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The Birth of Tragedy


Chapters 2 & 3

Summary Chapters 2 & 3

The Greeks had such a talent for suffering and for the wisdom of suffering, that out of necessity they created the Apollonian illusion to save themselves from despair, and to keep themselves striving for glory.


Having broken down the Greek artistic mentality into Apollonian and Dionysian impulses, Nietzsche now attempts to trace the origins of these impulses. This presents a puzzling contradiction in terms, for if every artist is an imitator of these two art-states of nature, regardless of their identity or culture, then how can these art-states be dependent on two deities that were created by Greek culture at a specific point in history? Nietzsche vacillates between seeing Apollo and Dionysus as metaphors for a way of thinking, and seeing them as the necessary enactors of this way of thinking. However, this contradiction does not give Nietzsche much trouble, as he is more concerned with the Greeks and their development of art, not with people who came before or after.

Nietzsche makes a vague attempt to pin down the origin of the Apollonian archetype of the dreaming Greek, but since it is impossible to say what Greek dreams looked like, he moves quickly on to discuss the archetype of the Dionysian Greek. It is interesting to note that he abandons the term drunkenness here and speaks only of the "Dionysian." For, were he to speak purely of drunkenness, he would be forced to acknowledge that Greeks were drinking long before Dionysus arrived. Rather, Nietzsche places the emphasis on the transformation of Dionysus once he hit Greece and ran into Apollo, and art was born.

The advent of Dionysus in Greece was a celebrated and much documented event in Greek myth, and Nietzsche seizes on this moment as the seminal one for art. For, while Apollo was indigenous to Greece, thus making his origins in the Greek consciousness difficult to trace, Dionysus arrived from Asia sometime during the archaic period, bringing with him his revelries, music, and ecstatic dancing. The event is immortalized in Euripides' ##Bacchae,## which Nietzsche discusses later in the text.

Nietzsche places a great deal of emphasis on the differences between Dionysian Greeks and Dionysian barbarians, arguing that the Dionysian impulse only became artistic, and thus productive and beautiful, once it hit Greece and encountered the Apollonian. Before that, it was mere destructive orgiastic energy with no value whatsoever. Nietzsche has little qualms in discounting "barbaric" culture, that is, all peoples non-Greek, in one foul swoop. Nietzsche seems to shudder as he writes, "In nearly every case these festivals centered in extravagant sexual licentiousness, whose waves overwhelmed all family life and its venerable traditions; the most savage natural instincts were unleashed, including even that horrible mixture of sensuality and cruelty which has always seemed to me to be the genuine 'witches' brew."

Nietzsche carefully sets the stage for the meeting of Apollo and Dionysus, explaining how, before Dionysus came to Greece, his influence on culture was entirely destructive. Apollo, the god of civilization, had a good influence on Dionysus, transforming his destruction into redemption. Nietzsche writes, "But if we observe how, under the pressure of this treaty of peace, the Dionysian power revealed itself, we shall now recognize in the Dionysian orgies of the Greeks, as compared with the Babylonian Sacaea with their reversion of man to the tiger and the ape, the significance of festivals of world-redemption and days of transfiguration." The meeting of these two deities provides the spark for the "artistic jubilee" that is to follow.