The Birth of Tragedy: How Early Nietzsche Connects to Late Nietzsche
The Birth of Tragedy is Nietzsche’s first major attempt at a philosophy. In it contains his Dionysian-Apollinian distinction. These are contrasting elements. The former is chaotic and the latter is orderly:
Apollo represents the aspect of the classical Greek genius extolled by Winckelmann and Goethe: the power to create harmonious and measured beauty; the strength to shape one’s own character no less than works of art; the ‘principle of individuation’ (GT 1); the form giving force, which reached its consummation in Greek sculpture. Dionysus is the symbol of that drunken frenzy which threatens to destroy all forms and codes; the ceaseless striving which apparently defies all limitations; the ultimate abandonment we sometimes sense in music.
This distinction is crucial for not only understanding Greek art and tragedy, but life in general; the former, because Nietzsche believed that the integration of both order and chaos was the reason why the ancient Greeks were able to transcend pessimism -and also produce the profoundest of tragedies- and the latter because life is a perpetual struggle between order and chaos. This distinction is reflected in Nietzsche’s later philosophy, with the endorsement of Dionysus but not the Dionysus of The Birth of Tragedy. It is also integral to understanding Nietzsche’s later works, in the same respect that Apollo is to Dionysus within the work itself. The Birth of Tragedy, from a historical perspective, has “cast a spell on almost everybody who has dealt with the subject [Ancient Greek tragedies] since 1871.” The integration of order and chaos, giving us the full scope of human quintessence is not a new idea but can be profoundly helpful in finding meaning in the world, as is articulated in the Taoist notion of Yin and Yang. Indeed, by Nietzsche’s own words, this is arguably more of a modern problem than it is an ancient one.
Prior to The Birth of Tragedy, the scholarly consensus concerning the ancient Greeks was radically different from what Nietzsche advanced. Greek culture was viewed through an Athenian lens: “noble simplicity, calm grandeur.” Nietzsche asserts that “only a generation that applauded Rousseau’s conception of a paradisiac state of nature could believe that Greek culture was a peaceful and idyllic Eden.” Indeed, Nietzsche in his Genealogy alludes to this ideal, regarding master morality, as the “noble” conceptualization of Good & Bad, which had its origins in ancient Greek civilization. Nietzsche’s account of Greek culture, however, grants this conceptualization but postulates that it is only one half of the picture; this is the Apollinian. This is the side of Greek culture that is representative of what is classically characterized as Athenian: ontically in terms of art, sculptures, and temples & ontologically in terms of order, restraint and reason. The other side of Greek culture is what Nietzsche called the Dionysian; as the Apollinian side of Greek culture can characterized as Athenian, the Dionysian side can respectively be characterized as Spartan (i.e. the culture of ancient Sparta): ontically in terms of the “Dionysian Festivals”, which according to Brown University, were events that consisted in comedy, excesses, lustfulness and drunkenness -in turn, these descriptions of the festival are adequate enough to describe the Dionysian element ontologically: as chaos. This is distinguished as the “Dionysian Greek” in contrast to the barbarian Dionysian and the Dionysus of Nietzsche’s later philosophy, which is the “synthesis of the two forces represented by Dionysus and Apollo.”One cannot fully appreciate the Apollinian without the Dionysian and vice versa: one must have a foot in order and a foot in chaos as far as aesthetics and morality are concerned.
Insofar as this distinction is an aesthetic one, it is crucial to juxtapose it with that of Schopenhauer’s aesthetics. This is because much of it plays off of his aesthetic concepts. The Apollonian and Dionysian “smacks of Schopenhauer’s contrast of the world as representation and the world as will -though, this is something Nietzsche would later regret doing; and playing off two concepts against each other like that is seldom fruitful, though it has been a popular pastime among German philosophers.” The Appilonian is the principle of individuation and the Dionysian is the collapse of it. (§1) Nonetheless, Nietzsche shows himself clearly gaining independence from Schopenhauer in how the aesthetic sensibility, which manifests in its most powerful form as tragedy, allows us to deal with the inherent suffering of existing, instead of the negation of will which Schopenhauer deems a plausible prescription. This is because “from tragedy Nietzsche learns that one can affirm life as sublime, beautiful and joyous in spite of all suffering and cruelty” instead of simply acting as if it is not occuring like the many “genius” individuals which Schopenhauer characterizes as fully embodying the denial of the will to live. Schopenhauer clearly did not agree with Nietzsche on what tragedy even is: “That which he bestows on everything tragic its peculiar elevating force is the discovery that the world, that life, can never give real satisfaction and hence is not worthy of our affection: this constitutes the tragic spirit -it leads to resignation.” This is contrary to Nietzsche’s views on tragedy. Nietzsche found that Schopenhauer’s sense of the aesthetic was incorrect, insofar as he perceived it to be a flux between willing and non-willing. This is due to the fact that this flux creates subject/object distinction which is irrelevant to the artistic inquiry: “we find it impossible to believe in any truly artistic production, however insignificant, if it is without objectivity, without pure contemplation devoid of interest.” (§5) Genius, however, is at once subject and object, because the artist is in essence free from willing. However, given that (1) Nietzsche in his later work would go on to repudiate Schopenhauer’s notion of contemplation devoid of interest and (2) within The Birth of Tragedy characterizes the Dionysian as having an element of knowledge in it (§7), makes it seem as if Nietzsche in his first book is at bottom was setting the grounds for a wholesale split from Schopenhauer in this regard. Indeed prior to §7 Nietzsche uses Schopenhauer’s notions of will and representation, within §7 breaks from it with his subordination of the “Buddhistic negation of the will” juxtaposed with the superiority of art in his digression on Hamlet, yet in §8 reverts back to “the thing in-itself and the world of appearances” to characterize the Dionysian and Appilonian respectively -a peculiar observation in hindsight. “Here [in The Birth of Tragedy] is announced a pessimism ‘beyond good & evil’ that ‘perversity of outlook’ against which Schopenhauer never tired of hurling his most irate curses in anticipation -a philosophy that dares to place morality itself not only in the world of ‘representation’ but even among ‘deceptions’ as semblance, delusion, error, interpretation… art.” Art for Nietzsche is the fortification against Schopenhauer’s pessimism -instead of a denial of life, through art we are given the wherewithal to say yes to life, in the face of its inherent property of suffering.
Within this dualism, there is also an element of collectivism and individualism at play. The Dionysian element represents a collective phenomenon — “a Dionysian fever”- which is illuminated by the fact that in its aesthetic manifestation it occurs in the setting of a festival and as the root of a variety of civilizations which existed before and after the ancient Greeks, such as Babylon & Rome. Nietzsche views this aspect of existence -which is the mediating factor of Being itself- as the formless frenzy of the collective (that is, the Dionysian is a collective phenomenon, and Nietzsche views the collective as symbolizing intoxicating madness). The Apollinian is a phenomenon that occurs at the level of the individual, which intervenes and gives form & equanimity to the frenzy of the Dionysian. In terms of the duality of the collective & the individual, Nietzsche in Beyond Good & Evil makes his view on the matter crystal clear: “With individuals madness is something rare -but with groups, parties, peoples, and ages it’s the rule.” Nietzsche’s philosophy in general is highly individualistic, and this is even evident by the fact that -though he sees the need for both the Apollinian and the Dionysian- he certainly prefers the former.
The Appilonian/Dionysian compose the aesthetic experience. The Dionysian is the sublime and the intoxicating: the awe of aesthetics; it is not representational, as it is characterized by the aesthetic experience of music, which like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche symbolizes the “in-itself” of the world. “fective associations. The unique essence of Dionysian music, as he understands it, is the emotional power that musical elements convey. And it is this power that makes Dionysian music an appropriate embodiment of Dionysian music.” The Apollinian is the beautiful, dreamy illusion of aesthetics; it is the feature of art which provides a kind of beauty by indulging an illusion. These are not dialectical elements as they can exist by themselves, but they are both required in the creation of Greek tragedy, by the Appilonian overcoming the Dionysian: “A homer would have created no Achilles, a Goethe no Faust, had Homer been an Achilles and had Goethe been a Faust.” This distinction represents the way we perceive the world through aesthetics and in general. The aesthetic experience in this regard is what justifies our suffering because it makes it defeatable.
Schopenhauer and Nietzsche converge on the notion of suffering: that is, life is suffering. If there is any existential claim this is the existential claim. Where they diverge, however is how to deal with this suffering. Nietzsche rejects Schopenhauer’s denial of the will to live and posits Ancient Greek tragedy to be superior in the endeavor. The Appilonian-Dionysian distinction is crucial to Ancient Greek tragedy. The Birth of Tragedy requires this distinction. Nietzsche in 1886 poses this question to his younger self: “The question is whether his stronger craving for beauty, for festivals, pleasures, new cults was rooted in some deficiency, privation, melancholy, pain?” In §1, younger Nietzsche has an immediate answer to this: the coupling of the Appilonian and Dionysian is the birth of Attic tragedy. This is an infusion of dreams and intoxication. Where this “craving for beauty” derived, was from sheer necessity. Almost as a preview of Nietzsche’s declaration of the death of god, Nietzsche asserts that the Greeks created their God’s “in order to live”. This is because the Greeks knew of the sheer horror of existence -they had the insight, that life is suffering. To endure this, the Greeks created their Gods and in particular, tragedies in which neither the Appilonian nor the Dionysian is in excess. What this produces is not “comfort”, as Walter Kaufmann asserts, rather it is “Greek Cheerfulness” which Nietzsche views as the result of the Apollinian hero glancing into the terror of the Dionysian reality of nature.
§1-§6 only superficially shed light on the Appilonian-Dionysian distinction. The majority of that portion of The Birth of Tragedy is regarding Nietzsche’s views on aesthetics and responses to Schopenhauer’s aesthetic sense. What is alluded to in these “inferior sections” that is however helpful, is Nietzsche’s claim that the Dionysian is [moreso] reality, whereas the Appilonian is illusion; symbolically, it is best illustrated in §6: “Our whole discussion insists that lyrical poetry [Appilonian] is dependent upon the spirit of music just as music in its absolute sovereignty does not need the image and the concept, but merely endures them as accompaniments.” The endurance of Dionysus amidst the “touch” of Apollo is the Birth of tragedy. Tragedy as a display of bearing the burden of being, as in the case of Oedipus, is what alleviates the pessimism of the Greeks. This description gives the impression that it is the myths themselves that alleviate the pessimism, which is correct. This begs the question then: why tragedy? Towards the end of §10 Nietzsche explicitly states, “Through tragedy the myth attains its most profound content, its most expressive form; it rises once more like a wounded hero, and its whole excess of strength, together with the philosophic calm of the dying, burns in its eyes with a last powerful gleam.”
The core of understanding Appilonian-Dionysian distinction begins at §7, as this is where Nietzsche begins articulating the fruit of the dual incorporation of both elements of this distinction: the birth of tragedy. In its early origins, tragedy was only chorus. That is, the birth of tragedy began with the spectators. Given the reality of the chorus, it is no wonder the first “voice” of tragedy was Dionysian, via the Satyr play. The existential axiom that life is suffering is thereby temporarily lifted. However, the reality of the Dionysian is not all there is to reality. The inevitability of being both feet in the Dionysian door as a remedy to being is nausea from over-intoxication. After experiencing the intoxicating reality of the Dionysian, one has knowledge but is inhibited in using it. This is because knowledge yields the truth of reality and such truth is horrifying. Truth itself is horrifying. Existence becomes an absurdity. In order to act upon knowledge and bear this knowledge without becoming mad, one must have illusion.
Appilonian victory over the Dionysian is ultimately the Birth of tragedy. This is symbolically articulated in Nietzsche’s preference for Homeric naivety over Scholler’s analysis of naive art in §3. This is because the latter makes the assumption that the Appilonian is baseline for art and culture. This is clearly untrue, in light of the Greek’s understanding in the sheer horror of existence -qua what is actually baseline: Dionysus. This is an understanding which is primary; a prerequisite to high art and culture. It is the reason why the Greeks invented the Olympians, among which Apollo is the rectifier. Apollo is the slayer of monsters and the restorer of order -in fact, Apollo is order. These monsters are the “abysmal and terrifying [and most real] view of the world and the keenest susceptibility to suffering.” Apollo represents the illusions which we create in order to endure the inherent agony that is existence. Slayer indeed implies conflict. Conflict however, is the prerequisite to beauty. The primary thrust of The Birth of Tragedy, is that the synthesis of the Apollinian and Dionysian is embedded in tragic art.
To Nietzsche, Socrates was the antithesis to Greek tragedy, thus the antithesis to to the synthesis of the Appilonian and Dionysian -though, he is introduced as the equal of the synthesis of the two. However, the problem of Socrates to Nietzsche is that he represents something which he deems intellectually necessary. That is, Socratism -which is distinguished from Socrates the person by the fact that Nietzsche admired the latter and detested the former- is a rationalistic tendency which seeks to bring scientific inquiry to its very limits. Nietzsche recognizes that it is the case that when these limits are met, science must necessarily yield to art. Nonetheless, Socratism -which predated Socrates himself, and can be characterized by the elemental passion for knowledge- is a necessary component to the continuation of art. This is illuminated in what Nietzsche asserted would have occured, had Socratism not become integral to mankind in its development:
For if one were to think of this whole incalculable sum of energy as not employed in the service of knowledge then the instinctive lust for life would probably have been so weakened in general wars of annihilation that suicide would have become a general custom and individuals might have experienced the final remnant of a sense of duty when strangling their parents and friends (§15)
Thus, though Socrates “did not understand the old tragedy and therefore did not value it” (§12), as, to him it did not reveal rational truth, he was integral to inventing the method by which the continuation of creating the condition for the possibility of the aesthetics, by making the scientific endeavor paramount which inevitably results it being unable to explain things, which creates a “tragic perception” which in order to be tolerable, requires art. The Socratic roundabout is the murder of tragedy, which in turn makes the rebirth of tragedy possible when science inevitably fails, in its logical coherence and its role in satisfying culture.
When Nietzsche shifted from being philologist under the influence of Richard Wagner & Schopenhauer, to an independent philosopher, he ended up renouncing a fair bit of what was written in The Birth of Tragedy. This is expressed in the preface of the 1886 edition of the book, where Nietzsche expresses his discontentment with his naive younger work. In his autobiography, Ecce Homo, Nietzsche starts by denying the idea the Greeks were at all pessimists; tragedy is evidence itself for this fact. The conception of Appilonian and Dionysian is also altered in Nietzsche’s later philosophy. Perhaps it can be said that this is Nietzsche’s own personal resolution to the death of God. The term “Appilonian” is wholly integrated into the Dionysian, which in turn made Nietzsche drop the former term altogether in his later work. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche declares the Dionysian to be “the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustibility through the sacrifice of its highest types.” Indeed, the primary difference between Nietzsche’s early and late philosophy was the dualism of the former and the reconciliation of it within the latter. Part of this dissolution involves a rejection of the Appilonian as crucial to Greek art: “the understanding of the Dionysian phenomenon among the Greeks: the book gives the first psychology of this phenomenon, it sees it as the single root of the whole of Greek art.” This is not wholly incompatible with the claims that are made in The Birth of Tragedy, insofar as the Appilonian cannot survive w/o the Dionysian and not the inverse, but it is clear that Nietzsche has dropped the former, terminologically and in its significance psychologically. “The furthest limits of affirmation are achieved in the Dionysian symbol.”
Nietzsche’s own attempt at self-criticism illuminates his estimation of The Birth of Tragedy:
It smells offensively Hegelian, and the cadaverous perfume of Schopenhauer sticks only to a few formulas. An “idea” -the antithesis of the Dionysian and the Apollinian- translated into the realm of metaphysics; in tragedy this antithesis is aufgehoben into a unity; and in this perspective things that had never before faced each other are suddenly juxtaposed, used to illuminate each other and comprehension [begriffen].
His distaste in the metaphysical component of The Birth of Tragedy makes sense in light of his later metaphysical notion of the will to power. The will to power is the driving force of all things and in particular with humans, to reach overman status -which is the highest possible ideal one can manage to obtain, insofar as this ideal involves the acquisition of power. The will to power virtually explains all phenomenon -it is akin to Spinoza’s idea that “the striving by which each thing strives to persevere in its being is nothing but the actual essence of a thing”. Nietzsche’s early metaphysics is dualistic and Nietzsche’s later metaphysics are monistic. However, it may be the case that these two metaphysical ideas are not all that different. Walter Kaufmann argues that the will to power is the reconciliation of Apollo and Dionysus. Indeed, Nietzsche goes on to account for the origins of Greek culture by referring to the will to power. Given that in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (On Self-Overcoming) what the will to power seeks to attain is self-overcoming; is this not what the Greeks did when they transcended their pessimism in light of the horror of the Dionysian reality with the implementation of the Appilonian? Nietzsche’s assessment of the Greeks in terms of his later work would be the embodiment of the Dionysian only: a culture which seeks to reach the logical conclusion of the will to power; “a creative striving that gives form to itself.”
However, there are elements that exist within The Birth of Tragedy that are precursors to what arose in Nietzsche’s later work. For example, Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God in The Gay Science is alluded to in the reason why the Greeks required their myths. Unlike what Bertrand Russell asserts in The History of Western Philosophy, Nietzsche’s declaration of God’s death is not something he rejoiced about. The psychological consequences of the death of God for Nietzsche is analogous with Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment. This is the exact situation the Greeks find themselves in prior to inventing their myths. A perpetual state of pessimism. Indeed, the comparison with Raskolnikov is hardly a caricature, as according to Nietzsche the Greeks suffered from a peculiarly severe form of pessimism. Though Nietzsche was a fervent religious polemicist, he nonetheless saw religion as having a profound utility. This utility is explicitly articulated in The Birth of Tragedy: the Greeks needed their myths to overcome the overwhelming pessimism that derives from facing the reality of existence: suffering. §151 in The Gay Science articulates this idea clearly: “when religious ideas are destroyed one is troubled by an uncomfortable emptiness and deprivation.” What The Birth of Tragedy displays, is that this too is the case a priori to faith: “Pessimism is a preliminary form of nihilism.” (The Will to Power §9 Book 1)
Insofar as The Birth of Tragedy is linked to Nietzsche’s later idea of the death of God it is also connected with the transvaluation of values. This is most comprehensively articulated in The Genealogy of Morals. This is Nietzsche’s solution to the dissolving of values which resulted from the death of God. Nietzsche’s primary concern was the rise of nihilism springing forth from the death of God. He saw this as an inevitability. The state in which humanity finds itself a posteriori Deus mortem, is identical to the state in which the Greeks find themselves prior to inventing their Gods. Pessimism, is to Nietzsche’s eye is the prerequisite to nihilism, which he predicted would be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of millions, as is articulated throughout The Will to Power. This is because God -of Christianity- granted man an absolute value, which was destroyed in his death -which was by the hands of Christians themselves in the pursuit of truth. Insofar as “nihilism is the denial of the truthful” this is identical to the state in which the Greeks found themselves prior to the invention of the Appilonian -i.e. rejecting the truth of the Dionysian. The modern solution to this is actually quite similar to how the Greeks solved their problem. This is an invention of sorts, but not an invention of Gods; rather it is an invention of values -which is implicit in the Greek’s invention of Gods, thus being more or less of the same utility.
To create new values — that, even the lion cannot yet accomplish: but to create itself freedom for new creating — that can the might of the lion do. To create itself freedom, and give a holy Nay even unto duty: for that, my brethren, there is need of the lion. To assume the right to new values — that is the most formidable assumption for a load-bearing and reverent spirit. Verily, unto such a spirit it is preying, and the work of a beast of prey. (Zarathustra)
This is the secularization of the Appilonian spirit masking the monstrosity that is reality which is the Dionysian. However, this is not a mask per say -or if it is one, than it is one with eye slits peering into reality- as this is the no-nonsense march into the suffering that is reality, with knowledge of it in place but with the wherewithal to overcome it -which is the guaranteed route to meaning, as “that which you need most will be found where you least want to look.”
Order and chaos are the two elements that are essential to our very Being. Let us suppose that Nietzsche was right: God is dead! What ought we to make of this in the 21st century? Where can meaning and values derive from if the bane of theology is no longer mediating these factors? We can call to Apollo and Dionysus. However, these names have a deeper meaning than at the level of art and culture. They represent the duality of our Being at the individual level, morally speaking. Our psychological and ontological — perhaps even our objective — existence cannot be understood adequately apart from these terms. Nietzsche has given us an elaborate account of how to integrate them at the cultural, societal and aesthetic level in The Birth of Tragedy, but not at the level of the individual.