Apollo & Dionysus VI: Left Brain vs. Right Brain

Eddie Ejjbair
2 min readDec 29, 2023

In Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary, McGilchrist uses an analogy, borrowed from Nietzsche, to describe the relationship between the brain’s left and right hemisphere. The analogy concerns a benevolent emperor who is betrayed by one of his most-talented administrators:

I hold that, like the Master and his emissary in the story, though the cerebral hemispheres should co-operate, they have for some time been in a state of conflict. The subsequent battles between them are recorded in the history of philosophy, and played out in the seismic shifts that characterise the history of Western culture. At present the domain– our civilisation– finds itself in the hands of the vizier, who, however gifted, is effectively an ambitious regional bureaucrat with his own interests at heart. Meanwhile the Master, the one whose wisdom gave the people peace and security, is led away in chains. The Master is betrayed by his emissary

Among the many metaphors he uses to describe this conflict, is another analogy popularised by Nietzsche: that of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. According to McGilchrist:

what were anciently seen as the Apollonian, more rationalistic, and Dionysian, more intuitive, aspects of our being have become grossly unbalanced. Nietzsche claimed that the constant opposition between these two very different tendencies led to a fruitful incitement to further and ever higher levels of life and creativity (which accords with the evidence of the relationship between the two hemispheres at its best)

Unfortunately, however, according to McGilchrist’s assessment, instead of co-existing, ‘the balance has swung too far — perhaps irretrievably far — towards the Apollonian left hemisphere, which now appears to believe that it can do anything, make anything, on its own’.

This has been a theme throughout the Apollo and Dionysus series. I, personally, don’t believe that we’ve gone ‘irretrievably far’ in one direction. All this means to me is that when the pendulum eventually swings back, it’ll go just as far in the direction of Dionysus, and we will continue to oscillate between extremes. The balance that we seek is not in equilibrium, nor is it in the massive swings from side to side. It is in the back and forth, occurring just off centre.

This conception brings us back to Nietzsche’s first formulation, that ‘these two very different drives [the Apollonian and Dionysian] exist side by side, mostly in open conflict, stimulating and provoking one another to give birth to ever-new, more vigorous offspring, in whom they perpetuate the conflict inherent in the opposition between them’.

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Eddie Ejjbair

‘Gradually it’s become clear to me what every great philosophy has been: a personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir’