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The Birth of Tragedy

Friedrich Nietzsche


Glossary of Important Terms

Appearance  -  Nietzsche's term for the nature of Apollonian phenomena. Everything that we see around us is appearance, as it is only a veil behind which lies true reality. Likewise, the images in dreams represent the appearance of appearance. Nietzsche contrasts the co ncept of Apollonian appearance, or illusion, to the Dionysian suffering, or reality. Appearance is necessary in order to shield us from the full truth of human suffering which otherwise would crush us with its magnitude.
Chorus  -  The core of Greek Tragedy, originally called the satyr (half man, half goat) chorus. The chorus was made up of a number of men who watched and commented on the action of the tragedy. Their speech was often far more poetic and difficult to understand than that of the actors. Nietzsche argues that the chorus embodies the soul of music that is the life-blood of tragedy. Without it, tragedy would be nothing.
Euripides  -  The fifth century Athenian playwright and friend of Socrates who Nietzsche blames for the death of tragedy. Euripides was the third of the great Athenian tragedians, following Aeschylus and Sophocles, and is traditionally considered the most modern. His c haracters are far closer to those found in modern plays than those of Aeschylus, who is still very close to the ritual/religious form of tragedy. Euripides's Bacchae puts Dionysus up on stage in a deadly battle with Pentheus, the ultimate rationali stic king. Needless to say, Dionysus wins. Nietzsche jumps on this and says that Euripides wants to turn his audiences away from Dionysus. However, one could also interpret this to mean that Dionysus should be respected and feared wherever he appears.
Greek Cheerfulness  -  The unflaggingly chipper optimism of the Greeks. Originally, this cheerfulness was not the superficial result of a shallow mind, but rather the Apollonian reaction in the face of Dionysian suffering. The cheerfulness is a mask, a protective measure agains t the dark and powerful forces of Dionysus. Nietzsche insists that these particular cheerful Greeks were in fact very serious about art, whereas the post-Socratic cheerful Greeks were an entirely different breed. The cheerful characters that we find in Eu ripides are shallow, and the cheerful optimism of post-Socratic culture was a disaster for both Greek myth and tragedy.
Ideal Spectator  -  Schlegel's term for the role of the chorus in Greek tragedy. Nietzsche disagrees with this idea on the grounds that the chorus could never have been drawn from the crowd of general spectators and so elevated to 'ideal' status. Furthermore, a true spectato r must be aware that he is viewing a work of art, whereas the Greek chorus acted from within the world of the tragedy, as if they were viewing real events. Nietzsche then modifies his criticism and admits that the chorus is the ideal-spectator in the sens e that it is the only 'beholder' of the visionary world of the play.
Naive artist  -  Term for the artist who is completely absorbed in the beauty of appearance. This state of being is a complete victory of the Apollonian illusion. Homer is the greatest naive artist, for his forms are the most beautiful. Nietzsche clearly views this form o f artist as inferior to the tragic artist, but also superior to the operatic artist. The naive artist is pure one hundred percent Apollonian, which, although unbalanced, is far better than being emotive and degenerate.
Principium Individuationis  -  Principle of individuation. Apollo champions the unshaken faith in this principle of the individual. Nietzsche contrasts this with the Dionysian immersion in the world will, in order to show how opposite those two art-deities really are. Implicit in the c oncept of the principium individuationis are the boundaries that separate men from the world and from each other. These boundaries are necessary in order to ensure the healthy functioning of society. When these boundaries begin to break down, we can be su re that Dionysus is near.
Primal Unity  -  The universal bosom to which we can all return through the influence of Dionysus. When filled with ecstatic joy brought on by Dionysus, men forget the differences between themselves and act as a community. Furthermore, they gain access to the undercurrent of universal will that flows beneath all appearances. It is in this space that they may return to the primordial unity and be suffused with a glow of cosmic oneness. It's like going to Woodstock. This may sound like a flippant comparison, but it is not s o far off the mark. Large concerts, raves, and festivals are very much in the Dionysian spirit of common revelry. It is in these venues that one can lose oneself in the common experience and transcend individual suffering for at least a short time.
Theoretical Man  -  The new man that emerged from the Socratic lust for knowledge. The theoretical man loves to remove the veils from the world, ripping them off with his logic and unflagging faith in the power of the human mind to discover truth. This man suffers under the profound Socratic illusion that thinking can reach to the depths of being and modify it. He strives to make existence seem intelligible, and thus justified. For him, knowledge is virtue. No part of the universe can hold its secrets in the face of his scru tiny, and there is nothing that is fundamentally beyond his logical understanding. This entire concept is an anathema to Nietzsche, as it squashes intuition and denies the existence of miracles and mysteries beyond individual man's reach.

Glossary of Greek Names and Terms

Aeschylus  -  First major Attic tragedian. 525–456 BCE. He is particularly famous for his Oresteia trilogy, which comprises the Agamemnon, the Libation Bearers, and the Eumenides.
Antigone  -  One of the two daughters of Oedipus, she was the subject of Sophocles's tragedy called Antigone.
Archilochus  -  Greek iambic and elegiac poet active in the seventh century BCE. Although he makes his personal affairs the subject of his work, it is disputed as to whether his poems were intended as emotional self-expression in the modern sense.
Atlas  -  The Titan brother of Prometheus who had to hold up the sky on his shoulders.
Cadmus  -  Legendary founder of Thebes. He is a character in ##The Bacchae## of Euripides.
Cassandra  -  Mythical Trojan princess to whom Apollo gave prophetic powers in return for sexual favors. When she then changed her mind, he cursed her so that she was always disbelieved.
Cynics  -  Those who followed the school of Cynicism, which advocated an extremely primitive interpretation of the principle 'live according to nature.'
Delphi  -  One of the four great pan-Hellenic sanctuaries. It was a famous shrine to Apollo that produced oracles.
Demeter  -  Greek goddess of the harvest.
Dithyrambic Chorus  -  Chorus that sings in honor of Dionysus. The Dithyramb was a musical form developed specifically for this.
Eleusis  -  The most famous deme of Athens. There was a theater of Dionysus and the sanctuary of Demeter and Kore. Every year, initiates from across the Greek world came to celebrate the mysteries, about which we know almost nothing.
Heracles  -  Legendary semi-diving hero of Greek myth. He was known for his phenomenal strength.
Heraclitus of Ephesus  -  Compiled a book of aphorisms c.500 BCE. One central tenant of his is strife. He says that nature is like a taut bow, with tensions in both directions.
Lamiae  -  Monstrous mythical women who stole and killed the children of other women.
Oceanides  -  Minor ocean deities
Omphale  -  Queen of Lydia, to whom Heracles was sold as a slave for a year as punishment for the killing of Iphitus.
Orpheus  -  The most famous singer of myth, son of Apollo and a Muse. His song had incredible powers to enchant his listeners.
Philemon  -  Very successful New Comedy poet from the fourth century BCE.
Pindar  -  Lyric poet, born in the sixth century BCE. He was extremely successful and is one of the defining poets of Lyric verse.
Plato  -  Plato (429–347 BCE) was Socrates's most famous student, and immortalized Socrates's ideas in the Platonic Dialogues. He was insistent in his demands for morality in the life of the individual.
Satyric Chorus  -  Satyrs were mythical half-human, half-goat figures who inhabited the wild. They were known for their love of wine and sex. In fifth century drama, a group of young satyrs, with Silenus as their head, would have made up the chorus.
Sophocles  -  Fifth century BCE Athenian tragic playwright. He is most famous for his Oedipus cycle, around which Freud based much of his analysis. He is the second of the 'big three' tragedians (coming between Aeschylus and Euripides.)
Tartarus  -  The deepest realm of the underworld, where evil men are punished.
Thyrsus  -  A wooden staff with an acorn affixed to the top carried by the followers of Dionysus who were called Bacchants.
Tireseus  -  The famous old prophet of Thebes. He and Cadmus are old men in Euripides's Bacchae, and serve in as commentators.
Titans  -  The generation of gods that preceded the Olympic gods. The Titans are incredibly strong beings who were only defeated after a bloody battle. They are said to have torn apart Dionysus, but then he was put back together again.
Zagreus  -  The name for Dionysus in his incarnation as the god being torn apart by the Titans.

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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

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