The Birth of Tragedy by Nietzsche: Summary & Analysis

The Birth of Tragedy by Nietzsche: Summary & Analysis
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  • 0:00 Background: Nietzsche…
  • 1:22 Summary and Analysis
  • 6:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Timothy Inman

Tim has taught college English and has a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing and poetics.

This lesson covers 'The Birth of Tragedy,' Friedrich Nietzsche's first published book. Read a summary of this important early work by one of the most controversial philosophers of modern times. Then, take a quiz to test your comprehension.

Background: Nietzsche and Truth

Remember the old slogan from the 90's drama the X-Files? It shows up after the opening credits of each episode. Superimposed over a mystical, mountainous landscape at sundown, read the words, 'The truth is out there.' As the huge popularity of supernatural movies and TV shows in the last few decades suggests, there is a need for people today to go beyond the monotony of everyday life in search of 'bigger' truths. This might be indicative of the popularity of things like the X-Files.

The nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the first to recognize this need to escape the mundane and orderly world enjoyed by modern folks. He saw this kind of world as already forming even in the times of the ancient Greeks, the 'founders' of European culture and Western civilization, something he explored in his book, The Birth of Tragedy.

The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche's first published book, initially met with mixed reviews at best. Although Nietzsche continued to insist on its worth as a critical and scholarly work, he eventually published an introduction presenting his own misgivings regarding this early expression of his developing thought. Essentially a work of dramatic criticism, The Birth of Tragedy is today considered important as an expression of Nietzsche's development as a thinker rather than as a statement of his mature philosophy.

Summary and Analysis

The reference above to the X-Files motto may not be the best analogy when it comes to Nietzsche's philosophy as a whole. Nietzsche, in fact, was never too keen on the matter of truth. Still, Nietzsche was intrigued with the outer edges of human experience. Even if he didn't expect to find any truths there, he did expect to come face-to-face with the meaning of life itself. In other words, Nietzsche wasn't too concerned with the individual truths encountered in science and religion. Instead, he was more concerned with 'truth' in the bigger sense of the meaning of life.

The first fifteen chapters of The Birth of Tragedy deal explicitly with Greek tragic drama. Nietzsche saw two trends emerge in the history of Greek art as a whole, and his analysis of them remains an important contribution to the Western philosophical and literary tradition. These trends, he argues, can be found in greater or lesser degrees in all of Greek art and philosophy, but they come together most effectively in Greek drama, especially the tragedies of the classical period, or Golden Age, of Greek culture.

The first trend Nietzsche named was the Dionysian because He identified it with the cult of Dionysius, god of the grape harvest, wine, and ecstasy in general. To the Romans, he was known as Bacchus, and the mystery cult dedicated to him, the Bacchanalia, was famous across the ancient world for the ritual orgies in which drunken devotees participated on a regular basis. It was this aspect of the Dionysian that Nietzsche picked up on, extending its association with revelry and ecstatic experience to the realm of the arts and culture.

For Nietzsche, the Dionysian was associated with music and dance, those forms of human expression beyond language or reason that possess the power to obliterate a person's sense of self. Think about it: when we dance, sing, or play music, we get overtaken by a sense of 'oneness' with the world around us. All of our everyday cares pass away in the thrill of the moment. Our identities as doctors, gas station attendants, men, women, Jews, Protestants, gay, straight, pass away in the ecstasy of what Nietzsche called the primordial unity.

The second trend of Greek art and culture that Nietzsche analyzed is the total opposite of the Dionysian. Nietzsche identified this trend with the god Apollo, so he named it the Apollonian. Apollo was the god of a wide variety of things, but his association with prophecy and especially with truth and knowledge, in Nietzsche's mind, made him the perfect counterpart for the Dionysian worldview. Figures like Socrates (a philosopher considered to have established the tradition of rational inquiry in the West) and Euripides (a writer guilty of writing dramas that emphasized the fate of individuals and a faith in human institutions) threw the idea of a primordial unity out to the curb. These great thinkers and artists were only concerned with people's role in the family and the state, or they thought they could explain the world exclusively in terms of rational order by cataloging the flight patterns of swallows. Both of these persuasions were sin in Nietzsche's mind.

For Nietzsche, Socratic dialogue and the scientific worldview of philosophers like Aristotle focused too much on reason and order, neglecting the very thing that makes us most human: our full participation in the world around us, and the exhilaration that you get when all your cares pass away. Nietzsche admits that the real-life consequences of such experiences can be frightening and harrowing, but even dealing with the potentially negative consequences of living life abundantly is better than living life the way everybody else does.

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