Nietzsche Against the Egyptians: Politics and Tragedy

Looking through Birth of Tragedy, mostly thinking about the possible political meanings, I noticed a reference in Section 19 to Egypt.  The reference is negative, with regard to the idea that the Apollonian contains the Egyptian when unchallenged by the Dionysian.  Since this is a blog post, and not a paper for Nietzscheans, I will explain the relevant basic terms.  Nietzsche sees ancient Greek tragedy as born from the conflict and union of Dionysius, the god associated with dance, intoxication, death and rebirth, with Apollo, the god associated with architecture, dreams, clarity, and boundaries.  

Without the Dionysian element, which is essential to Greek culture, the Apolline becomes rigid and cold.  What Nietzsche is referring to is the timeless, unchanging and archaic nature of Egyptian civilisation compared with Greece in the time of the city states and the great Athenian tragedies.  His reference to Egypt is certainly tied up with nineteenth-century chauvinistic stereotypes, but is nevertheless still stimulating.  And it is true that there was something non-conformist, innovative and active, about classical Greece compared with Egypt at that time.  Nietzsche’s comments also contain an implicit recognition that a lot of classical Greek culture had Egyptian roots.  The most obvious place to see that amongst Ancient Greek writers is in Plato’s favourable references to Egypt, and Nietzsche is very possibly having a dig at Plato.  

What Nietzsche is also doing is having a dig at the ‘Doric’, which refers to the simplest order of classical architecture, and is used by Nietzsche to refer to Sparta.  Nietzsche is for Athens against Sparta, and being against the Egyptian nature of the purely Apollinian.   The purely Apollinian is a characteristic of the Doric state, that is Sparta in Nietzsche’s account.  We should note that in this respect Nietzsche is for democratic, individualistic and commercial Athens against oligarchic, traditionalist and autarkic Sparta.  That is not the end of the story of Nietzsche’s political inclinations, but we should not ignore this evidence of Nietzsche’s inclinations either.  

The context for the dismissal of the Egyptian/Doric/Pure Apollinian is the account of tragedy as a struggle against injustice, a highly ambiguous struggle since Nietzsche suggests that justice is Apollinian, and more implicitly that denial of justice is Apollinian, since denial of justice comes from a form of justice.  Apollo is also associated with individuation in Nietzsche; and he links tragedy with the struggle both against the suffering of individuation, and for the strong individual.  Gods and humans are unified in this struggle against the injustice of fate according to Nietzsche, which in terms of political symbolism looks like the unity of commoners and aristocrats (including kings).  

The idea of the Dionysian is tied up with barbarism and Plebian enthusiasms for Nietzsche, while as we have seen the Apollinian is linked with oligarchy-monarchy-aristocracy.  In political terms, tragedy is the unity of democracy with aristocracy etc, which is rather close to how Aristotle, Polybius and Cicero thought about a good and enduring constitution.  The idea of a republic as a unity of struggling opposites is something that is likely to have been in Nietzsche’s mind, somewhere, as we can see it in the Jena Romantic, in the late 18th century writings of Schlegel, Novalis etc on philosophy and literature.  

I’ve somewhat emphasised democratic and republican readings of Nietzsche, there’s a lot in Nietzsche that goes against this, though on the whole I believe the tendency in Nietzsche commentary has been to overemphasise the latter, and underemphasise the former.  On the less liberal Nietzsche, we should note that Birth of Tragedy includes a central elevation of the ‘Aryan’ (Indo-European) over the semitic, and at the time, Nietzsche was an enthusiast for Imperial German nationalism.  Fortunately his attitude changed on both points.  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s