The Birth of Tragedy

Having been a casual reader of Nietzsche for the last few years, I was already acquainted with the basic tenets of his philosophy when I picked up The Birth of Tragedy — and I had already unlearned everything Bertrand Russell said about him in his vastly overrated History of Western Philosophy. I started to understand Nietzsche when I started to read his philosophy as an artist’s philosophy.* And, in order to understand his polemical opinions on what is good art and what is bad art, you have to be acquainted with Arthur Schopenhauer’s aesthetics. In fact, I would recommend reading Kant and Schopenhauer before reading Nietzsche.

The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche’s first book, presages everything that was to come later in his philosophy (with the only exception being its bridled writing style, as compared to the incandescent writing in his later books). Nietzsche was a Greek scholar before he was inspired by Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea, and, in The Birth of Tragedy, you can see him struggling to keep the book in the confines of a philological treatise on Greek tragedy. His philosophy embracing a return to the Dionysian element lost in Greek tragedy eventually wins out, however.

He writes how Greek tragedy was originally the union of Apollonian introspection — inner illumination, self-reflection, the idea of the individual in the world — and the Dionysian. Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy, represents the universal and the obliteration of the individual. Dionysus is best embodied by musical ecstasy. One suspects that had Nietzsche been born 150 years later he would have been a regular at Burning Man. Or, had he been born 100 years later, he probably would have had great things to say about Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.

The Apollonian element in Greek tragedy is representation. The appearances, like the gods on Olympus, were designed to help man cope with his suffering in the world. But this wasn’t enough for people who suffered civil wars, invasions, and the other hardships of ancient Greek life. The primordial unity found in Dionysus provided the answer. In it, man could find redemption. He could avoid the fate of his individual existence, because Dionysian essence is eternal. With Dionysus, one could throw oneself into life.

But, how to incorporate this into a dramatic presentation? The answer was Apollo, who, through representation in Greek choruses, echoed the Dionysian spirit. The Dionysian spirit came in the form of music, which Nietzsche, on the heels of Schopenhauer, holds to be the purest art form — in fact, it is the underlying life-force itself: the will. Unlike prose and painting, which describe the will, music is that will. The greatest Greek tragedians according to Nietzsche were Sophocles and Aeschylus, because they combined Apollonian representation with Dionysian music. Euripides, on the other hand, focused entirely on the individual and threw out the music. Nietzsche calls this the death of tragedy, due to the detrimental influence of Socrates.

The Socratic delusion that we can peel away layers of appearance and arrive at some eternal truth is completely anathema to Nietzsche. Following Schopenhauer’s philosophy, Nietzsche says arriving at the true meaning of our existence is beyond our capacity. It cannot be explained away. But with music, we can feel the meaning of our existence. This, he says, is what has been lost with Socrates and the theoretical man. We have lost touch with our intuition.

This is indeed how Schopenhauer goes on to differentiate between good art and bad art. Good art approximates as close as possible intuition — the will. Bad art shows artifice and a heavy reliance on theory and concepts. Think, for example of what you would call good flamenco, or good blues. Think of someone who has lived it and lives it, versus someone who comes upon it and simply masters the techniques. The genuine music, the really good music, will come from someone who really feels it, intuits it. If it is about calculations and scales it will suffer. Listeners don’t need to be told what is good because they automatically feel it. William Burroughs once said about writing that teaching someone to write well was as impossible as teaching someone how to dream. This is the very same principle. No wonder Nietzsche spends so much time debunking opera in The Birth of Tragedy. Opera is music that is tied to a concept, molded around words, and not genuinely liberating.

Nietzsche uses his idealized version of Greek tragedy as an aesthetic model for his philosophy. How accurate his historical facts are, I don’t know, since I am not a Greek philologist. How much he bent the facts to fit his philosophical program, I don’t know either. This book is essential, however, in order to understand his later philosophy. There are even traces of Schopenhauer’s famous Buddhistic pessimism, such as in his conclusion to a passage about Aeschylus’ Prometheus:

… his simultaneously Dionysian and Apollonian nature, can be expressed in an understandable way with the following words: “Everything present [in the world] is just and unjust and equally justified in both.”

That is your world! That’s what one calls a world!

Nietzsche puts his own positive spin on this pessimism, without renouncing it. Throw yourself into your art; throw yourself into life, he seems to say. This, and not a superficial optimism, was what made Greek tragedy so great in Nietzsche’s eyes.


* You can read Nietzsche in many different ways, and perhaps Nietzsche — who, in his last known correspondences signed his name as Dionysus — went mad thinking about the extreme implications of his philosophy. In the hands of a fascist or a national socialist, you can get the intellectual justification for horrendous crimes (given you have another philosopher like Heidegger to do the justifying). But look at Hegel — lousy writing style aside — who seems to have fared better in world opinion. Different interpretations have taken his philosophy to the extreme left and the extreme right. Look at that ancient ascetic philosopher Jesus, and think of what people have done in his name. Who are you going to blame?

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