Walter Kaufmann once made the interesting observation of how Friedrich Nietzsche’s work differs from those of common philosophers in that his content is easily readable but complex to understand, reversing the established dynamics of philosophic writing. It is this form of diction and eloquence which characterizes Nietzsche as a thinker, creating a body of work with one of the most unique voices in history. Nietzsche’s affection with the proper use of words and ideas originates from his aesthetic ideal, one that professed the biggest importance to the field of art. He was so firm of this conviction he based his first philosophic work on the exploration of the Greek tragedy, an art he considered to perhaps be the main catalyst for the transformation of the medium.
The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche’s long-awaited first book, originally received a lukewarm reception when published. Many among the intellectual community came to consider the manuscript lacking of any fundamental substance and purpose. It wasn’t only after Nietzsche’s mental collapse and subsequent death that it came to be known as a monumental step to uncovering the mysteries of ancient thought.
While it is by no means a complete book in terms of encompassing the whole of Nietzsche’s thoughts on the subject and its ties to his overall philosophy, it provides an interesting look into the development of his ideas before he prepared them for constant publications. Some scholars have noted how the book was written on a much younger period of Nietzsche’s life and are quick to observe how most of the ideas found in it will later have a coherent structure in future books. Nietzsche himself mentioned this youthful ignorance in a 1883 version of the book with his essay “Attempt at a Self-Criticism”.
The book begins its first chapters by defining with accuracy the concepts of the Dionysian and Apollonian forms of Greek art. Nietzsche sees both forms of art as a response to the grim and hopeless conditions of life in Ancient Greece, only each deal with such conflicts in different forms:
The Greek knew and felt the terror and horror of existence. That he might endure his terror at all, he had to interpose between himself and life the radiant dreambirth of the Olympians. That overwhelming dismay in the face of the titanic powers of nature. (42)
The Apollonian form art highlights all that is splendorous and beautiful of existence through the use of music and grace. It acts as a shield to the horrible conditions of existence, and uses the god Apollo as its anchor, “the deity of light, ruler over the beautiful illusion of the inner world of fantasy.”(35) In contrast, the Dionysian form is all that can be consider intoxication, violent, grotesque, and excessive. However, Nietzsche notes how this condition of life turns existence into an exploration into the causes of our suffering in direct result of our impulses:
The horrible “witches’ brew” of sensuality and cruelty become ineffective; only the curious blending of duality in the emotions of the Dionysian revelers remind us — as medicines remind us of deadly poisons — of the phenomenon that pain begets joy, that ecstasy may wring sounds of agony from us. (40)
This striking truth of the Dionysian form ultimately comes into contact with the Apollonian form to in turn create Greek tragedy.
Nietzsche postulates that Greek tragedy began to take shape with the introduction of Homer and Archilochus’ epic poems into the daily lives of its citizens. The poems contained a mixture of barbaric and compassionate actions between the protagonists of the conflict. The imagery is expressed in vivid detail, presenting a powerful view of the consequences of war on the human psyche, as seen through the sorrow of Achilles, Paris, and Hector over the course of the epic. It was only through the sophisticated use of language that these images were captured, opening the way to more creative and enlightened forms of expressions of hardship the Greek world had to endure.
To better understand the formation of Greek tragedy, Nietzsche found it necessary to uncover the significance of the Greek chorus, along with the many parts which encompassed the entirety of Greek theater. It is here where he distinguishes the importance of the satyr:
The satyr was the archetype of man, the embodiment of his highest and most intense emotions, the ecstatic reveler enraptured by the proximity of his god, the sympathetic companion in whom the suffering of the god is repeated, one who proclaims wisdom from the very heart of nature, a symbol of the sexual omnipotence of nature which the Greeks used to contemplate with reverent wonder. (61)
The satyr’s function was to represent the “collective identity” of the Greek public watching the tragedy unfold through the use of the chorus. Their role was to serve as guide to the emotional journey, and were meant to hold a very delicate task of perfectly capturing the audience. This is the quality that managed to strike a chord, a bond, which the art of tragedy a crucial source conflict to the Greek culture.
Nietzsche concludes the first part of the book by postulating how the end of tragedy in the Greek world took place when the introduction of the Socratic method began to influenced the Athenian playwrights, in particular the work of Euripides. This exploration resulted in a more grounded and rudimentary approach to art in the Greek perception of existence. The connection between the Dionysian and Apollonian became corrupted, or rather transformed into a more scientific view. From this point forward, every form of tragedy will make use of more concrete and less abstract ideas. Despite his lack of mention in the manuscript, Plato’s views on art could’ve perhaps played a role into the development of caution among his listeners to these types of traditions.
Nietzsche’s studies in Greek art are based in large part with his strong desire to validate the importance of artistic merit in the exploration of existence. By demonstrating the intrinsic connection Greek tragedy had with its philosophy, Nietzsche was attempting to show how art is used as a veil for our own actions. In his exploration, he was able to characterize the Greek art of tragedy as a complete form of expression strong and firm enough to move its audience to a state of euphoria over its captivating spectacle of music and drama. It was this connection which provided a much spiritual guide for the Greeks in their most enduring periods. This attitude and tradition was the essence of what Nietzsche believed was missing in the modern world: a lack of connection with our own condition. This idea will be the one dominating the rest of his philosophical exploration all the way up to his tragic mental breakdown on January 3rd, 1889.
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