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Randolph Dible"
November 10, 2014"
PHI 511.S60 - Nietzsche"
The Aesthetic Power Behind Nietzsches Metaphysics"


In The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche famously declares that God is dead.

God dies along with the Western metaphysical tradition. But from this we should not
conclude that Nietzsche is a nihilist. Nietzsches first book, The Birth of Tragedy, is an
aesthetic analysis of the Greek tragic myths centered on the deities Apollo and
Dionysus. By recalling the message of this first work, we can see that the later
declaration of the death of God is a happy occasion that affords us the opportunity to reconnect to the vital source of life itself in nature. The alternative symbols of the sacred
found in the Greek myths have the potential to re-sacralize and re-enchant the human
experience of nature. In what follows, I will show how the category of the tragic is for
Nietzsche an aesthetic intuition that in many respects takes the place of ontology. By
taking up the symbols that reigned when the metaphysical formulation of the individual
emerged, Nietzsches analysis shows that these specific symbols have significations
that lead to the hypothesis of self and the formulation of a concept of will. But more
importantly, with the concepts of ontology transmogrified, aesthetics can become a
transfiguring mirror, changing the very way we experience the world."

At every moment of his career, Nietzsche is an enemy of tradition, freeing

thought from its self-imposed bondage of tradition. At this earliest moment in the The
Birth of Tragedy, however, this freedom from tradition is given positive expression as the


life-force inherent in existence as nature, beneath the human construction of culture.

This affirmation of immanent life is symbolized as Dionysus, the god of nature who is
killed as soon as he is born. Thus, observes John Sallis, Dionysus remains a uniquely
withdrawn figure within Greek mythology. Similarly, Nietzsche shows through his
analysis that the very emergence of such a withdrawn figure not only transforms the
myth, but kills it. Nevertheless, just as the god is re-born, so too is the figure, which dies
as a symbol and is reborn as a concept: the concept of the self. In the Cratylus, Plato
reincantates the Orphic formulation of the body as a prison for the soul, drawing the
figure of the soul with sharp edges inside the material body, performatively instituting
the kernel of the pervasive Western metaphysical systemin the same motion that
separates the self from the rest of nature. From the perspective of our contemporary
metaphysical materialism, we moderns would reflexively believe that moving beyond the
naivet of naturalistic vitalism is a step in the right direction. But as Nietzsche attempts
to convince us, seeking a re-birth of tragedy that would be a re-enchantment with nature
and its eternal life is rather what we should seek. "

In the last section of The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche writes that the Dionysian

power that first calls the whole world of phenomena into existence eventually needs to
transform itself in order to keep the animated world of individuation alive (143). This
transformation is its very mode of being. Dionysus represents the contradiction of
existence. The very articulation of existence is a process of individuation that comes
from an unspeakable wholeness and approaches individuation before it dies. The force
that draws Dionysus out of hiding and through the contractions of his life is an equally
potent god, Apollo, ruler of manifestation and transformation. Apollo is, significantly,


exactly not the rending process of individuation that is Dionysus domain, but rather its
abstract product, the eye of the sun (55). His specific power is indicated by the
formulation of his name which means, a sum that is not multiple, a-polloi, which
Nietzsche calls a principum individuationis (36). These two gods must unfold their
powers in strict proportion, (ibid.) like the duality of the sexes (33) in the act of
creation. Through an analysis of these two aesthetic forces, Nietzsche reaches beyond
myth, and one might say, even beyond ontology, to the semantic matrix in ancient Greek
myth out of which the self is conceived by the symbolic powers of life and individuation."

Early in The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche tells the myth of King Midas hunting in

the forest for Silenus, the wise companion of Dionysius. When finally the demigod is
captured, the king asks him what is the best and most desirable thing for the human
race to hear. The wise Silenus tells him not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the
second best for you isto die soon (42). The message of this myth is that the human
individual is up against the titanic forces of nature. The individual is a product and
microcosmic contraction of the whole of nature. However, the natural identification of the
self is with the will, which can only be distinguished from the rest of nature. Silenus, in
this sense, thus, speaks not just for Dionysus, who, importantly, remains withdrawn, but
for the whole of nature. The Greeks, as Nietzsche reminds us, needed to rebut this
message with an equally strong figure, Apollo, who has the form of the human will, and
the radiance of the sun, reflected in all appearance. Through the power of Apollo the
Greeks could conjure the courage to live a life of virtuous community despite the
inevitability of the return to nature. It was in order to be able to live, writes Nietzsche,
that the Greeks had to create these gods from a most profound need (ibid.). The


Greeks formulated the Hellenic will (what Nietzsche calls the unaesthetic-in-itself 55)
as a reversal of the wisdom of Silenus. The concept of the will was a necessary reversal
of the wisdom of Silenus for the virtuous Greek, who needed to overcome the
overwhelming terror and horror of existence at the hands of the titanic powers of nature.
Only the Olympian gods could provide the symbolic power and strength to willfully live,
and only the virtuous Apollinian community of Socratic wisdom could help this will
flourish in the face of its radical contingency. Nonetheless, this need to counterbalance
the dismal wisdom of Silenus remained itself tragic."

The tragic wisdom of Silenus is a direct antecedent of the meaning of the the

figure of Dionysus; thus understanding the tragic message of Silenus is the key to
understanding the meaning of the tragic myth. Understanding the tragic, in turn, for
Nietzsche, is the key to getting past the illusion of our modern disenchantment in the
face of a false optimism. In section Ten of his book, Nietzsche writes that all of the gods
of early Greek tragedyPrometheus, Oedipus, etcwere masks of Dionysius (73), the
symbol of a divinity that undergoes the transformation into a moment of contingent
mortality rooted in wild nature before returning to divine life. Nietzsche writes that
Dionysus was the original suffering hero, the tragic archetype of what Silenus calls a
wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery (42). Through the figure of
Silenus, Dionysus is enabled to speak to humanity. In the figure of Zagreus, ill-fated
infant child of Zeus, at the center of the Dionysian mystery rites, Dionysus remains
withdrawn from speech, but incarnates in the myth so that the Greek spectator can
witness the experience of the physical agonies of individuation on the body (73). The
return of Zagreus to his elemental constituents of earth, air, fire, and water, as he is rent


asunder in some versions of the myth, and the experience of being boiled alive, or
eaten raw, in other versions, give to the Greek imagination the Dionysian wisdom of
physical individuation. In a Roman version the infant Dionysus is swallowed whole by
his father Jupiter. The creativity of the ancient myth makers attests to a specialized
palate receptive to forms of tragedy. The mediation of tragic wisdom through symbols of
the sacred keeps the wisdom of the human relationship with nature intact. Without such
mediation, the wisdom dies by becoming an idol mankind's vain wish to be divine."

In the earliest presentations of these myths of Dionysus, the god does not appear

on stage, but is only sung in the chorus of satyrs. Nietzsche calls this chorus the
dramatic proto-phenomenon (64) because the chorus of Dionysian revelers gather at
the theater in a performance that is on the way from being a religious act to a theatrical
act. In the earliest presentations of tragedy, there was no stage, no passive spectator,
and no opposition between public and chorus. Everyone was a dancing and singing
enchanted Dionysian (62). By giving up individuality in the chorus, for the sake of
harmonious melody, for the sake of worship, the worshipper is magically transformed
into a satyr, and thus able to see the god. The tragic chorus was an oracle of the preindividual life. Dionysus was only imagined as being present on stage. The spectator of
the earliest period of tragedy did not see Dionysus as a masked human actor, but as a
real thought-form, born of his own rapture (66). This pre-figural Dionysus is the symbol
of the mythopoetic power of enchantment that underlies any anthropocentric pretense of
individuality. Disenchantment was already at work when the god became a part to be
played by a human actor, and at the same time the human spectator moved off the
stage. It was this disenchantment that gave meaning to the sense that to live was a


tragic and doomed attempt to flee the inevitable demise of my own life and individuality.
Rather, I ought to embrace dissolution into an organic natural whole, the real meaning
of Dionysian revery. "

The daytime gods on Mount Olympus oversee Hellenic society and in turn are

themselves seen to embody the ideals of Hellenic culture and thereby reverse the
wisdom of Silenus: as Nietzsche formulates it, to die soon is worst of all for them, the
next worseto die at all (43). The rising Greek awareness of individuation led to the
creation of the Olympian gods of Homer, with Apollo, the sun at the top of the magic
mountain, as their father. With these Olympians as a transfiguring mirror for the Hellens,
the horror of Silenus mouth closes like a wound, and the Hellenic ideals of beauty seek
to mask the tragic reality of human contingency with figures of heroism. The very
appearance of Dionysus as a figure in the drama is the work of Apollo, the god of
dream-interpretation, who through this figure interprets the enchantment of the chorus.
Apollo casts Dionysus onto the stage entangled in the net of the individual will (73).
An idol of the old god is made, in the image of the principum individuationis, and the
religious force operating through the sacred symbol of the god begins to wane,
exchanging enchantment for emplotment. From Homer and Archilochus, to Sophocles,
Euripides, and finally Aristophanes, the once-great religion of the enchanted Dionysus
revelers became a theatrical art, and the god left the scene. "

This movement of the birth and death of tragedy is a motif that returns again and

again, like the days and nights of culture. Just as in the physical death of the transient
individual, in the aesthetic transformation of the Dionysian manifestation of nature the
elements return to their wellspring. In John Sallis book Crossings: Nietzsche and the


Space of Tragedy (1991), Sallis centers his reading of The Birth of Tragedy on the
power behind the figures of the gods. What I have been calling the mythopoetic force of
enchantment, John Sallis calls the boundless abyss of the space of tragedy. With
variable amplitudes doled out, the shine of Apollo fills a space that remains Dionysian.
The unique figuration of Dionysus as a figure drawn, or rather withdrawn, writes Sallis
(42), opens the symbol to the overflowing (Uberfluss) abyss (Masslose) of nature.
Presented negatively by the veils of music and disguise, I would say that Dionysus has
an iconic an-iconicity that draws the attention without drawing a figure. In contrast,
Neitzsche calls Apollo the shining one of an inner fantasy which has the closure of an
image or reflection on a surface. Sallis calls this characteristic of Apollo figural
disclosure (17). Nietzsche calls Apollo the god of all plastic energies (35) who rules
over sculpture, and thus the figural transformations of extended forms. Dionysus is the
god of music, which is both invisible and immersive, and drowns out the sense of

Framed by the withdrawn Dionysian figure, Apollo comes to embody the very

from of (this first, Greek) self-reflection. These gods are the unique self-reflections of
Greek tragic wisdom, and as such, they present the cornerstone of the Western
metaphysical tradition. The dark Heraclitus, Nietzsche writes, compares the worldbuilding force to a playing child that places stones here and there and builds sand hills
only to overthrow them again (142). Nietzsches aesthetic metaphysics focuses on the
opposition of Dionysius and Apollo, but with the parallel drawn between the power of
Dionysius and the ontology of Heraclitus we may venture to compare the power of
Apollo with the ontology of Parmenides. Just as for Heraclitus all things flow in an


ontology of dynamic process (panta chorei, all flows), for Parmenides, only being is: an
ontology of a static product, a necessary continuum of being. By invoking the preSocratic ontologists, Nietzsche wants to hint at the subversive force of his aesthetic
hermeneutics of the sacred symbols embedded in myth; a power that his analysis steals
back from traditional metaphysical concepts."

These two gods, and these two ontologies, represent two different philosophical

orientations toward the phenomenon of birth: respectively, a creatio ex profundis and a

creatio ex nihilo. The distinction could also be drawn between a philosophy of surplus
on the one hand and nihilism on the other. The void may be understood as either full or
empty. In The Birth of Tragedy the void, represented by Dionysus, is clearly full, since
the abyss, das Masslose (68, 69, 88, 94, 109, 136, 142) is associated with a womb, a
home, profundity, etc. and references to excess (41, 123, 129) and overflowing,
Uberfluss (142) are associated with a primordial delight and primal joy in the annihilation
of the individual (45, 104, 132). The promise that life will be eternally reborn and forever
return again from destruction is the promise of eternal life represented by Dionysian joy,
the overflow of primordial delight (142). "

By the time Socrates came on the scene spouting a fully human and virtuous

wisdom, tragedy is already dead at the hands of Euripides. By being the wisest of all
men, Socrates, in his fully human form, becomes the new force opposed to Dionysus.
The attitude of Socratic optimism is the final form the death of tragedy takes. But of
course, tragedy will be re-born. Just as ontology itself was born out of the semantic
space left by religion, displacing the enchanted symbols with new concepts of being that
came to institute Western onto-theology, Nietzsches re-birth of tragedy seeks to uphold


an aesthetics of sacred symbols that can reconnect civilization to its roots in the
superabundance of life and the affirmation of an abyss. These roots were lost first by
the separation of the self from nature through the concept of the soul, and further
obscured by the quasi-concepts of original sin and metaphysical guilt. It is now through
the deconstruction of the Western metaphysical tradition that tragic wisdom must
reassert itself. The foundation of all existence, he writes in the last section, [is] the
Dionysian basic ground of the world (143). With the explicit intentions of poststructuralism and deconstruction now the dominant metaphysical modalities, a tragic
aesthetic is all the more necessary. The re-birth of tragedy is called for by the return to
aesthetics beyond the projects of post-structuralism and deconstruction."

Nietzsche sees in the tragic myth the metaphysical capacity to transfigure the

world. The symbolic image of the myth, he writes, saves us from the immediate
perception of the highest world-idea, just as thought and word save us from the
uninhibited effusion of the unconscious will (128). Spared from a direct exposure that
we would not survive, the mediation offered by the symbols of the divine allow us to
participate through sympathetic imagination in the divine life of nature behind our mortal
life. This recasting of the world is the function of art, whether in the form of music, lyric
poetry, drama or the plastic arts. As a transfiguring mirror, art placed beside the world
justifies it as an aesthetic phenomenon. The aesthetic forces of Dionysus and Apollo
provide a metaphysical supplement (140) to the reality of nature that allows for its
overcoming. Nietzsche calls this the metaphysical intention of art to transfigure, (ibid.)
to make the world the once-lost mythical home (142), to end our homeless
roving (138). The death of god is not a call for the destruction of all myth, only for the



deconstruction of the traditional one that denies life. The tragic myth affirms life, and
the primordial positivity of life will return as an aesthetics beyond the crisis of
metaphysics. "


Works Cited"
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Trans. Kaufmann, Walter. The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of
Wagner. Toronto, CA: Random House, Inc., 1967. Print."
Sallis, John. Crossings: Nietzsche and the Space of Tragedy. Chicago, IL: The
University of Chicago Press, 1991. Print.