On Friedrich Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music”


Friedrich Nietzsche’s book “The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music” offers interesting insight regarding the role of the Apollonian, the Dionysian, and the Socratic in regards to the theory of art.  Nietzsche views art as the ultimate human activity, the pinnacle of human existence, and even states that “art is the highest task and the true metaphysical activity of this life” (14).  Among different disciplines of art, he views tragedy as the highest form of art, due to the complex equilibrium present between the dichotomy of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Alas, Greek tragedy has become a lost art due to the conception of Socratic philosophy and the application of it by Euripides.  After two thousand years of being long lost, Nietzsche proposes that the return to tragedy of modern society offers the revitalization of creative force, which is achievable through the revitalization of music, specifically German music, which in turn revitalizes myth, and therefore the creative power of man.  

To understand what the role of the Apollonian, Dionysian, and the Socratic are in Nietzsche’s theory of art, we must first learn about the roles of Apollo and Dionysus in their roles in the formation of art and tragedy.  In chapter 1, Nietzsche jumps right into describing the duality of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, comparing it to the complex relationship between men and women: “the continuous evolution of art is bound up with the duality of the Apolline and the Dionysiac in much the same way as reproduction depends on there being two sexes which co-exist in a state of perpetual conflict interrupted only occasionally by periods of reconciliation.”  These two deities of art – Apollo the “image-maker or sculptor” and Dionysus of the “imageless art of music” – exist in conflict, stimulating each other “to give birth to ever-new, more vigorous offspring in whom they perpetuate the conflict inherent in the opposition between them.” He continues, “by a metaphysical miracle of the Hellenic ‘Will’, they appear paired… finally engendering a work of art which is Dionysiac and Apolline in equal measure: Attic (Athenian) tragedy.”  Like how men and women, whom despite their differences, must come together as one to procreate, the Apollonian and the Dionysian must come together in an intermingling of dialogue and chorus, respectively, to create the highest form of art, which is tragedy.  It is the result of the complex dichotomy between Dionysus and Apollo (14), “of both dream and intoxication” (19).  

So what is the role of the Apollonian and the Dionysian in Nietzsche’s theory of art?  Nietzsche uses the analogy of “dream” and “intoxication” to illustrate the contradictory nature of the two deities.  The Greek deity Apollo is “the god of all image-making energies” and is associated with the “joyous necessities of dream-experience […] as the god of all image-making energies, Apollo is also the god of prophecy” (16), whereas Dionysus is the intoxication, or “influence of narcotic drink”, which we can take a glimpse of when the “breakdown of the principium individuationis (principle of individuation) occurs.” (17) One may practice sculpture, or image-making, and be an Apollonian “dream-artist”, create music and be a Dionysian “artist of intoxication”, or practice Greek tragedy, and be “an artist of both dream and intoxication at once.” (19) To Nietzsche, the Apollonian and the Dionysian exist to fulfill its roles to complement each other – to create tragedy, which is the highest form of art.

What about the Socratic?  What is the role of the Socratic in Nietzsche’s theory of art?  To say the least, Nietzsche is furious about Socrates’ teachings (and Euripides’ tendency to “expel the original and all-powerful Dionysiac element from tragedy” [59]), and makes every attempt to cut down on his theories, going so far as to calling him a “new born daemon”, while Euripides was “merely a mask”, and blaming him for the downfall of Greek tragedy: “This is the new opposition: the Dionysiac versus the Socratic, and the work of art that was once Greek tragedy was destroyed by it.” (60) Nietzsche blames Socrates for the ruining of Greek tragedy by driving out the Dionysian element from it by not understanding tragedy since he is “the forerunner of a completely different culture, art, and morality” (66) and through a “monstrous lack of any capacity for mysticism” (67).  This is all due to the teaching of Socrates, according to Nietzsche: “We can therefore now get closer to the nature of aesthetic socratism, whose supreme law runs roughly like this: ‘In order to be beautiful, everything must be reasonable’ – a sentence formed in parallel to Socrates’ dictum that ‘Only he who knows is virtuous.’  With this canon in hand Euripides measures every single element – language, characters, dramatic construction, choral music – and rectified it in accordance with this principle.” (62)  As seen here, Socrates champions reason as the basis of beauty.  This is in direct opposition to the Dionysian, which is chaos, intoxication, and ecstasy.  This opposition to Dionysus is also seen in Euripides’ aesthetic principle.  Nietzsche states, “his aesthetic principle, ‘Everything must be conscious in order to be beautiful’, is a parallel to Socrates’ assertion that, ‘Everything must be conscious in order to be good.’” (64)  

For these reasons regarding the Apollonian, the Dionysian, and the Socratic, Greek tragedy is an artistic phenomenon that is special in its own right. Its genesis came to be from merely an Apollonian phenomenon to a dichotomy that interplays with the Dionysian (16, 17) and its nature is an equilibrium between the logic of the Apollonian (dialogue) and the chaos of the Dionysian (chorus).  Although Greek tragedy was cut short by the ignorant efforts of Socrates and Euripides, Nietzsche proposed that tragedy be resurrected.  The question that arises from this notion is “what would a return to tragedy have to offer the modern world?”

For Nietzsche, revival of Greek tragedy meant great prosperity for the modern world, or during Nietzsche’s time, modern Germany.  He starts off chapter 16 by stating, “it is certain that tragedy perishes with the disappearance of the spirit of music, and it is just as certain that this spirit alone can give birth to tragedy.”  Then he specifically targets “optimistic science” as his “most illustrious opposition to the tragic view of the world”. (76) For young Nietzsche, it was his passion for Germany that sparked his interest in the notion of revival. The optimism and science that surrounds Alexandrian culture, which is “equipped with the highest powers of understanding and working in the service of science” and whose progenitor is Socrates, is stated to be imagining itself to be limitless, when it is in fact not.  (86) Nietzsche describes this Alexandrian culture as a “catastrophe slumbering in the womb”, as if breakdown is imminent.  (87) 

In the following pages, Nietzsche starts to get very specific with his proposal for the revival of the Dionysian by targeting the inferior opera. In chapter 19 he states: “Nothing can define the innermost substance of this Socratic culture more sharply than the culture of the opera, for in this area our culture has given evidence of its will and understanding with unique naivete.” (89)  To Nietzsche, opera is the archetype of Socratic philosophy.  It is “born of theoretical man, of a layman as critic, not of the artist,” and therefore offers no artistic ingenuity. (91) Therefore, it must be destroyed – or, more specifically, replaced by “something terrifying and inexplicable, something overpowering and hostile, namely German music, as we see it in the mighty, brilliant course it has run from Bach to Beethoven, from Beethoven to Wagner.” (94) What does this revival of music have to do with German prosperity?  According to Nietzsche, it is a way to drive out certain foreign influences, mainly Latin influences, which is opera, a promoter of naivete: “[…] we feel that the birth of a tragic age means the return of the German spirit to itself, a blissful reunion with its own being after the German spirit, which had been living in hopeless formal barbarism […] Now, at long last, having returned to the original spring of its being, that spirit can dare to walk, bold and free, before all other peoples, without the leading-reins of Latin civilization.” (95) By driving out this Latin influence called opera and replacing it with German music, Nietzsche theorizes the return of myth – “the contracted image of the world” – which in turn “all the energies of fantasy and Apolline dream be saved from aimless meandering,” as a way to describe that myth helps men find their creative will and purpose.  He continues to compare abstract education, morality, law, and state that is devoid of guidance from myth to emphasize that culture which has no secure and sacred place of origin is “condemned to exhaust every possibility and to seek meagre nourishment from all other cultures” – in other words, the current state of Germany. (109) Like so, Nietzsche theorizes that the rebirth of tragedy has much to offer modern Germany.  

In conclusion, Nietzsche again emphasizes that both the Apollonian and the Dionysiac are required for the existence of tragedy, which in turn is the existence of music, which is myth, and also creative power, to “unfold their energies in strict, reciprocal  proportion, according to the law of eternal justice.”  (116) Indeed, the return to tragedy of modern society offers great benefits for modern society, or in Nietzsche’s case, Germany.

Works cited

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Translated by Ronald Speirs. Edited by Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs. London: Cambridge University Press.