Friedrich Nietzsche

Birth of Tragedy

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Birth of Tragedy Summary

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Originally published in 1872, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music is a book of dramatic theory written by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Re-released in 1886 under the title The Birth of Tragedy, Or Hellenism and Pessimism, the book is prefaced with a forward and divided into 25 chapters. Throughout the work, Nietzsche argues that classic Greek tragedy is born out of the merger between Apollonian and Dionysian perspectives. With an inspirational tenor, Nietzsche spends the first 15 chapters differentiating the worldviews of each before comparing them to examine how they combine to form a newfound sense of drama. In the final 10 chapters, Nietzsche employs the Greek template to contextualize the rise and fall of modern culture. Despite criticizing the culture of humanity, Nietzsche professes faith in the individual soul and implores us to ditch Socratic tenets and return to the teachings of Dionysus. In the post-script of the 1886 reissue, Nietzsche criticizes his own writing in the original text, referring to it as “an impossible book… badly written, ponderous, embarrassing, image-mad and image-confused, sentimental, saccharine to the point of effeminacy, uneven in tempo, [and] without the will to logical cleanliness.”

Nietzsche begins by detailing the condition of Greek art prior to the influence of Dionysus as being gullible and only consumed with appearances. In this artistic framework, Nietzsche argues the observer was never genuinely linked to the art. Without physical immersion in the artistic process, the observer is removed from the art in silent contemplation. Apollo, in the classic Athenian tragic sense, appears in drama in order to guard man from the inherent suffering humanity faces and provide a sense of relief. Then Dionysus entered the scene and sent a shockwave through the perception of Apollonian tragedy. Nietzsche argues that it is the immersion required by Dionysian essence, called the Primordial Unity, which allows one to become unified with art and escape from human suffering. In the view of Dionysus, man surmises that existence is not limited to individual experience and the only way to escape such is through death. Nietzsche argues that Dionysian theory serves as an optimistic alternative to the religious model of salvation, which calls for man to give up life on Earth in order to put primacy on reaching heaven. Nietzsche believes that one must attain salvation through Dionysus by immersing oneself in the present time.

Nietzsche goes on to argue that, although humanity can only find salvation through Dionysus, it depends on Apollo to uncover the spirit of Dionysus in its appearances. For example, the actors and chorus of a tragic drama are representations through which the Dionysian spirit is channeled. Through this voice, man is able to joyously triumph over human suffering. However, these Apollonian revelations also guard against the chaotic nature of Dionysus, so that the audience won’t be completely swept up in the ecstasy of Dionysus. Nietzsche argues that in genuine tragic art, the viewpoints of Apollo and Dionysus are forever interlinked. Nietzsche notes the limitations of words in this capacity, and turns his attention to music as the real lifeblood of tragic art. Since music exists beyond the capacity of mere language, it allows man to transcend consciousness and undergo a profound connection to the Primordial Unity. According to Nietzsche, music is a superior form of tragic art because it does not signify a phenomenon so much as it represents the “world will.”

Nietzsche indicts Greek dramatist Euripides as the primary killer of tragic art because he promulgated Socratic tenets into the theater. These tenets include obsessing over knowledge and putting inherent trust in human thought. By emphasizing on one individual, Euripides eschewed the musical element so integral to the Dionysian essence. According to Nietzsche, Euripides excluded Dionysus from tragedy, resulting in the destruction of the necessary balance between Apollo and Dionysus that is essential to art. In the latter part of his book, Nietzsche examines the modern consequences of this shift in Greek perception. Nietzsche argues that man is still living in the cultural age of Alexander, which is now endangered. He emphasizes the inability for science to explicate the mysteries of the universe, citing the work of Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer as helping us to understand this. Nietzsche foresees a major rebirth of tragedy that will eradicate the remains of the outmoded Socratic culture. Nietzsche cites the tragic operas of German composer, musician and theater director Richard Wagner as a chief example of this shift.

Opposing the traditional view of Greek culture as enlightened, noble, and sophisticated, Nietzsche believed that the Greeks were struggling with pessimism. The human mind cannot observe nor fathom the prevailing forces that comprise the universe, and every attempt to do so is illusory. Nietzsche concludes his argument on an optimistic note. He argues that one must embrace both Dionysian and Apollonian viewpoints in order to strike the correct balance. It is neither healthy nor constructive to cling too heavily to one side or other. Nietzsche’s argument shows that even prior to Euripides and Socrates, the tenets of Apollo and Dionysus were artistically linked. The Greek audience became healthier by the direct influence of Dionysus on the tragic dramatic stage of Apollo. Despite antiquated German culture, the German character endures precisely because it retains a modicum of the primordial unity in its nature. In the end, Nietzsche has great optimism for the next generation and with this work, prepares the world for it to come.

The Birth of Tragedy is the first book Nietzsche published. His views in the book would go on to inform additional works, including On Truth and Lies in a Normal Sense, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, Untimely Meditations, Human, All Too Human, The Dawn, The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, On the Genealogy of Morality, The Case of Wagner, Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist, Ecce Homo, Nietzsche contra Wagner, The Will to Power, and many others.