The Birth of Tragedy (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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The Birth of Tragedy argues the importance of the tension between what Nietzsche called Apollonian and Dionysian forces. These contrasting forces enable a work of art to reveal the truth about human existence in such a way that we are able to bear the weight of its tragic wisdom. Nietzsche boldly combines aesthetics and psychology in a creative meditation on the sources of artistic inspiration. He also addresses the problem of nihilism in modern culture. The Birth of Tragedy offers an excellent point of entry ...
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The Birth of Tragedy (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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The Birth of Tragedy argues the importance of the tension between what Nietzsche called Apollonian and Dionysian forces. These contrasting forces enable a work of art to reveal the truth about human existence in such a way that we are able to bear the weight of its tragic wisdom. Nietzsche boldly combines aesthetics and psychology in a creative meditation on the sources of artistic inspiration. He also addresses the problem of nihilism in modern culture. The Birth of Tragedy offers an excellent point of entry into Nietzsche's corpus.
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Since it was first published in 1872, The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche has fascinated and baffled readers with its vehement plea for the recovery of a forgotten insight from classical Greek tragedy. Here in his first book, Nietzsche argues that a tension between Apollonian and Dionysian forces enables a work of art to reveal the truth about human existence in such a way that we are able to bear the weight of this tragic wisdom. Boldly exploring different modes of thought, he combines aesthetics and psychology in a creative meditation on the sources of artistic inspiration, the relation between order and chaos, and the problem of nihilism in modern culture. His brilliant prose is animated by a passion for correcting an error made by Socrates that is allegedly responsible for the impoverishment of Western philosophy ever since. Because of its provocative claims, The Birth of Tragedy has aroused fierce controversy among philosophers, musicians, psychologists, and students of religion. It also offers the best point of entry into Nietzsche's corpus, since it contains his first treatment of many themes to which he would return in later works.

The son of a Lutheran minister, Friedrich Nietzsche was born in Prussia on October 15, 1844. He attended the eminent Pforta boarding school before entering the university at Bonn in 1864 and transferring to Leipzig a year later. His education was occasionally interrupted by medical leaves of absence due to the severe headaches that would plague him for most of his life, giving him more than a theoretical interest in the problem of suffering. After spending a year in the military, he was declared unfit to serve when a chest wound caused by a horseback-riding accident compounded his chronic health problems. Nietzsche's dismissal from the military gave him the opportunity to resume his studies, and in 1869 he became professor of classical philology at Basel University in Switzerland, an impressive appointment for a young scholar who had not completed the requisite degree. Apart from a brief stint as an ambulance driver in the Franco-Prussian war, during which he witnessed hideous injuries, Nietzsche spent most of the next two years developing a close friendship with the composer Richard Wagner and putting together his ideas about Socrates and Greek tragedy. When The Birth of Tragedy was published in 1872, it sparked debates that brought him the only fame he would ever know: it was the work of a philologist who had petitioned to switch to the discipline of philosophy, and no one knew what to make of it as a result. But Nietzsche would attain greater independence from the academic establishment when his deteriorating health required him to take a leave of absence from teaching in 1876 and to retire from university life in 1879. Except for his bitterly disappointing relationship with Lou Salomé in 1882 (which was the closest thing to a romance that Nietzsche ever experienced), he lived a life of almost monastic isolation, traveling to France and Italy in an unsuccessful attempt to find a climate in which he could regain his health, and devoting himself to writing philosophy. Daybreak was published in 1881, Thus Spoke Zarathustra from 1883 to 1885, and On the Genealogy of Morals in 1887. Meanwhile his physical and mental afflictions were progressively worsening, and early in 1889 Nietzsche collapsed in the street, weeping uncontrollably. He would never again recover his sanity, and he spent the last decade of his bodily life completely incapacitated. His sister Elisabeth cared for him at home so that he would not have to stay in an asylum, and he died on August 25, 1900.

The Birth of Tragedy is a complex and ingenious book, but it can also be exasperating. Although it draws upon Nietzsche's expertise as a scholar of ancient Greek, it is too bizarre to be regarded as a serious academic work. Its fairly loose argument is carried forward with the momentum of Nietzsche's inimitable literary style, and his classical references remain vague as his creative imagination is running wild. He is more interested in using Socrates as a paradigm of theoretical reason, for instance, than in getting into a detailed analysis of Socrates as a historical figure or as a character in Plato's dialogues. Yet although Nietzsche misquotes Aristotle and deals with Euripides too briefly, and even though some of his speculative claims about Greek culture are given little support from textual evidence, these faults are somewhat beside the point. The value of The Birth of Tragedy does not lie in its factual accuracy, but in the concentrated intensity with which it introduces some of Nietzsche's own lifelong philosophical concerns. If it manages to make some illuminating observations about Greek tragedy along the way, this is only an added benefit.

Right away, in the first paragraph that follows his "Foreword to Richard Wagner," Nietzsche asserts that mere "logical inference" will not suffice for an understanding of his conclusions; rather, they must be grasped with "the immediate certainty of intuition." After making this comparison between two distinct modes of thought, he then calls our attention to the terms "Apollonian" and "Dionysian," which serve as important points of reference throughout the rest of the book. They are derived from the names Apollo and Dionysus, two Greek divinities who are associated with the arts. Apollo is an agent of clarity and order, linked with prophetic awareness, health and harmony, and the sharp light of reason. Dionysus, by contrast, is the god of intoxication, associated with dark, chaotic energies. They are variably portrayed as abstract principles, traits found in works of art, or something like psychological drives: Nietzsche does not limit himself to just one of these meanings. Apollo governs the realm of appearances (including dreams, and the artistic use of images to interpret or make sense of things), while Dionysus is the personification of ecstatic frenzy, responsible for the abolishment of individual boundaries. The Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies are polar opposites, but nothing prohibits their simultaneous coexistence.

Both elements must be present, at least to a certain degree, in every work of art. Instrumental music is described by Nietzsche as "the Dionysian art" because its dynamic melodies have a visceral effect upon the listener without representing any definite object. Unlike a novel, a landscape painting, or a sculpture of Apollo, music is "not a copy" of anything in the visible world. It does have an Apollonian aspect, however, by virtue of its measured rhythm. If they could exist in isolation, the Apollonian principle would be empty and the Dionysian would be blind. The great achievement of ancient Greek tragedy, according to Nietzsche, is that it succeeded in bringing together both Apollonian and Dionysian elements in a complementary tension. This is because the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles make use of Apollonian techniques to reveal what is essentially Dionysian wisdom. In order to appreciate what Nietzsche means by "Dionysian wisdom," however, it is first necessary to consider a few ideas from the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, the German pessimist whose influence on The Birth of Tragedy was arguably more extensive than that of anyone other than Wagner himself.

Shortly after closing a long quotation from Schopenhauer, Nietzsche comments that our "delight in the tragic" is due to the Dionysian insight that the hero of the drama, the character who has suffered an unhappy fate (such as Prometheus, Oedipus, or Hamlet), is only a phenomenon whose death will not affect "the eternal life of the will." What Nietzsche elsewhere refers to as "the avidious will" is characterized by Schopenhauer as the blind, striving force that constitutes the inner nature of all things. Indeed, what appear to be discrete individual things-the sun, an elephant, a flower, and Oedipus himself-are just so many different manifestations of one and the same undifferentiated will. This is what Nietzsche has in mind when he speaks of "individuation as the primal cause of evil," and alludes to "the oneness of all existing things." So long as we exist as individuals, according to Schopenhauer, we are bound to strive and suffer in an endless cycle of hope and disappointment, in which none of our desires can ever attain complete fulfillment. His point is not only that the pleasures of life are outweighed by its pains, but that the very structure of our experience is lamentable: we are driven by a relentless force to form wishes and cares that render us emotionally vulnerable in relation to a world that is largely out of our control.

From the Apollonian vantage point, there is a beauty and significance to the life of the individual, even if that life is a miserable one. The torments of Prometheus are very real, but it is only because of the reality and value of his individual existence that he is in a position to experience them. Even as he suffers, he knows that his life matters in the scheme of things-and a person who believes that human life is not meaningless can be reconciled to whatever sufferings it may contain. The possibility of heroism and the existence of misery are bound together like two sides of the same coin, and the Apollonian principle of individuation is responsible for both the glory and the terror of life as we know it. From the Dionysian perspective, there is no coin, since the division between subject and object, the boundary where my own body ends and the rest of the world begins, is ultimately an illusion. This recognition brings a strange kind of comfort, since the miseries of individual existence will not bother us so much if we "see through" them as a kind of masquerade that conceals a deeper truth about the unity of being. On Nietzsche's account, the tragic hero has perceived the horror and absurdity of existence, and this awful knowledge transforms his whole view of things. It is as if Nietzsche is showing us two ways to solve the problem of suffering: we can either accept the beautiful appearance of meaning that keeps us engaged in human life even at its worst, or we can opt for the consolation of telling ourselves not to take our predicament too seriously because the life of a human being is not ultimately real.

Another way of coming to terms with the human condition, of course, is to pretend that life is not necessarily tragic but that it can be entirely good, as long as it is guided by reason. This, Nietzsche argues, is the Socratic misconception that led to the death of Greek tragedy. Socratic optimism is at odds with the insight provided by tragedy, because it is committed to believing that the logical, scientific intellect can render everything transparently comprehensible, and that the information thus gained can then be used to cure all the evils of human existence. Here, Nietzsche has been criticized for going outside the bounds of what can be known about the historic Socrates. Nonetheless, it is true that Socrates is represented in many of Plato's dialogues as being quite preoccupied with the abstract rational validity of arguments. He is also depicted as maintaining that error arises from ignorance, and that conscious knowledge is all we need in order to live well. Whether Socrates actually influenced his older contemporary Euripides is even more debatable, but Nietzsche suggests that Socratic rationalism is to blame for the prominence of argument and explanation in Euripidean drama (as shown, for instance, in the use of a prologue to make clear what is going to happen). This matters to Nietzsche because it signifies a new resistance to the Dionysian impulse which had been so important in earlier Greek tragedy. Curiously, Nietzsche spends more time discussing the Bacchae than any other play by Euripides, only to dismiss it as an exception to the rule that Euripides devoted most of his career to opposing the spirit of Dionysus with "an altogether new-born demon, called Socrates." Aside from the question of whether Nietzsche is being fair to Euripides, his claim is an interesting one: the Socratic principle of reason, he says, is an inferior substitute for the Apollonian element. Socrates is blamed for the disappearance of not only the Dionysian aspect of tragic drama but also the Apollonian-instead of "Apollonian intuitions," we are left in Euripidean tragedy with "cool, paradoxical thoughts" merely. This is because Socrates does not acknowledge "a realm of wisdom from which the logician is banished," or a kind of truth which can only be disclosed by artistic means.

What Nietzsche is really concerned about is the death of tragedy after its brief flourishing in ancient Greece, and what this implies for Western culture. Since we have inherited the classical Greek legacy, we must understand what was responsible for the decline of tragic drama over two thousand years ago in order to know how the spirit of tragedy might be rekindled in the modern age. And the prospects of renewal are not good, since Socratic rationalism has so thoroughly influenced our culture that even our methods of education aim at the ideal of a dry theoretical specialist guiding his life by conceptual knowledge. Believing only in an impoverished sort of abstract rational activity, ignorant of "the wisdom of suffering," we are cut off from the profound resources of Apollonian reverie and Dionysian insight. To be sure, Nietzsche paints a dismal picture of the "mythless existence" of human beings who have lost touch with their highest aspirations, who drift with insipid optimism through their spiritless rituals, and who cannot imagine that art could be anything more than superficial entertainment. Despite the nationalistic emphasis that dominates the later pages of The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche's diagnosis of nineteenth-century Germany identifies many symptoms of decadence that are pervasive in our culture today. Whether or not we find his answers convincing, Nietzsche has an idea of how we may be able to redeem ourselves. He foresees that only the restoration of the long-repressed Dionysian tendency could shake our complacent faith in Socratic reason, leading to a rebirth of tragedy that would transform our consciousness and our mode of existence in ways that we can barely envision.

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