Apollonian Dionysian Approach To Modern Living

Table Of Contents

The Apollonian-Dionysian Approach To Modern Living

What I'll Be Covering..

1. Diminishing Happiness Levels

Critical thinkers and even those with a smidgen of common sense will agree that happiness levels have been diminishing recently. Statistics, inaccurate perhaps, but approximately true, reveal rates of mental wellbeing have plummeted, with the proportion of those saying they’re “very happy” falling from around one third of Americans to less than a fifth in recent years.

Add to that research suggesting that global rates of anxiety and depression rocketed by nearly a third in 2020 alone—the largest increase ever recorded—and it’s clear that we have entered into an era of disappointment and disillusionment.

Share of Americans saying they're "very happy" or "not too happy" 1972—2021

And I think this raises an important but often overlooked question. What are the reasons behind this blossoming miasma of dissatisfaction? Culturally, you might point to the decline of the family, collapsing marriage rates, and an empty culture of brand and commodity-worship. Economically, you could argue that decades of wage stagnation, alongside the more recent spike in inflation, have, when taken together, eroded living standards. Biologically, you need look no further than unhealthy eating habits and sky-rocketing rates of addiction.

Nevertheless, we haven’t yet got the full story. At its core, our predicament stems from a deep-seated misalignment between the dual catalysts behind human nature. And it’s this disconnect that in many ways is driving the societal, economic, and biological trends we’ve been observing. 

2. The Modern Disconnect

We humans are driven by the primary desires to feed ourselves and to reproduce,” writes Barry Cunliffe, in Britain Begins. “Both tendencies require aggression and self-assertiveness,” he explains, “instincts that are hard-wired into our biology, but are constrained to prevent them from wreaking total havoc, by the formation and acceptance of social hierarchies.” 

The big idea is simple: From the dawn of civilisation, human behaviour has been shaped by the ongoing tug-of-war between our cultural and biological drivers. On the one hand, our social structures provided the order and discipline we needed to cooperate. Our instincts, conversely, have driven us to explore, to conquer, and to reproduce. Taken together, this bright-dark duality has driven humanity forwards: leading to remarkable advancements in science, literature, art, and innovation. 

This might be as imagined, but recent shifts have thrown this cultural harmony into disarray—the speed at which we’re being exposed to societal influences, particularly through smart phones and mass media, is fostering the rise of a malevolent collective consciousness. And as this ever-expanding hive mind, with its insidious intrusion into our private thoughts, begins to tighten its grip over individual thought and behaviour, we’re becoming more and more divorced from our primal nature. 

“You aspire to free heights, your soul thirsts for the stars. But your wicked instincts, too, thirst for freedom. Your wild dogs want freedom; they bark with joy in their cellar when your spirit plans to open all prisons.”

A 2023 study highlighted that in London, there are now 13.21 surveillance cameras for every 1,000 people. Add to that, a 2024 Pew Research Centre survey reported American teenagers spend an average of 8 hours and 39 minutes on their screens each day.

The Economia sums it up like this: “Are we really independent thinkers, able to make our own decisions, when so many of our thoughts and actions are influenced by our smartphones?” The publication concludes by asking: “Have we inadvertently become slaves to the digital realm’s all-encompassing influence?” 

The widespread prevalence of mental health issues in modern society
The widespread prevalence of mental health issues in modern society

Each of us has experienced it—the relentless push to conform to the all-encompassing norms and social conventions born out of today’s media driven landscape. Whereas once we followed our instincts without hesitation or self-reflection, these seismic societal upheavals have twisted and warped our natural urges, transforming us into guilt-ridden, manipulable, and tame creatures; more predictable and herd-like.  

And the thing is, the psychological tension this provokes has tremendous consequences for how we live our lives. In his writing, Ted Kaczynski, infamously known as the “Unabomber”, writes extensively about the concept of over-socialisation. He maintained that the constant struggle to conform and repress our natural instincts sets the stage for deep-seated internal conflict. For in being suppressed and forced underground, our primal urges do not simply vanish—instead, they “turn inwards, against themselves,”—breeding dissatisfaction with life, feelings of low self-esteem, resentment and powerlessness. 

The 2019 movie, ‘American Psycho,’ sheds light on this dynamic, exploring what can happen when these repressed desires lead us down a dark path. It follows Patrick Bateman, a wealthy investment banker navigating the high-pressure world of finance. Driven by a compelling need to be accepted, he develops an obsession with his image on Wall Street.  

As he becomes increasingly consumed by his physical appearance, Bateman finds himself burying his authentic desires beneath more and more layers of self-deception. After decades of psychological repression, he reaches a breaking point—culminating in a bloody and violent rampage that leaves a trail of destruction in its wake. 

In several unsettling ways, we are in our own situation, more like Patrick Bateman than we’d like to admit. Just think on it for a moment: we’ve become dissatisfied, grappling with feelings of low self-esteem and resentment. The control sphere’s expansion, with its insidious creep into the private quarters of our minds, has rapidly become an inescapable characteristic of the social landscape. And while therapeutic treatments or medications may function as helpful coping tools, they shouldn’t be the focal point; rather reimaging how we approach life will allow us to move forwards with authenticity and understanding. 

3. Lessons From Greek Mythology: Apollo & Dionysus

Okay, how about we take a moment to simplify a bit before we move on? In the past, we humans tended to integrate our innate instincts with rationale thought; harnessing their combined strength to drive civilisation forwards. Yet, with the rapid expansion of technology and mass media, this careful balance has begun to break down, playing havoc with our collective mental health. The question that we should be asking ourselves is—how do we halt our rising complacency, recalibrate our instincts and reclaim the wisdom and tenacity needed to tackle the challenges that lie before us?  

Frederic Nietzsche, a figure known for his radical and aristocratic perspectives, offers some novel solutions in his seminal work: The Birth Of Tragedy. We must turn our gaze back towards the early Greeks,” he suggests, “those who knew how to blend the vigour of passion with the clarity of reason, and who gave clear voice to these teachings, not through abstract concepts, but in the divine forms of their mythological beings.” 

If you want to understand why Nietzsche thought this to be the case, you have to understand the Greek gods themselves—and these celestial figures, with their vast complexity and variety, are themselves nothing more than symbols of the cosmic dualities that shape our lives.  

Apollo, the most Greek of all the gods, the artist-god, the poet and musician, who brought order and harmony out of confusion, embodies structure, principle and calm reason. His temple, inscribed with the famous Delphic maxim “everything in moderation,” stands as a mark of his dedication to sobriety and structured discipline. Often depicted as a strikingly handsome man with flowing blond hair, Apollo signifies a step into the structured realm of form, beauty, and tranquillity.

Apollo

Apollo

Apollo stands for order, truth, logic, & reason. As a symbol of illumination and enlightenment, he brings the day and banishes the night. The lyre, his chosen instrument, symbolises the beauty and elegance that emerge from disciplined practice and structured expression.
Dionysus Figure

Dionysius

Dionysus, known as the god of wine, revelry, and theatre, embodies the essence of divine intoxication and uncontrolled passion. He is a symbol of the boundless energy and ecstatic joy that can arise from surmounting fear and embracing our deepest emotions and desires.

But the Greeks also needed a religion of the heart, something which could satisfy the hunger in their souls. A child of both the mortal and divine realm, Dionysus offered what Apollo could not—connection to the chaotic and instinctual aspects of existence. Dionysian worship was marked by everything in excess—unrestrained indulgence in alcohol; lavish and sometimes violent feasts that resemble ancient, untamed rituals; and human behaviours that verge on the wild and uncontrolled, resembling divine madness and inspiration. 

But while Apollo and Dionysus initially appear to be in opposition, their recurring interactions within mythological tales hint at a deeper, more harmonious relationship between the two deities. 

What’s more, within the many myths and cults which surrounded Apollo and Dionysus, Nietzsche perceived something he sensed as lacking in the modern world—namely, a celebration of man’s complex nature and the inherent contrasts and contradictions within each one of us. 

One story goes that Apollo sought to establish a sanctuary where humans could commune with the divine will of the gods. His quest leads him to Delphi, on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, where he meets the chthonic serpent, Python; charged with protecting the oracle on behalf of Gaia. There, the two engaged in a climactic battle; with Apollo ultimately emerging as victorious—an act commonly viewed as symbolic of the new Olympian order prevailing over the old earth-bound deities. 

Apollo's confrontation with the serpent Python to claim dominion over Delphi.
Apollo's confrontation with the serpent Python to claim dominion over Delphi.

Following his triumph, Apollo stakes his claim over Delphi, transforming the oracle into the epicentre of his prophetic powers. Yet, control over Delphi wasn’t Apollo’s alone. Legend has it that he would retreat to live among the Hyperboreans during the winter months, inviting Dionysus to step into Delphi and infuse it with his own unique energies.   

Far from being mere rivals, the annual exchange at Delphi reflects the fundamental integration of these opposing forces, the formation of a cultural dynamism that drove Greek civilization to remarkable achievements. 

“Here was a being gene-coded to perfection. A reflection of humanity’s royal paragon. Russ bled authority without effort. And without the need for purpose or pretence. For he made barbarism a controlled trait: something noble — to be understood and mastered. Not a state of primitive regression.”

Greek mythology presents two figures caught in an eternal dialogue between chaos and order. These opposing deities are forced to navigate a labyrinth of different values, to make decisive choices, to orient their activities in a universe of ambiguous values where nothing is ever stable or unequivocal.

Taken together, what Apollo and Dionysus invite is neither the blind impulsiveness of action, nor some retreat into isolated reflection, but accepting the difficulty and uncertainty of action in a world defined by ambiguity, where right always seems to be on both sides.

The Greeks understood, then, that Apollo, the embodiment of order, rationality, and restraint, and Dionysus, the figure of disorder, fervour, and natural impulse, were not mutually exclusive but rather existed in dynamic tension. 

In today’s world where chaos and order often seem at odds, the relationship between these iconic figures reminds us that living a deep & fulfilling life comes from embracing both chaos and control—and finding the right balance in-between.  

The logic being that it’s the friction between these two counterpoints that supplies the conditions needed to thrive in this world—like Summer and Winter. Eternal Summer would burn the world up. But eternal Winter would freeze it to death. It’s the fact that they oscillate between one another that allows life to grow and flourish. 

4. The Struggle for Balance in Modern Thinking

There’s a widespread view, let’s call it “early Nietzschean,” that the relationship between Apollo and Dionysus and the forces they represent is as fundamental to civilisation as the interplay of light and shadow. Both forces are deeply embedded in our nature, influencing our decisions, behaviours, and the way in which we relate to the world. Yet, as we navigate our way through the digital corridors of the 21st century, this nuanced grasp of paradox and polarisation seems to be slipping through our fingers.  

For one thing, people today are much more monochromatic in their thinking. Those who lean towards the Apollonian mindset may seem stable and dependable on the surface, but their deep-seated affinity for rules and regulations makes them susceptible to herd mentality and group think. These followers of @apollo_life may cultivate a strong work-ethic and pragmatic approach towards life, but rarely bother to question the state media apparatus which is forever blaring down at them. 

Conversely, those who resonate with the Dionysian spirit possess great emotional intelligence and a keen ability to seize the moment and harness there imagination. And yet, without a solid foundation of structured discipline and rational thinking, followers of @Dionysian_life tend to become drawn into the fleeting pleasures and superficial gratifications that saturate modern culture. Life, for them, becomes nothing more than a series of short-term pursuits without any clear sense of direction or purpose upon which to build lasting happiness. 

And it’s also true, I think, that modern technology has been accelerating our spiritual dislocation: shifting our collective focus towards pleasure and comfort at the expense of personal growth. From being able to shop online, to getting food delivered straight to our doorsteps, everything is at our fingertips. The consequence? Stagnation. We don’t grow. We don’t learn. We aren’t challenged. And we lead lives without passion, without drive, without ambition… we drift, devoid of any real purpose. 

"He doesn't ask her where they're going, it seems he is content to be invested with the deed or act itself. To him, she believes, the small actions and individual things count. Unlike his Father, he doesn't need to know an end-plan or an ultimate goal. Just the now and the here — tackling life one step, or one blow, at a time. He is the most disciplined man she has ever met. Entirely focused on duty, yet that focus seems to render him weightless."

We do know—and this is important—that Nietzsche viewed this spiritual stagnation as deeply problematic, arguing that it signified a regression in human potential and a betrayal of the great achievements of earlier civilisations. He explained that the rise of technology has stripped from us the unique mesh of opposing values and orientations that propelled Greek civilisation to such heights of creative expression and artistic freedom.  

Nietzsche goes onto claim, with some justification in my view, that the development of this bourgeois mindset has grown to not only dull our emotions but prevent us from becoming active architects of our own lives—and society as a whole. In doing so, we have become “smaller”, deprived of the tools we need to reach our fullest potential as individuals.  

Think of a it a bit like a bird with clipped wings, satisfied in a luxurious cage, but unable to take flight. From this altogether more subdued state of being we are made more malleable to the ubiquitous corporate and ideological interests that seek to shape us. 

And indeed, this is proving to be the running theme throughout my research. The growing rupture between the Apollonian and Dionysian counterpoints has suppressed and undermined our inherent strength and excellence. We have become spineless, pleasure-seeking animals, held in perpetual thrall to our most base animalistic desires and instincts. 

 The question then becomes—can we restore the civilisational conditions which engendered the remarkable Greek triumph? To answer this question, we need to understand these conditions in a little more detail. 

5. The Dual Forces Behind Greek Success

Countervailing forces were at work on the Greek mind during the sixth and fifth centuries BC. On the one hand, these were a people brimming with physical vigour, unyielding and defiant in the face of challenges. Citizens, particularly young men, carried in their breasts a fervent desire to win over their peers, to be the best, while burgeoning civic institutions separated the best out from the masses and marked them for distinction and honours. 

On the other hand, these were a people who inhabited a world shaped by reason, a world sculpted by intellectual fervour. The Greek mind was free to think about the world as it pleased, to reject all traditional explanations, to disregard all that the priests taught, to search unhampered by any outside authority for the truth. It was this intellectual dynamism that prompted Anaxagoras to pioneer a rational approach to understanding the universe, Empedocles to explore the interactions between different elements, and Heraclitus to develop his breakthrough insight of harmony via the mingling of opposites.

“The two creative tendencies developed alongside one another, usually in fierce opposition, each, by its taunts, inciting the other to new and more powerful births, which perpetuate the antagonism; till by a miracle of Hellenic will they appear coupled with one another, creating a form of aliveness that is equally Dionysian and Apollonian.”

Spoken more plainly, the Greeks evolved in a bimodal way, diverging as the elites, caring only for what was beautiful and strong, devoting themselves to an idealised vision of what humanity could be, or perhaps what it already was on another plane just out of sight. “All that they achieved was stamped by this dichotomy,” writes the famous classical scholar Edith Hamilton in in her magnum opus: The Greek Way: “Greek civilisation rested on the immense energy released when the vitality of passion was wedded with the clarity of reason.”    

Indeed this burgeoning paradox and polarisation is seen throughout Greek literature. For example, there is an important line of thinking in both of Homer’s epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, that invokes reflection on the part of the hero, on the one hand weighing up the pros and cons of a line of action, and on the other hand risking himself in a terrain that is strictly unknown and incomprehensible because it is ordained by the gods. 

As Homer recounts in the famous Odyssey: “Odysseus storms across the battlefield like a god of war, laying low the fighters left and right. He was about to dash among the foremost Trojans, but Athena, wisdom, came to him from heaven… and spoke to him: ‘Do not, by any means, even for a moment, set upon these men and fight with them.’”   

Edith Hamilton sums up this school of thought nicely in her book: “The Greeks didn’t ignore the external world for the sake of their inner experiences, nor did they reject rational thought for emotional expression. For them, reality and perception were fitted—their understanding of the world and their minds harmonised. They grasped the paradoxical nature of truth, favouring neither side, and in all their art there is an absence of struggle, a unifying force, something of calm and serenity, the world has yet to reproduce.” 

6. Today's Technocratic World

In the annals of human civilisation, the ancient Greeks hold a place of unique reverence. Their harmonious interplay between Apollo and Dionysus—between reason and instinct—served as the crucible from which arose some of history’s most remarkable artistic, philosophical, and societal achievements. 

All this stands in stark opposition to the sweeping corporate and ideological control that has smothered the twenty-first century like shrink-wrap on the face of a murder victim. Egalitarian perspectives enforce a superficial layer of equality among all individuals, regardless of their varying abilities, talents. The result is that key truths about human nature are concealed, nuance and subtlety is not acknowledged, and genuine artistic expression is not championed. 

From the hedonic lifestyles we see promoted through modern culture to extreme fandoms in entertainment, the suppressed Dionysian spirit often bursts forth, seeking a release. But without constructive outlets like theatre or festivals with which to channel and harness our intrinsic make-up, we fritter these potent energies away via cheap thrills, instant gratification and digital escapism.  

The Apollonian drive, orientated towards structure and rational thought, hasn’t vanished. Yet, unlike in ancient Greece where such energies were channelled into personal growth and high culture, today we find them twisted; serving vested interest groups and the rise of technocratic super-structures.   

Modern bureaucratic institutions, fixated on the trifecta of safety, security, and comfort, behave in ways that are increasingly impossible to understand and contrary to human flourishing. Content in our comfortable and banally uneventful bourgeois existence, we’re devoid of the fire of passion, the spark of creativity, and the noble yearnings that propelled the Greeks into an elevated mode of living. 

And yet, as bizarre as it is to type, this state of affairs is not easily communicated to modern people. We have invested heavily in our understanding of ourselves as a great mass to be shaped, guided and instructed, but only grudgingly trusted and rarely given genuine freedom.

7. Chaos & Order: A Framework For Better Living

We’re charged with turning this around. All of us. For the human spirit has a primal allegiance to really live, to snatch the fruit and suck it, to spill the juice. We may think we’re domesticated but we’re not. To do this, though, we need to reignite the Greek spirit within ourselves—a spirit defined by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, a vigorous pursuit of understanding, a courageous stand against conformity, and a wholehearted embrace of the chaotic and instinctual aspects of existence.  

To put it simply, we need to blend the best attributes of the Apollonian (i.e. rationality, order, and harmony) with those of the Dionysian (i.e. irrationality, chaos, emotion and instinct), developing a lifestyle strategy that equally Dionysian and Apollonian. For when our attention is fixed upon one side of this equation to the disregard of the other, “human beings result who are only partially developed, their eyes blinded to half of what life and the great world offers.” 

“He has lost and destroyed his instinct, and can no longer trust the ‘divine animal’ and let go the reins when his understanding falters and his way leads through deserts.”

In a thought-provoking essay, Stephen Francois summarises the main thrust of this argument: “The ‘Dionysian Principle’ is an essential human trait that demands recognition and intelligent management,” he notes. “But while it’s important that this instinct doesn’t overpower or dictate our actions, it’s equally crucial that we avoid becoming aesthetics: suppressing or overly restraining it … As such, I am for group-sex, feasts, Dionysian fervour, but only when subordinated to, and articulated by, ordo societatis … The more powerful this structured framework, the more freely we can channel the pleasure principle, the orgiastic, within its shadows and without harm to societal cohesion.”  

What Francois is suggesting is that we should harness the vitality and dynamism of the Dionysian, while simultaneously ensuring that these impulses are channelled and contained within the Apollonian principle—that is, a commitment to discipline, honour and a higher code of ethics that prevents these impulses from becoming the becoming the predominant forces over our lives. 

We do know—and this is important—that a life focused solely on Apollonian elements—self-care, meticulous planning, and stringent order—often falls short of being wholly fulfilling. As Plato sagely and somewhat whimsically puts it, nearly a century after the apex of Greek civilisation: “He who is not inspired and has no touch of madness in his soul, and who comes to the door and thinks he will get into the temple by the help of reason alone—he is, I say, not admitted.” 

Rather than cancelling each other out, opposite forces — brought into agreement — create a balanced and efficient whole.

Too many of us nowadays fall down here. We approach life through stagnant, fixed goals: things like wealth building, material acquisition, security etc. We don’t like uncertainty—not being able to predict what might happen next. And it’s also true, I think, that we seek to minimise struggle and discomfort.  

And this is the point that I want to drive home. By strengthening the Apollonian foundation, which is defined by rational thought, order, and structured discipline, we place ourselves in a better position to delve into the Dionysian realm of chaotic passion and excitement; drawing on its fervent energy without being swept away by sometimes overwhelming nature. 

In short, we have to be willing to move between the extremes—setting our pulses racing, pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zone and plunging into the unpredictable and untamed aspects of existence. At the same time, we need to cultivate a civilized and controlled demeanour—prioritising self-care, forward planning, and the establishment of a rigid framework of order and discipline. 

Through this synthesis, we achieve a state of being that is both vibrant and controlled. But also, and perhaps more importantly, we get experience the full breadth of human emotion and potential, while simultaneously avoiding the traps and pitfalls that come with both the Apollonian (burn-out, stagnation, loss of vitalism) and Dionysian (mindless hedonism, spiritual corruption, loss of identity).  

Once we grasp the fundamental point—that life, in fact, involves a duet between opposing extremes—we can begin to reverse the nihilistic stagnation that has overtaken the modern world. And this, more than anything else, is what Lifestyle Harmonics is here to help us with. 

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