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Nietzsche and The Birth of Tragedy: The Dionysiac Critique of Modernity

Lecturer: Paul Daniels

Originally Taught: Winter School 2011

The Birth of Tragedy (1872) was Nietzsche’s first work. It aims to grasp the philosophical significance of Greek tragedy and how this offers a creative, aesthetic basis for a critique of modernity. Tragedy presents its audience with a worldview where fate triumphs over virtue, where heroic action leads to self-destruction, and where nature must revenge all misdeeds committed against it. This tension between the human subject and his relationship with life posed the most important philosophical questions for Nietzsche: is life worth living? How are we to reconcile the tragic truth to existence with the will to live? How are we to address the decline of modernity by reference to the tragic age of the Greeks?

The Birth of Tragedy represents one of Nietzsche’s most ambitious philosophical projects. Through a combination of philology, history and philosophy, he endeavoured to investigate the pre-Socratic culture of tragedy, the account of which he proposed would instigate a cultural revolution in his own time. This course will provide an account of The Birth of Tragedy, focusing on Nietzsche’s use of mythology, his transformation of the Will as understood by Schopenhauer, the discovery that aesthetics can constitute a first philosophy, and the all important worldview of music and tragedy as the medium whereby the terrors and horrors of existence could be simultaneously known and affirmed.

For all its complexity and the nascent examples of themes in his later philosophy, The Birth of Tragedy often receives only cursory attention in scholarship. This is not in keeping with Nietzsche’s own engagement with his first book. For Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy occupied a special place among his works: at times he repudiated its approach, yet the themes of tragedy, music, Socrates and the Dionysiac would reappear in varying manifestations throughout his philosophy. And in his final writings he described it as his first revaluation of all values, a work which emboldened its readers (and author), “beyond pity and terror, to realise in oneself the eternal joy of becoming – that joy which also encompasses joy in destruction.”

This course will be taught at an introductory to intermediate level. My intent is to introduce the text via Nietzsche's biography and the thinkers he studied. Some background in philosophy is recommended, though no knowledge of specific thinkers will be presupposed.

The recommended translation of The Birth of Tragedy is by Ronald Speirs in the recent Cambridge series of Nietzsche's works. The Kaufmann translation is wonderful in some of its formulations, but there are also inaccuracies and it is now somewhat outdated. The Penguin edition, translated by Shaun Whiteside, is quite a good translation and somewhat more affordable.

Monday: The Year 1872 – Europe, history and philosophy at the time of The Birth of Tragedy
“This beginning is remarkable beyond all measure. I had discovered the only likeness and parallel to my own innermost experience which history possesses – I had therewith become the first to comprehend the wonderful phenomenon of the Dionysiac.” (EH)


Tuesday: Myth, Madness and Music – the Dionysiac and the Apolline in dialectic
“The chariot of Dionysos is laden with flowers and wreaths; beneath its yoke stride panther and tiger. If one were to transform a Beethoven’s jubilant ‘Hymn to Joy’ into a painting and place no constraints on one’s imagination as the millions sink into the dust, shivering in awe, then one could begin to approach the Dionysiac.” (BT)


Wednesday: Tragedy and the Affirmation of Existence – the “miracle of the Hellenic Will”
“He sees before him the transfigured world of the stage, and yet he negates it. He sees before him the tragic hero with all the clarity and beauty of the epic, and yet he takes delight in his destruction. He comprehends events on the stage to their innermost core, and yet he gladly flees into the incomprehensible…” (BT)


Thursday: The Decline of Tragedy – the daemon called Socrates
“This is the new opposition: the Dionysian versus the Socratic, and the work of art that once was Greek tragedy was destroyed by it.” (BT)


Friday: The Rebirth of Tragedy – Beyond The Birth of Tragedy
“A tremendous hope speaks out of this writing. I have in the end no reason whatever to renounce the hope for a Dionysian future of music.” (EH)