- The Birth of Tragedy by Nietzsche


Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900) wrote his The Birth of Tragedy (1872) after the Romantic period. However he briefly asserts that Romantic art aimed at a harmonious unity with Nature. This unifying drive, he argues, is associated with the sun god Apollo, one of the Olympian pantheon. Nietzsche contended that the Greeks had invented their mythogical gods and goddesses as responses to their primeval fear of chaos. They gave a semblance of order and meaning to the otherwise chaotic Natural world.

During the 1870s Nietzsche was an close friend of Wagner, the German composer associated with Romantic music. The author argued that his music marked the renaissance of the Dionysian tradition in Europe, against the decadent rationalism of Apollonian culture. He thought that music was the means by which primordial unity could be achieved.

Nietzsche asserted that it was Socrates who traced out the philosophical path followed in 19th. century Europe. The Greek philosopher put a higher value on intellectual life than any other. This meant that the scholar was admired, the artist disregarded. Nietzsche claims that socratic thinking killed the spirit of Greek theatre through critical theorising. He sees this in Euripides' plays which appeal to the logical mind, ignoring myth which interprets reality through imaginative storytelling.

The author contended that 'objective truth' was based on the optimistic socratic concept that logic could reveal the workings of the universe. Nietzsche contends that this is a comforting, but false, idea devised by logical thought. He states that truth is relative and no amount of rationalisation can discover world reality. 

The author bases his philosophy on existence, rather than on bookish scholarship, though he himself was a scholar. He holds the traits of the Dionysian artist, originality and imagination, as the foundations of his thought. This leads him to blame traditional Christian values, like guilt, as instigators of contemporary cultural weakness. In his final book the author suggests exchanging Jesus, who represents the other world, with Dionysius who is present vitality. 

He asserts that there is no one universal moral reference. Everything is relative since:

"there are no facts, only interpretations." 

The author's existentialist contention was that there is no single ethical standard, so individuals must set their own.

Nietzsche was influenced by Schopenhauer, whom he read as an undergraduate. In The World as Will and Representation this philosopher explains his aesthetic theory analysing the forces that influence art, in particular a blind energy he calls the Will, which is basically irrational. This corresponds in Nietzsche to the Dionysian forces which work in Greek tragedy, where the Will aimed at self-contemplation in art.

Nietzsche states that he wrote The Birth of Tragedy "in spite of the time in which it was written." This is a refererence to composing it during an illness, which sent him home from fighting in the Prussian-French war. Nietzsche presents himself as isolated from current events, yet, ironically, his effort was to compile a theory explaining contemporary culture. His attitude, then, was somewhat of an armchair philosopher.

Nietzsche´s health deteriorated, until in 1889 he was interned in a mental hospital for the remaining 11 years of his life. However, he has had an influence on many 20th. century thinkers, particularly the existentialists. The German Nazi party took inspiration from his ideas on the overman, the Aryian race and the superiority of the German spirit. Others point out that his sister may have altered his writings after he was hospitalised, so as to agree with Nazi propaganda.


The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872) is a book on dramatic theory. It was re-published in 1886 as The Birth of Tragedy, Or Hellenism and Pessimism. It is structured as a Forward with 25 chapters.

The main theme of the work is that ancient Greek tragedy began through the mix of Apollonian and Dionysian perspectives. Chapters 1-15 distinguish their differing worldviews then compare them to understand how their combination formed a new sense of drama. Chapters 16-25 evaluate the contemporary context in the light of the previous analysis. The author deplores socratic logical thinking and advocates a return to dionysian philosophy. 

Forward: This addresses Richard Wagner, a close friend, in the hope that he will find the book of interest. Nietzsche mentions the contemporary 'German problem' of moral confusion which the book hopes to resolve through aesthetics, adding that art is the highest calling of life. 

According to Nietzsche Greek dramatic art previous to the influence of Dionysius was superficial, only interested in outward appearances. This meant that the spectator had no connection to the artwork, but merely contemplated it. Apolinian art shields the observer from the truth of existence: suffering. When the Dionysian tradition came on scene the onlooker was able to become immersed in the art through the 'primordial unity' which allows escape from suffering through art. For the author this is an alternative to religious salvation which entails rejecting the here and now and looking towards heaven. Dionysian salvation is achieved by concentrating on the present.

Finding salvation through Dionysius depends on revealing the spirit which lies under Apollonian appearances. The actors and chorus of the Greek tragedies are the Apollonian channels for the Dionysian spirit. However, they shield the audience against the chaos in this spirit and prevent spectator ecstasy and catharsis. It is not words, but music, which is the core of tragic art. It allows the audience to transcend awareness and connect to 'primordial unity' because music represents the 'world Will'.

Nietzsche blames the Greek playwright Euripides for killing the art of tragedy since he introduced socratic elements into his theatre. These included an obsession with knowledge and overconfidence in human logic. His emphasis on one individual abandoned the musical aspect which characterised the dionysian tradition. This meant destroying the balance between Apollo and Dionysius so intrinsic to the art. 

According to Nietzsche, Euripides involved the audience in the play, closing the gap between them and the drama. This ruined the element of suspense in the spectator, especially with the introduction of the prologue which acted as a spoiler to the coming story.

The author argues that the culture of the contemporary Age was still socratic in thinking, but this tradition was in danger. Kant and Schopenhauer had introduced the idea of science's inability to explain the universe and its mysteries. Nietzsche predicts the renaissance of tragedy which will remove socratic thinking. He presents Wagner's music as an example of this change.

Contrary to the perception that ancient Greek culture was enlightened, Nietzsche believed that the Greeks were combating pessimism. Their optimism that the world could be fathomed was an illusion. However, to achieve a balanced view he advises that both the Apollonian and the Dionysian points of view should be taken into account. Previous to Euripides both perspectives had been linked in Greek tragedy. Nietzsche ends on an optimistic note affirming that the German character has retained some primordial unity in spite of German culture. 


The Dionysian and Apollonian Spirits

According to the philosopher there are two basic perceptions of reality: the Apollonian and the Dionysian.

Apollo is the god of prophecy, light and music who spoke through the delphic oracle. Nietzsche associated Apollo with reason and the dream world. This is a sphere of illusions within a structured experience. It allows the differentiation between subject and object, the self and the other. Poetry is the way to capture the Apollonian spirit in language; sculpture and painting communicate it through images. 

Dionysus was the god of fertility, madness and tragedy. Nietzsche presented this god as the instigator of ecstatic unity. The dionysian intoxicated experience is also one of illusions, but based on instinct. It is emotional and irrational and in this chaotic reality the subject becomes one with its environment, that is, it attains primordial unity.

Both Apollo and Dionysius are gods of music, but in different forms:

“The music of Apollo was Doric architectonics in tones, but in merely suggested tones, such as those of the cithara [guitar]. The very element which forms the essence of Dionysian music (and hence of music in general) is carefully excluded as un-Apollonian; namely, the thrilling power of the tone, the uniform stream of the melos, and the thoroughly incomparable world of harmony.” 

Apollonian art is light and reasonable. It separates the subject from the community and emphasises the individual. The highest Apollonian art, according to Nietzsche, is sculpture, since it is highly structured. 

Dionysian art is that of emotion, madness and unity with others and with Nature. It is the experience of primordial union. It is best enjoyed through music.

In Nietzsche's philosophy reality is chaos. Humans face the vagaries of fate in a helpless state. To support this existence the Greeks invented the gods. They had human traits and could be moral and immoral. Apollo was a rational god who aimed at beauty to make life liveable. Cocooned in the Apollonian dream humans were shielded from the suffering and chaos of reality.

Then, from the East, came the cult of Dionysius. With it came the madness which allowed an insight into chaotic reality and the promise of a mystical unity between humanity and Nature. In the unity of Apollo and Dionysius a new art form emerged: the Greek tragedy.

This theatre evolved from a ritual hymn and dance (dithyramb) in honour of Dionysius. Tragedy was born when one character stepped out of the ritual and spoke in verse, interacting with the chorus who represented the spectator. Nietzsche saw this intervention in the Dionysian dithyramb as a move towards individuation and an intrusion of the Apollonian tradition. He asserted that Greek tragedy was the dialectical synthesis of both Apollonian and Dionysian traditions.

Nietzsche contended that the main character's Apollonian role in the tragedy was to seek a rational explanation for existential angst and so make sense of reality. The Dionysian element lay in the chorus and the chaotic events the protagonist experienced with their inevitable fate. The chorus, as representative of the audience's fears and hopes, remained stable. Nietzsche thought that this stability was a way of shielding them from the chaotic reality of Dionysian suffering. The art of tragedy allowed the spectator to experience the confusing reality indirectly, making it more tolerable.


For Nietzsche the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles enclosed the synthesis of Apollonian and Dionysian aspects of the drama. However, he argued that Euripides' New Attic Comedy reduced the role of the chorus and the ideal protagonists, thus encouraging audiences to identify with the ordinary main character, instead of the collective chorus. This meant that the public were directly confronted with the fears of existence, unaided by the chorus.

Nietzsche's analysis finds that Euripides followed socratic moral ideals which could not co-exist with Dionysian irrationality. He blames the playwright for upsetting the Apollonian-Dionysian dramatic balance:

“Dionysus had already been scared from the tragic stage, and in fact by a demonic power which spoke through Euripides. Even Euripides was, in a certain sense, only a mask: the deity that spoke through him was neither Dionysus nor Apollo, but an altogether new-born demon, called Socrates.”

According to the German philosopher Socrates allowed his rational mind to dominate his instincts. He added that it was absurd to search for a causal structure in art and argued that it ruined Greek tragedy. He contended that the death of tragedy came when dramatic enchantment was destroyed by theoretical logic. This brought an optimistic belief that there was a rational explanation for the mythical stories in the drama, whereas, in reality, myth and art predate rational thought. In Nietzsche's estimation Socrates was to blame for the removal of the Dionysian spirit in Greek tragedy.


The universality of music makes it a central idea for Nietzsche since it can connect to the Dionysian spirit by accessing the Will directly. It enables the audience to experience the delight of going beyond individual interests:

"Without music, life would be an error. The German imagines even God singing songs."

Music is the key to a people's soul and the philosopher predicts that contemporary German music can achieve the renaissance of tragedy because the German character retains a link to primitive unity. Wagner's music, in particular, is a reincarnation of Dionysian art.

(An example is Wagner's Ride of the Valkyrie sisters of Brünnhilde transporting fallen heroes to Valhalla.)


In Nietzsche's view the Greeks were sensitive to suffering in the world. They tried to allay this compassionate feeling by creating the Olypian gods. However they were just outward shows and did not appease sentiments. Within the Apollonian tradition humanity remained aware of its fate, controlled by dark forces.

Dionysius offered a lasting solution to the problem, not through appearances, but by involving the individual in the collective unconscious. It was at the core of primal unity that a person could find salvation from personal fate. Existential suffering is the result of thinking one suffers alone. Dionysius reveals the great chaos at the heart of everything. The god encourages humans to lose themselves in this chaos and evolve beyond suffering.

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