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Jeremy Huls
18 October 2016
LBRL 422
The Birth of Tragedy and the Development of Culture
Nietzsche received a lot of criticism in his life for his first majorly
published work, The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, for both his
elevated praise of Richard Wagner and the lack of academic rigor evidenced
by his disorganization of concepts, yet the ideas proposed by Nietzsche in
this work later inspired scholars and artists alike. He saw Greek tragedy as
the ultimate form of art because it captured the entire human through two
primordial powers, which he labels as the Apollonian and the Dionysian,
which symbolize competitive yet complementary forces that work together
to create art. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche argues that the culture of
his time lacks the emotional values and attitudes that were present in the
art of Greek tragedy before the time of Socrates, whom he controversially
blames for repressing the Dionysian power through his endless search of
the truth, and although the writing itself struggles with issues of clarity and
style, it proposes an interesting question in the competing needs for a
culture to maintain an identity and its need for connecting with the world
around them.
The young Nietzsche explored views held by Schopenhauer, mainly
how he sees the Will as essentially evil and the only way out of this
suffering and evil is denial of the Will,1 which inspired his negative attitude

1 Jackson, Roy. Teach yourself Nietzsche. McGraw Hil, UK. 2008. Print.

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towards modernity, and the belief that all forms of art in his time were
merely copies2 of what was originally produced by the Greeks. The
problem for Nietzsche, was that people did not cherish art as much as they
did in the past, which is why he saw Richard Wagner as a savior that would
revolutionize Germany through his music, based on the ideas he formulated
in the essay Art and Revolution, where Wagner described Drama as the
highest conceivable form of art, because in its true perfection, it is a
union of all the other arts.3 This impression by Wagner is Nietzsches main
focus in Birth of Tragedy, which leads to the creation of his Apollonian and
Dionysian models that exemplify this true perfection of art.
According to Nietzsche, the Apollonian force is characterized primarily by
dreams, and the Dionysian by intoxication; the former reinforces the idea of
principium individuationis, or individuation, while the other is symbolic of
dissolution, or the sense of losing self. Apollo imposes order, reason, and
clarity, while its Dionysus instills chaos, frenzy, and uncertainty, and when
these powers are combined they illustrate the human condition, which
Nietzsche saw to be an art in and of itself. This is clear through his
definition on the purpose or need for tragedy by the ancient Greeks, which
was to better understand the world both around them and within them, and
how a sense of joy arose from the divine order of terror which Nietzsche
compares to a rose growing out of thorny bushes; the interconnected
2 Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music. Trans:
Johnston, Ian. Vancouver Island University. Web Accessed.
3 Hollingdale, R.J. Nietzsche. Ark Paperbacks, London. 1985. Print. 64.

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nature of these forces becomes apparent when he further explains that The
same impulse which summons art into life as the seductive replenishment
for further living and the completion of existence also gave rise to the
Olympian world, in which the Hellenic Will held before itself a
transfiguring mirror.4 The Greeks mythologized themselves through the art
of drama and tragedy, by having the human sphere of life and the sphere of
their divinities actually mirror each other, in effect idealizing an artistic
aspect of life that made it worth living.
A majority of people in Nietzsches time viewed the Greek life as idyllic,
which suggests that they generally lived happy lives with a care-free
attitude, yet Nietzsche believed that they lived brutal lives that were
short and full of suffering.5 He considered the possibility that tragedy
itself was a kind of cultural coping mechanism, that allowed people to
understand the seemingly contradictory forces of nature in a more balanced
way, since he stated to the Apollonian Greek the effect aroused by the
Dionysian also seemed Titanic and barbaric. But he could not, with that
response, conceal that he himself was, nonetheless, at the same time also
internally related to those deposed Titans and heroes.6 Here Nietzsche
proposes that all which is beautiful and moderate would not be able to
be known at all if it werent for an opposing quality that made their
recognition possible. He asserts that the Apollonian power and the
4 Nietzsche. BT, 17.
5 Jackson. 45.
6 Nietzsche. BT, 4.

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Dionysian power are both necessary and desirable, because the Dionysian
power is closely related to the primordial essence of nature itself, while the
Apollonian power maintains its image and form, thus their synthesis makes
reality relatable to the human condition.
Nietzsche explains the process of artistic creation through the example of
the lyric poet. The lyric poet, similar to the modern idea of a musician, is
someone who creates a work of art by tapping into both the Apollonian and
Dionysian powers. The lyric poet first invokes Dionysus himself in order to
place himself closer to the primordial image of nature that is far removed
from his regular conception of reality, by numbing the regular senses via
intoxication, so that the artist can then mimic the primordial oneness,7
which Nietzsche relates to music. The lyric poet mimics what he sees as
plain music, which is not merely the subjective interpretation of the
objective art that is reality itself, because it seeks to replicate it naturally
without the influence of the I.8 After the original music is produced, only
then does the lyric poet add images, ideas, and metaphor to the creation,
the purpose of which is that The artist has already surrendered his
subjectivity in the Dionysian process; the image which now reveals to him
his unity with the heart of the world is a dream scene, which symbolizes
that original contradiction and pain, together with the primordial joy in
illusion.9 This means that the origins and purpose of existence cannot be
7 Nietzsche. BT, 5.
8 Nietzsche. BT, 5.
9 Nietzsche. BT, 5.

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deduced by reason alone, instead it requires a dissolution of the senses, in


order to contemplate the primordial state of being.
Early in the text, he Birth of Tragedy proclaims that art and not morality
was the essential metaphysical human activity; in the book itself there
appears many times over the suggestive statement that the existence of the
world is justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon,10 which illustrates
Nietzsches disinterest in any kind of God in the moral sense. He
elucidates on this meaning in the introduction of the 1886 revision, where
he mentions he does believe in some kind of amoral artist God, who seeks
to know itself in creation and destruction; good and evil,11 as a way of
describing the seemingly contradictory nature of existence itself, through
the interaction between Apollonian and Dionysian powers. He further
explains that the world is at every moment the attained redemption of God,
as the eternally changing, eternally new vision of the one who suffers most,
who is the most rent with contradictions, the most inconsistent, who knows
how to save himself only in appearances,12 meaning that reality itself is
created by fluctuating forces that do not fit into a moral model of existence;
the Dionysian force is metaphorical for the ever-changing, fluctuating
nature of time and space, and the Apollonian force then is metaphorical for
the need to maintain an individuated counter-force capable of preserving
itself against the Dionysian current of dissolution. The combination of these
10 Nietzsche. An Attempt at Self Criticism. BT, 5.
11 Nietzsche. An Attempt 5.
12 Nietzsche. An Attempt 5.

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energies originated in art, which Nietzsche also believed to be a reflection


of nature.
The Greek tragedies written by Sophocles and Aeschylus were
perceived by Nietzsche as the best representations of the Apollonian and
Dionysian interplay that made Greek tragedy as great as it was. Euripides,
on the other hand, was criticized by Nietzsche on the account that he
drastically changed the structure of Greek tragedy, since he rid Greek
drama of the role of the chorus, the Dionysian element.13 Before Euripides
became popular, the chorus in Greek tragedy was separate from the main
stage, which was symbolic of the primordial Dionysian world being strange
and foreign to the Apollonian characters that act out the play. The members
of the chorus itself were also originally satyrs, the half-man half-goat
creatures that where the male followers of Dionysus, and are symbolic of
wildness, licentiousness, irrationality, and the primordial image of man,14
which was later almost completely ignored by Euripides. Nietzsche thought
that Euripides feared the irrational by limiting the role of the chorus, which
was the turning point that pushed Greece towards becoming a dominantly
Apollonian culture. Rationality, paired with reason, were the catalysts for
the fall of classic Greek tragedy according to Nietzsche, but he did not
believe Euripides alone was responsible for the change.
The most controversial aspect of Birth of Tragedy, is the harsh attack
on Socrates that Nietzsche instigates. To him, the Socratic way of life is the
13 Jackson. 48.
14 Nietzsche. BT, 8.

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most honest theoretical man, ventured to state that for him the search for
the truth counted for more than truth itself,15 which is where Nietzsche
formulates the idea of the theoretical man. This theoretical man
represents the endless pursuit of knowledge and science, which seeks to
destroy myth by elevating the value of reason over metaphor. Nietzsche is
critical of Socrates because of its failure to come up with an objective truth
about the meaning of existence, a mission that he saw as overly optimistic.
This is further proof as to why Nietzsche rejected a moral basis for
existence, because it always seemed to aim at a more profound; constantly
correcting itself without ultimately defining a practical rule for living. Art
however, does come to a practical goal, which is to create myth; an eternal
representation of the human condition powered by metaphor.
While The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music was initially met
with harsh criticism after its publication, both by reputable academics and
later Nietzsche himself, he formulates incredibly interesting ideas that
helped him develop his own unique style of writing and philosophy. The
Apollonian and Dionysian forces are fascinating because they are vastly
complex and difficult to define in a simple and succinct manner, yet they are
recognizable by contemplating the human condition in relation to the world
as a whole, as the Greeks did with the art of tragedy. Nietzsche argued that
the forces need to be balanced, but not moderated, in order to cultivate a
healthy culture, since moderation leans towards the Apollonian force.

15 Nietzsche. BT, 15.

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However, he also asserted that culture had become excessively Apollonian


through the pursuit of science and the development of modernity, and as a
result people had become stagnant and uninspired, which although was an
unpopular opinion for his time became popular in the early 20th century and
onwards to the present. Culture was very important to Nietzsche, as
evidenced by his nostalgia for Ancient Greece, and one of the most
important idea expressed in his early writings is that modernity is
dangerous, because it aims at an endless pursuit of truth that fails to stop to
take in the beauty of the Apollonian and Dionysian powers working together
to create art.

Works Cited
Hollingdale, R.J. Nietzsche. Ark Paperbacks, London. 1985. Print
Jackson, Roy. Teach Yourself Nietzsche. McGraw-Hill, UK. 2008. Print.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music. Trans:
Johnston, Ian. Vancouver Island University. Web Accessed.