The 1872 publication of The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, a seminal work by Friedrich Nietzsche, includes the essay “Foreword to Richard Wagner.” In the 1886 edition of the book (Die Geburt der Tragödie: Oder, Griechenthum und Pessimismus; “the birth of tragedy: or, Greek culture and pessimism”) Nietzsche replaced this tribute to the German composer with “Attempt at a Self Critique,” in which he rejects the creative direction of Wagner’s operas.
The two introductory pieces to The Birth of Tragedy, the work’s short title, recapitulate the development of Nietzsche’s thought from an earlier, more romantic understanding of the central conceptual framework he offers in his contrast of the Apollonian and Dionysian categories. The first understanding emphasizes the potential for a new flourishing of tragedy in the arts of Germany, while the second understanding is framed with Nietzsche’s more sober reversal of the values of optimism and pessimism. The spirit of music yields to the spirit of pessimism as the chief agent in the production of art through what Nietzsche terms a “transvaluation” of values.
The Birth of Tragedy itself is structured around an explanation of the rise of literature in Greek culture. The artistic impulse first manifests itself with the invention of the pantheon of Olympic gods, then with the parallel creations of the Apollonian epic and Dionysian lyric verse. These two forms are later united in Greek tragedy, which represents the acme of human thought and expression. This high point, Nietzsche argues, is followed by a decline from the time of Euripides to Socrates. Nietzsche then argues for the primacy of the arts over philosophy as the means for understanding human existence, and he closes with a foreshadowing of the possible rebirth of tragedy in his own contemporary German culture.
Elements of this last argument were soon used and abused by thinkers as well as tyrants, in particular Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, to claim an inherently superior status for German art and culture. Nietzsche, however, offers no such unambiguous nationalist agenda within The Birth of Tragedy; indeed, he explicitly states that the possibility for this union of Apollonian and Dionysian art exists within all cultures.
The Apollonian and the Dionysian offer perhaps the most significant challenges to an Aristotelian reading of Greek tragedy. In The Birth of Tragedy, the Apollonian aspect of creativity deals with image and representation, which Nietzsche terms the “plastic arts.” Nietzsche links the Apollonian with the individual, the rational, and the male, and argues that this force creates a world of dreams. The Dionysian, in sharp contrast, arises from an original oneness of all being that precedes individuation. Nietzsche links it with the state of intoxication and with the female, and argues that this force creates a state of ecstasy. Late in the work, he employs the metaphor contained in the Greek term pharmakos, a word that means both “poison” and “medicine,” to characterize the union between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The Dionysian brings with it the knowledge of all human suffering and therefore has the potential to destroy those who can grasp that knowledge, but when the Dionysian is tempered with an Apollonian ordering in images, it becomes its own antidote.
In the work’s opening argument, Nietzsche explains that the Olympian gods function as a metaphor for the great variety of human experience and remain fundamentally amoral. As metaphor, Apollo, god of the plastic arts, rules the dream, and in dreams, all actions have meaning. The dreamer retains a sense of self while fully participating in an alternative reality. This Apollonian arena, Nietzsche asserts, comes purely from Greek culture.
Dionysos, god of music, on the other hand, enters the pantheon from an alien culture, which Nietzsche will later identify as Asian. The rituals for this god erase all sense of self, and thus all...
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