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Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)

The Birth of Tragedy

Themes, Arguments, and Ideas

The Birth of Tragedy, page 2

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Artistic creation depends on a tension between two opposing forces, which Nietzsche terms the “Apollonian” and the “Dionysian.” Apollo is the Greek god of light and reason, and Nietzsche identifies the Apollonian as a life- and form-giving force, characterized by measured restraint and detachment, which reinforces a strong sense of self. Dionysus is the Greek god of wine and music, and Nietzsche identifies the Dionysian as a frenzy of self-forgetting in which the self gives way to a primal unity where individuals are at one with others and with nature. Both the Apollonian and the Dionysian are necessary in the creation of art. Without the Apollonian, the Dionysian lacks the form and structure to make a coherent piece of art, and without the Dionysian, the Apollonian lacks the necessary vitality and passion. Although they are diametrically opposed, they are also intimately intertwined.

Nietzsche suggests that the people of ancient Greece were unusually sensitive and susceptible to suffering and that they refined the Apollonian aspect of their nature to ward off suffering. The primal unity of the Dionysian brings us into direct apprehension of the suffering that lies at the heart of all life. By contrast, the Apollonian is associated with images and dreams, and hence with appearances. Greek art is so beautiful precisely because the Greeks relied on the appearances generated by images and dreams to shield themselves from the reality of suffering. The early, Doric period of Greek art is dull and prim because the Apollonian influence too heavily outweighs the Dionysian.

The Greek tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles, which Nietzsche considers to be among humankind’s greatest accomplishments, achieve their sublime effects by taming Dionysian passions by means of the Apollonian. Greek tragedy evolved out of religious rituals featuring a chorus of singers and dancers, and it achieved its distinctive shape when two or more actors stood apart from the chorus as tragic actors. The chorus of a Greek tragedy is not the “ideal spectator,” as some scholars believe, but rather the representation of the primal unity achieved through the Dionysian. By witnessing the fall of a tragic hero, we witness the death of the individual, who is absorbed back into the Dionysian primal unity. Because the Apollonian impulses of the Greek tragedians give form to the Dionysian rituals of music and dance, the death of the hero is not a negative, destructive act but rather a positive, creative affirmation of life through art.

Unfortunately, the golden age of Greek tragedy lasted less than a century and was brought to an end by the combined influence of Euripides and Socrates. Euripides shuns both the primal unity induced by the Dionysian and the dreamlike state induced by the Apollonian, and instead he turns the Greek stage into a platform for morality and rationality. Rather than present tragic heroes, Euripides gives his characters all the foibles of ordinary human beings. In all these respects, Nietzsche sees Socrates’ influence on Euripides. Socrates effectively invented Western rationality, insisting that there must be reasons to justify everything. He interpreted instinct as a lack of insight and wrongdoing as a lack of knowledge. By making the world seem knowable and all truths justifiable, Socrates gave birth to the scientific worldview. Under Socrates’ influence, Greek tragedy was converted into rational conversation, which finds its fullest expression in Plato’s dialogues.

The modern world has inherited Socrates’ rationalistic stance at the expense of losing the artistic impulses related to the Apollonian and the Dionysian. We now see knowledge as worth pursuing for its own sake and believe that all truths can be discovered and explained with enough insight. In essence, the modern, Socratic, rational, scientific worldview treats the world as something under the command of reason rather than something greater than what our rational powers can comprehend. We inhabit a world dominated by words and logic, which can only see the surfaces of things, while shunning the tragic world of music and drama, which cuts to the heart of things. Nietzsche distinguishes three kinds of culture: the Alexandrian, or Socratic; the Hellenic, or artistic; and the Buddhist, or tragic. We belong to an Alexandrian culture that’s bound for self-destruction.

The only way to rescue modern culture from self-destruction is to resuscitate the spirit of tragedy. Nietzsche sees hope in the figure of Richard Wagner, who is the first modern composer to create music that expresses the deepest urges of the human will, unlike most contemporary opera, which reflects the smallness of the modern mind. Wagner’s music was anticipated by Arthur Schopenhauer, who saw music as a universal language that makes sense of experience at a more primary level than concepts, and Immanuel Kant, whose philosophy exposes the limitations of Socratic reasoning. Not coincidentally, Wagner, Schopenhauer, and Kant are all German, and Nietzsche looks to German culture to create a new golden age.

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