We have no direct understanding of myth anymore, but we always mediate the power of myth through various rationalistic concepts, such as morality, justice, and history. So far, the tremendous influence of Greek culture has done very little to shift our own culture’s opposition to art because we tend to interpret the Greeks according to our own standards and read tragedies as expressions of moral, rational forces rather than expressions of the mythic forces of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Myth gives us a sense of wonder and a fullness of life that our present culture lacks. Nietzsche urges a return to our deeper selves, which are entwined in myth, music, and tragedy.
Nietzsche’s concept of the Dionysian, which he refines and alters over the course of his career, stands as a pointed counterbalance to the thoroughgoing rationality that is so prominent in most philosophy. In most scholarly investigations, the importance of truth and knowledge are taken as givens, and thinkers trouble themselves only over questions of how best to achieve truth and knowledge. By contrast, Nietzsche questions where this drive for truth and knowledge come from and answers that they are products of a particular, Socratic view of the world. Deeper than this impulse for truth is the Dionysian impulse to give free rein to the passions and to lose oneself in ecstatic frenzy. We cannot properly appreciate or criticize the Dionysian from within a tradition of rationality because the Dionysian stands outside rationality. As much as the civilized world may wish to deny it, the Dionysian is the source of our myths, our passions, and our instincts, none of which are bounded by reason. While the civilizing force of the Apollonian is an essential counterbalance—contrary to some stereotypes of Nietzsche, he is firmly against the complete abandonment of reason and civilization—Nietzsche warns that we lose the deepest and richest aspects of our nature if we reject the Dionysian forces within us.
For Nietzsche, art is not just a form of human activity but is rather the highest expression of the human spirit. The thrust of the book is well expressed in what is perhaps its most famous line, near the end of section 5: “it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.” One of Nietzsche’s concerns in The Birth of Tragedy is to address the question of the best stance to take toward existence and the world. He criticizes his own age (though his words apply equally to the present day) for being overly rationalistic, for assuming that it is best to treat existence and the world primarily as objects of knowledge. For Nietzsche, this stance makes life meaningless because knowledge and rationality in themselves do nothing to justify existence and the world. Life finds meaning, according to Nietzsche, only through art. Art, music, and tragedy in particular bring us to a deeper level of experience than philosophy and rationality. Existence and the world become meaningful not as objects of knowledge but as artistic experiences. According to Nietzsche, art does not find a role in the larger context of life, but rather life takes on meaning and significance only as it is expressed in art.
By attacking Socrates, Nietzsche effectively attacks the entire tradition of Western philosophy. While a significant group of Greek philosophers predate Socrates, philosophy generally identifies its start as a distinctive discipline in Socrates’ method of doubt, dialogue, and rational inquiry. While Nietzsche acknowledges that Socrates gave birth to a new and distinctive tradition, he is more interested in the tradition that Socrates managed to replace. Greek tragedy as Nietzsche understands it cannot coexist in a world of Socratic rationality. Tragedy gains its strength from exposing the depths that lie beneath our rational surface, whereas Socrates insists that we become fully human only by becoming fully rational. From Socrates onward, philosophy has been the pursuit of wisdom by rational methods. In suggesting that rational methods cannot reach to the depths of human experience, Nietzsche suggests that philosophy is a shallow pursuit. True wisdom is not the kind that can be processed by the thinking mind, according to Nietzsche. We find true wisdom in the Dionysian dissolution of the self that we find in tragedy, myth, and music.
Nietzsche wrote The Birth of Tragedy at a time when he was most heavily under Wagner’s influence. Nietzsche had met Wagner as a young man and was deeply honored when Wagner chose to befriend him. Wagner impressed his own views on life and art on Nietzsche, and The Birth of Tragedy is, in many ways, a philosophical justification for the work Wagner was carrying out in his operas. Over the course of the 1870s, however, Nietzsche became increasingly disillusioned with Wagner, and his mature works, starting with Human, All-Too-Human, show Nietzsche finding his own distinctive voice, free from Wagner’s influence. In particular, Nietzsche became disgusted with Wagner’s shallow pro-German nationalism and his anti-Semitism. In contrast to Nietzsche’s later biting attacks on nationalism, The Birth of Tragedy bears Wagner’s influence in its pride in German culture and its hope that a purified German culture can rescue European civilization from the deadening influence of Socratic rationalism.