Continental Philosophy

Friedrich Nietzsche

What did Friedrich Nietzsche mean by “the birth of tragedy?”

Nietzsche was influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), who thought that the real world underlying everyday reality was composed of Will, best perceived by us in music. According to Nietzsche, tragedy as an art form was an invention of the ancient Greeks, before Socrates, in order to cope with the chaotic and sorrowful nature of their lives, and indeed of life itself. The tragic play was a rational and beautiful dramatic structure, created by Apollo, the god of reason, which allowed the audience to participate in the underlying, frenzied reality of disorder. This underlying disorder and merging of everything into an anguished but expressive drunken whole was what Nietzsche called the “Dionysian” element in Greek life. Thus, the Apollonian element of reason allowed the Dionysian element of disorder to emerge in the dramatic form of the tragedy, for the vicarious participation of the audience, who was represented by the chorus in the tragic play. In The Birth of Tragedy (1872), which was his doctoral dissertation, Nietzsche quoted the great tragic playwright, Sophocles:

There is an ancient story that King Midas hunted in the forest a long time for the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, without capturing him. When Silenus at last fell into his hands, the king asked what was the best and most desirable of all things for man. Fixed and immovable, the demigod said not a word, ‘til at last, urged by the king, he gave a shrill laugh and broke out into these words: “Oh, wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do you compel me to tell you what it would be most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is—to die soon.”


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