Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche has an infamous reputation for his theories and explanations of Greek Tragedy. The Birth of Tragedy, written by a 28 year old Nietzsche, was one of the philosophers first published books. Dealing with the nature of Greek tragedy, that which Nietzsche claims to have escalated when the Apollonian view met the Dionysian, The Birth of Tragedy aims to understand the state of modern culture, including both its deterioration but also its possible revival. ‘Presenting us with a lively inquiry into the existential meaning of Greek tragedy, we are confronted with the idea that the awful truth of our existence can be revealed through tragic art’ (Raimond 2014, p.1). Nietzsche’s ‘contemplation of such opposing forces of nature are initially primarily used to analyse Greek culture and in particular art, stating their role within Greek attic tragedy marks such plays as the pinnacle of culture’ (The Oxford Philosopher). In my essay I will attempt to analyse, with reference to notions of the Dionysian and the Apollonian, how The Birth of Tragedy is read as both a history of the origin and development of Greek tragedy, and similarly as an account of how tragedy has contributed to the psychological health of its Greek spectators. I will attempt to understand artistic theories involved when deciphering the affect that a Dionysian or an Apollonian mindset has on the internal health of the Greek. I aim to make sense of the way in which man, able to find solace in the recognition of human suffering, were then able to passionately affirm the meaning of their own existence through Greek tragedy. Rather than adopting the idea that Greek culture in fact enjoys others anguish, but by looking into the abyss of human suffering and being able to recognize the tragedy in life in fact allowed individuals to feel a greater sense of self – to identify as more than simply meaningless beings.
Nietzsche describes in The Birth of Tragedy, the idea of two psychic forces named after the deities Apollo and Dionysus. His definition of an Apollonian force – adopting a sense of desire for intelligibility and order, a reality differentiated by forms, and dreams as the higher truth (Nietzsche: Art as Illusion) and Dionysian, which essentially claims tragedy as an ecstatic, orgiastic celebration of ‘Primal Unity’, and a reality undifferentiated by forms (Nietzsche: Art as Illusion) is explained with an intellectual dichotomy between the theories. Claiming that life encourages a struggle between these two elements, each battling for control over human existence – Nietzsche makes us contemplate the idea of artistic tension. The two principles are ‘essentially understood to imply metaphysical, psychological and aesthetic considerations’ (Sean Bowden, ASP228 Philosophy, Art, Film, Deakin University, lecture 7, 12 October 2014. ‘To understand the significance and to appreciate the originality of The Birth of Tragedy it is important to see it against a background of some of the established theories of art and tragedy which preceded it’ (Sweet 1999, p.346).
As a young philosopher, Nietzsche was highly intrigued by Schopenhauer’s theories. In distinguishing between a world of representation and a world of will, Schopenhauer adopted the idea that the world as we know it is seen through mind-dependent eyes, ‘a world of blind desire’ (Sean Bowden, ASP228 Philosophy, Art, Film, Deakin University, lecture 7, 12 October 2014). For Schopenhauer, we relate to our body and its existence in two ways, as an object in the world and as an emotional being – from the ‘inside’. Similarly, the Dionysian philosophical aspect is essentially said to replicate the Schopenhauerian ‘world of the will’, in which we are blinded by desire, nature in itself influences our physical drive- that which is not open to our intellect. It is said that experiences such as intoxication, sexual love are directly related to that of a Dionysian psychological experience – that which can also be thought of as a particular attitude towards a situation or practice. In contrast, The Apollonian is thought to relate directly to Schopenhauer’s suggestion of a world of ‘illusion’, as opposed to that of reality. In a metaphysical aspect, Apollonian is to be associated with experiences in states such as dreaming in correlation to the minds skills in organization. The Apollonian involves an attitude to life that ‘emphasises restraint and wise measure, seeking to create beautiful forms and even hold them out as exemplars’ (Sean Bowden, ASP228 Philosophy, Art, Film, Deakin University, lecture 7, 12 October 2014) to be replicated.
It is said in The Birth of Tragedy, that Greek tragedy developed by synthesizing Apollonian and Dionysian principles, and that the synthesis is of great value to individuals and cultures (Sean Bowden, ASP228 Philosophy, Art, Film, Deakin University, lecture 7, 12 October 2014). In Nietzsche’s discussion of the sufferings of the Greeks, he argues (in simple terms) that the Greek’s had a problem – and tragedy was able to fix it. Historically it is noted that Greek culture was one of incredible sensitivity. Having difficulty reconciling themselves with the suffering of the world, Greeks were more attached than many culture’s to the dilemma of pain and tragedy, and therefore highly invested in finding a solution. Firstly, the creation of the Olympian Gods appeared – however their appearances adopted that of the Apollonian and did not amply fulfill the healing of the soul. Ancient Greece was a world filled with disease, where war was a constant reality and no laws were secure – had the Greeks not created the Olympian gods the Greeks would have perished. The idea of Dionysus offered a sense of salvation from the suffering by immersing the individual into the realm of an unconscious reality. As Nietzsche described it, man found liberation from his individual destiny. Existential grief is a product of the individual who thinks he suffers alone. Dionysus reveals the dark chaos of society, whilst also encouraging man to rejoice in the chaos and to in turn grow beyond his suffering.
In order to grasp a thorough understanding of the idea of tragedy, we must also consider Nietzsche’s view on Greek art. Before the influence of Dionysus in Greek art, Nietzsche labeled art as naïve and concerned only with aesthetic properties. He suggests that the observer was effectively never unified with the being of art, and that there was only opportunity for quiet contemplation with its forms. ‘Both the Apollonian and Dionysian are creative, artistic forces, but they exist first without the mediation of the human artist’ (Nietzsche: Art as Illusion 2015, p.1). The idea of the Greek God Apollo also known as ‘God of Light’ (hence the naming of Apollonian) was to shelter man from the inherent torment of the world, providing respite and security – not to immerse the people into the experience of tragedy itself. In contrast, God of Festivals (amongst others) – Dionysus ‘centered in extravagant sexual licentiousness’ where being ‘the most savage natural instincts were unleashed (Nietzsche 2000, p.107), opposite in the sense of a comparison with Apollonian. ‘In artistic terms, Apollo is the god of the plastic representational arts of painting and sculpture’ (Nietzsche 2000, XVI) embracing a strong association with architecture whilst ‘Dionysus is the god of music, the art which is essentially non-representational and without physical form’ (Nietzsche 2000, XVI). Essentially, with reference to Nietzsche’s philosophies, it is the Apollonian component of Greek culture is responsible for the appearance of Greek serenity which will be handed down in the future, whilst the Dionysian element delves further into the darker side of the Greek culture – where a confrontation with ‘pain and destruction of existence horrifies but also consoles the importance of the individual’ (Nietzsche 2000, XVII).
Nietzsche uses the idea of Dionysus and Apollonian at great length in his discussion of art and Greek Tragedy. ‘Human art arises from the Apollonian/Dionysian struggle. Artists in the first instance are imitators either of Apollonian dreams or Dionysian ecstasies. Tragedy, combines and cross-fertilizes both’ (Nietzsche: Art as Illusion 2015, p.1). For example, the Dionysian element in music can be found in the chorus, whilst the Apollonian element is found in the dialogue. Of particular focus and a central element in Greek Tragedy, and much of the early chapters of Nietzsche’s book is involved in discussion of the ‘chorus’, that being ‘a collection of performers who narrated or passed comment on the action in unison’ (Gatherer 2014, p.1). Nietzsche claims in his studies that this sector of the performance is essentially Dionysus, which can clearly be related to the idea of de-individuation (that which is essentially Dionysus). Nietzsche presents the idea that the chorus acts as a philosophical comfort for the audience – that Greek tragedy overall, inclusive of the chorus, helps to bring forth essentially displeasing matters such as death and misery through the form of art, which in turn makes it much more bearable and somewhat enlivening. Being able to watch and embody emotions brought forth in Greek tragedy is considering the art form in an Apollonian way, ‘for the beauty of the dialogue and poetry utilized within the plays is logical and structured’ (Gatherer 2014, p.1) – in line with the concept of the Apollonian. ‘For Nietzsche, the chorus incarnates what he calls the ‘metaphysical consolation’ of tragedy, the reassuring insight that life itself remains fundamentally indestructible and pleasurable in spite of the suffering and death implied in individual existence’ (Nietzsche 2000, XVII). Nietzsche’s theory advocates that by combining the Apollonian and Dionysian, Greek Tragedy is favorable to mankind in helping to ‘sugar coat’ disagreeable thoughts by exhibiting them in an artistic and aesthetically pleasing manner.
Despite Nietzsche himself deeming The Birth of Tragedy as ‘badly written, ponderous, embarrassing, image-mad and image-confused’ (Sweet 1999, p.348) compared to his later works – his concepts are discussed regularly, and his theories have enabled many to gain a greater understanding of the structure of Greek society. When analyzing Greek Tragedy, the relationship between the artistic performance and the likes of Dionysian/Apollonian elements, Nietzche’s concepts are highly relevant. ‘It would be difficult and dangerous to implicate the concept of a culture that employs both Dionysian and Apollonian lifestyle in modern western cultures, however both focuses are certainly useful in our exploration of ancient or anthropological societies’ (Gatherer 2014, p.1). In many a tragic performance, the audience was able to rediscover itself in the chorus. The essence of Greek Tragedy allowed society to finally accept a sense of misery, psychologically it was of great assistance to a community who had long suffered. Nietzsche and The Birth of Tragedy can be read both as a history of the origin of Greek Tragedy but also assist in providing greater insight into the psychological mindset of the Ancient society.
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