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The Birth of Tragedy


Chapters 9 & 10

Summary Chapters 9 & 10

Nietzsche then presents a causal explanation for Oedipus's fate. The fact that he is able to solve the riddle of the Sphinx indicates that he must have unnatural wisdom, which indicates an unnatural fate ahead of him. Nietzsche's reasoning is intriguing, although perhaps circular; "…wherever by some prophetic and magical power the boundary of the present and future, the inflexible law of individuation and, in general, the intrinsic spell of nature, are broken, an extraordinary counter-naturalness—in this case, incest—must have preceded as a cause; for how else could one force nature to surrender her secrets but by victoriously opposing her by means of the Unnatural?" This reasoning leads Nietzsche to the idea that Dionysian wisdom is a dangerous gift.

Nietzsche's discussion of the transgression of Prometheus against natural boundaries between men and gods leads him to one of the key distinctions separating Apollo from Dionysus. As the god of civilization, Apollo comforts man by drawing boundaries around him, helping to define himself as an individual. While these boundaries allow man to come to know himself, they are also limiting. Dionysus, on the other hand, is the relentless destroyer of boundaries (thus his association with madness). By bringing fire to man, Prometheus encourages him to break out of his bonds and fly as high as he can. Nietzsche writes, "this Titanic impulse, to become as it were the Atlas of all individuals, stand on broad shoulders to bear them higher and higher, farther and farther, is what the Promethean and the Dionysian have in common." Having made a very strong case for the Dionysian aspects of the myth of Prometheus, Nietzsche then introduces a rather weak Apollonian counterbalancing effect, arguing that Aeschylus yearns for 'justice,' an Apollonian trait. Nietzsche fails, however, to clarify what he means by this 'yearning for justice.'

After establishing the Dionysian aspects of two famous tragic heroes, Nietzsche then reveals to us that all tragic heroes are merely masks of Dionysus. Furthermore, it is only through the influence of Dionysus and Dionysian music that these myths are saved from certain death. Nietzsche does this in order to lay the ground for one of the main points of his essay, which is the death of tragedy at the hands of Euripides, who will be the first to counter-pose Dionysus against the tragic hero. This underlying motive will become clearer in the following sections.