9.2 Dionysos with Apollo
Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy is a complex essay, partially intended as a philosophical justification for Richard Wagner’s new vision of musical drama. In this work, Nietzsche introduces some of the ideas that he will develop across the rest of his career, among which the key notion of Dionysiac and its symbiotic and conflictual relation with what he calls Apolline.
The essay can be divided into three main segments. The first segment (sect. 1-10) focuses on two principles, the Apolline and the Dionysiac. Their mutual dialectic constitutes, for Nietzsche, the essence of art, and Attic tragedy (as exemplified by Aeschylus) represents a rare, precious and outstanding moment of their perfect combination. The second segment (sect. 11-15) attempts to explain how this achievement has been subsequently betrayed and degenerated. Here Nietzsche focuses on Euripides and Socrates, as two key figures involved in the raising of a new rationalistic attitude, which tends to dismiss or hide de Dionysiac element in life. The third segment (sect. 16-25) moves from ancient Greece to Nietzsche’s own time and sets the background for envisaging Wagner’s work as a genuine revival of the profound and insightful combination of Apolline and Dionysiac realized in Attic Tragedy.
Nietzsche’s interpretation of the opposing characters of Apolline and Dionysiac is not entirely unprecedented (as pointed out for instance by Seaford 2006, 138-145), but attracted both praise (especially from philosophically inclined readers) and criticism (especially from philologists). For our present purposes, it is important to stress how Nietzsche openly (and rightly) reconnects these two forces or characters to different domains of experience (remember the taxonomy we analysed in Lecture Two): the Apolline expresses the sort of vision that is most directly connected with dreaming and imagination, while the Dionysiac is associated with intoxication, especially in its verging towards the dissolution of consciousness and self-identity (hypnagogic states, dreamless sleep). Nietzsche writes:
Nietzsche sees dreams as always entailing some degree of lucidity, which he characterises as their ‘semblance.’ This means that while dreaming one retains some subliminal awareness that the current experience is in fact just a dream. Regardless of how much one could actually generalize this observation, Nietzsche exploits it to create his category of Apolline, as the drive to create images while also (more or less explicitly) retaining an awareness that these are indeed just images; i..e, creations, something made-up and not entirely real. This character of semblance contributes to the enjoyment of the Apolline, since it gives to its product a degree of detachment, an aura of irony and non-commitment. Apollo can be terrible or hieratic, but he is never entirely serious.
The reference to Schopenhauer is crucial. Nietzsche’s discussion of the Apolline and the Dionysiac, and even his reflections on music, are explicitly elaborated in a close dialogue with Schopenhauer’s core ideas, presented in his masterpiece The World as Will and Representation (first published in 1819). To summarize the main points, Schopenhauer holds that the whole world of experience is a representation, a phenomenon (in Kant’s sense), something that appears. The characteristic of the world is its being articulated in seemingly independent and self-standing ontological units or individuals. The world, as it appears, is a world of objects, things, of manifoldness. However, Schopenhauer also argues that this representation is the product of an underpinning principle, which he calls ‘the Will.’ The Will is a cosmological force that blindly aims at expressing itself in all sorts of forms and representations. Since individuation occurs at the level of representation (is part of phenomena), the Will should not be considered as an individual principle, but can be envisaged as the only reality that exists (the ‘noumenon,’ to use Kantian terminology again). In Nietzsche’s recasting of these notions, his distinction between Apolline and Dionysiac is meant to capture the dichotomy between the semblance of individuality (Apolline) and an underpinning unitarian principle (Dionysiac).
Nietzsche (like Schopenhauer before him) is ready to stress the existential and psychological overtones of the metaphysical distinction between phenomenal and noumenal world. The phenomenal world, seemingly governed by the principle of individuation, is mere appearance. To some extent, human beings know that, in the same way in which one can know that a dream is just a dream. However, since every individual is this appearance, looking into its apparent unreality is profoundly disturbing, because it entails that what ‘I am’ turns out to be nothing but a delusion. Nietzsche takes it as almost unproblematic that individual appearance is the most precarious of phenomena. For him, one’s sense of being a unitarian individual self is akin to sitting in a small ship while crossing a raging storm in high see. Yet, Nietzsche also points out that there is a ‘blissful ecstasy’ in the experience of the breaking down of individuality. If individuality and self-identification is always on the verge of collapse, and thus can be preserved only at the cost of much effort and forgetting, its collapse might actually be regarded as a relief. This is a common feature of both possession trance and anaesthetic trance that we already encountered a number of times at this point.
Nietzsche applies this dual model of Apolline and Dionysiac to the ancient Greeks. Far from being a cheerful hymn extolling beauty and rationality, ancient Greek culture was deeply tormented by the precarious nature of existence. Nietzsche not only dismisses any edulcorating description of the ancient Greeks, but also takes stock of this existential anxiety (common to all cultures) in order to explain some of the key features of their intellectual achievements. As he writes:
Nietzsche interprets ancient Greek mythology and religion as based on two different drives. The first and most profound is the Dionysiac drive that somehow testifies the uncertainty of individual existence and constantly acts on it, both as a threat of dissolution and as a source of redemption and relief (insofar as the dissolution of the individual can itself be redeeming). However, the Dionysiac alone does not create a sustainable worldview, since its existential weight is too heavy, and the anxiety and excitement it creates is unbearable if not mitigated. This is where the Apolline comes in. By creating a semblance of well-defined and rational individuality, the Apolline allowed the Greeks to cover the hidden and disturbing uncertainty of all existence with more bearable images of power, control, self-confidence and rationality. Out of this effort, Nietzsche argues, the Greeks created their Olympian gods (which we encountered in Lecture Seven). Notice the reference to tragedy (Prometheus, Oedipus, Orestes). The mythological background that is presupposed in tragedy is precisely that Dionysiac view of life that reveals that fragility of human existence. And yet, tragedy (in its best form, at least) is not just a Dionysiac creation. Rather, it represents the ideal synthesis between Dionysiac and Apolline.
Nietzsche’s general point is that the Apolline, by giving a semblance of rationality and control to the original and contradictory unity of the Will, allows it both to be expressed in a form, and to alleviate its struggle. The Will is inherently contradictory in the sense that is can give rise to all sorts of phenomena, affirming and denying them all, being identified with and yet different from any of them. Schopenhauer himself was driven to pessimistic conclusions based on this view: the world has no meaning. Nietzsche struggles to find a way of acknowledging Schopenhauer’s metaphysics, while at the same time escaping from sheer pessimism. This, in fact, will remain perhaps Nietzsche’s most important theme of reflection throughout his subsequent works (later rephrased as the transition from ‘passive nihilism’ to ‘active nihilism’ and eventually to the overcoming of nihilism altogether). Here, he suggests that the genuine solution to the contradictory nature of reality does not consist in breaking the contradiction apart, but rather in expressing it, and through this expression, somehow staying with it. Breaking the contradiction apart (and thus dissolving its problem) would amount to finding some argument to show that (just to mention a few examples) the Will is not contradictory, or the opposition between Will and representation does not entail any real contrast, or that individuality in the realm of representations is solid and valid. Nietzsche refrains from taking such a path. Instead, he reflects on the way semblance can produce relief. He remarks:
In the same way that dreams are representations of real life and thus resemble it to some extent, and yet are fictional in nature, so what we call ‘real life’ is in fact a dream-like representation produced by the Will. What we call ‘dreams’ are thus second-order representations, even more remote from the source of reality (the Will), since they resemble something (our ‘real life’) that is itself dream-like. In travelling this far from the sorrowful origin of reality, dreams gain an analgesic power, since they temporarily reduce the awareness of how precarious, uncertain, and fleeting our experience of reality actually is.
This is the key insight from which Nietzsche derives his theory of tragedy. According to Nietzsche, tragedy originates as a vision that arises in a subject. This visionary subject (the seer who ‘sees’ the tragedy) is represented on stage by the chorus (hence the tragic subject is originally a collective or trans-individual subject, something that is internally complex, multifarious and articulated, in line with the model discussed in Lecture Three). Nietzsche surmises that, in the beginning, the tragedy was indeed just the acting of the chorus. Dramatic characters represent and embody the various forces and tensions that constitute the kernel of the chorus’s tragic vision. Nietzsche contends:
Nietzsche draws on Schopenhauer’s philosophical interpretation of music (and of instrumental music in particular). In Schopenhauer’s view, music is a language that by itself can communicate without having to articulate discrete semantic units or well-demarcated ideas. Music, moreover, is not necessarily dependent on words. To some extent, this view is predicated on the development of classical instrumental music in the West, especially from the eighteenth-century onwards. From a historical point of view, it is more likely that music and language developed together and that the distinction between the two was not so sharply perceived in archaic, perhaps even in ancient times (just think about the brahman we discussed in Lecture Five). However, for present purposes, we do not need to get into the musicological details. Nietzsche is going to distil ‘the spirit of music’ (namely, the philosophical idea behind the phenomenon of music) in order to articulate further his account of tragedy. In doing so, he might well refer to some specific feature that is embodied in the phenomenon of music, but that does not have to be strictly identified with any specific genre or music in history. Nietzsche’s account is more normative than descriptive. Be that as it may, what Nietzsche takes to be this spirit of music amounts to the ability to clearly express and articulate the dissolution of what is discrete, individualized, by thus revealing the ultimately uncertain and provisional (hence only apparent) nature of any individuality. Nietzsche writes:
Nietzsche offers here his own solution to the old problem of the ‘paradox of tragedy.’ Philosophers, historians, and literature critics have spent a great deal of time considering how it is possible that watching dreadful events such as those presented in tragedy might give rise to aesthetic pleasure. Various solutions have been proposed, among which those of Aristotle and Hume have been perhaps the most influential. In the Poetics (especially chapter 4), Aristotle contends that the pleasure derived from watching tragedy has to do with a process of ‘purification’ (Greek catharsis), through which the audience can overcome in themselves the same sort of violent passions represented on stage. Hume, meanwhile, contended that much of the pleasure of tragedy derives from an increased sensitivity to the artistic technique and its ability to represent even dreadful events in a way that is perceived as aesthetically appealing. Nietzsche offers a different view, much more entrenched with his metaphysical assumptions derived from Schopenhauer. The Apolline semblance that plays in tragedy does not merely provide an aesthetically enjoyable depiction of otherwise disturbing events, but it allows for both the expression of a deep existential anxiety that lurks behind any experience, and for a representation of the breaking apart of the same Apolline individual identity which is constantly threatened by that anxiety.
The pleasure of tragedy does not arise from a resolution of its contradiction, but rather from an exposure of it. Again, Nietzsche draws from musical experience in order to illustrate his view:
In music, and especially in Western tonal classical music, dissonance is constructed and thus perceived as a dynamic element. Classical tonal music is based on the establishment of one ground tone, the tonic, which provides (in theory at least) the basic key of the piece. However, dissonant chords can be used to move away and challenge the tonic. The most common and used dissonance is represented by the chord constructed on the fifth note on the tonic scale, the dominant. Classical composers like Hyden and Mozart would use a modulation to the dominant as a way of ‘escaping’ or ‘moving away’ from the tonic, and a modulation back to the tonic would then be perceived as a ‘returning home.’ By Nietzsche’s time, Wagner illustrates an exasperated use of dissonance in music, which eventually undermines the very idea of having one fundamental key. In this context, dissonance, as the simultaneous resonance of different sounds, is a musical metaphor for contradiction. Nietzsche’s point is that, in music, dissonance (hence contradiction) can be handled in such a way that it becomes possible to want to listen and stay with it, while also creating a sense of dynamics and transcendence, an urge to have the dissonance ‘go somewhere’ or ‘resolve.’
Nietzsche identifies the distinctive achievement of Attic tragedy as the ability of creating a form of art in which, through the alliance between Apolline and Dionysiac, dissonance (the musical symbol of the contradictoriness of any existence) is both expressed and used as an element of self-transcendence. In this way, Nietzsche seems to articulate the sort of intuition we detected in the evolution of Clytemnestra’s own attitude by the end of the Agamemnon, when she asks the Daimon of the house to go away and leave her and the remaining of the family with the sorrow that the same Daimon produced. The gesture is that of moving away from the dissonance, while staying with it. We shall see shortly how this idea remains key in Nietzsche’s later thought.
Applying the terminology and conceptual scheme we developed in these lectures, Nietzsche’s account of the Dionysian represents the challenge of uncertainty that constantly threatens the self, while the Apolline represents the attempt at constructing an individual self of some sort (the Apolline comes in a spectrum of masks!), hopefully capable of mastering uncertainty. Nietzsche’s view of tragedy, by stressing the balancing between the two principles, thus points at a way of constructing a self (Apolline principle) capable of withstanding uncertainty and dissolution (Dionysian principle) without mastering, overruling, subordinating, or hiding it (as would happen if the Apolline principle prevailed), but also without simply sinking into the dread of uncertainty and dissolution (as would happen if the Dionysiac principle prevailed). In other words, Attic tragedy provides a model for how uncertainty can be handled without being mastered, and thus how the essential dissonance that resonates in all forms of existence can be listened to and withstood without having to either run away from it, or be overwhelmed by it entirely.
Before leaving the Birth of Tragedy, it might be important to stress a couple of other points that Nietzsche advances here. First, he is vocal about the short-lived fate of Attic tragedy, the glory of which he identifies with the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles. By the time of Euripides, he contends, the genre already underwent a sort of mystification. Nietzsche sees in Euripides a new tendency to rationalize the action and make it more intelligible for the audience. What remained unexplained in Aeschylus becomes now exposed in an almost pedantic way (Nietzsche argues), especially through the new device of introducing a prologue where the premises of the drama are explicitly mentioned. Language becomes more colloquial and closer to real life than the dense and difficult poetry of Aeschylus. Nietzsche connects this change with a new intellectual attitude, which he associates with the same intellectualist effort that also characterizes Socrates’s philosophy. In short, Socrates (and Plato) find a new way of solving the contradiction of existence, and this consists in dissolving the contradiction itself, discarding all irrational elements, and offering a more sound, easy, and linear account of events and their meaning. The spirit of music that was used to give voice to the dissonance of existence is betrayed and abandoned. Plato invented a new genre, the Socratic dialogue, which stands in stark contrast with tragedy, of which Plato was no friend. Speaking of Plato’s dialogues, Nietzsche writes:
Nietzsche sees a direct connection between Socratic intellectualism, Euripides’s tragedy, and modern science. Science, too, is aimed at providing a fully rational account of events, in which contradictions are avoided or resolved, and nothing mysterious or inexplicable is left for the inquirer. In this sense, Nietzsche acknowledges that modern science is the late offspring of the spirit of Socrates’s and Plato’s philosophies, even if not directly of their own philosophical tenets.
Admittedly, ‘science’ is a very broad category and these remarks are just cursory brushes. However, Nietzsche’s point about the historical and intellectual link between Greek philosophy and modern science should not appear too difficult to grasp, especially in view of so many accounts of the origins of Greek philosophy as an attempt (the first!) to offer a rational explanation of natural phenomena beyond and despite traditional mythologies. Scientific attitudes are read back into the beginnings of philosophy, and fundamental traits of (some!) Greek philosophy (especially rationalism and intellectualism) can be seen as inherited by modern science. What makes Nietzsche’s assessment sharper and potentially more challenging is the context in which he makes it, namely, in the process of laying out his account of tragedy. If tragedy is a way of listening to the dissonance of existence without fleeing from it, and if Socratism is the exact opposite (the attempt to dissolve the dissonance and the contradiction, and even hide its possibility), then science can be envisaged as an attempt at masking the contradiction of existence. This resonates with what we discussed in Lecture One in connection with today’s cognitive sciences. From a certain scientific point of view, the self can be dismissed as merely an illusion (and thus the task of mastering uncertainty can be hidden). In Lecture Two, we also saw Thompson considering certain conclusions reached by cognitive scientists about the non-existence of the self as a form of ‘neuro-nihilism.’ If Nietzsche’s account of the origin of science is right, then today’s neuro-nihilism is but the epigone of a long tradition of Socratism, which attempted not to express but rather to dissolve the problem of the self (and the paradox of mastery); even if this can be done only at the cost of denying its reality altogether.
Nietzsche’s discussion on this point is also relevant for another reason. By the time he was writing (and even more so today), the Socratic-scientific attitude was not limited to a particular sphere of reality, but shaped the whole of European (today Global) culture. As he remarks:
Quite clearly, Nietzsche finds this development unwelcome, since it does not provide a genuine solution to the problem tackled by tragedy. The self is still nestled in contradiction, existence is still fragmented and precarious, and simply doing one’s best to turn a blind eye and hide this predicament behind the Apolline mask of rationality, won’t do. As we saw, the Apolline is primarily connected with the semblance of dreams, and this is further extended so as to encompass the perception of individuality, and even further to include also all rational representations (which are based on the principle of individuation). Scientific rationality is thus but one manifestation of the Apolline, and since the Apolline is essentially a dream-maker principle, it follows that scientific rationality should also be regarded as a dream-like production. The sort of relief produced by a scientific, rational explanation of phenomena, resides in the fact that it seems to dissipate the sense of meaninglessness and uncertainty that otherwise surrounds the dissonance of experience. But this relief is the same relief offered by dreams, which are second-order semblances of the ultimate root of reality (the Will). Science, much like dreams, has thus an analgesic function, but also blurs the perception of the fundamental contradictoriness of existence.
In the Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche calls for a revival of tragic culture. Having diagnosed the reasons for pushing back from the model Socratic and scientific optimism, he writes:
Wisdom here means something different from Socratic philosophy or science. The difference is conveyed by the previous discussion of the Dionysiac nature of inspiration in its fruitful conjunction with an Apolline sense for plastic images and forms. In calling for a return to wisdom, Nietzsche is looking at presocratic Greek culture and philosophy. In brief, he is looking at the world of seers, satyrs and shaman-like figures that proclaimed to be able to ‘see’ and ‘dream’ the meaning of the world, within and in acknowledgment of its contradictory and dissonant nature.
To sum up, in the Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche sees attic Greek tragedy as the expression and felicitous conjunction of two artistic drives, Apolline and Dionysiac. The Dionysiac expresses the uncertain and contradictory nature of existence, in which individuals emerge only as epiphenomena of an abyssal and ultimately irrational noumenal cosmical Will. The Apolline gives shape to these strivings and stirrings, makes them into images of seemingly certain individual forms, it gives a semblance of order and control, which is nonetheless doomed to be destroyed. In this way, the conjunction of Apolline and Dionysian in tragedy is a way of expressing in its full complexity the dissonant nature of existence in general, and of the nature of each individual self. Listening to this dissonance and being able to fully appreciate its bittersweet, dark beauty is the way tragedy, at its best, manages to genuinely provide relief from the anxiety of existence, while avoiding sheer pessimism à la Schopenhauer. Nietzsche insists on the need to combine both Apolline and Dionysiac, since none of these drives, when it operates alone or is prioritized over the other, can produce any sustainable or acceptable solution. The Dionysiac on its own promotes excess and chaos, while the Apolline promotes mystification. A case of the latter is constituted, in Nietzsche’s view, by the arising of Socratic and Platonic philosophy and, by extension, modern science. The optimism and cheerfulness that these views proclaim is but a mask of their having hidden and mystified the genuine problem of existence. Nietzsche’s envisaged solution consists thus in a revival of tragic culture. This revival should be based on both a practice and an attitude. The practice is here identified with a specific kind of music (broadly understood to include playing, acting, performing, and thinking), capable of doing justice to the dissonance of life. The attitude is that of learning how to accept this dissonance and say ‘yes’ to it. In the Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche is convinced that Wagner’s music will contribute to both points. Later, he changes his mind and reaches the opposite conclusion. For present purposes, however, it is important to remember that what Nietzsche sees in music is more than just an entertaining form of art. Music is a symbol or a metaphor for that existential attitude that can both express and listen to dissonance, withstanding it without being destroyed by its abyss. Music is the practice of ‘yes-saying’ to the dissonance of existence.
- See discussion in Mark Packer, ‘Dissolving the Paradox of Tragedy’ (1989). ↵
- One might wonder to what extent Nietzsche took inspiration from the character of Empedocles, the presocratic shaman-philosopher who presented himself as both a healer and a sage and theorized that the whole world is shaped by the cyclical combination of two opposing principles, Love and Strife. In Empedocles’s view, only when they are both present and balanced do our world and life as we know become possible. Associating Love with a principle that dissolves divisions and brings unity, and Strife with the opposite principle that dissolves unity and brings separation, the two could be paralleled with Nietzsche’s notions of Dionysiac and Apolline respectively. ↵
- However, Nietzsche’s interpretation presupposes that there should be no subordination between Apolline and Dionysiac for tragedy to perform its liberatory role. In Lecture Seven, we saw that subordination was instead a recurrent strategy used in ancient Greek culture to handle the paradox of mastery. One might solve this tension by interpreting Nietzsche’s claim as purely normative, rather than descriptive. But we can also acknowledge that in some cases, like in the Oresteia, the fact that a form of subordination is represented on stage (as in the finale of the trilogy) does not entail that the work itself (even less Aeschylus as its author) would endorse it. ↵
- See further discussion in Roger Hollinrake, Nietzsche, Wagner, and the Philosophy of Pessimism (20102). ↵