On 6/10/15, the full four were re-joined by drama guy John Castro to discuss Friedrich Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, originally published in 1872, though the 1886 version that we read (that’s right in the thick of his later, more fun books) features an amusing, very self-critical introductory essay, “An Attempt at Self-Criticism,” in which he dismisses the work as too much under the spell of Richard Wagner, whom he later attacked as romantic, i.e., life denying. Likewise, the picture of aesthetics (and hence metaphysics) in the work is only a step removed from Schopenhauer’s, whereas Nietzsche’s later works (like those discussed in our episodes here and here) likewise rebel against Schopenhauer, along lines that are clearly visible in this work.
It was a very long discussion, and will be released in three parts on consecutive Mondays starting 7/6, with the Aftershow taking place on Sunday, 7/26 at 3pm Eastern/noon Pacific. PEL Citizens can sign up here to attend.
So, what’s the thesis? Well, the book is ostensibly a work of classical scholarship, though it’s bereft of footnotes, with few quotations, and pretty much spelled the end of his professional career as a philologist, and it was only a matter of time after before he got out of academia altogether and just wrote his books. As with his essay from a year later, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” (which we covered previously), he’s ultimately critical of the Enlightenment, we-can-solve-everything-with-calm-investigation spirit of his age, which he here identifies with Socrates, and analyzes Socrates in turn as part of the same social trend that turned later Greek tragedy into crap.
Nietzsche approves of plays like Antigone, which are unflinching in showing the harshness of fate, and where the characters act like archetypes, not like individual humans, and the focus is ultimately on the poetry, especially on the chorus. But only one generation later (in the late fourth century BCE), with Euripides, that harshness was diluted, with some happy endings (e.g., with a deus ex machina), and more human characters that you’re supposed to be able to identify with, and even less emphasis on the chorus.
So, what’s Nietzsche’s problem with this? Well, you have to see this development from Sophocles (and Aeschylus, whom we’re covering now in a Not School group, so you should join us) to Euripides in terms of cultural forces at work in ancient Greece, which in turn reflect basic psychological traits in all of us.
Nietzsche distinguishes between two types of artistic expression that reflect different ways of coping with the world. The Apollonian he names after the Greek god Apollo, who’s all sunshine, beauty, order, and hence reason. The Dionysian is named for Dionysus, the good of intoxication, of chaos and irrationality. You can look at these as the ordering force of society as we internalize it, and the primal, anti-social force. Now, Nietzsche doesn’t present these as (like Freud’s id and super-ego) basic faculties or elements within our psychology, really; he presents everything as a matter of historical and hence artistic trends.
He identifies barbarity in general with the Dionysian, and ancient Greek folk songs (which he associates with the poet Archilochus) as a particularly world-shakingly clever variant of it. Then Homer and the Greece he depicts is presented as an old-time dominance of the Apollonian over the Dionysian, e.g., in how their relatively beautiful gods overthrew the really horrific Titans. The Homeric heroes present a “naive” picture of grace, strength, and honor, but one that has the underlying harshness of life, that Dionysian force ready to erupt, clearly in mind. He outlines a few changes in epoch after that where the Dionysian comes out a bit, e.g., to make music more interesting, and then you get an Apollonian reaction, such as in Doric architecture.
Artistically and metaphysically, the Apollonian is all about paying attention to the surfaces of things, to forms (such that Kant would call this beauty itself). To be a good Apollonian spectator is to be calm and quiet, wlll-less in the Kantian sense that you’re not paying attention to your individual desires, but not de-individuated in Schopenhauer’s sense. In fact, with calm contemplation, you more clearly see the individuality of each element in your experience, including your own individuality, and so Nietzsche thinks the Apollonian naturally leads the command to “know thyself.”
The Dionysian, on the other hand, involves forgetting about your separateness from other things and other people, merging with them in intoxication, which is sort of like how Schopenhauer describes our experience of music, and definitely accords with his picture of the Will as the underlying, unifying reality behind everything. In this sense, the chaotic (Dionysian) yields the real truth of existence, even though it’s the orderly (Apollonian) that’s associated with knowledge seeking.
With tragedy à la Sophocles, we get what Nietzsche thinks is a perfect artistic melding of the two forms. It originates as Dionysian music, with just the chorus, all dressed as satyrs, chanting things. Then (says Nietzsche), a character was added, but always the character of Dionysus himself, and he always gets killed (à la Jesus). Then it evolved further to introduce other characters, and so we get a whole play like Antigone. It’s highly formal (Apollonian), with strict requirements for meter in the poetry, but ultimately still channels the Dionysian in its unflinching picture of the tragedy, which the chorus as faux spectators draw us into.
Nietzsche thinks that Euripides just didn’t understand the Dionysian elements here. They didn’t make sense to him; he didn’t understand how they channel some kind of primal chaos within the viewer, and following Socrates (with whom Euripides was maybe associated), thought that all that crazy stuff should be firmly subordinated to our reason. So he ended up, as the purely Apollonian always does, papering over the harsh realities of life, when he should have been embracing them, taking them on like an übermensch!
This is supposed to have obvious implications for what’s wrong with society now (well, in Nietzsche’s day, but now, too), though it’s the latter part of the book where he made these explicit that he really later criticized, and which translator/scholar Walter Kaufmann dismissed as about the poorest thing that Nietzsche ever wrote. So, we only assigned ourselves to read through section 15, which is where the book was originally supposed to end, but before he rails against what’s wrong with the Germany of his day and how awesome music like Wagner’s is liable to amount to a rebirth of tragedy in the modern era. Nietzsche later decided that his assessment of his culture’s ability to revive was much too optimistic, that it was really just way too decadent in its post-Socratic, dense-to-the-wisdom-of-the-unconscious ways. Ah, well.
Buy the Walter Kaufmann translation that Wes and I read, or try this other Cambridge translation that Dylan and Seth had in hand during the discussion, or try this newer (mostly 2009), free translation online.
Mark also watched a four-part YouTube lecture series on the book by Gregory B. Sadler (the first video is here), which will give you a nice, slow introduction to the work.