Friedrich Nietzsche’s first book provides me with my twenty-sixth selection. The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music was originally published in 1872 and is very much the work of youth. In it we find an exuberant Nietzsche, boldly challenging the understanding of Greek tragedy that prevailed in the German academies of that time. Although I have a solid knowledge of Greek history and culture, I do not know nearly enough to challenge or agree to Nietzsche’s assertions. His fellow academics almost unanimously rejected his ideas, and the book would damage his academic reputation for the rest of his career. The great sin that warranted such negativity is Nietzsche’s assertion that the Greeks were not simple, noble, naive people. Instead, according to Nietzsche, the Greeks struggled with the negative feelings that accompany the knowledge that life is fleeting and the world imperfect. There are two ways to deal with these feelings. The first is to seek beauty and order in individuality. The second is to recognize the common life force that endures forever in all of nature. Nietzsche believes that the Greeks embodied the first response in the myth of Apollo, patron god of beauty and the plastic arts. Dionysos, god of wine and nature, represents the other. The struggle between these two impulses, the Apollonian and the Dionysiac, is the struggle between light and darkness. Apollo represents the optimistic side of life that allows individuals to achieve greatness. Dionysos represents the commonality of all nature that is aware of the fleeting quality of its various forms, but accepts it through communion with the greater whole. These opposing urges eventually combined in the form of Greek tragedy. Tragedy provides the highest possible experience of both the Apollonian and the Dionysiac urges. Eventually Euripides and Socrates sought to deny the Dionysiac urge and bring the entire world into the light. This killed tragedy and planted the seeds for the destruction of Classical Grecian culture. Nietzsche’s arguments on this topic can be a bit confusing, and it is here that his youth is most visible.
After establishing his theories about Greek tragedy, Nietzsche goes on to trace the decline of the Dionysiac spirit in human history. He believes that the Socratic drive for knowledge as the source of all good replaced the Apollonian/Dionysiac dualism that had led to the flowering of Greek culture. Socrates killed myth, and without myth tragedy cannot endure. Instead science replaces the mythology of Ancient Greece and the standard of knowledge becomes the driving force of culture. According to Nietzsche, mankind was just beginning to realize the insufficiency of this new system in his day. German culture was showing signs of a rebirth of true tragedy in the works Goethe and Wagner. Such a rebirth of the Apollonian/Dionysiac spirit is needed if man is to recapture the cultural heights reached by the Ancient Greeks.
The Birth of Tragedy was republished in 1886 with a critical preface by Nietzsche. He criticizes his youthful arrogance in grappling with such complicated issues before he had the literary or intellectual skills to fully develop them. His critique is very fair. Nietzsche gets so overcome by his own excitement about his topic that he makes leaps without demonstrating the logical foundation for his assertions. Despite that fact, this book is an excellent read. The chapters dealing with Greek tragedy specifically are a bit narrow to be popularly enjoyed, but the chapters reflecting on the various aesthetic, moral, and cultural currents affecting Western society are as true and perspicacious now as they were then. Even in his first major work as a thinker, Nietzsche reveals the genius that would lead him to be one of the most influential philosophers of the modern age. For that reason, it is well worth reading.
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