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Die Geburt der Tragödie , by Friedrich Nietzsche

Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik - Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy


In Helen Morales' introduction to Tim Whitmarsh's fine new translation of Leucippe and Clitophon ,


written by the Alexandrian Greek Achilles Tatius in the 2nd century CE, she mentions that Nietzsche condemned the ancient Greek novels as a final sign of the degeneration of Greek literary art. I had forgotten all about that, so I thumbed through Die Geburt der Tragödie to find what he said in context and was pulled into the book again by his wonderful prose style and my curiosity about what else I may have forgotten in the intervening time. Of course, the thumbing turned into a re-read...

Die Geburt der Tragödie was Friedrich Nietzsche's (1844-1900) first book, though it transformed through a number of stages before it was published under this name first in 1872. It was modified twice more, and I read it in its final form of 1886. This final version had a new preface entitled Versuch einer Selbstkritik (Attempt at a Self-Criticism), wherein Nietzsche distanced himself from the text by explaining how his young, romantic self, under the excitement and pressure of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71, had undertaken a task beyond his inexperienced reach. He calls the book poorly written, clumsy, embarrassing, overly enthusiastic and insufficiently argued, etc. He even calls it "here and there sweetened to the point of femininity"! (*) In this preface Nietzsche also takes the opportunity to eloquently and forcefully restate his view that morality, particularly Christian morality, is anti-life, that Christian teleology is life-hating.

In any case, Nietzsche had begun a very promising academic career at the University of Basel in Classical Philology, but this book killed it at once. A few responses by academics were published which dismantled the book from the point of view of academic considerations: he didn't take into account relevant literature and therefore misrepresented what was known (this is quite relevant, for he attacked the science of philology itself), he confused dates and pushed certain poets' works centuries before their time in order to make points, etc. The next semester, students avoided his lectures. He was finished. But in this book Nietzsche first formulated in a tentative form some of the ideas which later became central to his thought, a body of thought which hardly had any place in academia, anyway.(**) 

So what is the book about? Way too much, actually. He begins by recalling the well known Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy: very roughly speaking, reason and measure versus irrationality and intoxication/ecstasy (a favorite topic of Hermann Hesse and so many other romantic/post-romantic German authors). Like the ancient Greeks, he also attributed dreams, viewed as prophesies and revelations, to the Apollonian side.  But it is the Dionysian side which breaks down all barriers between individuals and between man and nature, which, unlike the Apollonian side - only permitting the awe-full admiration of the gods in dreams - actually permits one to feel like a god.


In quick succession Nietzsche tells us that dreams are a higher state of existence than "real life", that Homer was the first Apollonian artist and Archilochus (because lyrical poet = lyricist = musician = Dionysian) the first Dionysian artist, that the existence of the lyrical poet is a big problem for the philosophy of art (which he "solves"), etc., etc.


Nietzsche arrives at the topic of the origin of the Greek tragedy, but instead of examining the surviving primary sources he argues against Schlegel, Schiller and other very secondary sources.  Distinguishing between the Apollonian rhapsody and the Dionysian dithyramb, Nietzsche repeats Aristotle's assertion that Greek tragedy originated in the dithyramb, and does so without mentioning Aristotle. He goes on to assert that the original Greek tragedies united both the Apollonian and Dionysian within themselves. In his own words:


Nach dieser Erkenntnis haben wir die griechische Tragödie als den dionysischen Chor zu verstehen, der sich immer von neuem wieder in einer apollinischen Bilderwelt entladet.


(According to this knowledge, we have to understand Greek tragedy as the Dionysian choir, which ever again anew discharges itself in an Apollonian world of images.)


He goes on to "explain" why the dialogue in the plays is Apollonian and why all the tragic heroes were masks of Dionysus.  This original, pure tragedy soon degenerated into Attic comedy, which Nietzsche discusses next. 


Nietzsche makes a notable assertion, which I oversimplify as follows: As part of this degeneration, the pair Euripides/Socrates introduced reason, as opposed to instinct, into the Greek theater. This turning towards reason and against the old, unspoken connection to the Dionysian roots of Greek culture initiated and accelerated the decay of that culture. He sketches how the birth of philosophy in Athens destroyed the original, more authentic and more valid Greek culture.(***) And, certainly, when one considers how Plato treated all of the arts in his Republic, Nietzsche is not merely spinning fables here. 


He continues, asserting that all of Western culture is overshadowed by the nefarious, optimistic, knowledge-seeking, Apollonian degenerate Socrates and his followers. Science is their love child and is only enabling greed and materialism and abstraction while destroying art and alienating mankind from its roots. He calls for a revolution away from the Apollonian back to the Dionysian, and precisely this call he develops and intensifies in his later work. We know in hindsight that some very nasty people took up this cry for instinct, roots and the transcendence of self and went to some very bad places with it. I deny that this is in any way Nietzsche's responsibility or that such thinking must lead necessarily to such places. On the contrary, such thinking can lead, for example, to Zen Buddhism.


This book does not try to present a thesis and make a reasoned argument in support of it, complete with evidence of all kinds. No, it is poetic and somewhat confused speculation and enthusiasm; it is a piece of romantic literature, not philosophy or philology, though it makes one suggestive and interesting point, as mentioned earlier. It is a beautifully expressed, extended essay in which the young Nietzsche shows us some of the things he is enthused about. With that in mind, one can enjoy his youthful, undisciplined enthusiasm and fondly recall from one's earlier years a similar state of being. (Or, if one is young enough to be in that state of being, one can see a kindred spirit - always a pleasant experience.)


Before closing, I absolutely have to express my admiration for Nietzsche's prose - he is the greatest prose stylist among the many German philosophers I have read. He, even more than that great prose stylist Plato, can sweep the reader along, can woo him into a state of willing acceptance, nay, enthusiasm for his views. It is a pleasure to read his writings, even when, in the back of one's mind, one is often thinking "I don't find this to be valid at all."  

(*) A cutting criticism from a man who thought masculinity was the measure of correct thought and emotion. This criticism was leveled at his younger self! 


(**) I don't understand that remark as being negative either for Nietzsche or for academia.


(***) This prefigures the mature Nietzsche's rejection of reason, as opposed to instinct and will.