2 Points about Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, section 3.

Primary version of this blog is at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with picture not just link to picture!

Picture shows ampitheatre of Athens, where the Ancient tragedies were staged.

Reading section 3 of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy today, I have two comments to make on contentious issues in Nietzsche.

Nietzsche’s view of tragedy is not that of a lie to escape life.

Nietzsche’s view of Homer challenges the classification of Ancient Greek literature as naive.

On the first point: (quotations are from Walter Kaufmann’s translation)

“The same impulse which calls art into being, as the complement and consummation of existence, seducing one to a continuation of life, was also the cause of the Olympian world which the Hellenic “will” made use of as a transfiguring mirror”

Actually I can see why someone might want to say this is about creating a lie (as Julian Young does in Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Art), but nevertheless I think the best interpretation is that life contains the possibility of creating this triumphant joy, as well as containing the suffering Nietzsche also refers to here as essential to human life The essential nature of suffering does not make artistic joy a lie, since the possibility of that joy is essential to life as well. The joy of Ancient Greek art includes the happy life of the gods, as Nietzsche says, but Nietzsche also refers to the way that Ancient Greek mythology shows the Olympian gods as only pre-eminent after a war with the Titan gods (see Hesiod’s Theogony). So suffering is not absent from the lives of the Greek gods who represent the justification of life. Tragedy itself is not a lie of beautiful happy life, it dwells on the suffering of life, but creates joyful beauty from it.

This is not a lie in the sense of deceiving someone about reality, but the suggestion of a way of looking at the world. Nietzsche does sometimes in various texts refer to the illusions and lies of art, but I think this is best thought of in relation to Nietzsche’s view that we have to look at many truths or perspectives, not just one. The idea of perspectivism in Nietzsche has become controversial as the more naturalist-scientific commentators are absolutely desperate to avoid any hint of relativism in Nietzsche. Let us leave aside relativism, or ontological questions about the relations between perceptions and ‘real’ objects, and just remember that referring to a number of perspectives is not the same as a relativistic claim that perspectives are incompatible. Nietzsche does sometimes refer to contradiction, but this is not the same as saying perspectives contradict, anyone perspectivism does not require a radical belief in pure relativism.

On the second point:

“The Homeric ‘naiveté’ can be understood only as the complete victory of Apollinian illusion: this is one of those illusions which nature so frequently employs to achieve her own end.”

Again, it’s not surprising that someone might take this as a statement that art is a lie to distract us from existence, but the context in the previous paragraph is of the Olympians overthrowing the Titans, a story well know to Ancient Greeks familiar with Homer and tragedy. There is a dream in Homer, and an Apollinian suppression of the tragic, but this is in epics which contain constant violence, death, cruelty, fear and suffering. Nietzsche emphasises that the supposed “naiveté” of Homer is itself an illusion.

The context for the “naive’ in art is Friedrich Schiller’s 1794 distinction between naive and sentimental in art, which was taken up by Friedrich Schlegel and other ‘Romantic Ironists’ a few years later. In this view, Ancient art is not reflective or concerned with inner conflict, but modern art is which is why it ‘sentimental’ in the sense of a play of feelings and actions of the mind. Something like this distinction carries on into the early Twentieth Century in Georg Lukács’ Theory of the Novel. Though Lukács was very familiar with Nietzsche he does not think of Birth of Tragedy as challenging Schiller’s aesthetic stages. Nietzsche casts doubt on this view in arguing that at the beginning of known Greek literature, the Apollinian beauty of surfaces which is equated with the naive, is itself an illusion created by the artist in a work which also contains a Dionysian awareness of death and suffering. The Dionysian itself is not a belief in the futility of life, since it promotes festivals of joy in nature.

If Nietzsche is referring to a lie in art, it is more in the way that the Dionysian is associated with Schopenhauer’s metaphysic of will, than in the beauty of the Apollinian. In some ways, in his account of the Dionysian, Nietzsche seems to take Schopenhauer’s metaphysics as given, but the emphasis on the enjoyment if nature does not really seem like Schopenhauer, for whom that sense of nature could only be the means to a union with universal will. In Schopenhauer, nature leads us immediately to pure ‘Ideas’ and despite what the distinguished commentator on Nietzsche’s aesthetics, Julian Young says in Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Art, I can’t see these Platonist ideas in Birth of Tragedy.


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