos was an integral part of man's psyche, he felt Apollo offered the best chance for salvation by teaching man how to live with his darker side.

Although Nietzsche and Freud did not agree on the proportions of Apollonian and Dionysian elements needed to refine the human condition, they recognized the inherent need for both to coexist. Like the Taoist philosophers of ancient China, both men shed light on the cyclical nature and natural tendency for opposing forces to balance themselves. Thus, life is not to be seen in terms of simple black or white, but of endlessly shifting shades of gray. The Chinese philosopher, Chuang-Tzu (c. 300 BC), put it this way, "Those who would say that they would have right without its correlate, wrong, [...] do not apprehend the great principle of the universe, nor the nature of creation" (Watts 85-6). Thus, Nietzsche and Freud both showed that Dionysos and Apollo play important roles in the drama of human nature. Just as there is an explicit difference between the two sides of a coin, there is an implicit relationship that makes them inseparable. Thus, mankind's rational achievements are sure to be accompanied by his irrational failures--each perpetuating the other in the endless struggle between Dionysos and Apollo.



"Apollo and Dionysus: From Warfare to Assimilation in The Birth of Tragedy and Beyond Good and Evil." Duquesne University. 25 October 2002.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Trans. and Ed. James Strachey. Intro. Peter Gay. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1961.

Hammond, Jim. "Freud and Nietzsche on Morality." Philt: A Newsletter on Philosophy and Literature. 21 October 2002.

Johnston, Ian. "On Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents." Lecture for Liberal Studies 402. January 1993.

Kreis, Steven. "Nietzsche, Freud and the Thrust Toward Modernism." The History Guide: Lectures on Twentieth Century Europe. 21 October 2002.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. Trans. Francis Golffing. New York: Anchor Books, 1956.

Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro. Essays in Zen Buddhism. New York: Grover Press, 1961.

Watts, Alan. The Way of Liberation. Eds. Mark Watts and Rebecca Shropshire. New York: Weatherhill, Inc., 1983.

© David Allen Cook 2002