Friday, December 7, 2012

Review of "The Birth of Tragedy" by Friedrich Nietzsche

Oedipus at Colonus

This is my second go at reading The Birth of Tragedy. The first time was a few years ago when I had just started teaching. I had read and enjoyed Hegel's Philosophy of Art (or, to use the title he gave it rather than the title Barnes and Noble gave it, The Science of Aesthetics), and thought I would give Nietzsche a go. Unfortunately, the bulk of my "free" reading time was while riding the Metro, and this is a book which really requires a level of peace, quiet, and the ability to take notes that public transportation just can't provide. So after getting about halfway through the book, I set it aside with the intention of returning to it at a later date.
Which is probably more personal back-story than is really necessary, on to the review!

If the spirit behind Nietzsche's thought were to be made into a movie, Nietzsche would face off against the hulking knight of Western Civilization, feint to the left and punch it in the kidneys. While it soils itself, he would then stab it in the back; and while it died he would cut his own throat and let his corpse fall on top of the dead knight. And if that seems too gross, crude, and violent, well, welcome to Nietzsche's world.

This was Nietzsche's first published work. Because of that (at least, according to his "Attempt at Self-Criticism" written later and published as a forward to this edition), he intentionally restrained himself from expositing  his true objective: the refutation of Christianity. More on that in a second.

According to Nietzsche, there are three forces at work in the world. The first is the fundamental nature of existence itself. All things exist in an essential unity and connection with each other, this unity and connection is will, and appears to us as aesthetics. That is, what connects man with other men, and mankind with nature, in one unified whole is the will of existence to exist. Moreover, this existence is aesthetic in nature. That which connects all people and all creation on a fundamental level is the will, and it is a beautiful will. Nietzsche calls this "force" (though force is a crude term for what he discusses) "Dionysian." When this force is seen or felt, the unity and beauty of everything with everything is apparent.
And yet, that unity is on some level horrifying as well as beautiful. We rebel against this unity because it challenges our identity as individuals. None of us want to be told that we are essentially the same thing as a tree or a car or -even worse- something actively ugly and awful. This reveals the second force at work in the world: the individuation of this unified existence into separate individuals. When we rebel against the Dionysian unity of existence, we break creation into individual categories and intuitively impose order and structure on the world (the "intuitive" part is essential- this is not something we do by means of reason). Nietzsche calls this process of cutting the unity of existence into individual parts "Apollonian."

These two forces continually rise in opposition to each other. First, we see the beauty of Dionysian unity, then we rebel against it in horror and impose Apollonian individuality to the unity of existence, but then a vision of Dionysian unity breaks through the individualization and reveals itself again. This becomes the cycle of existence that gradually balances itself out. This balance between unity and individuality in existence achieved near perfection, according to Nietzsche, in Greek tragedy. In fact, the tension between these two forces lead to the birth of tragedy itself. Greek tragedy (specifically that of Aeschylus and Sophocles, as well as the "unknown" Greek tragedians) is, according to Nietzsche, the nearest human beings have come to understanding the true nature of existence. It is the place where Apollo and Dionysus exist in harmony with each other, and the aesthetic will that unites all things is most on display.

Unfortunately, at this point in human history (~4th century BC) a third force comes into play that wrecks everything, puts tragedy to death, and establishes an intellectual tyranny that exists down to this day and is only now (in the mid-to-late 19th century AD) beginning to be thrown off. This "force" is anticipated in Euripides and springs into being in Socrates: human reason. With the rise of Socratic thought, we no longer experience existence in its primal aesthetic nature, we rather impose our reason on it and try to force it into an artificial mold that conforms not to reality, but to our own intellects. The result is the death of tragedy and the alienation of human beings from each other and from, well, everything else. We've built an entire civilization dedicated to imposing the intellectual logical constructions of the rational mind onto existence. As a result, but Apollo and Dionysus have given way to Socrates, and we no longer truly understand ourselves or the world.

This is where, according to Nietzsche, he held himself back. He should have (he argues in the Preface) gone on to point out that later Christianity would replace even Socratic reason with empty moralism and ethics dedicated solely to preserving the power of those who define the ethics, thus at the same time creating a system of slavery in the name of morality and keeping people isolated from and unaware of the true nature of existence.

But, good news! In recent years Western civilization has begun to see its own limitations. Especially with the work of Kant, Schopenhauer, and Wagner, the limitations of logic and reason have begun to make themselves clear, and people are beginning to feel an inarticulate discontent with the rational and moral claims of the Socratic (and Christian) explanations of reality. We are beginning to sense a deeper aesthetic at work in the world. It may very well be that the German people are getting ready for a rebirth of tragedy with the throwing off of... uh... "foreign elements"... and (with maybe less ominous overtones) the reconnection of the German people with the primal forces of existence (Apollo and Dionysus) that the Greeks knew so well before Socrates came along and ruined everything. We are standing on the edge of the return of the balance between Apollo and Dionysus, and consequently the return of an unmediated and personal connection with the universe and with other human beings.

And that's really only scratching the surface of this short work. I didn't even mention the place of myth, the claim that the only justification for existence is aesthetic, or the place of actual tragedy (as in the plays themselves) in all of this.

Obviously, I very much enjoyed reading Nietzsche's first work. I have regularly found him to be articulate, witty, and frankly the only atheist philosopher really worth my time. He fully well realizes that it's not enough to challenge the surface assumptions, if you're going to go after an intellectual system you've got to go for the jugular.

And you can't stop until it's dead.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche fires the first round of what would go on to become a full-on assault on the mores of Western Civilization, the beliefs of Christianity, and every warm and fuzzy thing that has ever lived. In doing so, he challenges us to think closely about our beliefs and assumptions and demands that we leave aside the externals and go to the root of the matter. And frankly, I appreciate that kind of candor. Nietzsche is perfectly willing to draw his conclusions out to their bitter, logical end, and then rejoice when he's devastated everything and everyone. And while I don't agree with his conclusions, I like to think that by going along with him a ways I have a better understanding of what a world without God might look like.

That said, this probably isn't the place to start if you've never read any Nietzsche. It is a bit more technical than some of his other works, and not nearly as easy to follow. (I recommend Beyond Good and Evil as the easiest and shortest place to begin.)

Nonetheless, this book is also well worth your time. If nothing else, it has been a useful addition to that slowly-building "philosophy of aesthetics" class I hope to teach some day.

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