“In song and in dance man expresses himself as a member of a higher community… supernatural sounds emanate from him: he feels himself a god… He is no longer an artist, he has become a work of art: in these paroxysms of intoxication the artistic power of all nature reveals itself.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
The extraordinary philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is undoubtedly one of the most influential thinkers in modern times. His revolutionary world views and writings are still strongly relevant to us today: We live in a region that is still burdened with the shackles of intellectual and moral slavery, at a time when many freethinkers are struggling to find meaning in an inherently meaningless world.
It is hard to encompass the philosophy of Nietzsche in a blog post. So, I will limit myself in this article to the more modest goal of presenting his views, particularly in one of his earlier books, The Birth of Tragedy, on how art can help humans triumph over nihilism.
Nietzsche once famously declared: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? … Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
What he meant is that, throughout most of its history, the pillars of western civilization, including philosophy, religion, morality, values, purpose and the meaning of life, etc. were all founded on the idea of the existence of God, and once that existence was refuted, there was an enormous gap to be filled at all these levels. Thus Nietzsche invites us to “become gods”, to immerse ourselves deeper in life, to seek our own individual goals, and to create our own meaning.
It is within that spirit that Nietzsche approaches the themes of art and aesthetics. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche discusses Greek art—theater in particular. He does not merely limit himself to Greek culture but rather he reflects on it to draw more general conclusions about the nature of art, its relation to truth and to the human spirit, and subsequently its effect on the rise or fall of civilizations.
Tragedy was born, according to Nietzsche, with the synthesis of two opposing, or perhaps complementary, principles: the Apollonian and the Dionysian.
Apollo and Dionysus are both gods in Greek mythology (both the sons of Zeus). Apollo is the god of the sun, of rational thinking, calmness, dreams, and beauty. The Apollonian principle, therefore, represents beautiful forms and structure. In terms of art forms, it is mostly expressed in sculpture and poetry (well-structured, well-designed, and well-executed). The Apollonian principle places high importance on reason and seeks to portray man as a being who is independent and separated from the world. Nietzsche claims that this principle was designed to reassure and comfort man in that it allows him to distance himself from the real suffering of the world.
According to Nietzsche, Socrates was one of the main philosophers that promoted the Apollonian worldview, and he detested him for it. Nietzsche considered Socrates to be a coward who was afraid of, and conspired against, the life force of the human spirit; thus he believed Socrates to be the destroyer of Greek civilization given that he overly emphasized the importance of rational knowledge and dismissed, or rather suppressed all natural life instincts. According to Nietzsche, life is the will to power and a constant drive for renewal and rebirth. He believed that Socrates and the Apollonian principle blocked that drive and that life flow.
On the other hand, Dionysus is the god of irrationality, chaos, emotions, instincts, and drunkenness. In contrast to the Apollonian principle, the Dionysian principle is often expressed in music, singing, and dancing. It represents ecstasy, terror, and unity with sexual desires. The Dionysian principle aims to allow man to fully immerse himself in life, to forget himself as an individual and be one with nature, rather than separate from it. Before Dionysus, Nietzsche claims, the spectator of art could not really be immersed in the art he/she was viewing, but only contemplate it and reflect upon it intellectually.
Nietzsche believed that suffering is the true nature of the world, and instead of shielding ourselves from it with the Apollonian ‘veil’, we should instead step into life fully, tear the veil, and rejoice in the drunkenness of reality. Only through this brave immersion can man understand that he is not alone in suffering, and thus connect with other individuals who are experiencing the same suffering. By doing so, Nietzsche believed, the individual can truly redeem himself from suffering and discover new hope and a new drive for life.
The publishers of The Birth of Tragedy often coin this phrase on the back cover to highlight the above point:
“The Greek spectators, by looking into the abyss of human suffering and affirming it, passionately and joyously affirmed the meaning of their own existence. They knew themselves to be infinitely more than petty individuals, finding self-affirmation not in another life, not in a world to come, but in the terror and ecstasy alike celebrated in the performance of tragedies.”
Nietzsche tells us that tragedy was born when both these principles met and merged. Dionysus is the redeemer; however, he needs Apollo to be able to express himself. The intertwining of both principles meant that there is a balance. On the one hand, Dionysus would not allow Apollo to suffocate the true essence of man’s spirit and cowardly shield him from life; and on the other hand, Apollo would not allow Dionysus to completely drown man in chaos and irrationality. In a way, the Apollonian principle would establish the structures and appearances in which the Dionysian principle can reveal its essence.
Nietzsche believes that this balance is crucial. He blamed the destruction of this balance, and thus the decline of Greek tragedy, on the followers of Socrates and their biased worldview which unfairly elevated the status of reason over other fundamental aspects of human nature.
This decline was not limited only to the Greek case. On the contrary, Nietzsche believed that his contemporary western civilization was in decline for particularly the same reason. In an important sense, Nietzsche despised religion and viewed Dionysus as a powerful alternative to the Christian concept of salvation: Instead of renouncing earthly life and seeking promises of heaven, Dionysian salvation lies in fully embracing life. Nietzsche was not exactly diplomatic, and he clearly expressed his view that “Christianity was from the beginning, essentially and fundamentally, life’s nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in ‘another’ or ‘better’ life.”
Nietzsche is thus urging us to reinstate the Dionysian principle into art and culture. Language alone can never come close to expressing the Dionysian essence; only music, dancing, singing, and allowing the subconscious to be in control can achieve that. And “without music, life would be a mistake.”
The famous French poet Paul Valery captured the essence of Nietzsche’s position when he said, “Two dangers constantly threaten the world: order and disorder.” There can only be true art, great civilizations, and a flourishing of life in the vast area between these two extremes. Each artistic creation must contain elements of both rational thought and chaotic creativity; neither element is sufficient by itself. Yet not only art is at stake here, but rather the very way we lead our lives. And Nietzsche has a worthwhile lesson to teach us. There is indeed an awe-inspiring grandeur in a philosophy that urges us not to look away from the abyss, but to embrace it.
Look at every abyss around you, then. Sing, dance, love, cry, be mad. Become a work of art.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the site administration and/or other contributors to this site.