“Yes, my friends, believe with me in Dionysian life and the rebirth of tragedy. The age of the Socratic man is over; put on the wreaths of ivy, put the thyrsus into your hand, and do not be surprised when tigers and panthers lie down, fawning, at your feet. Only dare to be tragic men; for you are to be redeemed. You shall accompany the Dionysian pageant from
These words were first published in 1871, and it was a philosophy unlike anything the west had ever seen. The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche’s first book, published when he was twenty-seven years old and about to assume a professorship, introduced some themes that would recur powerfully in his later works. It introduced them in such an impassioned and extravagant way, however, that the work met with some severe criticism at the time. Nietzsche himself later repudiated some of the ideas in the book, in a new preface written in 1886 and titled “Attempt at a Self-Criticism” – calling it “strange and almost inaccessible” as well as “ponderous” and “embarrassing.” (BT, 17-19) It is not difficult, however, to find the lingering echoes of the Birth of Tragedy in his later thought – the emphasis on the heroic attitude of total affirmation to life in the face of suffering, the repudiation of reason as the only valid approach to all concerns, and an enthusiastic embrace of the natural urges, instincts and passions of man.
All of this Nietzsche found in the symbol of Dionysus, the ancient Greek god of wine, ecstasy, passion, fertility, and orgiastic madness. Dionysus was also, however, the god of theater; ancient Greek drama grew directly out of the primitive religious rites honoring the power of Dionysus. It is this role of the god in tragedy that Nietzsche emphasizes, as he calls himself “the first tragic philosopher” and “a disciple of Dionysus.” But Nietzsche’s use of Dionysus as a symbol of the affirmative, overflowing and heroic life must be distinguished from the original mythic religious figure of Dionysus as a god. In latching onto the figure of Dionysus as an expression of his own philosophy, Nietzsche necessarily molds him, to some extent, to the pattern of his own philosophy. Dionysus, however, is perhaps a figure ideally suited to this sort of transformative revision.
In his original conception Dionysus was a strange, enigmatic, mysterious deity, a god of sudden metamorphoses and unexpected epiphanies. He was a god who seemed to come from somewhere else, but exactly where was never clear. He embodied many paradoxical qualities: the fertility of life and the horrors of violent death, phallicism and femininity, ecstasy and agony, wildness and civilization. He was both human and divine, the only major Olympian god born of a mortal mother; but in his divine metamorphoses he assumed various animal and plant shapes – the grapevine, the ivy, a goat, a panther, a bull, a many-headed snake.
Originally the central figure in drama, Dionysus remained its unseen presence even when theater turned to the narratives of tragic heroes for its themes. The iconographic presence of Dionysos in religious rites was often shown as a mask, decorated with ivy leaves, hanging upon a column. He remained, in many ways, an unknown god -- the god behind the mask. In Nietzsche’s thought, too, Dionysus assumes many masks. Nietzsche saw him in the prophet Zarathustra, and as the heroic Prometheus who brings the gift of fire to man; later in life, as Nietzsche was slipping off the edge of sanity, he himself signed his letters with “Dionysus.”
Assessing the meaning and importance of the figure of Dionysus in the thought of Nietzsche is neither easy nor straightforward. Although there are some later references to Dionysus and the “Dionysian,” most of them occur in the Birth of Tragedy, much of which he later repudiated. Additionally, Nietzsche’s conception of Dionysus apparently shifted over time, coming later to include many of the qualities he originally saw as Apollonian – the very opposite of Dionysus. The changing role of the Dionysian in Nietzsche’s philosophy has led some authors to dismiss or minimize its importance, especially if they rely solely upon his published writings. Other authors, perhaps wishing to redeem Nietzsche from his discipleship to that most scandalous of Greek gods, argue that Nietzsche himself was really more along the lines of Apollo than Dionysus. (Silk & Stern, 379-380)
One author who does consider the Dionysian of crucial importance is Rose Pfeffer, whose book Nietzsche: Disciple of Dionysus presents the symbol of Dionysus as a central unifying theme in Nietzsche’s system of thought, a philosophy organized around the “tragic worldview.” (Pfeffer, 17) In order to do so, however, she finds it necessary to draw not only upon Nietzsche’s later published works but also relies heavily upon the Nachlass, a large volume of Nietzsche’s unpublished writings. From these scattered bits and pieces she sews together a picture of Nietzsche’s thought that regards Dionysus as a metaphysical principle, the Ur-Eine – “primal oneness and the ground of being, ever contradictory and ever suffering; he is Heraclitean flux and becoming...he is also the will to power, the will to overcome, to affirm and to create.” (Pfeffer, 36)
The use of the Nachlass in this way is controversial; some Nietzsche scholars hold that only the published works should be assumed to reflect Nietzsche’s views, and the Nachlass should be used only sparingly, to clarify the themes contained in the published volumes. There are similar problems with citing passages from The Will to Power; this book was itself assembled from Nietzsche’s unpublished writings by his sister Elizabeth, and it’s organization of themes bears the stamp of her own questionable viewpoints. But this choice for later authors of whether to use unpublished writings, with full admission of the risks, can be seen from at least two perspectives. From one view, using the nachlass risks the error of misrepresenting Nietzsche’s thoughts; from the other view, not using the nachlass would yield an incomplete and unsatisfying picture of the overall arc of his philosophy.
Perhaps it comes down to a question of defining who or what is meant by the signifier “Nietzsche.” As a writer, he himself is perhaps something like the “will to power” -- an ever-changing river of thought pouring forth, a convergence of many disparate brooks and streams of ideas, some flowing this way and others that way, joining and separating, sometimes in concert and sometimes in conflict. Discerning the overall pattern is, of course, a matter of perspective and selection; how could it not be? It seems the true Nietzsche is as elusive and metamorphic as the true Dionysus. With this caveat in mind, perhaps we can see something to be gleaned from an interpretation of Nietzsche that places “the Dionysian” in central position. As Pfeffer readily admits, other major Nietzschean themes could also serve as the central organizing principle: the Eternal Recurrence, the Ubermensch, or the Will to Power. The theme of the Dionysian, however, lends its own peculiar insight into the thoughts of “the tragic philosopher.” There is also something to be said for looking at the origins of things; and some of Nietzsche’s most radical and profound ideas first surfaced in this “birth of tragedy” – the initial and startling encounter between an enigmatic philosopher and the most enigmatic of gods.
II. Creative tension
In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche originally saw Dionysus as the polar antithesis of Apollo, the two gods in antipodal fraternal union, the wild god of music, passion, excess, and instinctual urges versus the calm god of ordered beauty, clarity and restraint. Of these two, it seemed that he saw Dionysus as the more fundamental, the deeper reality of chaos, creative destruction and suffering; with Apollo as a surface gloss to make life appear beautiful and bearable and allow for the production of art as an ameliorating illusion. These two deities, and the tendencies or attitudes labeled “Dionysian” and “Apollonian” were expressed in music and artistic images, respectively. Both were necessary, and they found their perfect synthesis in Greek tragedy, whereby the primal, raw, emotive power of music was expressed through the visual forms of the stage. Tragedy thus served as a vehicle for the Greeks to express the heroic life, which consisted in a positive “overcoming” of pessimism that expressed courage, bold ascending action, and even joy in the face of life’s inevitable suffering.
The original title of the book was “The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music.” This reflected the primacy of music as the original expression of the Dionysian, which was later given form by the Apollonian aspects of art. In its original form, the book was also an expression of praise for the composer Wagner, who was a close friend and mentor of Nietzsche, and to whom it was dedicated, and the emphasis on the primordial power of music reflects this admiration. (BT, 31-32) The philosopher Schopenhauer was a friend of Wagner and an early influence on Nietzsche; BT also reflected some of Schopenhauer’s ideas regarding the notions of pessimism and the world as will.
But Nietzsche later had a serious falling-out with both men, and his later repudiation of several notions in BT reflects this. In particular, while both Nietzsche and Schopenhauer embraced a pessimistic view of life as essentially an arena of suffering, they had very different normative attitudes towards this descriptive pessimism. (Soll, 105, 115) Schopenhauer was seen by Nietzsche as expressing a “weak” pessimism – a response that advocates the overcoming of will by the turning of the will against itself and towards ascetic withdrawal from the world; if life is suffering, one should not pursue willed action, which can only continue the suffering. Nietzsche, in contrast, advocates precisely the opposite: heroic striving even in the face of overwhelming suffering.
This is “strong” pessimism – a pessimism that overcomes itself by saying “yes” to life, no matter what the circumstances. This is the spirit of tragedy, which is defined by Nietzsche as “pessimism and its overcoming.” (Pfeffer, 37) This, Nietzsche held, was the genius of the ancient Greeks: that they could look into the terror of the abyss and still choose to create art, a heroic art that reflects the dynamic tension of both creation and destruction, suffering and joy. The later edition of BT reflects both the ascending primacy of these notions, and a downplaying of his earlier homage to Wagner, by changing the subtitle from “The Spirit of Music” to “Hellenism and Pessimism.”
Nietzsche’s original notion of art in BT, however, was art as illusion, as a pleasing distraction to make life bearable. This notion of art as escape had also been influenced by Schopenhauer, and was later rejected by Nietzsche as an expression of weak pessimism. (Pfeffer, 34) Instead of artifice, Nietzsche came to see art as life itself, an expression of that very same overflowing abundance and instinctual energy that sustains the becoming of the world. In Nietzsche’s later preface to BT, he speaks of it as “this audacious book [that] dared to...look at science in the perspective of the artist, but at art in that of life.” (BT, 19)
This “looking at science in the perspective of the artist” is the other side of Nietzsche’s elevation of art as the sine qua non of the heroic life. At the same time Nietzsche raised aesthetics to the level of a metaphysics, he also sought to dislodge rationalism from its throne at the supposed pinnacle of Greek culture. Socrates appears as something of a villain in The Birth of Tragedy, initiating a rationalistic turn in Greek thought that would end the heroic age, turn men away from their natural impulses, rob myth of its power and bring about the death of tragedy. (Pfeffer, 43) Thus Socratic reason is seen as beginning a period of decadence in Greek culture, and a long period of decline in western civilization, continued by Plato’s rejection of the immanent in favor of the transcendent, and later Christianity’s antipathy towards nature and the body; later, even science is seen as a form of decadence.
All the these worldviews are expressions of “the ascetic ideal” and reflect a mode of thinking that divides the world into binary oppositions of good/bad, male/female, being/becoming, reason/emotion, spirit/body – and then validate one pole of the opposition and negate the other. Nietzsche, in contrast, seeks to encompass all opposites – all the clashing and conflict of life’s multivalent urges – and to bring them together into a greater organic whole. This is not a harmony of resolving all tensions, but rather a celebration of dynamic tension itself, a celebration of the rhythm and pulse of life that creates and destroys and creates again, in joy and sorrow, in a spirit of fearless play – a boundless and exhuberant overflow of life’s abundance. For Nietzsche, the dialectic process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis can never rest in a resolution; it can only take up the challenge again, and continue its lightfooted dance of opposition.
Nietzsche’s philosophy embraces both a description of life that is fundamentally pessimistic and a normative response that is affirmative, joyful and even heroic; this odd, paradoxical combination might also be viewed as an instance of this continuing, creative dynamic tension of opposites that powers the world. This positive valuation of the power of opposing forces can be seen in BT in Nietzsche’s insistence that the calm, restraining and form-giving power of Apollo, and the wild, passionate, energetic excess of Dionysus are both necessary, in art as well as life. Later, Nietzsche comes to subsume both impulses under the symbol of Dionysus, attributing to him a fundamental ambivalence that is actually closer to the original mythic view of the god in ancient
This full-on embrace of all of life’s contradictions is Nietzsche’s creative response to the binary dualisms of the ascetic ideal. It is a criterion for his conception of the Ubermensch – a being who embodies a pure and total affirmation of life. The Ubermensch would be someone who lives in such a way that he could pass the “test” of Eternal Recurrence: he would be willing, even enthusiastic, to have his life recur eternally, exactly as it is, in every detail. This implies a willingness to embrace the most intense of pains as well as the deepest delights of life, and in this deep “yes” to life’s ambivalence the Ubermensch could also be said to embody the Dionysian principle of extreme opposites in fruitful tension.
Indeed, there is in The Birth of Tragedy a passage which seems to foreshadow the notion of the Eternal Recurrence as a “test” – a passage which uses the criterion of one’s aesthetic response to tragedy, as a marker of the extent to which he can reject the Socratic and embrace the tragic and mythic view of life, which sees life as art rather than history:
“Whoever wishes to test rigorously to what extent he is related to the true aesthetic listener or belongs to the community of the Socratic-critical persons needs only to examine sincerely the feeling with which he accepts miracles represented on stage: whether he feels his historical sense, which insists on strict psychological causality, insulted by them, whether he makes a benevolent concession and admits the miracles as a phenomenon intelligible to childhood but alien to him, or whether he experiences anything else.”
The “anything else” is left hauntingly ambiguous, but it is clearly a response that lies at the opposite pole from Socratic criticism. It may be a willingness to relate to art, even the miracles of the stage, in a deeply emotive way as the outpouring of life itself. Tracy Strong sees in this test “a call for those who can respond to the world mythically, that is, to respond deeply to the world as it is, in itself, with no reference to any other world, positive or negative.” (Strong, 137) This sounds much like the Eternal Recurrence “test” for the Ubermensch; the Ubermensch would not choose to have any other world besides the one that is and has been and will be, because he is a being who affirms life in its totality.
If, as Pfeffer suggests, Nietzsche’s system of thought could be equally well organized around either the Eternal Recurrence or the Dionysian as a pivotal principle, then one might expect to find some relationship between these two themes. The Eternal Recurrence can be interpreted in a number of ways, as can the notion of the Dionysian. One interpretation is cosmological or metaphysical; in this view Eternal Recurrence is a claim about the way the world really is. Such a view is problematic in terms of how one defines time and exactly what state of affairs constitutes an exact recurrence. Another interpretation is the normative one. Here the important thing is an exhortation to live one’s life as if ER were true; imagine the transforming power of living in such a way as to embrace every detail of one’s life, regretting none. The normative view also runs into problems of interpretation; either it is an impossible ideal and therefore meaningless, or else the criterion must be diluted sufficiently that it ceases to be a test of the Ubermensch.
Similarly, the symbol of the Dionysian could be interpreted in various ways. Some authors read it in a limited sense, as a treatise on aesthetics, divorced from deeper implications. Some interpret Nietzsche’s exhortation to the tragic life, life as art, in an ethical or normative sense; tragedy is glorified because it makes men wise. (Berkowitz, 65) Others may even interpret it as a political statement, expressing the hope that the Germans may learn to follow the example of the Greeks in enlivening their mythic vision. (Strong, 137)
Pfeffer, however, takes a primarily metaphysical approach to the question of the meaning of the Dionysian. She identifies it with Nietzsche’s notion of the Will to Power, and the “innocence of becoming” which she interprets in a metaphysical way. “The innocence of becoming is the unity and inseparability of things we call opposites and contradictions: the unity of being and becoming, of good and evil, of freedom and necessity, of nature and man. This is the purity of nature, untouched and unspoiled by human values and goals.” (Pfeffer, 203) It is a true “beholding of the play of the cosmic forces” in Dionysian rapture., such that “in the totality of being everything is redeemed and affirmed.” (Ibid, 198) In this way Dionysus becomes the “primal oneness and the ground of being” – the “Ur-Eine.” (Ibid, 36)
Suffering, as it exists in relation to this vision, is a primal suffering – not a suffering from lack, but a suffering form “overfullness.” One might even say, it connotes suffering from an explosive exuberance. Pfeffer relates this to the German notion of Rausch, for which it is difficult to find English equivalents; it connotes intoxication, ecstatic dancing, sexual passion, and pagan religious rites, as well as the ecstasy of the artist who suffers from overabundance. It is “mixture of suffering along with feelings of vitality, joy, heightened sensitivity and power.” (Ibid, 49)
This view affirms “the furious prodding of this pain in the same moment in which we become one with the immense lust for life.” (Pfeffer 198) She relates this to Kant’s notion that “the unconscious activity of nature breaks out in the consciousness of man” – which is here given a positive valuation by Nietzsche. (Ibid.) Pfeffer also sees this notion as play, in the purest sense of the word: “Nature and art create in a playful manner, ‘building and destroying in innocence,’ disinterested in practical, utilitarian ends, unconcerned with the traditional concepts of good and evil.” (Pfeffer, 202)
The ethical views that adhere to this metaphysics of “innocent becoming” here include the familiar Nietzschean rejection of Judeo-Christian values, but Pfeffer seems to extend it even beyond this, to a place where art replaces ethics: “In the ‘innocence of becoming’ Nietzsche wants to create a conception of being that transcends moral distinctions and is free of all imperatives, all guilt and responsibility...there are no cosmic purposes and ends to which we are responsible. No one can be blamed or punished for things being as they are...” (Ibid.)
The relation of this notion of the “innocence of becoming” to the Nietzschean concept of the Will to Power can be seen in this passage from the nachlass:
“And do you know what ‘the world’ is to me? ...This world: a monster of energy, without beginning, without end...a play of forces and waves of forces, at the same time one and many,...a sea of forces flowing and rushing together, eternally changing, eternally flooding back...My Dionysian world of the eternally self-creating, the eternally self-destroying, this mystery world...’beyond good and evil,’ without goal, unless the joy of the circle is itself a goal...This world is the will to power – and nothing besides!” (WP, Book 4, #1067)
It is in this way, by taking the notion of Will to Power in a metaphysical or cosmological way, that the Dionysian may be equated with it. But this interpretation of the Will to Power is also subject to some criticism. The passage above appears to be making a metaphysical claim; but in other places, as published material in the Genealogy of Morals, the Will to Power was introduced as a thought experiment – “Suppose,” begins the pondering, “nothing else were ‘given’ as real except our world of desires and passions...” The section ends with a view of the world as “viewed from inside” – “it would be ‘will to power’ and nothing else.” (GM, 36)
One problem with taking the Will to Power (or anything else in Nietzsche, for that matter) as a metaphysical claim of the truth is that it seems to posit a “God’s-eye view” of the way things really are, beneath the world of appearances. The world of appearances, however, can only be seen from some particular angle, in some particular light – as one perspective among many. Thus, a metaphysical claim seems to conflict with Nietzsche’s views on perspectivism. However, it has also been pointed out that his theory of perspectivism conflicts with itself, if taken as a metaphysical position. The perspectivist notion is that things are always seen from a perspective and that there is no preferred perspective is “true” – so, is that notion “true?” And if so, from what perspective? Perspectivism therefore becomes paradoxical and hence what has been called a “self-consuming” concept: a concept that “requires as a condition of its intelligibility the very contrast it wishes to set aside.” (Magnus, 25) A self-consuming concept paradoxically needs its opposite to be in some sense “true” – it therefore negates itself. It can still be a useful dialectic device, however, for keeping doubts alive; it causes us to question not only the validity of the concept itself, but also our own presuppositions.
We have looked at the relation of the concept of the Dionysian to other Nietzschean themes such as Eternal Recurrence, the Will to Power, and Nietzsche’s critique of reason and the Ascetic Ideal. Is there any way the Dionysian could be interpreted in a way as to relate it to the theme of perspectivism? We recall that, in the Orphic mythology of Greek mystery religion, Dionysos was the dismembered god, from whose ashes humans were brought into being, and whose divine spark all men therefore carried within themselves. Dionysos as the god of theater became the god behind the mask, the hidden presence behind the personality (“persona” being “mask) of every actor upon the stage, as he acts out the eternal tragic themes of heroic suffering and redemption.
If Dionysos represents, as Pfeffer posits, the will to power in all things, the “Ur-Eine” – the ground of being and its “innocence of becoming” – then he also represents the explosive, over-abundant concentration of vital energies that burst into individuation and heroic art. The process of individuation – the One becoming the Many – is precisely what bursts the “God’s-eye” view of the world into an infinitely refracted mosaic of individual perspectives. Dionysus as a god, would be a god who sees from within us, as us, from a vast multiplicity of perspectives, each of them masked by its own limitations. The very nature of the ambiguity of Dionysos, containing all polar opposites in unresolved dynamic tension, would burst forth as a world of multiplicity.
Dionysus would represent an immanent and polymorphous deity, having his being in and through the diversity of the world, in direct opposition to the transcendent vision of deity fostered by the Judeo-Christian tradition. Dionysos would become all of us, and all perspectives. Perhaps this comes close to capturing the vision of the ancient Greek mystery religions; perhaps this is even what Nietzsche had an inkling of, even in the midst of his otherwise atheistic philosophy, in his most passionately enthused moments:
“In truth, however, the hero is the suffering Dionysus of the Mysteries, the god experiencing in himself the agonies of individuation...torn to pieces by the Titans and now worshiped...this dismemberment, the properly Dionysian suffering, is like a transformation...the state of individuation as the origin and primal cause of all suffering...”
“From the smile of this Dionysus sprang the Olympian gods, from his tears sprang man...But the hope of the epopts [initiates into the mysteries] looked toward a rebirth of Dionysus, which we must now dimly conceive as the end of individuation...It is this hope alone that casts a gleam of joy upon the features of a world torn asunder...” (BT, 73-74)
This metaphysical oneness, the “Ur-Eine” of the Will to Power, does not negate or disparage the multiplicity of the world, but rather returns all things to its bosom for periodic renewal. It is the pause and resting place, the gateway of the eternal moment between destruction and creation. It expresses itself through “innocent becoming” – in the eternal pulse of nature’s rhythms, in the heroic cycles of epic tragedy, in the life-affirming bursting forth of art, in the perpetual overcoming of life by itself. Its power is that it may overcome the decadence brought about by the ascetic ideal, and its stance is at the opposite pole from the world-negating moralism and transcendence of Christianity. Nietzsche’s poignant plea in The Antichrist: “Have I been understood?...Dionysus versus the Crucified.”
Dionysus, the strange and ancient god of the Greek mysteries, was perennially dying and reborn. Today, even if he is seen as only a symbol rather than a metaphysical presence, Dionysus still may have the power to return again, to be born anew from the “death of God” and to redeem the world from the debilitating influence of Christianity. Perhaps this was the hidden promise behind the infamous proclamation of Zarathustra, that the rebirth of the dancing god of chaos will awaken the heroic spirit of affirmation: “Into all abysses I still carry the blessings of...saying Yes – But this is the concept of Dionysus once again.” (Ecce Homo, #6)
Allison, David B., editor. The New Nietzsche: Contemporary Styles of Interpretation. Dell Publishing Co.
Berkowitz, Peter. Nietzsche: The Ethics of an Immoralist.
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Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Portable Nietzsche. Trans./edited by Walter Kaufmann.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy & The Case of Wagner. Trans./edited by Walter Kaufmann.Random House,
Nietzsche, Friedrich (?). (Elizabeth Foerster-Nietzsche) The Will to Power. (Excerpt from class handout.)
Pfeffer, Rose. Nietzsche: Disciple of Dionysus. Associated University Presses,
Sallis, John. Crossings: Nietzsche and the Space of Tragedy.
Silk, M.S. and Stern, J.P. Nietzsche on Tragedy.
Soll, Ivan. Pessimism and the Tragic View of Life: Reconsiderations of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. In Reading Nietzsche, edited by Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins.
Strong, Tracy B. “Nietzsche’s Political Misappropriation” in The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche, ed. by Bernd Magnus and Kathleen Higgins.
by Delia Morgan
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