Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Warrior

The Austro-Prussian War of 1866 was part of Otto Bismarck’s efforts to unify Germany, with Prussia as its center of power. Being a Prussian, Nietzsche had been reared in a culture where the military was valued and Fritz seemed to value it as well. “He became an ardent admirer of Bismarck and even a ‘rabid Prussian’ (as he wrote to his mother)…” (Cate, page 71)

Nietzsche wanted to volunteer but was not eligible because of his poor eyesight. As the war continued, however, some restrictions on service were loosened to accommodate badly needed replacements. On October 9, 1867, Fritz’s studies were interrupted by conscription into the mounted section of a field artillery regiment stationed at Naumberg.

“You will know that a mounted artilleryman is supposed to learn an amazing number of things. I like the riding lessons best. I have a very good-looking horse, and people say that I have a talent for riding. When I whirl around the exercise area on my Balduin, I am very satisfied with my lot.” (Selected Letters, page 32)

As it turned out, Fritz was the most capable rider among all the new recruits. For that reason in March 1868 he was given responsibilities for mastering the battery’s most unruly new horses. One particular horse proved too spirited for Nietzsche. “Unbalanced by his fiery charger’s sudden spurt in going for a jump, he ended up on the horse’s neck, his chest hitting the pommel of the saddle with full force. He went on riding as though nothing had happened, despite the pain he felt on one side of his ribcage and in the center of his chest. But the next day he fainted twice and had to be put to bed.” (Cate, page 77)

It wasn’t until May that doctors finally realized that, rather than simply tearing some chest muscles as they thought, Fritz had cracked his sternum. He was dismissed from service after several additional weeks of treatment and recovery. Before returning to his studies at Leipzig, however, he posed for a photograph in his uniform. Nietzsche always enjoyed nice clothes and couldn’t resist the opportunity to capture himself in military regalia.

In 1870, his teaching career and research for The Birth of Tragedy was interrupted by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. Nietzsche saw the war as “our whole threadbare culture slamming headlong into this most frightful of demons”. (Cate, page 111) Basel was in Switzerland so theoretically Fritz could have remained neutral. But, he desired to serve “the Fatherland” in war, another reflection of the Prussian aspect of his emerging personal nature.

The University granted him leave on the restriction that his military service be strictly limited to caring for the wounded. In August he was assigned to a clinic carrying for both French and Prussian wounded soldiers in the wake of the Battle of Worth. After a few days, Nietzsche was told to meet a medical team serving out on the battlefield, to deliver letters and medical supplies to the front.

He reported to the headquarters of the Prussian Southern Army at Nancy, France. Along the way he saw the aftermath of several major battles, the wreckage and death. At Nancy, Fritz ended up assisting a Basel colleague he met accidentally with a train load of wounded soldiers.

He wrote to Richard Wagner on September 11, 1870: “I had a miserable cattle truck in which there were six bad cases; I tended them, bandaged bones, several with four wounds – moreover, I diagnosed in two cases gangrene. That I survived in those pestilential vapors, and could even sleep and eat now seems a marvel. But I had hardly delivered my transport at a Karlsruhe hospital when I showed serious signs of illness myself. I reached Erlangen with difficulty, to give various reports to my group. Then I went to bed and am still there. A good doctor diagnosed my trouble as, first, a severe dysentery and, then, diphtheria. But we took strong measures against both infectious maladies, and today the outlook is hopeful. So I have made the acquaintance of two of those ill-famed epidemics at once; they weakened and enervated me so rapidly that I must for a start give up all my plans for working as a medical auxiliary and am obliged to think only of my health. Thus after a short run of four weeks, trying to work on the world at large, I have been thrown back once more upon myself – what a miserable state of affairs!” (Selected Letters, page 69)


This brief, second experience with war had a fundamental impact of Fritz. "But the unglamourous reality of stinking body parts (a reality to which he was, in fact, more exposed than had he served with the relative remoteness of an artillery officer), and the deaths of his schoolfellows, barely out of their teens, stripped away the Apolloian glamour by exposing him in the most direct way possible to the 'terrors and horrors' of life." (Young, page 139)

To my knowledge, Nietzsche didn’t have his photograph taken in this, his second, brief war experience. He returned to teaching and research again in November 1870.

It is worth noting that Fritz experienced the preparation for war and the aftermath of it but he never participated in a battle. He knew the pageantry and drill. He knew the agony and disease and death, but actual fighting was merely a secondary knowledge. His total period of service was about 7 months.

His exposure to war and his Prussian temperament would show up in several respects throughout his more mature philosophical writings. War was a metaphor he understood and used to communicate his ideas.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Academic

Bonn turned out to be a dead end for Nietzsche. Intellectually, the primary influence he from there was his appreciation for Friedrich Holderlin. In 1861, Fritz wrote an apologia for this, the most spurned of German Romantic poets. (Cate, page 27) Holderlin had written a poem on Empedocles. It profoundly affected Nietzsche who wrote: “Empedocle’s death is a death from godly price, scorn for men, world-satiety, and pantheism. The entire work has always shaken me most deeply each time I read it; there is a godly majesty in this Empedocles.” (Cate, page 28)

Fritz decided to pursue philology in Leipzig where, at age 21, after his break with the Church, Fritz discovered Arthur Schopenhauer. A letter Nietzsche wrote in 1865 explains: “At home I nestled into a corner of my sofa with the treasure I had found and began to let that vigorous, gloomy genius work his effects on me. Here every line screamed renunciation, denial, resignation; here I saw a mirror in which the world, life, and my own deepest soul were reflected back to me in horrific grandeur. Here the vast, disinterested solar eye of art gazed upon me. Here I saw sickness and recovery, exile and sanctuary, hell and heaven. The need for self-knowing, indeed for self-gnawing, seized me violently….Thus for two whole weeks I forced myself to stay up till 2 A.M. and to quit my bed at 6 A.M. on the dot. A nervous excitability overpowered me.” (The Good European, page 40)

Fritz found a deep affinity with much of this towering philosopher, particularly in the metaphysics of nature, the irrational basis for reality, in what was termed "will", in aesthetics as a real force in the world, and particularly in Schopenhauer's elevation of music: "Because music does not, like all the other arts, exhibit the Ideas or grades of the will's objectification, but directly the will itself, we can also explain that it acts directly on the will, i.e., the feelings, passions, and emotions of the hearer, so that it quickly raises these or even alters them. Far from being a mere aid to poetry, music is certainly an independent art; in fact, it is the most powerful of all the arts, and therefore attains its ends entirely from its own rescources." (Schopenahauer, II, page 448)

Fritz was amazed to find so many ideas so close to his own contained in Schopenhauer's work, which inspired and expanding his own thinking as no one before. He became obsessed with Schopenhauer and several of his closest friends “converted” to Schopenhauer’s sweeping, insightful, but pessimistic world view. Rudiger Safranski states that in Schopenhauer, Nietzsche saw a “heroic” personality.

“Nietzsche considered three such images in recalling mankind’s loftier visions for man, namely those of Rousseau, Goethe, and Schopenhauer. Rousseau focused on reconciliation with nature and restoration of civilization to a state of nature. Geothe’s man was contemplative and made his peace with the circumstances of his life in wise resignation and a sophisticated sense of style. The Schoperhauerian man discovered that all human structures are designed to keep the tragic and senseless design of life from being palpable. Everyday life is pure diversion. Although it can plunge him into deep despair, the Schopenhauerian man aspires to lift the veil of maya (illusion) and take the ‘voluntary’ ‘suffering of truthfulness upon himself,’ which serves ‘to destroy his individual will and to prepare for the complete upheaval and reversal of his being, the achievement of which is the true meaning of life.’ Nietzsche called this approach to life ‘heroic.’” (page 51)

In October 1967 Fritz won first prize in an essay contest with a submission on Diogenes Laertius. Nietzsche was praised in an oration given in Latin by his professor before a packed auditorium. (Cate, page 79) It was the first of several Greek-related essays, many of which were published in academic journals. He was a rising star with his philological talents in Latin and Greek.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Nietzsche was masterful with academic tasks. Even if he’d rather be attending to music or reading Schopenhauer, he spent endless hours researching the ancient texts. His undergraduate work was unsurpassed in the eyes of many important professors. It was this very reputation that got him a professorship at the University of Basel without ever having taken his exit exams or written a doctoral thesis.

An extraordinary accomplishment at the age of 24 reflective of the expectations his fellow philologists had of him. He was considered an academic “prodigy”. At Basel, he generally kept an active schedule, giving both classroom and public lectures. Generally, these were well attended. “Nietzsche’s students and pupils were clearly impressed by their teacher’s proficiency and enthusiasm. Their reports are in accord: he was the one teacher whose expectations they did not want to disappoint, and so they worked harder for him than for anyone else. As for Nietzsche himself, he prided himself on his ability to reach even the least talented and least motivated of his charges.” (The Good European, page 66)

Early on he was lecturing in untraditional ways, however, reflective of the fact that, deep down, he was not satisfied with the limits of philology despite his expertise at it. Inevitably, he incorporated much about art and philosophy into his talks. An early lecture delivered in 1870 entitled “Ancient Music-Drama” was critical of Socrates and Aristophanes, something that upset a professor of philosophy at Basel. (Cate, page 106)

"As a teacher Nietzsche was both exciting and demanding. He treated his sixth form pupils as if they were already university students, demanding a great deal of independent research. The best of them he passed on to his alma mater in Leipzig. He also formed a social bond with them, putting on five-course dinners at the ends of semesters." (Young, page 102)

In 1871, after returning from service in the Franco-Prussian War, Nietzsche gave a series of lectures on early Greek culture with emphasis on the Dionysian and the musical aspects of the culture. His tireless work in this area resulted in a significant body of background research out of which The Birth of Tragedy was written.

Wagner wrote of The Birth of Tragedy: “A lovelier book than this one of yours I have never read! Everything is magnificent!” (Cate, page 139) But, as previously mentioned, the work was very controversial in the field of philology itself and it damaged his career.

The stigma of the book’s “unprofessional” presentation and its presumption of decline in German culture directly affected the attendance of the Professor’s classes at Basel. While his colleagues had up to 50 students sign-up for their philology classes, Nietzsche was suddenly rejected. Only two students signed up for his 1872-73 winter semester lecture on Greek and Roman rhetoric. “…his professional status was now practically reduced to that of an upper high-school teacher. Such was the measure of his fall from academic grace.” (Cate, page 165)


This in no way altered the direction of either his thinking or his behavior, however. In fact, Fritz made the most of the situation. "At the beginning of 1873, only two students enrolled for Nietzsche's course on Greek and Roman rhetoric. He decided, therefore, that the class should meet in his apartment....Sometimes beer was provided. He also often entertained his grammer school students there. One of these, Louise Kelterborn, has left a description of Nietzsche at home: 'One is immediately impressed by the combination of exceptional courtesy and refinement in manner and behaviour with the most charming and natural kindliness, so that one soon feels elevated directly and automatically to a finer and nobler, cleaner and higher, spiritual atmosphere...In complete harmony with the tastefulness of his demeanour and clothing, and with his almost military precision, are all the furnishings of the apartment in the pleasant, middle-class house. In light-coloured breeches and a brown frock-coat or jacket, and, out of doors, wearing a top-hat (quaintly old-fashioned, even then) - this is how he lives in my memory. On hot summer days (Basel can become extremely humid) he tried to lower the temperature in his room with blocks of ice.'" (Young, pp.164-165)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Musician

Fritz adored his father’s music-making. So, naturally it must have been an existential shock to the child when his father died. He records his remorse in very early letters and writings. But, he definitely inherited his father’s inclination toward music in general and the piano in particular.

His mother took keyboard lessons after the death of his father, apparently because music was so important to her son. She wanted to offer it to him as his father did. Soon, Fritz was taking lessons of his own.

He played after only a few lessons (which were then halted possibly for financial reasons) and was perhaps able to improvise even before that, quite naturally imitating what his young eyes might have seen his father’s fingers doing on the keyboard. His powers of observation were always very strong.

In his late teens, a friend of Nietzsche’s tried to introduce him to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde but Fritz didn’t like it. He was more interested in Beethoven, Schumann and Liszt at the time. Nietzsche annually recieved gifts of sheet music for Christmas, both at his own request and at the thoughtfulness of others.

Fritz started composing piano pieces for himself around 1857. Perhaps more than being in nature, music was a major source of enjoyment for him. It is interesting to note that he planned in his teens to write a mass, a requiem, and an oratorio for Christmas. Not much came of any of this grand design, but it was definitely music for the Church that he sought to compose initially. Instead, he did some musical noodling, a few short pieces for piano and for acappella choir.

One such choir piece was “Miserer," a six-minute song composed when he was 16 based upon Psalms 51. This Psalm is specified in the Holy Bible as being written “for the choirmaster.” It is one of the few direct references I know of between Fritz and the Bible. Nietzsche generally leaves out every other verse of the Psalm to shorten it so that it can be sung in the tune he so artistically desired.

Prior to this, a song composed in 1858 used a single verse, Psalms 42, verse 7, as the lyrics for the choir. The lyrics are musically copied from a section of Handel’s Messiah. In effect, this is Fritz taking ownership of piece of music he must have heard often as a child. After all, it was Handel’s Messiah. It was meant to be preformed in Church.

Up to 1861, Fritz focused mainly on his Church trilogy and related music but then a change occurred in his composing style. Increasingly, his compositions became more secularly classical. He used poems and prose instead of biblical references for his choral pieces, beginning – significantly – with the planned for Christmas oratorio. One might compare this moment back with his taking from Handel’s Messiah for his hymn. He wrote a presto and fragments of other common classical music forms. The lyrics for the oratorio fragment are apparently his own.

Nietzsche composed several pieces as gifts, particularly at Christmas time. In the grand exchange of sheet music for Christmas, he made a couple of contributions, often to his sister, Elizabeth. There’s no doubt that Fritz played piano for his family at gathering times like Christmas and Easter. His musical abilities during his student years show maturity and dexterity, with an improvisational flair.

Albumblatt is typical of his improvisational style. It was written during the Nietzsche’s Easter holiday of 1863 while at home with his mother and sister. No doubt he played it for them, perhaps as compensation for not going to communion. Here was the wonderful, art-like, “interpreter of time” for Franziska and Elizabeth to enjoy.


From the liner notes of a CD of Nietzsche’s early compositions: "Nietzsche did not often comment on these activities. This may be in consequence of the fact that he did not have a teacher of composition, and that he had little opportunity to compare his work with the efforts of other aspiring composers. In later years, after he had abandoned composition as a means of self-expression, he made occasional remarks in which he spoke quite well of the creative musical efforts of his younger years."


By 1874, Nietzsche had composed the vast bulk of his work. With few exceptions, only some modifications and revisions of earlier works were made in subsequent years of his life. Most were songs and incomplete fragments of musical ideas, but a few of these later musical works were impressive classical achievements. For example, with the publication of The Birth of Tragedy, Fritz sent several respected musician friends a copy of his composition for piano known as
“The Manfred Meditation.”

Hans von Bulow was extremely critical of the work. Wagner and Liszt both thought it was not masterful, but a worthy composition. John Bell Young writes: “The Manfred Meditation is Nietzsche's most famous musical composition, not only due to its revival after its long neglect in the repertoire, but for the controversy it stimulated in its own day. Hans von Bulow, to whom Nietzsche sent a copy of the score, proclaimed the philosopher/composer had, with this work, 'raped the muse of Euterpe.' That was an unfair judgment, one born out of von Bulow's irrational jealousy of Nietzsche's close friendship with Richard and Cosima Wagner; Cosima had left her husband von Bulow for Wagner some years earlier. In fact, the Manfred Meditation is a most persuasive composition…very much an orchestral work, one that cries out for orchestration, something that Nietzsche had very much wanted to do, but never did.”

Another completed composition that shows merit is “Nachklang Einer Sylvesternacht” (Echoes of a New Year's Eve). Fritz finished this piece early in his life, in 1864. He wrote a couple of variations later, including one for a violin accompaniment. John Bell Young writes of the performance of this piece on his CD: “This sprawling work is surprisingly appealing and robust. The Dionsysian middle section, with its Pagan peasant dance, gives way to an almost Schubertian sensibility before the conclusion. The final measures orbit a pedal point of 12 repeated notes in the bass, symbolizing the stroke of midnight and the chimes of a clock. The piece forms part of a 3-work musical autobiography of sorts; he recycles its motive material in his Manfred Meditation (also for piano 4 hands) and a similar work for violin and piano. Composed in 1871 at the height of his friendship with Wagner and his wife Cosima, Liszt's daughter, Nietzsche presented the Nachklang as a gift to Cosima on Christmas Day of that year, which happened to coincide with Cosima's birthday.”

His keyboard experiences and sketchy attempts at composition gave Nietzsche a genuine depth of musical knowledge. He understood the compositional differences between, say, Beethoven and Schumann. Music not only moved him emotionally, it was an idea he understood at a technical level. Beyond this, he frequently impressed others with his improvisational abilities and was often asked throughout his years as a professor to entertain on the piano at parties and social gatherings.

Music, as Nietzsche intuitively understood it, was the highest form of human artistic expression. This prepared him for two further primary influences in his life: Arthur Schopenhauer and Richard Wagner.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Christian

Who was this professor that entered the world of philosophy with The Birth of Tragedy?

Nietzsche was born the son of a Lutheran clergyman in October 1844. He lived his early childhood in a slow, quiet, pastoral setting. His father died when Nietzsche was five. Nevertheless, his father gave Fritz a fundamental influence. Music. The pastor was gifted with a piano and played many classical compositions in addition to religious hymns and longer works of the Church.

Curtis Cate writes of Fritz’s boyhood. “His most remarkable characteristic was an acute sensitivity to music. Whenever his father began to play the piano, little Fritz would drop whatever he was playing with and listen with rapt attention. That his father was the only person in the community able to extract such lovely sounds from this wondrous instrument raised him above ordinary mortals and enveloped him in a celestial aura of infant adoration.” (page 6)


Early on, Nietzsche developed the habit of writing about his experiences. But this was more than just keeping a diary. Rudiger Safranski explains: "As a young boy, Nietzsche began to discover his keen delight in writing, which he indulged even while playing children's games. Barely able to contain his eagerness to record his experiences, he always rushed to note down in his 'little book' every detail of his games and have his playmates read his compositions. The game itself paled in comparison with his account of the game. As experiences unfolded, he was already crafting his narratives of them. He captured the fleeting moment and infused the present with imminent meaning. All of us ponder our existences, but Nietzsche strove to lead the kind of life that would yield food for thought. His life was a testing ground for his thinking. The essay was a mode of living." (pages 27-28)

When he was 14, Nietzsche jotted down a 30-page manuscript reflecting upon his youth entitled “From My Life.” In it he wrote: “God has given us music so that we should first of all be led upwards through it…its main designation is that it leads our thoughts to higher things, that it elevates us, even shakes us.” (Cate, page 15)

It was around this time he began composing his own music.

Another section in “From My Life” is translated by
R.J. Hollingdale: “I have already experienced so much – joy and sorrow, cheerful things and sad things – but in everything God has safely led me as a father leads his week little child…I have firmly resolved within me to dedicate myself forever to His service.” (page 17)

In yet another section of same the manuscript this time in
The Good European, possibly revealing his early enjoyment of hiking and being outdoors: “From childhood on, I sought solitude, and I felt best whenever I could give myself over to myself undisturbed. And this was usually in the open-air temple of nature, which was my true joy. Thunder storms always made the most powerful impression on me: the thunder rolling in from afar and the lightning bolts flashing only increased my fear of the Lord.” (page 19)

In Fritz’s extended family there were numerous pastors and religious workers. Christianity was more or less his family’s “trade.” It was faith-based, yet not fundamentally so. The enlightened arts were all appreciated and participated in along with a largely agrarian lifestyle. Nietzsche’s mother, Franziska, was thrilled that Fritz initially wanted to be trained in theology as his vocation.

Fritz loved to swim and often played in the rivers with his school friends. “From My Life” in The Good European: “Oh, it is delightful to surrender oneself to warm waters of summer! I especially felt this once I learned to swim. To give oneself over to the current, and so float effortlessly on the surface of the tide – can one imagine anything more lovely? In this regard I also esteem swimming not only as pleasant but also as very salubrious and refreshing.” (page 23) He often swam in the Saale River. He would enjoy rivers, lakes, and the sea coast all his life.

His grades were often excellent. In spite of frequent periods of illness relating to migraine headaches, joint pain, and nausea, he excelled in school. He scored consistently high marks in Latin, Religion, Greek, German, French, History, ‘industry’, and ‘good behavior.’

Nietzsche was a conscientious boy. In 1863, he wrote his mother to beg her forgiveness. From The Good European: “If I am writing you today it is nonetheless one of the most unpleasant and saddest things I have ever had to do. For I have committed something terrible, and I don’t know whether you will or can forgive me. With a heavy heart and against all my own natural inclinations I take up the pen, especially when I call to mind the splendid conviviality we enjoyed during the Easter holidays, a conviviality no discord was able to darken. Well, last Sunday I got drunk, and I have no excuse than the fact that I don’t know how much I can hold, and besides I was rather excited that afternoon.” (page 24)

It seems simple and perhaps sentimental to consider such a confession in our postmodern awareness. But, this letter reveals how sensitive he was to the world and how he strove to act in a manner befitting his family name. Getting drunk shamed him.

At age 18 he wrote an essay entitled “Fate and History.” It was interrupted by severe headaches which caused him to be bled by leeches in the school’s sickroom. In this essay Nietzsche begins to show cracks in his faith, based upon his academic experience. Cate offers a quote from the essay: “We have been influenced without having had the strength in us to oppose the counter-force, without realizing we have been influenced.” (page 31) While in The Good European the same essay states: “We scarcely know whether humanity itself is but a stage or period in universal history, or becoming; whether it is but an arbitrary epiphany of God.” (page 32)

In another short essay we find: “Absolute, fateless freedom of the will would make Man a God, the fatalistic principle reduce him to an automation.” (Cate, page 32)

He entered the university at Bonn at age 20 to study theology with a particular secondary interest in philology. At Bonn, Fritz was very much a "party" boy. He often went out drinking with friends, he visited bordellos, and generally strived to be a 'fast-living student.' (Julian Young, page 56)

Over the course of recent school years, his success in class, his academic essays, his mastery of old languages particularly Latin and Greek, and his exposure to new methods of historical interpretation such as David Strauss’ “The Life of Jesus” led Fritz to see that the teachings of Jesus should be subject to mythic explanation just like everything else handed down to us in written form throughout history.

This culminated on a visit home after his first semester at Bonn when he refused to go to communion with his mother. It was a profound first. His faculty registration in his second semester at Bonn became philology, not theology. It was a fundamental break.

Nietzsche took communion at his early schools and with his mother and sister regularly when at home up to his entry into Bonn. Of his break with the Church,
Rudger Safaranski summarizes it this way: “When he returned to Namburg during the first semester break in early 1865, his mother was horrified to see her son demonstrably refusing to take communion. An emotional quarrel ensued. Finally, she broke down in tears and was consoled by one of his aunts, who pointed out that all great men of God had to overcome doubts and temptations. She calmed down for a moment, but demanded that her son show considerate restraint in the future. He was not to mention any doubts about religion in her presence. His mother wrote to her brother Edmund: ‘My dear old Fritz is a noble person, despite our differences of opinion. He truly interprets life or, more accurately, time and appreciates only the lofty and good and despises everything crude. Yet I am often worried about this dear child of mine. But God looks into our hearts.’” (pages 43-44)

Later that year, Fritz clarified his position in a letter to his sister, Elizabeth.
Walter Kaufmann includes part of it in his biography: “Do we after all seek rest, peace, and pleasure in our inquiries? No, only truth – even if it be most abhorrent and ugly. Still one last question: if we had believed from childhood that all salvation issued from another than Jesus – say, from Mohammed – is it not certain that we should have experienced the same blessings? ...Every true faith is infallible inasmuch as it accomplishes what the person who has the faith hopes to find in it; but faith does not offer the least support for a proof of objective truth. Here the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire.” (pages 23-24)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Dionysus Returns

Nietzsche's first major published work was The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. It is different from most of his other books in that it has more of a dry "semi-academic" style. The work was not considered academic enough, however, by others in the philology profession and actually damaged Nietzsche's career which had begun so brilliantly at the mere age of 24.

One reason for the largely negative reaction to the work by Nietzsche's colleagues was that it is more philosophical, more a critique of art, than philological, reflecting the fact that Fritz was already disenchanted with his profession and would have preferred another career or at least a broader scope.

The Birth of Tragedy was published in 1872, as he completed his third year at Basel University as a Professor of Classical Philology. Briefly, it states that the art of Greek tragedy reached the highest form of expression when it contained a balance of Apollonian and Dionysian influences.

This balance consisted of the strength of individual freedom and expression (Apollo) and the ecstasy of undifferentiated primordial unity (Dionysus). The discovery of this fundamental unity was something Julian Young calls "intellectually stunning." Young concludes: "...the artwork can be both Apollonian and Dionysian: how it can both comfort the individual in the face of the nauseous character of human existence and promote the flourishing of community by gathering it in a celebration and affirmation of its fundamental understanding of how existence is and ought to be." (Young, page 131)


Western civilization had historically lost this balance by the ascension of Apollo as the primary influence in tragedy, chiefly through the work of Euripidus and Socrates. The effect of this forced imbalance was felt in the arts up to Nietzsche's time. But, now thanks to the works of Kant and Schopenhauer and, particularly, the music of Richard Wagner, Dionysus was re-entering the realm of artistic expression.

The Birth of Tragedy is, first and foremost, a cultural critique of not only the ancient Greeks but of contemporary German society. As such, it excited the artists that read it, but it was deemed too harsh and, indeed, unsophisticated by Nietzsche's more conservative colleagues, who also took issue with Nietzsche's representation of Germany as being in a state of cultural decline.

"Nietzsche identifies two things wrong with modern culture. First, through the domination of scientific materialism and the consequent loss of the Dionysian, we have lost that 'metaphysical comfort' which saved us from becoming 'rigid with fear' in the face of the 'horrors of individual existence', in the face, above all, of inevitable 'destruction', death. The second thing wrong with our Socratic culture is that we have lost myth. Modern man is 'mythless man'. 'Myth' for Nietzsche means, in short, just what it means for Wagner - a 'view in common of the essence of things' which constitutes 'that nation itself'. From this point of view the problem with modernity it that all we have is an incoherent and constantly changing chaos of myth-fragments, 'a pandemonium of myths...thrown into a disorderly heap'." (Young pp. 132-133)

In his analysis of the book, R.J. Hollingdale writes: "He showed a special appreciation of the Hellenic world of the sixth century - formerly considered little more than a barbarous preliminary to the glories of the fifth - an it is probable that even if he had not been an original thinker himself he would still be remembered for his exposition of this era...[H]e had discovered that the driving force behind the culture of Hellas had been a contest, agon, the striving to surpass." (page 74) Be that as it may, Nietzsche nevertheless overextended himself in the work. "His advocacy of Wagner was perhaps partly to blame, but his really serious error had been to treat in a wholly unprofessional way a subject in which he was supposed to be a professional specialist. What is of value in The Birth of Tragedy is what links it with Nietzsche's philosophy as a whole: the hypothesis that creation is a product of contest, and that the creative force is controlled and redirected passion." (page 82)

Art itself is taken to be of great cultural and existential importance. My favorite line in the work is: "Only as an aesthetic product can the world be justified to all eternity." This is the late-romantic mind at its best. Nietzsche highly valued the place of art (and particularly of music) in life. Music was the chief way Dionysus was Becoming through Art into the world again.

That Art was a force by which a culture should value itself is also indicated in this line: "But the state no less than art dipped into this current of the timeless to find rest in it from the burden and the greed of the moment. And any people--just as, incidentally, also any individual--is worth only as much as it is able to press upon its experiences the stamp of the eternal; for thus it is, as it were, desecularized and shows its unconscious inward convictions of the relativity of time and of the true, that is metaphysical, significance of life."

The relation of Art (or more precisely the artist) to "the eternal" and the way the artist might "stamp" his "unconscious inward convictions of the relativity of time" are two fundamental concepts. These factors (among others) shape Nietzsche's more mature thinking later on.

The influence of Richard Wagner upon this work was gigantic. At the time of its publication, Fritz was a disciple of Wagner, frequently visiting him, sharing ideas, writing long letters to him, and steeped in the belief that Wagner was the perfect cultural force for the rebirth of genuine art in Germany. The preface of the first edition of the work was devoted to Wagner directly.

The preface reads in part: "I picture the moment when you, my highly respected friend, will receive this essay. Perhaps after an evening walk in the winter snow, you will behold Prometheus unbound on the title page, read my name, and be convinced at once that, whatever this essay should contain, the author certainly has something serious and urgent to say; also that, as he hatched these ideas, he was communicating with you as if you were present, and hence could write down only what was in keeping with that presence."

It should be noted that the word "tragedy" here is used in the old tragedy vs. comedy mode of dramatic distinction. Tragedy as serious, not funny. Fritz would use humor extensively later on, however. Not so much in this major work.

With the passage of time, the work proved to be more important in the field of philology (and philosophy) than was originally accepted and today rightly deserves reputation of an important precursory intellectual achievement. Walter Kaufmann explains: "Nietzsche's supra-historical perspective, however, and the initially poor reception of The Birth of Tragedy in philological circles, should not blind us to the fact that this book did anticipate a new era in the interpretation of Greek culture. F. M. Cornfield, one of the foremost authorities on early Greek religion and philosophy, was to hail The Birth of Tragedy as 'a work of profound imaginative insight, which left the scholarship of a generation toiling in the rear'; and his own, as well as Jane Harrison's, painstaking scholarship has vindicated Nietzsche's intuition of the Apollinian and Dionysian." (page 153)

To that extent, the work can be judged as the birth of Fritz's brilliant, insightful, and original thinking that would lead to much greater philosophical accomplishments in just a few more years.

Regarding the book, Rudiger Safranski wrote that if the work could be summed up in one sentence "it would read roughly as follows: it is better to approach the enormity of life with art, and best of all with music." (page 83)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Confession

"Whoever battles with monsters had better see that it does not turn him into a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. "

"The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself."

- Nietzsche

If you are my priest then this is my confession.

I'm unsure if I "believe" as Nietzsche did. I am re-reading. I am considering. I'm unsure. I only know that I "think" I am Nietzschean, if there is such a thing. But, I will try to confirm this.