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The Birth of Tragedy

Friedrich Nietzsche


Philosophical Themes

Aritstic Tention between Apollo and Dionysus

The opposition between Apollo and Dionysus is both the backbone of Nietzsche's argument and its greatest flaw. While at first it seems that Nietzsche uses the traits associated with these gods as a metaphor for his aesthetic program, it soon becomes clear that he intends to first pin his artistic analysis on the Greeks, and then to argue that this analysis is ancient and thus carries authority. Nietzsche gives no evidence for his claim that Apollo and Dionysus were on either side of the artistic spectrum, nor does he ever discuss the main artistic models for the Greeks: the Muses. While Apollo was associated with the lyre and tonal music, and Dionysus was the patron god of Attic tragedy, the deities first and foremost on any poet's mind were the Muses. Ev ery poet invoked them, either as a group or individually. The Greeks thought of creativity as being a kind of diving substance; the word inspire comes from the Latin "to breathe in," as they thought that when someone had a great idea, they had literally b reathed in the spirit of the god, who then spoke through them. So, in order to create anything, one had to invoke the Muses, who would breathe song into the poet's lips. Wishing to keep his argument simple, Nietzsche makes no mention of this.

Thus, from the outset, we must understand that Nietzsche is bending the Greek consciousness to his aesthetic program. While much of what he says about Apollo and Dionysus is consistent with ancient beliefs, the strong opposition between the god of light a nd the god of ecstasy is mostly Nietzsche's invention. To put this in less harsh terms, we may say that Nietzsche simplified the Greek system to suit his philosophical aims.

Furthermore, we should note that for Nietzsche, a typical late 19th century German, the Greeks were the aesthetic model. In his first sentence, Nietzsche writes that the "continuous development of art is bound up with the Apollonian and Dionysian d uality." He presents this not as a theory, but "with the immediate certainty of intuition." Nietzsche sees it as part of his aesthetic task to clear away the cluttered thinking of the past 2500 years and forges a direct link between Germans and Greeks, wh o he sees as superior to all intervening cultures.


Music is a key concept for Nietzsche, as is in its highest degree a universal language. This universality allows it to connect to the Dionysian essence. Music surpasses all other arts with its power to access the will directly, without attempting to copy the phenomena of the will. This is equivalent to saying that music does not need secondary sources, and thus can go strait to the original. Nietzsche suggests that music is not the medium through which the essence of Dionysus flows, but rather that it is the embodiment of Dionysus. It is only through the spirit of music in tragedy that we can experience joy in the annihilation of the individual, for music carries us beyond individual concerns. The tragic hero, whose annihilation we witness, is a phenomeno n of the world-will. His death signifies only the death of the phenomenon, not of the will itself. Man may not comprehend this truth logically, but he can feel it in the music.

Having established that music is the soul of the tragic myth, Nietzsche then demonstrates how modern German music has the potential to affect a rebirth of tragedy. Music is a central theme in this work, as it is one of the few constants that is able to co nnect Greek and German cultures. Nietzsche sees music as the key to the soul of a people. Because the German character is still connected to the vital primitive power that precedes civilized life, German music is of necessity a new incarnation of the Dion ysian in art.


In his discussion of the sufferings of the Greeks, Nietzsche shows that he understands them from his own pessimistic standpoint. The Greeks had a problem, he argues, and tragedy fixes it. That problem was that the Greeks were a particularly sensitive peop le, and so they had difficulty reconciling themselves with the suffering of the world. While all cultures experience this dilemma of suffering, the Greeks were more seriously affected and so more urgently strove to solve the problem of their suffering. Th eir first solution was the creation of the Olympian gods, but they were mere Apollonian appearances and did not satisfy the soul. Under the influence of Apollo, man was still aware that his destiny was controlled by dark forces, despite the beautiful thin gs with which he surrounded himself.

Nietzsche tells the story of King Midas, who finally caught the satyr Silenus and asked him what was the best of all things for man. His answer was, as Nietzsche puts it, "Oh, wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do ye compel me to tell you what it were most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is beyond your reach forever: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you—is quickly to die." The ancient world was a rough place; war was a constant reality, disease was rampant and often incurable, and outside of a city's walls no law was assured. In the face of this, and in addition to the awareness that there is some mysterious force driving one's fate in strange directions, the Greeks would have perished, had they not created first the Olympian gods; but this still was not enough.

Dionysus offered real salvation from suffering, not by covering it up with pretty images, but by absorbing the individual into the great community of the unconscious. In the 'bosom' of Primal Unity, as Nietzsche calls it, man found deliverance from his in dividual fate, joined as he was to the souls of so many others. Existential suffering is a product of the individual who thinks he suffers alone, and can see no meaning in existence. Dionysus removes the veil from men's eyes, showing them the grand, dark chaos that sits in their hearts, and in the hearts of all men. Dionysus urges man to rejoice in this chaos, to lose himself, and thus to grow beyond his suffering.

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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!


3 out of 6 people found this helpful

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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