The Adventure Begins:
Once upon a time in a faraway land, two creative impulses, Apollo and Dionysus, merged together to birth Greek tragedy. Apollo came to the Greeks first, bearing them beautiful illusions to help them celebrate life in spite of all its suffering. Homer was Apollo’s champion, weaving a dream world of seductive images through his epic poetry. The Gods of Olympus embodied human life in all its forms, casting a glorious cheerful light.
But Apollo’s gift was an illusion; the god carefully guarded the boundaries that set individuals apart, and he punished the heroes of old for threatening the illusion with their excesses. Oedipus outwitted the Sphinx, and so was punished by fate for being too smart. Belaphron boasted of being equal to the gods, so Zeus swatted him from the sky as we swat swat flies, leaving him to die crippled and blind. Apollo put moderation and symmetry above all else to protect his elegant but fragile kingdom of dreams.
Dionysus later arrived to Greece from the east, and he brought to the Greeks ecstatic dithyrambs, tearing away the veil of everyday life to reveal a “Primal Oneness”. He revealed the truth this way, that all living things are different tones of the same singer, different twirls of the same dancer, returning everyone to the same lifeforce they came from. The Greeks first rejected Dionysus, which can be revealed in the Doric building they crafted with all their severe restraint, but later they accepted the god as one of their own. Only then could the Greeks create tragedy.
First, the Greeks invented a chorus of singing and dancing musicians, directly inspired from the folkish dithyrambs, and later built a stage with its actors and costumes. Aeschylus and Sophocles championed Dionysus through this new art form, Greek tragedy. Dionysus spoke through the chorus, drawing the audience into rapture, revealing them the truth in all its greatness and terror, while Apollo spoke through the actors on stage, redeeming the audience with a beautiful illusion.
Greek tragedy was indeed wondrous but it was too intense and volatile to last, declining as swiftly as it rose. Socrates destroyed tragedy by equating virtue with beauty and insisting that everything must be consciously understood through logic to be valid. The playwright Euripides brought Socrates’ lessons to the stage, shrinking the chorus to a minor role and having characters use logical argument to resolve the plot. Tragedy could not mix with the style of New Comedy, because the story of the tragic hero’s downfall was as amoral as Nature herself, and because music was the key to all the magic that made tragedy such a great art.
Thus spoke Nietzsche, beginning his mission with the sermon on the Greek mount.
On the Greeks:
Nietzsche undermined the ideal image of the ancient Greeks we held on to since forever. We thought the Greeks were a simple noble people; when a scholar said “Greek”, we imagined columned buildings balanced to perfection, we pictured a civilized man in a toga, we recalled Aesop’s fables and Aristotle’s maxims of moderation, and so on. But Nietzsche revealed these Greeks to be an illusion, and when we scratched the surface we saw a history of conflict. The wild satyr reared his head, and we reeled back in horror. We never saw the Greeks the same way again, but it was the smallest wound Nietzsche gave us when he struck his first blow against “Western tradition”.
Nietzsche also scrapped our old image of tragedy. Our classical views of Greek drama came from Aristotle, who said the Greeks underwent a catharsis when watching tragedy, and were morally purified through pity and terror. But Nietzsche rejects this view, since Aristotle saw art as a way to morally edify a person, which revealed his debt to Socrates and Plato. Nietzsche insists, again and again, that tragedy is aesthetic, like everything else he calls “true art”, making it something higher than a moral lesson.
Attack on Philosophy:
We modern people of “the West” wish to believe we are an Enlightened and liberal people, but we have our hang ups that make us short of the ideal, like everyone else. For instance, we cling to a chauvinist “Western Canon”; in fact, we imagine it whenever someone says “philosophy”. Even today does Dave Robinson, in Introducing Philosophy: A Graphic Guide, credit the Greeks for inventing philosophy, setting them apart from their older wiser parents, Egypt and Babylon. The Greeks, he claims, were the first people to explain life with reason and science, not religion, mystery, or tradition like their elders did .
Maybe he is right, but the Greeks paid a terrible price in creating philosophy. Nietzsche devotes the second half of the whole book explaining exactly what happened. What we call “philosophy” is really a history of science evolving over thousands of years, both the ways we solve problems with science and the general worldview science gives us. Socrates was no professor; the Messiah truly founded a religious movement, delivering the Greeks from their bondage under Apollo and Dionysus.
Dionysus gave the Greeks a gospel of pessimism. It is best not to be born, second best to die soon. Everything that comes into being must be prepared to meet a sorrowful end. We may try to gain as much knowledge and control of the world as we can but, like an expanding light in a dark room, the more light we shine the more darkness lies around the edge. You are nothing more than a brief flashing thought in infinite darkness. Do we curse the earth and gnash our teeth? No. Through tragedy, we gather round Life, joyfully dance with her. We little creatures will die but new vibrant species replaces us, and circle completes itself; eternal she will always endure, in ecstasy and tragedy at the same time .
Socrates gave the Greeks a gospel of optimism. By using rational thought and observing cause and effect, we can learn every secret of the world and human nature. Not only that, we can dare improve human nature through virtue and reason . Nietzsche dubs Socrates the prototype of theoretical man, a person who postulates two logical theories: science and ethics. Only then, did we have what we call “philosophers”.
Do not take the two whores, those fair-faced hypocrites, lightly. Every philosopher tried to explain the nature of reality, then used his conclusions to mandate a code of conduct. In truth, the philosopher formed his passions and prejudices growing up in the right place at the right time, then abstracted them into theory. I said nothing new; we take this idea for granted, but we should not. If Alfred Whitehead is right, and all philosophers are footnotes to Plato, then the Western Canon is damned. Nearly every man in it fell for the same error.
Nietzsche, when in his youth, was well acquainted with Johann Bachofen, the controversial author of Mother Right. Bachofen chronicled human history in several stages, when humankind grew from primitive “lunar” matriarchies, societies built from a mother’s unquestioned bond with her flesh and blood, to “solar” patriarchies, societies built from a male heir’s private property. Nietzsche was fascinated by Bachofen and paid him many visits during this time. The ancient Greeks in The Birth of Tragedy lived during the last moments of Bachofen’s “Dionysian” era, when the ancient feminine force finally died.
Do not assume Bachofen is some kind of feminist. Most scholars, especially women scholars, find Bachufen’s theory dubious and note he was no more progressive than a typical man of his day. In truth, Bachofen considers patriarchy superior to matriarchy, and believes the father conquering the mother was a positive step forward for the human race, thinking it properly established civilization.
Nietzsche takes a different view. He laments the death of Dionysus, clearly a woman in drag, and all tragic wisdom she held, as a terrible loss for humankind. The male philosopher, or theoretical man, replaced her, but none of his science or ethics could fill in the gap. Patriarchy was a regression. Nietzsche litters his book with images of mothers and children; the honest gaze of truth comes from the flashing eye of a goddess; Mothers of Being are the innermost core of things; the Primal Mother is eternally creative; the sublime Greeks are eternal children, and so on . Nietzsche yearns for the Mother to return through the child Wagner in the third part of the book.
Nietzsche At the Crossroads:
Nietzsche dubs Socrates and Euripides the villains who killed Greek tragedy, at least that’s how we read it. But it would be better if we see Socrates and Euripides as antiheroes. Nietzsche, for all his fiery emotions, treats the two men in an ambiguous way. Socrates was a vortex who changed all human history; he made everyone into a fool; no one could endure his piercing eye; his confidence in philosophy was so strong he died by his principles. Eurpides had a great critical faculty and rich talent, and he remade Greek theater to resolve the many problems he saw in it .
I appreciate Nietzsche’s nuanced take on history, and it reveals something more profound. What if killing tragedy was, in a way, needed? What if it was all part of a larger story of human growth? We are a very young species; we could not believe in naive myths as a growing child cannot cling to its mother’s breast forever. We tried science and, though she served us faithfully, we are aware of the limits of reason. This how religion truly died. You see a similar tale in the history of master and slave morality; we live under a naive master morality at first, later critique it through slave morality only to find its limits. We now face a challenge unlike any before us and the stakes were never higher.
Where do we go? It is the biggest question I have when reading Nietzsche’s works, even when I read The Greek Music Drama. Nietzsche himself seems to have devoted his life to answering that question. We are not the pinnacle of life on earth but a bridge between the ape and… something higher, the strange controversial Ubermensch. Whatever that is, Nietzsche begins his life’s work by giving us the skinny of our human condition at the moment. We lost something very important and philosophy plagued us ever since. How do we get out of our rut? If we bring back tragedy with all her wisdom we have a chance to overcome our problems , to move beyond childhood and adolescence to become something higher than we think possible.
Nietzsche even gives grief to modern scholars. He neglects to give careful citations to back up his claims, rhapsodies in excess at times, and makes cartoons of his villains. He simply refuses to tame his passions with the dull moderate tone grad students use in a master’s thesis. To this day, a Cambridge professor like Michael Tanner chastises Nietzsche for being sloppy with details. But Nietzsche does not care. He speaks of Sophocles or Socrates like he speaks of Apollo and Dionysus; he describes creative forces and archetypes, not real people . Like Blake and Shakespeare, he enchants us with imagination and scorns shallow realism.
Nietzsche heaped more scorn on himself in An Attempt at Self-Criticism for two big reasons. First, he was still under the powerful sway of his fathers, Kant and Schopenhauer. You can see this in how Nietzsche compares Apollo and Dionysus to the phenomenal and noumenal world, and he describes how art as redeems us from the ceaseless torments of living. Most of all, he despises how his old views reveal influences from Plato and Christianity .
Second, Nietzsche is deeply embarrassed by the love he had for Wagner at the time. Now, he is so embarrassed with Wagner I can see him blush from over here. Nietzsche spends the third part of The Birth of Tragedy getting excited over Wagner; Greek tragedy will be reborn under Wagner and Germany’s culture will be great again! As we know by now, that did not happen. Nietzsche is so angry at himself he spends the very first pages of Untimely Meditations attacking the chauvinist Germans for thinking their culture was superior to to the culture of the French, but that is a story for another time.
And my own self-criticism: I dislike my article. I feel it is too dense, too dry, too academic. I am afraid no one will want to read it. Each time I write about “difficult” subjects like politics and philosophy, I sink into this habit of writing so dryly. I feel that I must write “well” if I want my articles to be “good quality”, and that pressure, which I impose on myself, is my bugbear. I write as badly as Michael Tanner does in the Introduction of my copy.
I should not write as if I am speaking to a nameless crowd, but write as if I am speaking to a person I know. I should write down my notes first, expand them, and only at the end write a summary of the book. I should write about my personal thoughts and feelings, what all of this means to me, because I read Nietzsche to improve my art. I should mark citations the very moment I copy my notes from paper to computer document so I will not become tedious. If only scholars wrote as poets do.
1. Robinson, Dave, and Judy Groves. Introducing Philosophy: A Graphic Guide. Icon Books, 2007. Pgs. 6-7.
2. Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Birth of Tragedy. Edited by Michael Tanner. Translated by Shaun Whiteside, Penguin, 1993. Pgs. 39, 46, 52.
3. The Birth of Tragedy. Pgs. 72-73
4. The Birth of Tragedy. Pgs. 53, 76, 80, 81
5. The Birth of Tragedy. Pgs. 73, 58, 59
6. The Birth of Tragedy. Introduction. Pgs. xxvii-xxviii
7. The Birth of Tragedy. Pgs. 8-9