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Nietzsche and The Birth of Tragedy

by Martin Jenkins

As an escape from the everyday world with its mundanity, trials and tribulations, many people find a sanctuary in music. The surrounding world of things, people and events melts away as the powerful ecstasy of music intoxicates. Friedrich Nietzsche [1844-1900] identified the importance of music and its relation to everyday life in his first published book The Birth of Tragedy.[1]

Schopenhauer and Der Wille

The young Nietzsche read The World As Will and Representation by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and it had a profound effect upon him.[2] Schopenhauer maintained that the world we perceive around us (i.e. the Phenomenal) is the mere appearance, the representation of an underlying nature of reality. The underlying reality (i.e. the Noumenal) is the Will [Der Wille] and the representations we perceive are its appearances [Vorstellung]. The appearances are facilitated by the principle of sufficient reason by which individual objects [principium individuationis] are made possible. However, the underlying Will is insatiable, restless and boundless. It appears in nature as the struggle for existence, red in tooth and claw. It appears in human beings as the desire for something which because unsatisfied makes unhappy and, unhappiness when the desire has been achieved. Sometimes called the philosopher of pessimism, Schopenhauer did not believe the world could really be changed for the better as the nature of the Will would always obtain; far better to be resigned to its nature and seek temporary escape by losing oneself in the contemplation of art.

Trained and precociously excelling as a philologist, Nietzsche synthesised Schopenhauer's philosophy with his philological insights of ancient Greece and the music of the composer Richard Wagner. The result was his The Birth of Tragedy in 1872.

Apollo and Dionysius

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche argued that the Ancient Greeks identified two forces in nature — the Apollonian and the Dionysiac — deified respectively in the gods Apollo and Dionysus. Like representation in Schopenhauer, Apollo symbolises artistic form and order in all its manifestations. The Dionysiac is the underlying dynamic force of being rather like The Will as identified by Schopenhauer.

Manifesting itself in the plastic arts of Epic Poetry, Painting and Sculpture, the Apollonian is the representation of images. It facilitates determinate form from out of the Dionysiac. Nietzsche quotes a graphic scene from Schopenhauer:

Just as the boatman sits in his little boat, trusting his fragile craft in a stormy sea which, boundless in every direction, rises and falls in howling mountainous waves, so in the midst of a world full of suffering, the individual man calmly sits, supported by and trusting in the principium individuationis.[3]

By means of the principium individuationis [principle of individuation] the Apollonian creates individual form, shape — creates the images we take to be the world of others, objects and ourselves — whilst underneath the Dionysiac rages. Appearing in religious, festive force and the exuberance of the worshipers the Dionysiac can be reached through intoxication inducing ecstasy. Captured by the German word Rausch which can be translated as 'Rush' as in the 'rush' or the 'buzz' one experiences from a peak or extreme experience — especially with music; Simon Critchley writes:

Music for Nietzsche... is not a copy of the Will but an articulation of what he calls the Dionysian, the primal life of desire, the deathly, dangerous and discordant core of consciousness that he identifies with the experience of Rausch — intoxication, ecstasy or literally Rush. Music gives us an experience of rush.[4]

With the Dionysian Rush, the principium individuationis is dissolved and all returns to a primal oneness.

The Wisdom of Silenus

Understanding the nature of the Dionysiac Will and its relation to the Apollonian appearances of the world around us reveals the reason why life can be absurd, painful and capricious. When asked by King Midas what was the best and most admirable thing for all humanity; Silenus replied that the best thing is not to have been born and the second best is to die soon.[5]

Such a gloomy prescription follows from the fleeting nature of the Apollonian world of appearance; all that comes into existence will pass out of existence. No thing is forever — parents, lovers, friends, places — with which we invest our love, faith and familiarity are all transient subject to change and demise. For beneath the transient surface nature of the world around us is,

the Dionysiac oceanic current. Rising, raging, insatiable; it invariably overwhelms the little boatman of individuated form. This creates suffering: that nothing lasts forever, that success rarely stays, that happiness is ephemeral.[6]

Whilst the individual comes into existence in the Apollonian and disappears, life as a whole in the Dionysiac Will continues. As Arthur Lee wrote 'For every happy hello there must be goodbye': individual lives come and go but life as a whole continues.[7]

Greek Tragedy

The centre of Greek Tragedy is the Chorus representing the whole unity of life. Individuals in the chorus are individuated forms of life in the process of birth, life, death, creation and destruction. This terrible transience is symbolised in the tragic hero.

Unlike Apollonian Art which is constituted by the representations of the illusory phenomenal world we perceive around us; Music is the replica of the Dionysian Will itself. Before the frenzied dithyrambic chorus of Satyrs Dionysus appears as the first individual; the Tragic hero. The Will [variously interchangeable with Being or Nature] manifests itself to itself in the guise of the hero god Dionysus as individuated through Apollo and, in the frenzied dithyrambs of the satyr's. A 'dialectic' of evanescent moments is enacted between the two. In Tragedy, the hero invariably suffers unfairly and encounters death. As John Duncan writes:

There is a sense that the suffering was apportioned unforgivingly, brutally.[8]

For the spectators, the unforgiving tragedy of pain and death symbolised in the interaction between the Apollonian [masks, dances, symbols] and the Dionysiac [Music, singing, dithyrambs] highlights the transience of individuated life and its dissolution in the larger Dionysiac whole. The frantic dithyrambs imbue the Rausch mentioned above so that just as the individuated hero dies and returns to the unified Dionysiac Will so; the individual spectator him/ herself evanescently dissolves into the greater whole of the Will.[9] As Nietzsche writes:

Now the slave is a free man, now all the rigid and hostile boundaries that distress, despotism or 'impudent fashion' have erected between man and man break down. With the gospel of world harmony, each man feels himself not only united, reconciled and at one with his neighbour, but one with him, as if the veil of Maya had been rent and now hung in rags before the mysterious, primal oneness.[10]

Individuated life is tragic but it is part of a bigger whole that continues despite the suffering and destruction of the individual and Tragedy highlights this by the tribulations, suffering and death of the hero. Tribulations in the Apollonian phenomenal world are manifestations of the turbulent Dionysiac Will. Nietzsche again:

Only in the single instances of such destruction can we clearly see the eternal phenomenon of Dionysiac art, which expresses the Will in its omnipotence, behind the principium individuationis, the eternal life that lies beyond the phenomenal world regardless of all destruction. Metaphysical delight in the Tragic is a translation of the image: the hero, the supreme manifestation of the will, is negated to our gratification, because he is only a phenomenon and the eternal life of the will is left untouched by his destruction.[11]

Contrary to Aristotle who argued that Tragedy encouraged a catharsis — a purging from the psyche of negative emotions — for Nietzsche, Tragedy is positive as it affirms life. Submergence in the Dionysiac Will removes the illusory representations of individuation, time and space. The ecstasis of this experience rekindles a lust for life because of and despite the prospect of annihilation. The Dionysiac Will for Apollonian individuated life fuels the lust for life even though the Dionysian Will is that which extinguishes individuated life. Yes life is awful but lets go for it while we're here!

Wagner and Germany

For Nietzsche German Philosophy had paved the way for the return of Tragedy. He maintained that German Philosophers such as Schopenhauer had demonstrated the limitation of scientific knowing to within the phenomenal world. This knowing can only give us knowledge determined by time, space and causality. Beyond this, is the Noumenal realm evoked Dionysiac Music which is manifested in Tragedy, giving us the realm of feeling [pathei mathos]. Science in Physiology and Medicine might tell us why we become ill or die but it cannot tell us about the feelings and the meanings surrounding illness and death.[12]

Nietzsche hoped his insights into Greek Tragedy could be combined with the musical works of Wagner to renew the spirit of Germany. Along with others, Nietzsche felt society lacked coherence, meaningfulness and a sense of belonging that previous societies — especially the Ancient Greeks — did not.[13] Nietzsche's solution at the time of writing The Birth of Tragedy was that archaic Greek society was the ideal to be followed. It was a society based on Art contrary to our modern cognitivist and rationalist approach and reliance on science.

To attend an event of Attic Tragedy was to be a citizen of Athens. To participate in the Tragedy, to dissolve in the Dionysiac, was to enjoy a collective experience which temporarily dissolved social rank to unite all. Nietzsche hoped the music and festivals of Wagner could do the same for Germany.


The issues raised by Nietzsche are germane. Contemporary society appears fractured to some commentators, where individuals are lacking a sense of community and common identity with a greater whole. Also, the possibility of achieving existential satisfaction by material acquisition alone is also disputed. Requiring more than the quantitative within time, space and individuation, to achieve a meaningful life relationships, moods, a sense of purpose, of belonging and meaning — what the early Nietzsche would have termed the metaphysical — is also important. Finally, despite all the advances in Medicine and Science, the finitude of human life and its relation to death continues to exist as the ultimate event on the horizon before all thinking and feeling persons.


1. Friedrich Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy. Penguin. 1993.

2. Arthur Schopenhauer. The World As Will and Representation. Dover Publications. 1967.

3. #1. The Birth of Tragedy. Op cit.

4. Simon Critchley. Rausch. The Philosopher's Magazine Essay. The Philosopher's Magazine. #28.

Think also here of the Islamic Dervishers who induce religious exaltation with their dances. Think also of dance festivals, [Outdoor 'Raves'] Concerts, Political Rallies, German Oktober beer festivals and the like.

5. #3. The Birth of Tragedy. Op cit.

6. The poem Mutability by Percy Bysshe Shelley for me, captures the tragic transience of life. I cite the first verse:

The Flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow dies,
All that we wish to stay,
Tempts us and then flies.
What is this worlds delight?
It is like lightning that mocks the night,
As brief as it is bright.
The Major Works Oxford University Press. 2003.

7. Again, the lyrics of Arthur Lee from the band Love in the song You Set the Scene capture the tragedy and profundity of transient life.

This is the only thing I'm sure of,
And that all that lives is gonna die.
And there'll always be some people here to wonder why,
And for every happy hello there will be goodbye.
There'll be time to put yourself on.

You Set the Scene by Arthur Lee. Love. Forever Changes. 1967.

8. P. 64. John Duncan. Culture, Tragedy and Pessimism in Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy. PhaenEx 1. No 2. Winter 2006. Journal of Existential and Phenomenological Theory and Culture

9. After E.R. Dodds' Bacchae highlighting the significance of the oxyrhs fragments — long after Nietzsche composed The Birth of Tragedy — modern interpretations show that the Bacchic possession is external and paramount.

10. #1. The Birth of Tragedy. Op cit.

11. #16. The Birth of Tragedy. Op cit.

12. For more on this see the Introduction by Raymond Guess to Friedrich Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Cambridge University Press. 1999.

13. Different solutions arising from the same concerns were formulated by Friedrich Von Schiller, Friedrich Holderlin, G.W.F. Hegel and Karl Marx.


E.R. Dodds. Bacchae. Cambridge University Press. 1960.

John Duncan. Culture, Tragedy and Pessimism in Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy. PhaenEx.1. No 2. Winter 2006. Journal of Existentialist and Phenomenological Theory and Culture.

Friedrich Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy. Penguin. 1993.

Friedrich Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Cambridge University Press. 1999.

Arthur Schopenhauer. The World as Will and Representation. Dover Publications. 1967.

Percy Bysshe Shelley. The Major Works. Oxford University Press. 2003.

Walter Sokal. On the Dionysian in Nietzsche. Monism and its Consequences. Nietzsche Circle. 2006.

Many thanks to Brian Lewis and Anthony Dybacz of Chester Philosophy Forum for their knowledgeable guidance and suggestions in relation to the Ancient Greek world and its culture.

© Martin Jenkins 2007


Martin Jenkins is a Mentor on the Pathways to Philosophy distance learning program