Apollo and Dionysus

by Ayn Rand
From Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution
Return of the Primitive (Expanded edition of The New Left)
Buy the Book: Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution
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In this 1969 lecture delivered at Boston’s Ford Hall Forum, Ayn Rand contrasts two prominent events from that summer’s news: the Apollo 11 moon landing and the Woodstock music festival. Using the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus as symbols of “the fundamental conflict of our age” — reason versus irrational emotion — Rand explores the mindsets of participants, commentators and spectators in search of the two events’ philosophical causes and meaning.

In the Q&A session following the lecture, Rand expands on the subject matter of the lecture and also addresses such topics as the legalization of marijuana and other drugs, the “space race” and reasons for going to the moon, the morality of the Vietnam War and the war’s protesters, Rand’s view of her purpose in life, and government controls on pollution.

This essay was originally published in the December 1969 and January 1970 issues of The Objectivist and later anthologized in The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution (1971) and Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution (1999). A lecture version was delivered in November 1969 at the Ford Hall Forum in Boston.

The audio lecture lasts 44 minutes, followed by a 17-minute Q&A.

On July 16, 1969, one million people, from all over the country, converged on Cape Kennedy, Florida, to witness the launching of Apollo 11 that carried astronauts to the moon.

On August 15, 300,000 people, from all over the country, converged on Bethel, New York, near the town of Woodstock, to witness a rock music festival.

These two events were news, not philosophical theory. These were facts of our actual existence, the kinds of facts — according to both modern philosophers and practical businessmen — that philosophy has nothing to do with.

But if one cares to understand the meaning of these two events — to grasp their roots and their consequences — one will understand the power of philosophy and learn to recognize the specific forms in which philosophical abstractions appear in our actual existence.

The issue in this case is the alleged dichotomy of reason versus emotion.

This dichotomy has been presented in many variants in the history of philosophy, but its most colorfully eloquent statement was given by Friedrich Nietzsche. In The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, Nietzsche claims that he observed two opposite elements in Greek tragedies, which he saw as metaphysical principles inherent in the nature of reality; he named them after two Greek gods: Apollo, the god of light, and Dionysus, the god of wine. Apollo, in Nietzsche’s metaphysics, is the symbol of beauty, order, wisdom, efficacy (though Nietzsche equivocates about this last) — i.e., the symbol of reason. Dionysus is the symbol of drunkenness or, rather, Nietzsche cites drunkenness as his identification of what Dionysus stands for: wild, primeval feelings, orgiastic joy, the dark, the savage, the unintelligible element in man — i.e., the symbol of emotion.

Apollo, according to Nietzsche, is a necessary element, but an unreliable and thus inferior guide to existence, that gives man a superficial view of reality: the illusion of an orderly universe. Dionysus is the free, unfettered spirit that offers man — by means of a mysterious intuition induced by wine and drugs — a more profound vision of a different kind of reality, and is thus the superior. And — indicating that Nietzsche knew clearly what he was talking about, even though he chose to express it in a safely, drunkenly Dionysian manner — Apollo represents the principle of individuality, while Dionysus leads man “into complete self-forgetfulness” and into merging with the “Oneness” of nature. (Those who, at a superficial reading, take Nietzsche to be an advocate of individualism, please note.)

This much is true: reason is the faculty of an individual, to be exercised individually; and it is only dark, irrational emotions, obliterating his mind, that can enable a man to melt, merge and dissolve into a mob or a tribe. We may accept Nietzsche’s symbols, but not his estimate of their respective values, nor the metaphysical necessity of a reason-emotion dichotomy.

It is not true that reason and emotion are irreconcilable antagonists or that emotions are a wild, unknowable, ineffable element in men. But this is what emotions become for those who do not care to know what they feel, and who attempt to subordinate reason to their emotions. For every variant of such attempts — as well as for their consequences — the image of Dionysus is an appropriate symbol.

Symbolic figures are a valuable adjunct to philosophy: they help men to integrate and bear in mind the essential meaning of complex issues. Apollo and Dionysus represent the fundamental conflict of our age. And for those who may regard them as floating abstractions, reality has offered two perfect, fiction-like dramatizations of these abstract symbols: at Cape Kennedy and at Woodstock. They were perfect in every respect demanded of serious fiction: they concretized the essentials of the two principles involved, in action, in a pure, extreme, isolated form. The fact that the spacecraft was called “Apollo” is merely a coincidence, but a helpful coincidence.

If you want to know fully what the conflict of reason versus irrational emotion means — in fact, in reality, on earth — keep these two events in mind: it means Apollo 11 versus the Woodstock festival. Remember also that you are asked to make a choice between these two — and that the whole weight of today’s culture is being used to push you to the side of and into Woodstock’s mud.

In my article “Apollo 11” (The Objectivist, September 1969), I discussed the meaning and the greatness of the moon landing. To quote: “No one could doubt that we had seen an achievement of man in his capacity as a rational being — an achievement of reason, of logic, of mathematics, of total dedication to the absolutism of reality. . . . The most confirmed evader in the worldwide audience could not escape the fact that . . . no feelings, wishes, urges, instincts or lucky ‘conditioning’ . . . could have achieved this incomparable feat — that we were watching the embodied concretization of a single faculty of man: his rationality.”

This was the meaning and motive of the overwhelming worldwide response to Apollo 11, whether the cheering crowds knew it consciously or not — and most of them did not. It was the response of people starved for the sight of an achievement, for a vision of man the hero.

This was the motive that drew one million people to Cape Kennedy for the launching. Those people were not a stampeding herd nor a manipulated mob; they did not wreck the Florida communities, they did not devastate the countryside, they did not throw themselves, like whining thugs, at the mercy of their victims; they did not create any victims. They came as responsible individuals able to project the reality of two or three days ahead and to provide for their own needs. There were people of every age, creed, color, educational level and economic status. They lived and slept in tents or in their cars, some of them for several days, in great discomfort and unbearable heat; they did it gamely, cheerfully, gaily; they projected a general feeling of confident goodwill, the bond of a common enthusiasm; they created a public spectacle of responsible privacy — and they departed as they had come, without benefit of press agents.

The best account of the nature of that general feeling was given to me by an intelligent young woman of my acquaintance. She went to see the parade of the astronauts when they came to New York. For a few brief moments, she stood on a street corner and waved to them as they went by. “It was so wonderful,” she told me. “People didn’t want to leave after the parade had passed. They just stood there, talking about it — talking to strangers — smiling. It was so wonderful to feel, for once, that people aren’t vicious, that one doesn’t have to suspect them, that we have something good in common.”

This is the essence of a genuine feeling of human brotherhood: the brotherhood of values. This is the only authentic form of unity among men — and only values can achieve it.

There was virtually no comment in the press on the meaning of the popular response to Apollo 11; the comments, for the most part, were superficial, perfunctory, mainly statistical. There was a brief flurry of nonsense about “unity” — as if it were some mysteriously causeless emotional primary — with suggestions about directing this unity to such inspiring goals as the crusades against poverty, air pollution, wilderness-desecration, even urban transportation. Then the subject was dropped, and the Apollo 11 story was dropped as of no further significance.

One of the paradoxes of our age is the fact that the intellectuals, the politicians and all the sundry voices that choke, like asthma, the throat of our communications media have never gasped and stuttered so loudly about their devotion to the public good and about the people’s will as the supreme criterion of value — and never have they been so grossly indifferent to the people. The reason, obviously, is that collectivist slogans serve as a rationalization for those who intend, not to follow the people, but to rule it. There is, however, a deeper reason: the most profound breach in this country is not between the rich and the poor, but between the people and the intellectuals. In their view of life, the American people are predominantly Apollonian; the “mainstream” intellectuals are Dionysian.

This means: the people are reality-oriented, commonsense-oriented, technology-oriented (the intellectuals call this “materialistic” and “middle-class”); the intellectuals are emotion-oriented and seek, in panic, an escape from a reality they are unable to deal with, and from a technological civilization that ignores their feelings.

The flight of Apollo 11 brought this out into the open. With rare exceptions, the intellectuals resented its triumph. A two-page survey of their reactions, published by The New York Times on July 21, was an almost unanimous spread of denigrations and denunciations. (See my article “Apollo 11.”) What they denounced was “technology”; what they resented was achievement and its source: reason. The same attitude — with rare exceptions — was displayed by the popular commentators, who are not the makers, but the products and the weather vanes of the prevailing intellectual trends.

Walter Cronkite of CBS was a notable exception. But Eric Sevareid of CBS was typical of the trend. On July 15, the eve of the launching, he broadcast from Cape Kennedy a commentary that was reprinted in Variety (July 23. 1909). “In Washington and elsewhere,” he said, “the doubts concern future flights, their number, their cost and their benefits, as if the success of Apollo 11 were already assured. We are a people who hate failure. It’s un-American. It is a fair guess that failure of Apollo 11 would not curtail future space programs but re-energize them.”

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Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand
Learn more about Ayn Rand’s life and writings at AynRand.org.