I. The fall of the Dionysian/Apolline dialectic and the rise of Apolline culture.
To aid in the explanation of the Apolline/Dionysian dialectic he posits in The Birth of Tragedy (BT), Friedrich Nietzsche explores the roots of the Greek culture that became Apolline. At the end of section 2, he claims the existence of an “Apolline consciousness” that masks the human Dionysian drive (Triebe) to blissful “intoxication” and “self-abandonment” (BT 21). Nietzsche examines the “artful edifice of Apolline culture” (BT 22) in section 3 and finds this culture to be based on two distinct foundations.
The first foundation is the legend of Silenus and King Midas. The king wanders through a forest in search of Silenus, the daemon (an entity with god-like and human qualities) companion of Dionysus. Once found King Midas asks “what is the best and most excellent thing for human beings” (BT 23). Silenus laughs and replies:
Wretched, ephemeral race, children of chance and tribulation, why do you force me to tell you the very thing which it would be most profitable for you not to hear? The very best thing is utterly beyond your reach not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. However, the second best thing for you is: to die soon (BT ibid ftn. 38).
In essence this proclamation functioning as new knowledge to the Greeks, removed meaning from human life. According to Nietzsche this legend, which the Greeks regarded as true and genuine, became the impetus for a new vision of humanity.
The second foundation of Apolline culture is the reaction to Silenus’ knowledge. The Greeks responded with an attempt to discard the Titanic era of gods that included Dionysus and the hordes of followers that celebrated him in mad ecstasy. The “Titanic divine order of terror” (BT ibid) was gradually replaced with the Apolline order of Olympian gods, which Nietzsche describes metaphorically as roses emerging from a bush of thorns. This was the only way in which humanity could survive knowing the terrible truths of Silenus. Essentially the Greeks created the Olympian gods in their own likeness. The self-image of beauty and structure as the pinnacle of Grecian existence is manifested in the god Apollo and the Apolline culture that pursues art as beautiful, embodies the Olympian reality. In effect this inverts the truths of Silenus in that now human life has meaning again and is justified as the constant pursuit of perfection that is represented in gods that reflect back this image of humanity.
Nietzsche refers to Apolline culture as an “artful edifice” (BT 22). The term “artful” reinforces Nietzsche’s idea that the Dionysian/Apolline aesthetic drive is the basis for existence. “Edifice” acknowledges that the Apolline is an illusion that was created as a necessity to “veil” (BT 21) the Titanic age of Dionysian madness. Nietzsche refers to the Olympian gods as “dream-born figures” (BT 23) to assert that these deities are the product of humanity’s needed illusions. The Greeks replaced their gods with idealized representations of human beauty, while also including “their extreme sensitivity, their stormy desires, their unique gift for suffering” (BT 24), because but they could not replace the natural Dionysian drive in humanity’s collective consciousness. In this sense the “veil” is known to be a mask or illusion to humanity and is now a required mechanism to accept the Dionysian world. However the necessity of the illusion also makes the illusion real, as it is a product of consciousness in the same way dreams are part of human reality. For all that the Apolline “artful edifice” was a response to the Dionysian drive, the Apolline drive does not work in opposition to the Dionysian drive, but rather in conjunction as a symbiotic dialectic.
For Nietzsche this mutual dialectic is the ideal that took time to coalesce. In the initial reaction to Silenus’ knowledge, the foundation of Apolline culture began and later overtook the Dionysian culture. Nietzsche relates this Apolline saturation to the epic poetry of Homer and its effect on a society in which humans have a sense of heroic honor. In Nietzsche’s Homeric age, humans have achieved a kind of enlightenment at the realization that the Apolline triumph of essential illusions over the Dionysian drive is natural. With this knowledge, humanity feels close to nature and is satisfied with the quality of unification of nature and humanity. In response to this achieved unity, the Homeric human creates art to reflect the connection to nature, which Nietzsche refers to as naïve art. In this way naivety is another Apolline illusion, but not the variety of known illusions humanity is comfortable with but rather a byproduct of the Apolline mindset that works to consume itself with illusions that function unconsciously. The Homeric human is static in an Apolline process that is ongoing. The evidence for this, Nietzsche argues, is naïve art that represents a triumph of humanity in its collective realization and understanding that humanity has discovered its righteous existence through nature and Apolline illusion. Thus Homeric Apolline culture has been duped into believing its own vainglorious dogma.
Nietzsche identifies the force that controls humanity’s journey of actions into eras such as the Apolline as the “Will.” He adopted this from Arthur Schopenhauer’s concept of the Will, in which nature controls humanity in an irrational non-cognitive fashion. The Will is a “blind” force in the universe to which humanity’s sense of representation is only a facet of the Will. Hence, humans only think they have self-determination when in fact they are merely subjects of the all encompassing Will. Apolline culture has been blindsided by the Will to the extant that their illusions have become their confining delusions of grandeur. Nietzsche ends section 3 by articulating the imbalance of the life defining aesthetic drives and its effect on Grecian society:
[the Greeks] had to recognize a reflection of themselves in a higher sphere without feeling that the perfected world of their vision was an imperative[a command]... With this reflection of beauty the Hellenic ‘Will’ fought against the talent for suffering and for the wisdom of suffering which is the correlative of artistic talent (BT 25).
II. The origin of the tragic chorus and an aesthetic meaning of life.
Nietzsche wrote BT to elucidate his aesthetic theory. The book’s overarching claim is that the ancient Greeks arrived at the most supreme way in which to live, through their tragedies of Greek drama. They had achieved the perfect balance of Dionysian and Apolline artistic forces that Nietzsche treats as an ideal way in which to live a life. Hence the book’s title refers to the origin of this perfect symbiotic tragedy and calls for its much needed rebirth in Nietzsche’s 19th century.
There were three physical elements in ancient Greek drama; the stage where the actors performed the play, the audience or spectators, and the chorus. While there has been debate as to what all three of these actually are and what their respective functions accomplish, the latter has been notoriously difficult over the ensuing centuries in the attempts to designate a succinct connotative meaning. It is especially hard to give the chorus a single meaning and raison d'être, as it is something that evolves over time. Additionally it’s something that’s used differently with different playwrights. In Euripides’ tragedy Medea, the chorus is a group of people, assumed to be women, that either speak all at once in a choral fashion or in an alternating way that has each member speaking at different times. Medea uses the chorus as a kind of sounding board for her ideas and intentions, and the chorus likewise reply. It also acts as a medium between the stage and audience wherein the chorus narrates to the audience in a manner similar to the way an omniscient narrator speaks to the reader in a literary novel. This is a general description of the chorus in Greek tragedy. Although for Nietzsche, Euripides represents a decline in the art form.
In section 7 of BT, Nietzsche sets out to explain the chorus and its origins. Almost immediately he claims the ancient Greek chorus to be inherently tragic by asserting, confusingly, “that tragedy arose from the tragic chorus and was originally chorus and nothing but chorus” (BT 36). Toward the end of the section he elaborates to say the chorus consists of satyrs belonging to the cult of Dionysus. A satyr is a being that is half man and half horse or goat that celebrates Dionysus in ongoing festivals to honor the deity with music, intoxication, self-abandonment, and general hedonism. The satyrs that sing and play unstructured music to Dionysus are known as dithyrambs. As Dionysus’ daemon companion, Silenus is among the satyrs and knows the bliss of the Dionysian world. As mentioned earlier, humanity after Silenus’ revelation knows that the best thing for humanity is to not exist at all, and the second best thing for humans would be to die as soon as possible. With this in mind, the human that accepts this terrible truth and rejects the Apolline world of image, appearances, and illusion, is able to know and understand the knowledge of Silenus. That is to say, humans that realize genuine pain and suffer honestly are able to revel in the tragic celebrations of the Dionysian chorus, and then suffer again at the new awareness of the Apolline façade and discover the illusion that separates the two aspects of humanity. The human that transcends to this place, in what Nietzsche credits to an analogy his then friend Richard Wagner articulated, as a process similar to being “absorbed, elevated, and extinguished... just as a lamplight is superseded by the light of day” (BT 39). Notice that this light as knowledge is not subtractive. The light is not turned out and replaced with more light, but the light as knowledge is added and expanded to with more knowledge. This new place of additional understanding is the realization of the needed illusions of Apolline rationality, order, and beauty, as well as the assumed illusion between Dionysian and Apolline worlds to be false. The person now understands that the aesthetic drives of Dionysus and Apollo work together for a greater common good. This attained understanding of Dionysian/Apolline balance without division becomes a state of mind and being that obtains a middle way in the knowing of the unity of Dionysian/Apolline drives. And this middle or enlightened area is also where the birth of tragedy has taken place. Nietzsche refers to this space or state as the “metaphysical solace” that gives rise to “true tragedy” (BT ibid). In a comparison to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Nietzsche writes that both men and women in possession of metaphysical solace;
have gazed into the true essence of things, they have acquired knowledge and they find action repulsive, for their actions can do nothing to change the eternal essence of things; they regard it as laughable or shameful that they should be expected to set to rights a world so out of joint. Knowledge kills action; action requires one to be shrouded in a veil of illusion” (BT 40).
The Greeks no longer need to be saddened and opposed to Silenus’ wisdom. To obfuscate the daemon’s truths, to prop up an “artful edifice” (BT 22) is to take action where none is needed. The world does not need to be corrected with illusions. Yet the Apolline perspective of images and dreams to explain beauty is good when it has an equal in the Dionysian rawness of euphoric ecstasy. So tragedy as fist born in the Dionysian cults that became the chorus of Greek dramas, is now fully realized as the enlightened middle of Dionysian and Apolline perspectives.
The new view of tragedy as originating in the chorus is at the heart of Nietzsche’s aesthetic philosophy. His claim that tragedy as briefly seen in the eras of Aeschylus and Sophocles represents the pinnacle of aesthetic experience in all history. And for Nietzsche the aesthetic experience of art is the ultimate way in which humans can be in touch with nature. The dialectic of Dionysian and Apolline aesthetic drives is not a binary system in the Hegelian sense, but rather a firm affirmation in the power of art to give true unmitigated meaning to life. He asserts that art and its appreciation through its purest form of music and tragedy produce a new myth as an order to live through. This position is in opposition to the pessimism of Schopenhauer and the later shift to morality as humanity’s purpose and its subsequent universalization through dogmatic piety. Nietzsche writes that art’s purpose is to unify humanity with nature, or better yet it’s to say that art is humanity’s nature. The German term “ureine” meaning a primordial oneness is the purpose of aesthetic experience in which “Man is no longer an artist, he has become a work of art” (BT 18).
III. Nietzsche really hates Socrates and Euripides.
Part of Nietzsche’s BT is to lament and ascribe a cause to the eventual corruption and downfall of the perfect form of Greek tragedy seen in the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles. His analysis of the corruption leads to three root causes; the misunderstanding of the Dionysian/Apolline dialectic, an over analyzing critique of the function of art and its subsequent quantification, and the end result of producing dramatic art that has placed moral judgment as the prime mover of artistic gratification and audience appeal. The two culprits of this problem, Nietzsche has determined, are the playwright Euripides and the philosopher Socrates.
As a chronology in Classical Greek history, Aeschylus was the first playwright to embody the perfect tragic form. Sophocles followed roughly a generation later and was also a master of the Dionysian/Apolline dialectic. Euripides was born ten years after Sophocles, and Socrates was born ten years after Euripides. All this is to say that, with the exception of Aeschylus, the latter three were all contemporaries of each other. In this sense Euripides was writing alongside a master playwright that wrote in the tradition of Aeschylus, while also being influenced by his friendship with a non-playwright in Socrates. Nietzsche argues that Euripides was a thinker and not a poet. Nietzsche’s rationale is that Euripides misunderstood the affect and pathos of Aeschylus and Sophocles, but did not know that he misunderstood their work. Likewise, Socrates as a philosopher not only was incapable of understanding the dialectic form, but as a result did not respect the Dionysian/Apolline approach. Nietzsche quotes Socrates as saying “‘Everything must be conscious in order to be good’” (BT 64). The meaning of this requires that there be no subtext in art, and that with subtext art cannot possibly be good. Therefore art for Socrates needs to make complete sense on a conscious level. However Nietzsche as a proponent of the Dionysian, gives his trust to the irrationality and ambiguities that compel an observer or audience member to implicitly deduce the feeling or meaning in an artistic construction. So perhaps it is strange that Socrates would put all his trust in a purely surface level consciousness because it seems to maintain that all artistic works are good because they are conscious and therefore equal in their artistic merit. With this mode of thought, Socrates would only have two kinds of art in his world; those that are good and those that are not good. This directly translates to his famous judgments of people and situations as either just or unjust. As Socratic thought was an influence on Euripides, Nietzsche claims Euripides’ aesthetic principle was “‘Everything must be conscious in order to be beautiful’” (BT ibid) as well as “‘In order to be beautiful, everything must be reasonable’” (BT 62). And so here is one reason why, according to Nietzsche, Euripides under the influence of “aesthetic Socratism” (BT ibid) helped to destroy Greek tragedy.
Nietzsche writes that this aesthetic Socratism motivated Euripides to reinvent and restructure Greek drama to fit this new aesthetic form. One way Euripides did this was to eliminate the Dionysian elements from the chorus structures of Aeschylus and Sophocles. As the previous components were disorder and randomness, the new chorus was Euripides himself in the guise of a common human or “everyman.” This satisfied the Socratic element of reason as good, as well as the chorus’ direct unambiguous narration to further explicate the happenings on the stage to the audience as conscious. For Nietzsche this was seriously flawed because Euripides as an everyman or a spectator within the narrative to achieve ultimate consciousness was betraying the fact that he was not in fact a spectator, and was merely an elitist playwright attempting to portray himself as an everyman spectator with the cumulative effect of pandering and thus insulting the intellectual abilities of his audience. Additionally, this method assumed the audience or public to be a single entity with only diametrical Socratic interpretative abilities like right or wrong. Nietzsche writes of this artist/audience relationship, “Why should the artist be obliged to accommodate himself to a force which is strong only by virtue of its numbers?” (BT 57). Herein lies the importance of multiple interpretations of an artwork and why Euripides under the influence of Socrates misses the point. Of this limited black and white Socratic thinking (which ironically is not thinking enough), Nietzsche criticizes Euripides further; “he draws up his plan as a Socratic thinker; he executes it as a passionate actor. Neither in the planning nor in the execution is he a pure artist. Thus Euripidean drama is simultaneously fiery and cool, equally capable of freezing and burning” (BT 61).
With the simple subtractive quality of Euripides’ new tragedies established as conservative and bland, Nietzsche now attests that aesthetic Socratism has moralized Greek tragedy. In the previous Dionysian/Apolline dialectic, morality was not at the forefront of the artistic pathos. This is because the Dionysian element would not allow for it due to its unpredictable nature. As a result there was mathematically more possibilities for the art to work. Also it is thought that this ambiguous, uncertain nature correlates and is more relatable to real human nature. Under the establishment of aesthetic Socratism, real human nature is jettisoned in favor of a didactic approach where human nature is portrayed as is should be according to the philosophy of Socrates. Not surprisingly this makes for dull moralistic stories designed to condition with little artistic potential. Nietzsche points to “Socrates’ dictum that ‘Only he who knows is virtuous’” (BT 62). Nietzsche then describes the result of this aesthetic philosophy as:
With this canon in his hand Euripides measured every single element – language, character, dramatic construction, choral music – and rectified it in accordance with this principle[the aforementioned dictum]. What we criticize so frequently as a poetic flaw and a step backwards in Euripides’ work, as compared with Sophoclean tragedy, is mostly the product of that penetrating critical process, that bold application of reason (BT ibid).
In this overly meticulous creating, morality is lost to formulaic constructions that dictate virtue as dogma. Of course this is the downfall for Nietzsche that led to the moralized art of an all too realistic and dogmatic era. Accordingly the moral ambiguity and likeness to the Dionysian part of humanity, the new tragedy forms as Socratic and predictable are unable to use the Apolline element to the same degree and is ultimately a very derivative form art that is closer to pastiche.