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The Birth of Tragedy


Chapter 16

Summary Chapter 16


At this point in his essay, Nietzsche makes a transition from discussing the nature of Greek tragedy to discussing the modern ramifications of his ideas. In order to substantiate his transition from the Greek world to his contemporary Germany, Nietzsche must prove to us that music is the key to accessing the Dionysian universal soul. For music is a concrete element that Greek and German society have in common. If music is all that is required for tragedy to be reborn, then Germany has the chance to instigate this rebirth. Nietzsche's purpose for writing his essay is becoming clearer; he urges his readers to reestablish the link with Dionysus that has lain dormant for over two thousand years, and thus contribute to the redemption of German culture. The main obstacle to the Dionysian ethos is "optimistic science," the descendent of Socratic thought, which has convinced us that it alone can explain the nature of the world. But music has the power to show us a world beyond the scientific, opening the path to the soul of the universe itself. One gets the sense here that Nietzsche was listening to a great deal of opera as he composed this book, as his explanations definitely tend toward the dramatic.

Nietzsche uses a large excerpt from Schopenhauer to support his claim that music is the only art able to supercede the superficial layer of "phenomenon," and access the "will" itself. It is the Dionysian aspect of music that gives it this power. Nietzsche contends that all those classicists before him who viewed music as a mere beautiful form were mistaken. Schopenhauer's statement that music is a universal language jives nicely with Nietzsche's portrayal of music as the essence of the Dionysian, which brings us back to the primal unity. Nietzsche must prove this point in order to separate music from "phenomenon," which he has described as the realm of the Apollonian.

In the expert opinion that Nietzsche takes from Schopenhauer, the opposition between music and concept is clarified by their relationship to 'universalia.' Concepts are the 'universalia post rem,' that is, the universal after the fact. By this he means that concepts are used to qualify reality after it takes place, and thus are separated by reality by thinking that is required to understand it. Music, on the other hand, gives the 'universalia ante rem', the universal before the fact. Music is able to access the force of will that produces the images of reality. Music taps into the well of Dionysian knowledge and thus is not limited by conscious thought.

Nietzsche argues that those who consider music to be a mere pretty form are totally shut off from a true understanding of tragedy. If one does not understand that music is Dionysian at heart, then one is unable to grasp the redemption that it brings. Nietzsche is clearly striving here to separate himself from contemporary aesthetic thinkers, by constantly insisting that he alone has succeeded in perceiving the true nature and value of art. He raises the stakes of aesthetic discussion, suggesting that those who do not understand art cannot comprehend the nature of life and truth itself. The key aspect of tragedy that those who do not understand music will miss is "the joy involved in the annihilation of the individual." Nietzsche does not mourn at the death of the hero, for he knows that the hero is but an appearance, a manifestation of the eternal will that cannot die with him. If man will only recognize Dionysus for what he is, man will see that he can access a well of immortality that will preserve man through all suffering. As in earlier passages, the Christian connotations here are clear.