Philosophy Political Philosophy

A Tale of Two Conservatisms: Apollonian vs Dionysian

Conservatism is a term that has a lot of weight and is tossed around a lot but few people seem to be aware as to what conservatism is, where its origins are, and what its philosophical disposition is.  It is sometimes said Edmund Burke is the “first conservative.”  Beyond being a silly and preposterous assertion, given that the ideas and themes Burke advances which are now identified as “conservative” do not have their origins in Burke but predate him, the reality of conservatism is that there are at least two identifiable traditions of conservatism united over certain core outlooks and divided on others.  Here we shall examine a tale of two conservatisms.

What is conservatism? According to the American press, Fox News, and anti-conservative polemicists, conservatism is the defense of wealth, privilege, business, and capitalism; it is generally low-tax, pro-defense, and pro-trade.  Additionally, it celebrates individualism to the point of welfare abandonment.  It is likely also identified with government minimalism, or “limited government”—whatever that term means.  Any student of philosophy knows that conservatism entails none of the above.  Most of what is identified as conservative is a derivation of (classical) liberalism.  Namely the economistic positions (pro-business, low-tax, capitalist, and pro-trade sentiments).  Atomistic individualism is also the disposition of liberal anthropology and has nothing to do with conservatism.

Philosophically, conservatism, and other right-wing derivatives, have a core set of issues that unite the right against the left—if we are to keep the Left-Right paradigm.  This Left-Right paradigm has nothing to do with the historical context of the left and right seating arrangements of the National Assembly in France during the early French Revolution—where opponents of the monarchy sat on the left (and therefore advocating change) and defenders of the monarchy sat on the right (and therefore advocating the status-quo).  Such infantile and shallow political science only obscures philosophical metaphysics.  The political left is not identified by reform and the political right not identified by a defense of the status-quo.  Unless you’re Jonah Goldberg, it is philosophically illiterate and preposterous to claim that communist hardlines who opposed the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev were “conservatives.”  Such usage of the term relativizes it and makes it meaningless.  Rather, the left can be identified as holding to metaphysical egalitarianism and the right holding to metaphysical hierarchy.  That means, contrary to other dunces like Dinesh D’Souza and the shallow ignorant propagandists on “Prager University,” fascism is most definitely a right-wing philosophy as it rejects egalitarianism and defends hierarchy.  Furthermore, the political left can be identified as holding to the materialist and mechanical philosophy of science: a reductionism that logically exhausts itself in egalitarianism—strip away the superficial differences, this view of science argues, and you find that everything is essentially the same (nothing but a mass of matter in motion). 

The political right can be identified as subscribing to the biological philosophy of science: a particularism and pluralism that logically leads to distinctions and hierarchy—examine life enough and you realize differences in lifeforms which means not all things that exist are equal.[1]  These alternative philosophies of science are the logical and natural outgrowths of the underlying metaphysics that props them up.  Lastly, the political left can be identified with anti-tribalism—again a logical derivative of the metaphysics of egalitarianism.  The right, again in dialectical contrast to the left, is tribalistic—yet again a logical derivation of particularity and hierarchy.

Substantially speaking, conservatism asserts itself as the philosophy of nature.  In economic terms conservatism is positive while non-conservative philosophies are normative.  That is, conservatism seeks to understand and describe the world and the phenomenon of the world as it is while the opponents of conservatism describe the world and the phenomenon of the world as it ought to be.  And it is here that the two conservative seeds erupt into a multitude of different branches.

We can call one of the conservative seeds Dionysian.  The other conservative seed we can call Apollonian.  Dionysus was the Greek god of festivals; metaphysically and ontologically speaking Dionysus was the god of the cult of Eros: desire, passion, and instinct.  Apollo was the Greek god of the sun and knowledge; metaphysically and ontologically speaking Apollo was the god of the cult of ratio (reason): rationality, order, construction.

Dionysian conservatism emphasizes the erotic nature of man.  Concerning desires Dionysian conservatism presents man as appetitive; moved primarily by his “animal soul” (or animal appetites/desires).  The fundamental understanding of nature to the Dionysian conservative is biological, erotic, and deep.  Moreover, Dionysian conservatism emphasizes on the erotic movements of men coming together in a moment of unitive harmony in a single act of convergence.  The movement of spirit bringing a multitude together in unity: man and woman as husband and wife (two made one to use biblical language); provinces and regions being unified in the nation-state; the various musical chords aligning in a single moment of tonality at the point of musical convergence, etc. Some would go as far as to call Dionysian man “irrational” (i.e. skeptical of the power and abilities of reason).

Apollonian conservatism emphasizes the rational nature of man.  Concerning rationality Apollonian conservatism presents man as a logical and rationally ordered man; moved principally by his inquisitive thought, his “rational soul.”  The fundamental understanding of nature to the Apollonian conservative is quasi-gnostic, emphasizing man’s logic and reason (his mind), and is focused on edifice (in contrast to Dionysian depth).  As such, Apollonian conservatism emphasizes the individual in individual thought (not as an atomized individual separated and isolated from others), order, and control; order and control being constructed byproducts of individual thought.  We might call Apollonian man “rational.”

Dionysian conservatism, therefore, lends itself to an agonistic understanding of the world.  The world is defined by conflict and struggle.  Man is moved by the struggle to feed his innermost desires which he cannot escape from.  He is, in a sense, a slave to his desire.

Apollonian conservatism, by contrast, lends itself to a harmonious understanding of the world.  The world is defined by the movement to unity and harmony.  Man, being a rational and logical creature, seeks the orderly life to escape the chaos of the agon.  He is, in a sense, a master of his desires; able to overcome and order his innermost instincts.

This contrast plays itself out in numerous ways.  The Dionysian conservative sees loyalty as instinctual: family, the most concrete manifestation of biological reality, first.  The Apollonian conservatives sees loyalty as rational: social order, the most concrete manifestation of rational construction, first.  Dionysian conservatism does not deny, or shun, order, but it does not consider order to be the high end of human existence—the passions are.  Apollonian conservatism does not deny, or shun, the erotic nature of man, but it does not consider the erotic nature of man as always good.  Apollonian conservatism would rather assert the man’s basic instincts are rationally justified or justifiable.  Dionysian conservatism would argue that Apollonianism is an outgrowth of Dionysian depth.

To highlight a single point on this topic, man is a creature who seeks companionship and the sexual act.  Any honest student of human nature and biology would recognize this.  The Dionysian conservative recognizes these urges as what they are: primarily instinctual, biological, and erotic.  Man needs no rational justification for them.  The Apollonian conservative, by contrast, downplays the erotic element to man’s nature by giving rational reasons for why man acts the way he does.  Dionysian conservatives emphasize the biological axiom.  Apollonian conservatives emphasize the rational axiom.  And just as the Dionysian recognizes the moment of unity emerging, in the sexual act the yearning for companionship also comes together (through marriage) where the desires deep within man are fulfilled. 

As it relates to political language, Dionysian conservatism might be considered “hard right.” Or “far right.” Apollonian conservatism might be considered “moderate right.” Or “establishment right.”  That is, Apollonian conservatism may be willing to make concessions and compromises to maintain and preserve the social order that we all benefit from because it is the logical thing to do.  Dionysian conservatives see such concessions and compromises as a betrayal of instinctual allegiances, basic desires, and “sell out.”  The Dionysian relishes in struggle.  The Apollonian seeks to avoid struggle.

The Dionysian seed gives way to a tribal trunk, so to speak, where the primary means of social organization and life is based on tribal loyalties and allegiances.  From this trunk emerge many branches, and while not arguing all Dionysians are fascists, the fascist branch certainly stems from the Dionysian conservative disposition.  Fascism, Nazism, Anarcho-Tribalism, Thrasymachean aristocracy, and naturalist aristocratic philosophies are all outgrowths of the Dionysian seed.

The Apollonian seed gives way to a constitutional trunk, so to speak, where the primary means of social organization and life is based on a rationally constructed constitution or set of laws that abide over all who are accepted into this constitutional or covenantal community.  From this trunk emerge many branches.  Constitutional monarchy, constitutional parliamentarism, constitutional aristocracy, and traditional forms of republicanism (like the Roman and Greek republics) are the outgrowths of the Apollonian seed.

What unites the Dionysian and Apollonian traditions and their derivatives are their acceptance of metaphysical hierarchy, distinctionism, particularity, opposition to egalitarianism and reductionist materialism, and their acceptance of the biological philosophy of science.  What separates Dionysian and Apollonian conservatisms is what we have addressed above.  As it plays itself, the Dionysian strand of conservatism is generally more biological than the Apollonian strand—Dionysian conservatives almost universally embrace evolutionary science to bolster their position and outlook.  Apollonian conservatives, while not necessarily rejecting evolutionary science, tend not to utilize evolutionary science for their outlook.  In Christian language, Dionysian conservatives would emphasize the fallen (or sinful) nature of man while Apollonian conservative would emphasize the unfallen nature of man or man in his state of grace.  (Those with a further and deeper knowledge of Catholic anthropology might go as far as arguing that the Dionysian conservatives are the real traditionalists who, in agreement with St. Augustine, recognize man as a creature of desire first and foremost and that even his rationality is an emanation of desire.)

Dionysian conservatism logically exhausts itself into agonism and deconstructionism.  Apollonian conservatism logically exhausts itself into order and edifice.  In its most extreme end, Dionysian conservatism exhausts into active nihilism while Apollonian conservatism exhausts into compromise.


Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae

Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being


[1] Scientific studies also find this to be true.  A recent article from the Oxford journal Public Opinion Quarterly addressing the fact that most conservatives subscribe to the biological philosophy of science.  “Conventional wisdom suggests that political conservatives are more likely than liberals to endorse genetic explanations for many human characteristics and behaviors. Whether and to what extent this is true has received surprisingly limited systematic attention. We examine evidence from a large U.S. public opinion survey that measured the extent to which respondents believed genetic explanations account for a variety of differences among individuals as well as groups in society. We find that conservatives were indeed more likely than liberals to endorse genetic explanations for perceived race and class differences in characteristics.”  See Elizabeth Suhay and Toby Epstein Jayaratne, “Does Biology Justify Ideology? The Politics of Genetic Attribution,” Public Opinion Quarterly 77 no. 2 (Summer 2013): 497-521.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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