The Birth of Tragedy

The Birth of Tragedy
The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music  
The Birth of Tragedy.jpg

Cover of the 1993 Penguin edition
Author(s) Friedrich Nietzsche
Original title 'Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik'
Translator Shaun Whiteside
Country Germany
Language German
Subject(s) Athenian tragedy, the Apollonian/Dionysian opposition
Genre(s) Dramatic theory
Publication date 1872
Media type Paperback, hardcover
Pages 160 (1993 Penguin ed.)
ISBN ISBN 978-0140433395 (1993 Penguin ed.)
OCLC Number 30702580
Dewey Decimal 111/.85 20
LC Classification B3313.G42 E55 1993
Followed by The Untimely Meditations

The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik, 1872) is a 19th-century work of dramatic theory by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. It was reissued in 1886 as The Birth of Tragedy, Or: Hellenism and Pessimism (Die Geburt der Tragödie, Oder: Griechentum und Pessimismus). The later edition contained a prefatory essay, An Attempt at Self-Criticism, wherein Nietzsche commented on this very early work.


The Book

Nietzsche found in classical Athenian tragedy an art form that transcended the pessimism and nihilism of a fundamentally meaningless world. 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.

Originally educated as a philologist, Nietzsche discusses the history of the tragic form and introduces an intellectual dichotomy between the Dionysian and the Apollonian (very loosely: reality undifferentiated by forms versus reality as differentiated by forms). Nietzsche claims life always involves a struggle between these two elements, each battling for control over the existence of humanity. In Nietzsche's words, "Wherever the Dionysian prevailed, the Apollonian was checked and destroyed.... wherever the first Dionysian onslaught was successfully withstood, the authority and majesty of the Delphic god Apollo exhibited itself as more rigid and menacing than ever." Yet neither side ever prevails due to each containing the other in an eternal, natural check, or balance.

Nietzsche argues that the tragedy of Ancient Greece was the highest form of art due to its mixture of both Apollonian and Dionysian elements into one seamless whole, allowing the spectator to experience the full spectrum of the human condition. The Dionysian element was to be found in the music of the chorus, while the Apollonian element was found in the dialogue which gave a concrete symbolism that balanced the Dionysiac revelry. Basically, the Apollonian spirit was able to give form to the abstract Dionysian.

Before the tragedy, there was an era of static, idealized plastic art in the form of sculpture that represented the Apollonian view of the world. The Dionysian element was to be found in the wild revelry of festivals and drunkenness, but, most importantly, in music. The combination of these elements in one art form gave birth to tragedy. He theorizes that the chorus was originally always satyrs, goat-men. (This is speculative, although the word “tragedy” τραγωδία is contracted from trag(o)-aoidiā = "goat song" from tragos = "goat" and aeidein = "to sing".) Thus, he argues, “the illusion of culture was wiped away by the primordial image of man” for the audience; they participated with and as the chorus empathetically, “so that they imagined themselves as restored natural geniuses, as satyrs.” But in this state, they have an Apollonian dream vision of themselves, of the energy they're embodying. It’s a vision of the god, of Dionysus, who appears before the chorus on the stage. And the actors and the plot are the development of that dream vision, the essence of which is the ecstatic dismembering of the god and of the Bacchantes' rituals, of the inseparable ecstasy and suffering of human existence…

After the time of Aeschylus and Sophocles, there was an age where tragedy died. Nietzsche ties this to the influence of writers like Euripides and the coming of rationality, represented by Socrates. Euripides reduced the use of the chorus and was more naturalistic in his representation of human drama, making it more reflective of the realities of daily life. Socrates emphasized reason to such a degree that he diffused the value of myth and suffering to human knowledge. For Nietzsche, these two intellectuals helped drain the ability of the individual to participate in forms of art, because they saw things too soberly and rationally. The participation mystique aspect of art and myth was lost, and along with it, much of man's ability to live creatively in optimistic harmony with the sufferings of life. Nietzsche concludes that it may be possible to reattain the balance of Dionysian and Apollonian in modern art through the operas of Richard Wagner, in a rebirth of tragedy.

The Apollonian and the Dionysian

In contrast to the typical Enlightenment view of ancient Greek culture as noble, simple, elegant and grandiose,[1] Nietzsche believed the Greeks were grappling with pessimism. The universe in which we live is the product of great interacting forces; but we neither observe nor know these as such. What we put together as our conceptions of the world, Nietzsche thought, never actually addresses the underlying realities. It is human destiny to be controlled by the darkest universal realities and, at the same time, to live life in a human-dreamt world of illusions.

It was precisely this human-dreamt world that the Greeks had developed into perfection from the Homeric legends onward. The Olympian complex of deities, combined with all the details of their heroic lives and their numerous interactions with men and women of earth, formed a world picture in which individual people can live. This picture literally rendered humans as individuals, capable of greatness, always of significance. There is, in this world, objective clarity. The beings are almost sculpted. Hence, Athenians mature within the illusions of a world and life that is under control and that has clear models of personal significance and greatness. It is a beautiful creation. But it is, as Nietzsche observes, an Apollonian aesthetics, Apollo being the god who most typifies the Olympian complex in this regard. (BT, 1, p. 36) Apollo is the god of plastic arts and of illusion.

The problem—and it is a problem for all times and all human life—is that the dark side of existence makes itself apparent and forces us to confront whatever we have tried to shut out of our nice, tidy livable world. Thus, for Nietzsche, while the Greeks, and the Athenians in particular, had developed a rich world view based on Apollo and the other Olympian gods, they had rendered themselves largely ignorant of reality's dark side, as represented in the god Dionysus. Only in the distant past, and largely outside of Athens, had Dionysian festivals paved the way to direct (and destructive) experience of life's darkest sides—intoxication, sexual license, absorption by the primal horde, in short, dissolution of the individual (occasionally, actual dismemberment) and re-immersion into a common organic whole. (BT, 2, pp. 39–40)

The Apollonian in culture he sees as Arthur Schopenhauer's concept of the principium individuationis (principle of individuation) with its refinement, sobriety and emphasis on superficial appearance, whereby man separates himself from the undifferentiated immediacy of nature. Nietzsche claims sculpture as the art-form that captures this impulse most fully: sculpture has clear and definite boundaries and seeks to represent reality, in its perfectly stable form. The Dionysian impulse, by contrast, features immersion in the wholeness of nature, intoxication, non-rationality, and inhumanity; rather than the detached, rational representation of the Apollonian that invites similarly detached observation, the Dionysian impulse involves a frenzied participation in life itself. Nietzsche sees the Dionysian impulse as best realized in music, which tends not to have clear boundaries, is unstable and non-representational, and, in Nietzsche's view, invites participation among its listeners through dance. Nietzsche argues that the Apollonian has dominated Western thought since Socrates, but he sees German Romanticism (especially Richard Wagner) as a possible re-introduction of the Dionysian, which might offer the salvation of European culture. The book shows the influence of Schopenhauer.[2]

The issue, then, or so Nietzsche thought, is how to experience and understand the Dionysian side of life without destroying the obvious values of the Apollonian side. It is not healthy for an individual, or for a whole society, to become entirely absorbed in the rule of one or the other. The soundest (healthiest) foothold is in both. Nietzsche's theory of Athenian tragic drama suggests exactly how, before Euripides and Socrates, the Dionysian and Apollonian elements of life were artistically woven together. The Greek spectator became healthy through direct experience of the Dionysian within the protective spirit-of-tragedy on the Apollonian stage.


The Birth of Tragedy is a young man's work, and shows the influence of many of the philosophers Nietzsche had been studying. His interest in classical Greece as in some respects a rational society can be attributed in some measure to the influence of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, although Nietzsche departed from Winckelmann in many ways. In addition, Nietzsche uses the term "naive" in exactly the sense used by Friedrich Schiller. More important influences include Hegel, whose concept of the dialectic underlies[citation needed] the tripartite division of art into the Apollonian, its Dionysian antithesis, and their synthesis in Greek tragedy. Of great importance are the works of Arthur Schopenhauer, especially The World as Will and Representation. The Apollonian experience bears great similarity to the experience of the world as "representation" in Schopenhauer's sense, and the experience of the Dionysian bears similarities to the identification with the world as "will." Nietzsche opposed Schopenhauer's Buddhistic negation of the will. He argued that life is worth living despite the enormous amount of cruelty and suffering that exists.[3]


The Birth of Tragedy was angrily criticized by many respected professional scholars of Greek literature. Particularly vehement was philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, who denounced Nietzsche's work as slipshod and misleading. Prompted by Nietzsche, Erwin Rohde -- a friend who had written a favorable review that sparked the first derogatory debate over the book—responded by exposing Wilamowitz-Moellendorf's inaccurate citations of Nietzsche's work. Richard Wagner also issued a response to Wilamowitz-Moellendorf's critique, but his action only served to characterize Nietzsche as the composer's lackey.

In his denunciation of The Birth of Tragedy, Wilamowitz says:

Herr N. ... is also a professor of classical philology; he treats a series of very important questions of Greek literary history. ... This is what I want to illuminate, and it is easy to prove that here also imaginary genius and impudence in the presentation of his claims stands in direct relation to his ignorance and lack of love of the truth. ... His solution is to belittle the historical-critical method, to scold any aesthetic insight which deviates from his own, and to ascribe a "complete misunderstanding of the study of antiquity" to the age in which philology in Germany, especially through the work of Gottfried Hermann and Karl Lachmann, was raised to an unprecedented height.

In suggesting the Greeks might have had problems, Nietzsche was departing from the scholarly traditions of his age, which viewed the Greeks as a happy, perhaps even naive, and simple people. The work is a web of professional philology, philosophical insight, and admiration of musical art. As a work in philology, it was almost immediately rejected, virtually destroying Nietzsche's academic aspirations. The music theme was so closely associated with Richard Wagner that it became an embarrassment to Nietzsche once he himself had achieved some distance and independence from Wagner. It stands, then, as Nietzsche's first complete, published philosophical work, one in which a battery of questions are asked, sketchily identified, and questionably answered.

Marianne Cowan, in her introduction to Nietzsche's Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, describes the situation in these words:

The Birth of Tragedy presented a view of the Greeks so alien to the spirit of the time and to the ideals of its scholarship that it blighted Nietzsche's entire academic career. It provoked pamphlets and counter-pamphlets attacking him on the grounds of common sense, scholarship and sanity. For a time, Nietzsche, then a professor of classical philology at the University of Basel, had no students in his field. His lectures were sabotaged by German philosophy professors who advised their students not to show up for Nietzsche's courses.

By 1886, Nietzsche himself had reservations about the work, and he published a preface in the 1886 edition where he re-evaluated some of his main concerns and ideas in the text. In this post-script, Nietzsche referred to The Birth of Tragedy as "an impossible book... badly written, ponderous, embarrassing, image-mad and image-confused, sentimental, saccharine to the point of effeminacy, uneven in tempo, [and] without the will to logical cleanliness."[4] Its reception was such a personal disappointment that he referred to it, once, as "falling stillborn from the press." Still, he defended the "arrogant and rhapsodic book" for inspiring "fellow-rhapsodizers" and for luring them on to "new secret paths and dancing places."

In 1888, in Ecce Homo, Nietzsche was back on the attack. He defends the The Birth of Tragedy by stating: "...It is indifferent toward politics,—'un-German,' to use the language of the present time—it smells offensively Hegelian, and the cadaverous perfume of Schopenhauer sticks only to a few formulas. An 'idea'—the antithesis of the Dionysian and the Apollinian—translated into the metaphysical; history itself as the development of this 'idea'; in tragedy this antithesis is sublimated into a unity; under this perspective things that had never before faced each other are suddenly juxtaposed, used to illuminate each other, and comprehended... Opera, for example, and the revolution.— The two decisive innovations of the book are, first, its understanding of the Dionysian phenomenon among the Greeks: for the first time, a psychological analysis of this phenomenon is offered, and it is considered as one root of the whole of Greek art. The other is the understanding of Socratism: Socrates is recognized for the first time as an instrument of Greek disintegration, as a typical décadent. 'Rationality' against instinct. 'Rationality' at any price as a dangerous force that undermines life!— Profound, hostile silence about Christianity throughout the book. That is neither Apollinian nor Dionysian; it negates all aesthetic values—the only values that the 'Birth of Tragedy' recognizes: it is nihilistic in the most profound sense, while in the Dionysian symbol the ultimate limit of affirmation is attained. There is one allusion [The Birth of Tragedy, 24] to Christian priests as a 'vicious kind of dwarfs' who are 'subterranean' ..."

In the title of his novel The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann alludes to a passage from The Birth of Tragedy, and the influence of Nietzsche's work can be seen in the novel's character Mynheer Peepercorn, who embodies the "Dionysian principle."[5]

Within the context of a critical study of Nietzsche's "atheist humanism", the influential Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac considered it "a work of genius", and dedicated several pages of his study to explicate the relationship between Nietzsche's early thought and Christianity.[6]


  • The joyous necessity of the dream experience has been embodied by the Greeks in their Apollo: Apollo, the god of all plastic energies, is at the same time the soothsaying god, He, who (as the etymology of the name indicates) is the "shining one," the deity of light, is also ruler over the beautiful illusion of the inner world of fantasy. [...] But we must also include in our image of Apollo that delicate boundary which the dream image must not overstep lest it have a pathological effect [...] We must keep in mind the measured restraint, the freedom from the wilder emotions, that calm of the sculptor god. His eye must be "sunlike," as befits his origin; even when it is angry and distempered it is still hallowed by beautiful illusion [...] (translated by Walter Kaufmann)
  • [...] Schopenhauer has depicted for us the tremendous terror which seizes man when he is suddenly dumbfounded by the cognitive form of phenomena because the principle of sufficient reason, in some one of its manifestations, seems to suffer an exception. If we add to this terror the blissful ecstasy that wells from the innermost depths of man, indeed of nature, at this collapse of the principium individuationis, we steal a glimpse into the nature of the Dionysian, which is brought home to us most intimately by the analogy of intoxication. (translated by Walter Kaufmann)
  • Even under the influence of the narcotic draught, of which songs of all primitive men and peoples speak, or with the potent coming of spring that penetrates all nature with joy, these Dionysian emotions awake, and as they grow in intensity everything subjective vanishes into complete self-forgetfulness. In the German Middle Ages, too, singing and dancing crowds, ever increasing in number, whirled themselves from place to place under this same Dionysian impulse. [...] There are some who, from obtuseness or lack of experience, turn away from such phenomena as from "folk-diseases," with contempt or pity born of consciousness of their own "healthy-mindedness." But of course such poor wretches have no idea how corpselike and ghostly their so-called "healthy-mindedness" looks when the glowing life of the Dionysian revelers roars past them. (translated by Walter Kaufmann)


  1. ^ Johann Winckelmann, History of Ancient Art, 1764
  2. ^ As the original title (The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music) claimed, Nietzsche asserted that tragic drama was derived from music. Music, then is more fundamental than tragic drama and is its basis. This is Schopenhauerian in that Schopenhauer's aesthetics place music as the most basic, direct expression of the world's essence, which is blind, impulsive will.
  3. ^ Kaufmann, 11.
  4. ^ Kaufmann, 18.
  5. ^ Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Birth of Tragedy (Trans. Douglas Smith), Oxford University Press, 2008: pgs. xxxii, 28, 109, 140. ISBN 978-0199540143
  6. ^ De Lubac, Henri, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, Ignatius Press (San Francisco), 2008: pgs. 74, 82. For De Lubac's full discussion of this early work of Nietzsche, see Id., pgs. 73-95.

See also


  • Kaufmann, Walter ed. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. New York: Modern Library, 2000.
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich. Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks. Translated with an introduction by Marianne Cowan. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1962.
  • Porter, James I. The Invention of Dionysus: An Essay on The Birth of Tragedy. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.
  • Gründer, Karlfried, ed. Der Streit um Nietzsches "Geburt der Tragödie"': Die Schriften von E. Rohde, R. Wagner, und U. von Wilamowitz-Möllendorff. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1969.
  • De Lubac, Henri, The Drama of Atheist Humanism. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008.

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