32 pages 1 hour read

Friedrich Nietzsche

The Birth of Tragedy

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1872

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music is a work of dramatic theory and cultural criticism by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). It was originally published in 1872 as Nietzsche’s first work, and later rereleased in 1886 under the title The Birth of Tragedy, or Hellenism and Pessimism. Nietzsche argues that Greek tragedy is born out of the merger between Apollonian and Dionysian perspectives. Nietzsche first differentiates between these two worldviews, then compares them to examine how they combined to form a sense of drama embodied in the classical Greek tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides.

In the final 10 chapters, Nietzsche employs the Greek template to depict the rise and fall of modern culture, especially as influenced by the Socratic model of rationalism. Nietzsche professes faith in the individual soul and implores his readers to discard Socratic tenets (emphasizing reason and science) and return to the primal and hedonistic spirit of Dionysus. Nietzsche points to the operas of German composer Richard Wagner as signaling a hopeful rebirth of the spirit of Greek tragedy in modern times.

In “Attempt at a Self-Criticism” added to the 1886 edition, Nietzsche finds fault with his original work, calling it “an arrogant and fanatical book” (5). Despite these perceived weaknesses, The Birth of Tragedy proved influential and controversial, establishing Nietzsche as an intellectual and putting forth many of his core philosophical tenets. In particular, Nietzsche’s concepts of the Apollonian and Dionysian have become important in aesthetic analysis of literature, music, and other arts.

This guide uses the 2003 Penguin Classics edition.


The book is divided into 25 short chapters or sections. Chapters 1-10 describe the rise of tragedy in the culture of ancient Greece. Nietzsche considers that all art is formed from the interaction of two aesthetic principles, the Apolline and the Dionysiac. This is especially true of ancient Greek tragedy, which forms the basis of much of Western art and culture. Greek tragedy developed from the epic poetry of Homer and the lyric poetry of Archilochus, both of which were an attempt to make language imitate music. This tendency found its culmination in tragedy, which depicted the downfall of a noble hero, enacted by actors and commented upon by a chanting chorus.

The chorus reflected a nonrealistic element in the drama, connecting it with primal myth and reflecting the essentially tragic, cyclical, and pessimistic nature of reality. The chorus allowed the audience to participate in something greater than themselves, losing their sense of individuality and merging into a Dionysiac collective. However, the potentially destructive danger posed by the Dionysiac was tempered by the rational, controlled influence of the Apolline, thus creating harmony both in the drama and in society.

In Chapters 11-15, Nietzsche describes how this art form went into decline, mainly due to the philosophy of Socrates. Influenced by Socratic rationalism, dramatists like Euripides applied Apolline standards (such as dialectic and logical plot development) to tragedy, thus destroying its original basis in myth and the irrational. All of Greek culture suffered from this revolution, and modern Western culture inherited from it an unrealistically optimistic scientific spirit that believes in limitless knowledge and earthly utopias.

In Chapters 16-25, Nietzsche discusses ways in which the authentic tragic spirit can be reborn in modern times. He proposes that it is happening through the influence of Richard Wagner, who at the time Nietzsche wrote the book was revolutionizing opera through his closely integrated, myth-based “music dramas.” For Nietzsche, Wagner is doing nothing less than reviving the spirit of ancient tragedy based on the primal power of music and myth. Following Wagner’s lead, we too can cast aside Socratic rationalism and rediscover the tragic nature of life as transfigured by beautiful poetry and music. Nietzsche sees this cultural rebirth as especially signaling a glorious cultural future for Germany, based on the example of ancient Greece.