Apollo/Dionysus or Heraclitus/Anaxagoras? A Hermeneutic Inquiry into Nietzsche's View of Tragedy

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In Nietzschean philosophy, human existence is, in and of itself, a tragedy. Conversely, the nuances of Nietzsche's views on tragedy as an art form are inextricably linked to his philosophy of human existence in general. In other words, looking at human existence as an aesthetic phenomenon is the only viable way in which Nietzsche can reconcile his philosophy of art with his perspective on humanity--the same kind of perspective, incidentally, that is characteristic of the golden age of (Attic) Greek tragedy. And, in agreeing with Aristotle that Greek tragedy represents the highest possible form of artistic achievement, the early Nietzsche states that his objective as a philosopher-poet is "to show how life, philosophy, and art may have a profound relationship to one another without philosophy being shallow or the life of the philosopher filled with lies" (Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks 12). (1)

For further insight into Nietzsche's philosophy of art, the overwhelming majority of scholars have traditionally looked toward The Birth of Tragedy (1872) as the basis from which to interpret Nietzsche's views regarding artistic creation, and tragedy in particular. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche makes the claim that the essential origins of tragedy stem from archaic Greek culture, roughly from the time of Homer (circa 850 B.C.E.) to the middle of the fifth century B.C.E. Nietzsche views the era of Greek history that follows as a period of decadence and decline, starting from Socrates onward. In Socrates, Nietzsche sees the beginning of the end for the Greeks, who were the possessors of what he considers to be humankind's greatest culture. According to Nietzsche, the true manifestation of that culture is to be found in early Greek tragedy--namely, in the dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles. In contrast, the tragedies of Euripides, which coincide historically and "existentially" with the advent of Socratic thought, stand in stark opposition to the older, more "pure" Hellenic history and therefore do not represent the Greek spirit in all its glory.

The problem with using The Birth of Tragedy as a comprehensive basis for Nietzsche's views on tragedy is, to put it mildly, a multifaceted one. There is no doubt that the book represents an unparalleled innovation with respect to the interpretation of art in the Western tradition; it also, however, may be seen as a perfect example of how not to write a scholarly essay. In addition to his rambling and often incoherent style, Nietzsche does not bother to provide textual citations for many of his sources; further, the lack of critical distance with which he engages the work of Schopenhauer (not to mention Wagner!) leaves little room for a solid, theoretical foundation on which his juxtaposition of the Apollonian and the Dionysian might stand. Most importantly, The Birth of Tragedy uses the pre-Socratic philosophers as its temporal basis for the supposed break in Greek thought, yet it does little more than mention them in passing. For the brilliant classical philologist that Nietzsche was, this lack of detail seems highly curious, if not outright suspect.

That said, this essay will concentrate on the following questions: In Nietzsche's view, what is the precise relationship between the genesis of Greek tragedy and the pre-Socratic philosophers? Is there a hermeneutic--i.e., a methodological approach based on the explanation and interpretation of texts--rather than a mythic or primordial basis to Nietzsche's take on the philosophical origins of tragedy? What would The Birth of Tragedy have looked like had it not been Nietzsche's first book? That is to say: if a similar treatise had been composed at a more mature period in Nietzsche's life, one in which the influence of Richard Wagner was not all-encompassing, would there have been a more concrete basis for his ideas regarding the origins of tragedy, rather than a series of inherently loose suppositions that Nietzsche himself later admitted is, in some respects, simply embarrassing? …


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