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[Nietzsche] failed, as all moderns must fail when they attempt, like him, to embrace the tragic spirit as a religious faith, because the resurgence of that faith is not an intellectual but a vital phenomenon, something not achieved by taking thought but born, on the contrary, out of an instinctive confidence in life which is nearer to the animal's unquestioning allegiance to the scheme of nature than it is to that critical intelligence characteristic of a fully developed humanism. And like other faiths it is not to be recaptured merely by reaching an intellectual conviction that it would be desirable to do so.
-Joseph Wood Krutch, The Modern Temper


    Affirmation of life even in its strangest and sternest problems, the will to life rejoicing in its own
    inexhaustibility through the sacrifice of its highest types-that is what I called Dionysian, that is what
    I recognized as the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet. Not so as to get rid of pity and
    terror, not so as to purify oneself of a dangerous emotion through its vehement discharge but,
    beyond pity and terror, to realize in oneself the eternal joy of becoming-that joy which also
    encompasses joy in destruction.
            -Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

For our Senior January at Colgate, Chuck & I took a course on Socrates with Professor Kraynak, who was not only one of the only conservative professors that I have ever met in academe, he may have been the only one who was just clearly the smartest person in the room.  Despite the considerable obstacle posed by his mandatory attendance policy, I thoroughly enjoyed this class and the subsequent political science class I took with him.

One of the texts we read for the Socrates course was Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy.  Nietzsche's central argument is that Greek Tragedy was the apotheosis of human arts because it best expressed the beautiful "terror and horror of existence".  Nietzsche posited two competing elements: the Dionysian--representing music, primal urges and ecstasy; and the Apollonian--representing the restraint and control of sculpture, dreams and prophecy.  To him Attic tragedy had struck just the right balance, with the Apollonian impulse toward order only just succeeding in adding structure to the primordial beauty of Dionysian instinctive savagery:

    ...in the ecstasy of the Dionysian state, with its annihilation of the ordinary bounds and limits of
    existence, there is contained a lethargic element, in which we are submerged all past personal
    experiences.  It is this gulf of oblivion that separates the world of everyday from the world of
    Dionysian reality.  But as soon as we become conscious of this everyday reality, we feel it as
    nauseating and repulsive; and an ascetic will-negating mood is the fruit of these states. ... But at this
    juncture, when the will is most imperiled, art approaches, as a redeeming and healing enchantress;
    she alone may transform these horrible reflections on the terror and absurdity of existence into
    representations with which man may live.  These are the representation of the sublime as the
    conquest of the awful, and of the comic as the artistic release from the nausea of the absurd.

Yes, he says, life is awful, but art makes it endurable and Greek tragedy was the pinnacle of art.

But then a new force came upon the scene; as Socrates and scientific reason introduced a new, and for Nietzsche destructive, element into the equation which brought the reign of Dionysus to an end.  Socrates enunciated three maxims:

    -Virtue is knowledge

    -Man sins only from ignorance

    -He who is virtuous is happy

and as Nietzsche said, "In these three fundamental forms of optimism lies the death of tragedy."  This optimism Nietzsche believed to be an illusion, "the imperturbable belief that, with the clue of logic, thinking can reach to the nethermost depths of being, and that thinking can not only perceive being but even modify it."  Therefore, Nietzsche called for a return to Dionysian drama and believed that German artists and philosophers were uniquely suited to lead this rebirth of tragedy.  In fact, the book is dedicated to Richard Wagner, whom Nietzsche saw as the artist most likely to succeed in this task.  But then Wagner wrote Parsifal, with its Christian themes, and the two became estranged.

I don't have any particular argument with Nietzsche's assessment of the historical facts.  But he's basically just arguing for the kind of amoral Franco-German existentialism that has made both of those peoples and their cultures so unpleasant.  The philosophers of the European continent have for two centuries now fought a rearguard action against both Judeo-Christianity and the Age of Reason.  But Western Civilization is ultimately a product of these two great ideological revolutions and by any measure, you'd have to say that their adherents have the better of this argument.

One brief discussion in here suffices to show how Nietzsche's sort of weird prejudices warped his capacity to think clearly--his comparison of Prometheus and the Fall of Man.  He completely misreads the two stories to say:

    The best and highest that man can acquire they must obtain by a crime, and then they must endure
    its consequences, namely the whole flood of sufferings and sorrows with which the offended
    divinities must requite the nobly aspiring race of man.  It is a bitter thought, which by the dignity it
    confers on crime, contrasts strangely with the Semitic myth of the fall of man, in which curiosity,
    deception, weakness in the face of temptation, wantoness,--in short, a whole series of preeminently
    feminine passions,--were regarded as the origin of evil.  What distinguishes the Aryan conception is
    the sublime view of active sin as the essential Promethean virtue, and the discovery of the ethical
    basis of pessimistic tragedy in the justification of human evil--of human guilt as well as of the
    suffering incurred thereby.

This is, of course, pure rot.  In fact, the Promethean myth (see Orrin's review) is based on a semi-divine being stealing fire and giving it to man.  Genesis features man as the active hero, taking from the Tree of Knowledge himself and suffering the consequences himself, instead of just leaving Prometheus to have his entrails ripped out daily.  Failing to understand the stories, Nietzsche draws the wrong conclusions:

    He who understands this innermost core of the Prometheus myth--namely, the necessity of crime
    imposed on the titanically striving individual--will at once feel the un-Apollonian element in this
    pessimistic representation.  For Apollo seeks to calm individual beings precisely by drawing
    boundary lines between them, and by again and again, with his requirements of self-knowledge and
    self-control, recalling these bounds to us as the holiest laws of the universe.

Nietzsche's vision of Man, necessarily fueled by individual striving and crime, represents a return to Hobbes's state of nature.  It has a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest appeal, but there is no reason to believe that it would lead to progress for Man as a species.  Look at the nations where law and morality have ceased to function--Somalia, Columbia, Rwanda, etc.--and show me anything good that has come of it.  It turns out that Man's greatest strides have come in precisely those cultures which have embraced the Apollonian.  Apparently, self-knowledge and self-control aren't such a bad deal at the end of the day.

I'm not going to try to deny Nietzsche's brilliance nor his importance, but I do deny the value of his philosophy to humankind.  You've got to be familiar with his work, but God help anyone who buys what he's selling.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C)

  

Websites:

Friedrich Nietzsche Links:

    -REVIEW: of Friedrich Nietzsche by Curtis Cate (John Gray, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE By Curtis Cate (William T. Vollman, NY Times Book Review)

Book-related and General Links:
    -ESSAY: A View of Apollo and Dionysus (R.H. Albright)
    -Nietzsche Gallery (Photos)
    -Nietzsche's Labyrinth
    -NIETZSCHE WORK SPACE
    -Friedrich Nietzsche Society
    -Nietzsche Page at USC (Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California)
    -Nietzsche Chronicle (biographical)
    -Resources for Teaching Nietzsche
    -Friedrich Nietzsche (Most Web)
    -Study Guide: The Influence of Nietzsche
    -On-line Articles and Reviews on Nietzsche
    -The perspectives of Nietzsche
    -Björn's Guide to Philosophy: Nietzsche
    -Existentialism and Nietzsche (Katharena Eiermann)
    -ESSAY: DESCARTES, NIETZSCHE AND THE SEARCH FOR THE UNSAYABLE  (Mark C. Taylor, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: The Polemical Philosopher (William Gass, NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: An Alternative History: Locating The Order of Things in context of Hegel´s Philosophy of  History and Nietzsche´s the Birth of Tragedy (Jeremiah Luna, San Francisco State U)
    -ESSAY: The Quantum Nietzsche (William G. Plank)
    -ESSAY: Nietzsche's Styles (Mark Kingwell, special to Britannica.com)
    -ETEXT: Multimedia Birth of Tragedy
    -REVIEW: of Nietzsche and Wagner: A Lesson in Subjugation. By Joachim Köhler. Translated from the German by Ronald Taylor ( LYNWOOD ABRAM, Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of NIETZSCHE: Life as Literature By Alexander Nehamas (Karsten Harries, NY Times Book Review)
     -REVIEW: of Nietzsche: A Critical Life by Ronald Hayman (J.M. Cameron, NY Review of Books)
     -REVIEW: of Nietzsche in Turin: An Intimate Biography by Lesley Chamberlain (John Banville, NY Review of Books)
     -REVIEW: of NIETZSCHE IN TURIN An Intimate Biography By Lesley Chamberlain (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
      -REVIEW: of  The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany, 1890-1990 by Steven E. Aschheim,  Forgotten Fatherland: The Search for Elisabeth Nietzsche by Ben Macintyre,  When Nietzsche Wept by Irvin D. Yalom (James Joll, NY Review of Books)
     -REVIEW: of Nietzsche Volume One: The Will to Power as Art by Martin Heidegger and translated by David Farrell Krell, Nietzsche's Gift by Harold Alderman,  Friedrich Nietzsche by J.P. Stern (Philippa Foot, NY Review of Books)
     -REVIEW: of Nietzsche: The Man and His Philosophy by R.J. Hollingdale & Nietzsche as Philosopher by Arthur A. Danto (Philippa Foo, NY Review of Books)
     -REVIEW: of From Hegel to Nietzsche: The Revolution in Nineteenth-Century Thought by Karl Lowith and translated by David E. Green (Alasdair MacIntyre, NY Review of Books)
     -REVIEW: of  The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault  by Alexander Nehamas & Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form  by Charles H. Kahn   Plato's Grand Design  (JASPER GRIFFIN, NY Review of Books)
     -REVIEW:  of Wagnerism in European Culture and Politics edited by David C. Large, William Weber, and Anne Dzamba Sessa (James Joll, NY Review of Books)
   -REVIEW: of  Tragedy and Philosophy by Walter Kaufmann, The Identity of Oedipus the King by Alastair Cameron,  Reality and the Heroic Pattern by David Grene (Francis Fergusson, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Young Nietzsche Becoming a Genius By Carl Pletsch (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW:  of Young Nietzsche Becoming a Genius By Carl Pletsch (Ray Monk, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  THE IMPORTANCE OF NIETZSCHE Ten Essays. By Erich Heller (Alexander Nehamas, NY Times Book Review)
     -REVIEW: of Nietzsche and Wagner A Lesson in Subjugation By Joachim Kohler (Alan Ryan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of PROPHETS OF EXTREMITY Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida. By Allan Megill (Arthur C. Danto, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Nietzsche: The Ethics of an Immoralist by Peter Berkowitz (Werner J. Dannhauser, First Things)
    -REVIEW: Nietzsche by Peter Berkowitz (Adam Schulman, Commentary)
    -ARTICLE: Nietzscheans make a counteroffensive  Lists of loves and hates: A philosopher who was opposed to 'racial purity' (Andy Lamey, National Post)
    -REVIEW: of Why We Are Not Nietzscheans by Luc Ferry   Hierarchical Obsession (Fredrick Appel, Boston Book Review)

Comments:

Erm, well, pretty shallow I'm afraid, it demonstrates a fantastic misunderstanding of the Birth. You didn't submit that as a piece in college did you?!

- Bex

- Mar-03-2005, 07:19

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This is a very powerful piece that is well organized and well understood. thank u for this nice essay. Manar

- manar

- Feb-10-2005, 21:43

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Before I give my opinion on this "essay", let me say that the quotes you mentioned helped me in explaining the Dionysian element in my paper. That said, I can understand where you are coming from if you have just taken random quotes from the internet, read them, and decided to state your opinion. But if you actually read Nietzsche's books and tried to understand where he was coming from, then a. you provide a very shallow argument and b. you need to reread the books. Your taking way to many topics Nietzsche worked ages to try to explain to people like us and comment on them in a few sentences. And I would caution you in making such a bold sentence in the end; its quite offensive.

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- Dec-16-2004, 00:36

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who ever wrote that this is "hysterical and one of the worst interpretations they've ever read" seems ignorant for not offering why or in what ways. If they want to be taken seriously perhaps they should offer something of substance instead of talking shit.

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- Nov-11-2004, 19:26

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hysterical, seriously one of the worst understandings of Nietzsche I have ever read.

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- Apr-17-2004, 11:52

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