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The Birth of Tragedy

Friedrich Nietzsche

Chapters 13–15

Chapters 11 & 12

Chapter 16

Summary

Aristophanes, the Greek comic playwright, mocked both Socrates and Euripides. Modern men, unwilling to accept his scathing portrayal of Socrates, have demonized Aristophanes instead. Socrates and Euripides were also grouped together at the Delphic oracle, as they were listed as the wisest of men. At the heart of Socrates's wisdom was his conviction that he 'knew nothing.' All around him, however, he found men who lived by instinct alone, which to Socrates constituted not insight, but illusion. Socrates then saw it as his duty to correct this existence, and irreverently went about destroying centuries of Greek culture.

One key to the character of Socrates is the phenomenon, which he calls his 'daemon,' or divine voice. When his intellect failed him, he would listen for this voice, which would invariably dissuade him from some action. Thus, the instinctive wisdom of Socrates acted only to hinder, never to create. He made it a point only to create through consciousness, never through instinct. This excess of the logical nature renders him a 'non-mystic,' i.e. the complete opposite of the man who is ruled by instinct alone. Athens could not put up with such a troubling force, and would have condemned him to exile, but Socrates seems to have arranged for his own death sentence. 'The dying Socrates' then became the new ideal of noble Greek youths.

When Socrates beheld tragedy, he saw only a thing devoid of sense and repugnant to the thoughtful mind. Tragedy was unsuitable for the philosopher both because it did not 'tell the truth,' and because it was addressed to the common man, who has 'no great understanding.' Socrates considered tragedy to be "one of the seductive arts which portray only the agreeable, not the useful," and demanded that his students abstain from its patronage. Plato tried to obey, burning all his poems, but yet was forced by circumstance to then create a new art form that was closely related to the old disgraced forms. This art form, the platonic dialogue, was the prototype of the novel.

In the platonic dialogues, Socrates was the virtuous hero. His precepts were: "Virtue is knowledge; man sins only from ignorance; he who is virtuous is happy." In this new art form, the chorus was accidental and easily cast aside. Furthermore, optimistic dialectic (the theme of the new art) drove music out of tragedy "with the scourge of its syllogisms." Socrates was not, however, the sole enemy of art. There were other forces at work that preceded him. At the end of his life, Socrates even took up the practice of music, compelled by a dream-vision.

For the most part, however, Socrates championed the ideal of the 'theoretical man', who delights in unveiling the truth wherever possible. Whereas, centuries later, Lessing said that Socrates cared "more for the search after truth than for truth itself," Socrates maintained implacable faith in the power of knowledge. He was under the illusion that, "with the clue of logic, thinking can reach to the nethermost depths of being, and…thinking can not only perceive being but even modify it." The one purpose of this activity was to make existence seem intelligible, and therefore justified.

With his push for ever-greater understanding, Socrates incited a frenzy of knowledge seeking that stretched across the world. This movement put science on the pedestal on which it still stands. Socrates had such an enormous effect on Greek culture and all that followed that we should see him as the turning point of universal history. However, there comes a point where science can no longer explain the world and logic bites its own tail. This leads to a new form of perception, that is the 'tragic perception,' which, in order to be endured, requires art to soothe its inflamed consciousness.

Analysis

After establishing the close link that existed between Euripides and Socrates, Nietzsche argues that Socrates's quest for truth drove him to destroy Greek art. Nietzsche explains how Socrates mistook man's dependence on 'instinct' for a lack of insight: "Wherever Soctratism turns its searching eyes it sees lack of insight, it sees the force of illusion." Socrates saw it as his duty to tear away the veil of illusion from the world around him, but in the process he destroyed the only real path to truth, which Nietzsche argues is Dionysian-influenced art.

In order to explain Socrates's bizarre actions, Nietzsche writes that he employs 'instinct' and 'consciousness' in an opposite manner to that of normal men. "Whereas in all productive men it is instinct that is the creatively affirmative force, and consciousness that acts critically and dissuasively; with Socrates it is instinct that becomes critic, and consciousness that becomes creator—a perfect monstrosity…!" Socrates's excess of logic is abhorrent to Nietzsche. It was this rigid rationalistic mindset that would have caused him to see in tragedy not redemption, but "a thing devoid of sense," and thus devoid of value.

Nietzsche recounts with some glee that, despite Plato's best efforts to follow the precepts of Socrates, he was responsible for the birth of a new art that was closely related to the despised Dionysian art forms. This new form was the platonic dialogue, the prototype of the novel. Nietzsche relates it to tragedy thus, "If tragedy had absorbed into itself all the earlier varieties of art the same might also be said in an unusual sense of the platonic dialogue, which, a mixture of all the then existent forms and styles, hovers midway between prose and poetry, and so has also broken loose from the older strict law of unity of linguistic form." The platonic dialogue, developed in tribute to Socrates, violates his precepts of logically consistent form.

Nietzsche demonstrates how the new dialectical hero of the platonic dialogue can never be a true tragic hero. For, if ignorance is the only obstacle to happiness, then the dialectical hero's suffering is entirely his own fault. We cannot pity the man who should have 'known' better. Nietzsche summarizes the Socratic maxims: "virtue is knowledge; man sins only from ignorance; he who is virtuous is happy." This is the exact opposite message from that of Sophocles, whose Oedipus comes to ruin precisely because of his search for truth. If he had not heeded the gods' command and searched for the murderer of king Laius, he would never have discovered his crime of incest and been forced into exile.

Not only does the optimistic dialectic negate the possibility of the tragic hero, but it also kills the music of tragedy with its syllogisms. Any enemy of Dionysus is an enemy of music, and vice versa. But, there is hope for Socrates yet. Nietzsche relates that in his last days, the philosopher took up the study of music again. Nietzsche then supposes that because of his interest in music, Socrates would have been forced to reconsider his absolutist stance ignorance. Nietzsche takes a good deal of artistic license here and puts these three questions into the mouth of Socrates in his last days: "Perhaps what is not intelligible to me is not therefore unintelligible? Perhaps there is a realm of wisdom from which the logician is shut out? Perhaps art is even a necessary correlative of, and supplement to, science?" Thus Nietzsche makes the grand gesture of accepting Socrates back into the fold, or rather, in transplanting him there after the fact.

Despite this final redemption, the legacy of Socrates is the triumph of the 'theoretical man.' Nietzsche elucidates the 'illusion' that was born with Socrates: "This illusion consists in the imperturbable belief, that, with the clue of logic, thinking can reach into the nethermost depths of being, and that thinking can not only perceive being but even modify it." But, Nietzsche has reserved this power for art alone, and we understand why he has taken up the sword against Socratic thought. For, if thought can penetrate into the depths of man, then there is no room left for the mysteries of Dionysian revelation. Nietzsche does his best to prove Socrates wrong, and to forge a link between his own time and that of pre-Socratic Greece.

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