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The Birth of Tragedy

Friedrich Nietzsche


Chapters 24 & 25

page 1 of 2


The paradoxical state of contemplating tragic myth is that of being "constrained to view, and at the same time to long for something beyond the viewing." When witnessing the enactment of tragedy, one delights in appearance and contemplation, but at the same time denies this delight and finds a still greater pleasure in the annihilation of the world of appearance. We know that this greater pleasure existed for the Greeks, because there is no other explanation for the manifestation of the suffering hero in so many different forms. The mere fact that real life often takes a tragic course cannot explain this trait, if we believe that true art is never an imitation of nature, but rather a metaphysical supplement to the reality of nature.

The explanation for tragic myth must lie in the examination of the aesthetic pleasures that it affords. As only a pure aesthetic pleasure could be the basis for a pure art, we must exclude pity, fear, and the morally sublime from our list of possible sources. We are left then with the question of how the ugly and the unharmonious, which is the substance of tragic myth, can excite aesthetic pleasure. The answer is that "it is precisely the function of tragic myth to convince us that even the ugly and unharmonious is an artistic game which the will plays with itself in the eternal fullness of its joy." This rather confusing explanation becomes clear when we recognize the joy of "musical dissonance," which has the same origin as the joy of tragic myth.

Because music and myth are so closely related, the degeneration and depravation of the one necessarily involves a deterioration of the other. Both myth and music have suffered at the hands of Socratic optimism. However, we have faith that "in some inaccessible abyss the German spirit still rests and dreams, undestroyed, in glorious health." The German spirit speaks now through music and promises a rebirth of tragedy.

Just as music and tragedy and myth are inseparable from each other, so the Apollonian and Dionysian elements of tragedy are thoroughly intertwined. Apollo has no substance without Dionysus, and Dionysus has no means of expressing itself to people without Apollo. They exist in proportion to one another, such that a culture of immense Apollonian beauty must have some Dionysian madness at its root that impels it to seek such beauty as a refuge. Suffering and beauty, joy and pain, are two sides of the same coin.


At the very end of his essay, Nietzsche begins to reveal some of the circular logic that has driven his arguments. Whereas earlier in the work he implied that the Greeks absolutely acted in particular ways, in this section he shifts to saying that we can only infer that the Greeks thought and acted in these ways. Perhaps he felt some pangs of conscience at having put so many words into Greek mouths and thoughts into Greek minds; as a trained classicist, he must have known how theoretical all of his assertions were and how unlikely they were in many cases.

Nietzsche's contention that the idea of the suffering hero must indicate the existence of Dionysian delight in the destruction of the individual hinges solely on his previous claim that true art is not imitative. Otherwise, we could explain the suffering hero by the simple phrase, "That's life." The problem with Nietzsche's argument is that he uses one contentious claim to support another, thus leaving him with very little objective truth to stand on. In order to believe his argument, we must agree that true art never imitates, and that tragedy was a true art. Moreover, Nietzsche's reasoning behind his claim that true art is never imitative is based on the idea that true art is by definition a union of the Apollonian and Dionysian essences. When we follow his thought to its logical conclusion, we see that his argument is entirely circular. Nietzsche's entire basis for the "delight" that the Greeks "must" have felt when they observed the death of the individual on the tragic stage is unstable, as it all hinges on his definition of the Dionysian in art.

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I don't agree with this review of Nietzsche

by john2054, July 26, 2015

This is a powerful and influential book. Dealing with philsophy, geneology and anthropology. Nietzsche does a good job at combing the macro philosophies of his time, with the micro interpretations of the detail of these stories and songs. None of which this reviewer picks up upon. So then this review gets a fail from me!


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John V. Karavitis has just listened to an audiobook of The Birth of Tragedy.

by JohnVKaravitis, May 15, 2016

I just finished listening to an audiobook of The Birth of Tragedy, and now I found my way to SparkNotes! I'm glad to have a chance to dig deeper into this famous philosophical work, and I wouldn't have been able to do this if it weren't for SparkNotes! Many thanks, and keep up the great work! John V. Karavitis