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The opposition between Apollo and Dionysus is both the backbone of Nietzsche's argument and its greatest flaw. While at first it seems that Nietzsche uses the traits associated with these gods as a metaphor for his aesthetic program, it soon becomes clear that he intends to first pin his artistic analysis on the Greeks, and then to argue that this analysis is ancient and thus carries authority. Nietzsche gives no evidence for his claim that Apollo and Dionysus were on either side of the artistic spectrum, nor does he ever discuss the main artistic models for the Greeks: the Muses.
While Apollo was associated with the lyre and tonal music, and Dionysus was the patron god of Attic tragedy, the deities first and foremost on any poet's mind were the Muses. Every poet invoked them, either as a group or individually. The Greeks thought of creativity as being a kind of diving substance; the word inspire comes from the Latin "to breathe in," as they thought that when someone had a great idea, they had literally breathed in the spirit of the god, who then spoke through them. So, in order to create anything, one had to invoke the Muses, who would breathe song into the poet's lips. Wishing to keep his argument simple, Nietzsche makes no mention of this.
Thus, from the outset, we must understand that Nietzsche is bending the Greek consciousness to his aesthetic program. While much of what he says about Apollo and Dionysus is consistent with ancient beliefs, the strong opposition between the god of light and the god of ecstasy is mostly Nietzsche's invention. To put this in less harsh terms, we may say that Nietzsche simplified the Greek system to suit his philosophical aims.
Furthermore, we should note that for Nietzsche, a typical late 19th century German, the Greeks were the aesthetic model. In his first sentence, Nietzsche writes that the "continuous development of art is bound up with the Apollonian and Dionysian duality." He presents this not as a theory, but "with the immediate certainty of intuition." Nietzsche sees it as part of his aesthetic task to clear away the cluttered thinking of the past 2500 years and forges a direct link between Germans and Greeks, who he sees as superior to all intervening cultures.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Birth of Tragedy!