#3 The Birth of Tragedy…


Was Greek Tragedy the best possible form of ‘aesthetic justification’ of existence of the world? – D. Tilsley

Nietzsche in general was concerned with the threat of nihilism; he claimed that the world was full of suffering and sadness. But through Greek tragedy, we may justify existence in this world of suffering, and avoid succumbing to nihilism. But is this the best possible form of aesthetic justification? Nietzsche’s aestheticism may be contrasted with that of Schopenhauer.

Nietzsche’s aim in The Birth of Tragedy is to show how Greek tragedy is aesthetic intuition into the nature of our human tendencies, the conflicting drives that form the basis of our culture. This is the conflict and overlapping of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The Apollonian form of art represents the image, ordered and individualised within borders and boundaries (with the possibility of transgression). The Apollonian is equated with the individual, looking out and contemplating the world from her safe space (Nietzsche refers to Schopenhauer’s analogy of sitting in a boat surrounded by violent waves, but confident in the safety of the boat). The Apollonian represents dreams, which can (in an almost Freudian sense) be a means of gaining knowledge that was not immediately accessible to you; namely knowledge about your life. But, as Nietzsche is not dealing with a binary dichotomy (the Apollonian is reason, the Dionysian is instinct), the Apollonian principle has negative aspects. Dreams can be a sort of illusion or deception, perhaps Nietzsche is suggesting (linking to his perspective in On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense) that we do not have access to certain truths, only our own perspective on the truth. The duality between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, Aesthetic intuition can be likened to Schopenhauer’s take on the Veil of Maya; it is the means by which we raise the veil and see beyond the illusions, and see (what we believe to be) the nature of things (in this case the drives at the root of our culture).

The Apollonian is contrasted with the Dionysian. The Dionysian represents unity with the whole and nature- it is our contact with the world as the barriers and boundaries are broken down. It is the natural rush- instinct. Dionysius was the god of wine, thus the Dionysian represents drunkenness or intoxication, the general feeling of being overwhelmed. The Dionysian is free and unbound from humankind’s constructs. The Dionysian is an essential part of us, Nietzsche claims, it is inescapable. Greek tragedy recognises this duality, the conflict between the Dionysian and the Apollonian. It brings them together into a tragic story which acts as aesthetic insight into ourselves and our culture. The central actor represents the Apollonian, the individual trying to break out from the whole, the Dionysian chorus. To break out from the whole and maintain one’s individuality and meaning is traumatic and difficult, and as is custom with tragedy’s, often results in suffering and death. For Nietzsche, tragedy is aesthetic intuition due to the participation of the audience; they see the Dionysian drives and rushes inside of themselves an acknowledge the need for boundaries to maintain the sense of individuality. But also they recognise the dangers and vulnerabilities of individuality, and that an element of oneness with the whole will shield us to an extent from nihilistic suffering.

‘The central actor represents the Apollonian, the individual trying to break out from the whole – the Dionysian chorus.’


Nietzsche claims that Greek tragedy was a sort of religious experience, a festival of aesthetic intuition. This is because tragedy was not just a presentation of an act, rather it brings about experience of a tragic event. As discussed, the audience takes part in the tragedy, relating to the Dionysian and Apollonian, and the nihilistic suffering that characterises existence. Tragedy roots us back into experiencing our natural tendencies and drives, and is an attempt to justify the existence of the world. To be specific, the practice of tragedy, and the audience engagement with it is an attempt to justify the world through the enactment of the Apollonian and Dionysian roots of our culture. The world and existence is thus justified “only as an aesthetic phenomenon” (NR 68). The question is, is tragedy at all a good way of justifying existence and the world? In a sense yes, because through tragedy, the whole is engaged in the practice of their own drives and tendencies. It recognises that suffering is integral to life, and attempts to justify it in-itself, in a sense that it affirms that this is the world to which we belong. Greek tragedy reconciles the Apollonian and the Dionysian n that thy act together as ab aesthetic phenomenon. There is no sense in trying to escape the whole and become fully individual, as this will lead to tragedy; but conversely we must also not allow ourselves to collapse into total intoxication. Suffering is necessary to the movement of life, as the act of becoming an individual, out of the unity of the chorus (the world) is painful in-itself. Life is about suffering, but it is also about setting up and transgressing your own boundaries. This is quite an existential perspective, where we must take charge of our own lives and respond to the threat of nihilism by seeing the joy in transgressing our boundaries; joy comes out of suffering, we just need to learn to see the joy in life.

This justification of the world is a development out of Schopenhauer’s pessimism. Schopenhauer also argued that life is characterised by suffering- it is a constant movement between boredom and dissatisfaction. We have desires, which causes pain in waiting (boredom), pain in wanting more of the same or something new, and pain in being dissatisfied when we achieve these desires. This is all driven by the Will, the thing-in-itself that acts as the foundation of the world. We may temporarily escape the empirical Will (representation) by engaging with art. Art allows us to escape the desires imposed upon us. Through visual art we may get absorbed in representation, abstracted of desire. Perhaps more powerfully however, we get lost in objectless music, which takes us out of desire and into an expression of Will itself- pure experience of the Will. This is where the term ‘to lose oneself’ comes from. But this is not a sufficient justification of the world, by virtue of it making no attempt to actually justify existence. Schopenhauer merely takes us to a temporary place beyond our own desires, but he admits that we would be better off dead, or better, having not been born. This is an overwhelmingly pessimistic approach which doesn’t try to escape nihilism; Schopenhauer collapses almost fully into it.

Nietzsche’s aesthetic intuition into Greek Tragedy, while recognisant of the immense weight of suffering and internal conflict between our natural tendencies that exist in the world, attempts to see the positive of life and becoming, instead of offering some temporary opium to sooth its effects, as Schopenhauer does.

Could Nietzsche have written The Birth of Tragedy without reference to Greek tragedy? – E. English

The first step towards answering this question involves highlighting what it is The Birth of Tragedy does.  Aside from tracking the fall, decline and resurgence of the tragic from of drama, Nietzsche’s work highlights several metaphysical problems, as well as justifying the suffering of the world.  But, the question remains: does Nietzsche require the example of Greek tragedy to maintain his metaphysical positions and to justify existence?

The metaphysical aspects of this text, alluded to above, include:

  1. The distinction (or lack thereof) between appearance and reality
  2. Ideas of an underlying Unity
  3. Interesting notions of simultaneous objectivity and subjectivity

In addition to:

  1. The justification of the world’s existence in the face of suffering and, ironically, tragedy

The idea that the empirical world is a representation of the original Unity, and the dreaming world is a representation of the empirical world, leads to the notion of dreams being appearances of appearances.[1]  Does Nietzsche require Greek tragedy in order to make this claim? No, because the dramatic arts are only a single aspect of the generalised ‘empirical world’.  Does he require the concepts of the Dionysian and the Apollonian to qualify the claim?  That is more difficult to answer.  Initially it appears not, as a description of dreams and empirical reality does not immediately call into mind the Greek Gods – mere mythological creations.  However, the idea that the empirical world is a representation or appearance of something else, some underlying force, is, partially, dependent upon the use of Dionysus.  The Dionysian, for Nietzsche, embodies the unity of all things and destroys the principium idividuationis.[2]  Therefore, for the claim that there is an underlying reality to be justified, Nietzsche requires the Dionysian – an aspect of Greek mythology and tragic culture.  But, other writers have managed to argue for an underlying reality without the use of mythology.  For instance, Plato’s realm of the Forms; Schopenhauer’s Will; and Plotinus’ the One, to name but a few.

‘Nietzsche believed that tragedy was the best justification of existence as it represented the perfect combination of the Dionysian and the Apollonian, through the effort of the Hellenic will.’

Nietzsche’s notion of art being simultaneously subject and object – subject of the underlying Unity, and representative of the Unity’s objectivity – relies on Dionysus in a similar sense.  It is dependent on Greek mythology in Nietzsche’s narrative, but may be based upon anything which gives an explanation, and therefore a justification, for how the metaphysical claim is possible.  Moreover, in justifying existence Nietzsche seems to be reliant upon Greek tragedy.  He believed that tragedy was the best justification of existence as it was the perfect combination of two opposing forces – the Dionysian and the Apollonian – by a conscious effort of the ‘Hellenic will’.[3]  The Apollonian provides a beautiful mask through which the joy of destruction by the Dionysian is acceptable.  Hence, through tragedy the world’s existence (and the suffering it entails) is justified, rather than merely escaped.  However, this also justifies the existence and continuation of Greek tragedy itself.

Whether or not The Birth of Tragedy could have been written without reference to the tragic drama of the Greeks depends upon an interpretation of the actual purpose of the text.  If the purpose, as it first seems, is to glorify and call for the continuation of Greek tragedy, then it could not have been written convincingly without reference to tragedy.  However, if the real purpose was to expose metaphysical truths, it is possible that Nietzsche could have explained his metaphysics without reference to Greek art.  Instead appealing to another concept in order to provide an adequate foundation for his thought.  In this way, the history of Hellenic culture through the work of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides provides a nice backstory and context through which Nietzsche can express himself.

In short, it would, hypothetically, have been possible for Nietzsche to have written The Birth of Tragedy in a different way – provided that his true aim was to layout a metaphysical system.  If this holds, the use of tragedy is a stylistic method through which Nietzsche demonstrates himself and nothing more.

What is the role of art in its various forms in Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy? – E. Burt

Art is integral to Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, the crux of his argument being explored through the two types of Greek art, the Apollonian and the Dionysian. It is the key components of these two art forms as well as their interaction which is of such interest to Nietzsche, who evaluates the demise of their perfect harmony to conclude that the rise of rationalism from Socrates and later tragedy writers such as Euripides destroyed the art of tragedy by displacing the artistic balance.

In order to explore the role of tragedy as art, it is firstly necessary to assess the dichotomy of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, the types of art they represent and why Nietzsche places such a strong emphasis on their relationship. The Apollonian represents, in its artistic sense, physical art, particularly sculpture and what Nietzsche describes as ‘plastic arts’[1]. This is translated into the association of the Apollonian with dreams, as it is ultimately bound to the notion of imagery. The Dionysian on the other hand is associated with the imageless, specifically music, which is translated into the boundary-less world of intoxication. It is in the interweaving of these two seemingly opposite ideas occurring in Greek tragedy that Nietzsche believes art was united; when a bond is formed between them, ‘the highest goal of tragedy and of art itself is achieved’[2].

This artistic balance was removed as the tragic playwrights, beginning with Sophocles but particularly Euripides, began to decrease the role of the chorus. For Nietzsche the chorus plays a vital role in the beauty of tragedy as it represents the annihilation of the individual and the subsummation of the individual in the whole. The Euripidean destruction of the role of the chorus in accordance with his move toward a much more Apollonian- focused tragedy resulted in an emphasis on individual characters; all of these aspects of Euripidean tragedy represent an imbalance in the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy. It is this decrease of the Dionysian in Euripides’ plays that is so striking in demonstrating the relationship between realism and tragic theater. These plays were generally considered more naturalistic and came at a time of increased rationality with the rise of Socratic philosophy. Yet this is the very area that makes Nietzsche’s criticism of the removal of the Dionysian so significant. It is understandable that these plays may be considered more naturalistic from a performance stance in the removal of the chorus and focus on main characters. However, surely if Nietzsche is correct and ancient Greek culture was fundamentally a culture of suffering and pessimism, the removal of the Dionysian element is counter intuitive to achieving naturalism, or at least realism in portraying Greek culture.

‘Is the purpose of art, for Nietzsche, to capture the reality of life?’

This leads us to consider the original question of this discussion, what is the role of art for Nietzsche? Is the purpose of art, for Nietzsche, to capture the reality of life? It seems unlikely that the importance he places on the Dionysian, particularly the chorus, and Greek tragedy on the whole with its fundamentally mythological nature, could lead us to suppose realism was Nietzsche’s main praise of art. Rather, it is the far less causal relationship between life and art which Nietzsche seems to emphasise, that ‘existence and the world appear justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon’[3]. The almost romantic image Nietzsche produces in his description of a drive which ‘calls art into life as the completion and perfection of existence which seduces the living into living on’[4] demonstrates the role of art. It is not the accurate portrayal of life or providing beauty which we must then live our lives by, but the mere fact of its existence enriches, justifies and gives meaning to our lives which makes art so significant for Nietzsche. From this it is easy to see how the perfection of Greek tragedy in its interweaving of opposing art forms in harmony is so integral for Nietzsche’s understanding of art.

For more info on The Birth of Tragedy, read this >>> https://thoughtetcblog.wordpress.com/2017/02/02/the-birth-of-tragedy-from-the-spirit-of-music-infographic-summary/ 

[1] 74*

[2] 84*

[3] 85*

[4] 50*

*( refers to p. xyz in The Nietzsche Reader edited by K. Ansell Pearson and D. Large (Blackwell, 2006) )


[1] Nietzsche, Friedrich. ‘The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music’ in The Nietzsche Reader edited by K. Ansell Pearson and D. Large (Blackwell, 2006) pp. 51-52

[2] Nietzsche, Friedrich. ‘The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music’ in The Nietzsche Reader edited by K. Ansell Pearson and D. Large (Blackwell, 2006) pp. 42-46

[3] Nietzsche, Friedrich. ‘The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music’ in The Nietzsche Reader edited by K. Ansell Pearson and D. Large (Blackwell, 2006) p. 42

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