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A Young Nietzsche’s Contribution to Modern Irrationalism

A Young Nietzsche’s Contribution to Modern Irrationalism

Wednesday, 15 March, 2023 - 12:00

Many nineteenth-century European philosophers and thinkers put forward their interpretations of Greek tragedies, which Aristotle had been the first to engage with. Nonetheless, the grand occasion came in 1872, when Friedrich Nietzsche, at the age of twenty-eight, published his first book, "The Birth of Tragedy." Although his work generated a lot of noise and smoke, it doubtlessly undermined his standing and prospects as a university professor, because he went against the prevailing consensus among intellectuals, especially with his positions on and his assessment of the ancient Greeks.

However, when Nietzsche issued a second edition of the book in 1886, he wrote a prologue that he called "An Attempt at Self-Criticism," in which he shared his reservations about the original version. He criticized the book, among other things, for being "impossible," "heavy," "embarrassing," "poorly written," and "sentimental," and for lacking in "logical cleanliness." Nonetheless, this essay does not imply that Nietzsche abandoned the spirit and tone of the book.

In any case, many scholars of Nietzsche saw The Birth of Tragedy as a foundational text of the modern irrational tendency in the Western cultural tradition. What, then, is the central idea of this referential philosophical-philological text?

Nietzsche argued that Greek tragedies balanced Apollo and his tradition with Dionysus and his tradition; rather, they synthesized them, allowing the viewer to experience both sides of the human condition, or, to be more precise, the totality of the human condition.

Dionysus, whom the ancient Greeks associated with wine, symbolized many meanings and festivities, including fertility, ritual madness, theatre, intoxication, and ecstasy. He is young, hot, and reckless human energy, nature in its primordial and raw form. It is thanks to him that we come closer to all that is earthly and sensual through pleasure and dance, and especially through music.

As for Apollo, he is the god of healing, medicine, and poetry. With the "dream-like paradox" inherent within him, he expresses the aesthetics of form and its creation, as well as the beautiful illusions. And Apollo withstands and controls pain; he encompasses thought, logic, and the mind that calculates things and drives us to individuation and contemplation through disengagement from the surrounding world.

Dionysianism, then, is chaos, music, and the erasure of borders, while Apollonism is borders, order, sculpture, and plastic, and visual arts...Dionysian energy comprises, according to Nietzsche, a barbaric form of humanity that can be traced back to the Vandals, with their brutality and propensity for destruction, and to the other ancient Germanic peoples. However, when those values reached Athens, the Athenians contained their unbridled power with the power of the Apollonian represented in the Homeric epic. And when Greek tragedy emerged, it brought the rational and the irrational sides together; they complimented one another, and the aesthetic principle that pleases the senses appeared side by side with the sublime principle that marks our understanding of the world. The perpetual question, according to the German philosopher, is how to experience the Dionysian side of life without destroying Apollonian values, as it is neither healthy nor feasible for individuals or groups to live per the values of one of the two systems without incorporating the other. Though they clashed, Apollo and Dionysus are brothers, each of whom carries the seeds of the other within him. They are not merely articulations of the human soul but also two artistic energies born of the heart of nature.

If Apollo is representation, in the sense that Schopenhauer, who influenced Nietzsche, used the term, Dionysus is the will, and it is through him that we push back against the nihilism and pessimism of a meaningless world. This is how Greek tragedy, and by extension art, present an aesthetic justification for life and provide the grounds for claims that it is worth living despite its horrors and pains. Art was brought to existence, in the first place, for no other reason than to save us from truth and reality and help us avert death under their weight.

However, according to Nietzsche, it was the dagger of rationalism that stabbed Greek tragedy. Socrates, through the Platonic dialogues, affirmed reason and saw things through it. He took this emphasis so far that he crippled myths and paralyzed their capacity for action, undermining the proclivity of humanity, as communities and individuals, to experience art and contribute to it.

And Euripides, one of the three (along with Aeschylus and Sophocles) great figures of tragic literature, played his role in this massacre. He was a friend of Socrates who embraced his views. Socrates influenced his playwriting, and it is said (though this account cannot be confirmed with certainty) that he went to exile after the trial of his great friend. This being the case, he broke tragedy's balance by adding logic and reason, discarding the Dionysian as he rationalized myths. He thereby marginalized the chorus and its singing despite that the chorus of Greek tragedies brings joy to life by expressing moving emotions and strong positions. As far as Nietzsche is concerned, music remains deeper than language. Since it is independent of thought, its link to the Dionysian is akin to the link between human beings and their unity with nature.

The "Socratic Man" thus poisoned the irrational characteristics of civilization, culture, and all art forms. With Euripides, everything began to crumble, giving rise to Western rationalism, which sentenced myths to death and rushed after goals and objectives. Indeed, Western society was born of an Apollonian view of the world, one that branched out from Socrates to continue its trajectory through the enlightenment and the scientific method.

One thing Christianity did was to stifle pagan festivities by turning them into carnivals and suppressing pagans' and early Christians' ancient rituals. And this is despite that these rituals, trying to cure humanity from the world and reality, reappeared in medieval Europe through ritual ceremonies that put the Dionysian elements of human nature on display.

However, Nietzsche discovered his newfound hope in nineteenth-century Germany, particularly in Richard Wagner's musical drama. He believed that it represented an attempt to resurrect, in modern art, that balance between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Wagner used music similarly to how the Greek chorus used it, rediscovering its capacity for bringing the primordial and vital to life. Thus, Nietzsche devoted the second half of the book to exalting Wagner's musical and operatic works, before changing the title of his book as part of his effort to distance himself from his friend and teacher Wagner, from "The Birth of Tragedy: Out of the Spirit of Music" to "The Birth of Tragedy, Or Hellenism and Pessimism."

Among the many who were influenced by Nietzsche was Oswald Spengler, who mourned the decline of the West and the rise of rationalism, which sentenced all mysteries to death. Nietzsche's Dionysus did not fail to influence the Freudian unconscious either. As for the novelists and poets impacted by Nietzsche and this book in particular, the list of their names is long, and the debates about the book go on.

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