The Birth of Tragedy is divided into twenty-five chapters and a forward. The first fifteen chapters deal with the nature of Greek Tragedy, which Nietzsche claims was born when the Apollonian worldview met the Dionysian. The last ten chapters use the Greek model to understand the state of modern culture, both its decline and its possible rebirth. The tone of the text is inspirational. Nietzsche often addresses the reader directly, saying at the end of chapter twenty, "Dare now to be tragic men, for ye shall be redeemed!" These kinds of exclamations make it more difficult to take his text seriously. However, if we look beyond the flowery words, we find some very interesting ideas. At the same time we confront Nietzsche's enormous bias, particularly when deciding when something is or is not "art." Nietzsche forms a very strict definition of art that excludes such things as subjective self-expression and the opera. Despite his criticisms of human culture, however, Nietzsche has great faith in the human soul and urges us to drop our Socratic pretenses and accept the culture of Dionysus again.
Nietzsche describes the state of Greek art before the influence of Dionysus as being naive, and concerned only with appearances. In this art conception, the observer was never truly united with art, as he remained always in quiet contemplation with it, never immersing himself. The appearances of Apollo were designed to shield man from the innate suffering of the world, and thus provide some relief and comfort.
Then came Dionysus, whose ecstatic revels first shocked the Apollonian man of Greek culture. In the end, however, it was only through one's immersion in the Dionysian essence of Primordial Unity that redemption from the suffering of the world could be achieved. In Dionysus, man found that his existence was not limited to his individual experiences alone, and thus a way was found to escape the fate of all men, which is death. As the Dionysian essence is eternal, one who connects with this essence finds a new source of life and hope. Nietzsche thus shows Dionysus to be an uplifting alternative to the salvation offered by Christianity, which demands that man renounce life on earth altogether and focus only on heaven. For, in order to achieve salvation through Dionysus, one must immerse oneself in life now.
However, while man can only find salvation in Dionysus, he requires Apollo to reveal the essence of Dionysus through his appearances. The chorus and actors of tragedy were representations, through which the essence of Dionysus was given voice to speak. Through them, man was able to experience the joys of redemption from worldly suffering. These Apollonian appearances also stood as a bulwark against the chaos of Dionysus, so that the viewer would be completely lost in Dionysian ecstasy. Nietzsche emphasizes that in real tragic art, the elements of Dionysus and Apollo were inextricably entwined. As words could never hope to delve into the depths of the Dionysian essence, music was the life of the tragic art form.
Music exists in the realm beyond language, and so allows us to rise beyond consciousness and experience our connection to the Primordial Unity. Music is superior to all other arts in that it does not represent a phenomenon, but rather the "world will" itself.
Nietzsche sees Euripides as the murderer of art, he who introduced the Socratic obsession with knowledge and ultimate trust in human thought into the theater. By focusing entirely on the individual, Euripides eliminated the musical element that is crucial to the Dionysian experience. Euripides threw Dionysus out of tragedy, and in doing so he destroyed the delicate balance between Dionysus and Apollo that is fundamental to art. In the second half of his essay, Nietzsche explores the modern ramifications of this shift in Greek thought. He argues that we are still living in the Alexandrian age of culture, which is now on its last legs. Science cannot explain the mysteries of the universe, he writes, and thanks to the work of Kant and Schopenhauer, we must now recognize this fact. The time is ripe for a rebirth of tragedy that will sweep away the dusty remains of Socratic culture. Nietzsche sees German music, Wagner in particular, as the beginning of this transformation. While German culture is decrepit, the German character is going strong, for it has an inkling of the primordial vitality flowing in its veins. Nietzsche has great hope for the coming age and has written this book to prepare us for it.