Share |




Friedrich Nietzshche, the German philosopher, preferred the anarchy of Dionysian thinking over the false order of Appolonian thinking (those are his own words).  For him what Richard Wagner was doing with his music was the perpetuation of the latter for the purpose of creating a pan Germanic unity which was not based in the true understanding of the self of man.


The great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wanted to see a radical change in the world. He contended that Christianity created an apology of a human being and sang paeans about his complete lack of ability. In his most celebrated work, ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’, he made a case for getting rid of the existing God and replacing him with the Superman. Nietzsche saw the construct of Christianity of the human being an ‘ultimate man’ as being the one true reason for the atrophy in the growth of the human race.[1] The conception of ‘ultimate man’ signified that there was no more scope for the development of the capabilities in the human being. Due to this kind of argument, Nietzsche believed, Christianity celebrated misery and instead of attempting to find a remedy for the miserable situation that humanity found itself in, it advocated a miserable way of life as virtue. Through its focus on the ‘other world’ and true pleasure being realized in ‘paradise’ post death, Christianity eugolised ineptitude and made a virtue out of it.[2]

Nietzsche’s passionate belief in the improving of the condition of man led to a relentless Christian conception of the universe itself. He questioned the whole idea of good and evil and argued that they were so constructed in order to keep the meek at the centre of the universe. In his work ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ he not only examined the basis of what constitutes good and evil and says there is nothing intrinsically right or wrong about any action. The goodness or the evilness it had it had to be judged by the consequences it produces for humanity in this world in this time.[3] For him Christianity was born out of cowardice and therefore quelled any form of improvement or forward movement. The main weapon used by Christianity for this, is the system of morality that it produces. Nietzsche wanted a critique of the moral system, not its unquestioned acceptance and celebration.  “We need a critique of moral values, the value of these values themselves must be first called in question-and for that there is needed a knowledge of the conditions and circumstances in which they grow, under which they evolved and changed (morality as consequence, assumption, as mask, as tartufferie, as illness, as misunderstanding, but also morality as cause, as remedy, as stimulant, as restraint, as poison), a knowledge of a kind that has never existed or even desired. One has taken the value of these “Values” as given, as factual, as beyond all question; one has hitherto never doubted or hesitated in the slightest degree in supposing “the good man” to be of greater value than “evil man”, of greater value in the sense of furthering the advancement and prosperity of man in general (the future of man included). But what if the reverse were true? What if a symptom of regression were inherent in the “good”, likewise a danger, a seduction, a poison, a narcotic, through which the present was possibly living at the expense of the future? Perhaps, more comfortably, less dangerously, but at the same time in a meaner style, more basely? – so that precisely morality would be to blame if the highest power and splendour actually possible to the type man was never in fact attained? So that morality was the danger of danger?”[4]

Nietzsche also clearly lays down the reasons why he took such a position on morality and the notion of pity which is intrinsic to it. He believes that there should be a separation of theological prejudice from moral prejudice. For him this could lead to ending the Kantian enigma of categorical imperative. He says, “Fortunately, I learned early to separate theological prejudice from moral prejudice and ceased to look for the origin of the evil behind the world. A certain amount of historical and philological schooling, together with an inborn fastidiousness in taste in respect to psychological questions in general, soon transformed my problem into another one: under what conditions did man devise these value judgments good and evil? And what value do they themselves possess? Have they hitherto hindered or furthered human prosperity? Are they a sign of distress, of impoverishment, of the degeneration of life? Or is there revealed in them, on the contrary, the plenitude, force, and will of life, its courage, certainty, future”.[5] His answers to these questions? There upon I discovered and ventured diverse answers; I distinguished between ages, peoples, degrees of rank among individuals; I departmentalized my problem; out of my answers there grew new questions, inquiries, conjectures, probabilities – until at length I had a country of my own, a soil of my own. An entire discrete, thriving, flourishing world, like a garden the existence of which no one suspected”.[6] One of the main culprits of the propagation of this system of morality and pity was, according to Nietzsche, the great German philosopher Schopenhauer. While acknowledging the big role Schopenhauer played positively in his own life and thinking, Nietzsche disputes the value that Schopenhauer attached to this morality and the system of self-negation that he derived from it. “What was specially at stake was the value of the “un-egoistic”, the instincts of pity, self-abnegation, self-sacrifice, which Schopenhauer had gilded, deified, and projected into a beyond for so long that at last they became for him “value-in-itself”, on the basis of which he said ‘No’ to life and to himself ”.[7] This is the point of departure for Nietzsche. “It was against these instincts that there spoke from me an ever more fundamental mistrust, an ever more corrosive skepticism. It was precisely here that I saw the great danger to mankind, its sublimest enticement and seduction- but to what? to nothingness? – it was precisely here that I saw the beginning of the end, the dead stop, a retrospective weariness, the will turning against life, the tender and sorrowful signs of the ultimate illness: I understand the ever spreading morality of pity that seized even on philosophers and made them ill, as the most sinister symptoms of European culture that itself had become sinister”.[8] Nietzsche considered this over estimation of and predilection for a morality based in pity on part of modern philosophers as something new and perplexing. He says “hitherto philosophers have been at one as to the worthlessness of pity. I name only Plato, Spinoza, La Rochefocauld and Kant – four spirits as different from one another as possible, but united in one thing: in their low estimation of pity”.[9]

This line of thinking in Nietzsche is what makes him the torch bearer for the spirit of humanism that was clearly seen during the Renaissance and the Reformation. This is evident in two ways. First, in his unwavering faith in the ability of the human being to better his condition and also in the negation of national boundaries and in the rejection of  a thought construction that existed only for the purpose of nation and race aggrandizement. This is very evident from his case against Wagner. The truth of the first proposition can be seen in his ideological proximity to the early modern humanist thinker Niccolo Machiavelli. While the general perception about Machiavelli is that Machiavelli was an atheist, the reality is that he only did not believe in the virtue of Christianity. He saw Christianity making an apology of a human being. He contrasts this with the religion of the ancient Romans and argues that the old Roman Gods were the ones who celebrated form and spirit of man.[10] It is this humanist in Nietzsche that rebels against the musician–composer Richard WagnerIt seems as if Nietzsche in his younger days was enamoured with Wagner. But at a later point in time he became completely disgruntled with Wagner. Nietzsche’s own explanation is direct. He sees in the younger Wagner a belief in the ideas of the French revolution and the French romanticism. However, he claims, that the switch that Wagner made to the protection of all German-ness is what turned him against. Wagner was seen as a status-quoist whose main intention was to protect a certain idea of Germany. This Germany for Nietzsche was retrograde. Nietzsche believed that Wagner created sonorous melodies in his composition and that these instead of waking people to their realities, lulled them into believing that all was well with them and their culture. Wagner’s music according to Nietzsche was having a soporific effect on the people.

There are many controversies regarding the true nature of his true feelings for Wagner and his music. What is indelible is the fact that Nietzsche personally knew Wagner and shared a relationship with him in his young days. However, confusion reigns about the real nature of that relationship. What really brings about this confusion is the lack of consistency between his utterances in the Case of Wagner and Ecce Homo, a work which is an estimation of his works by the man himself. This leads some scholars like Fredrick Love to believe that Nietzsche never really respected either Wagner or his music. Fredrick Love used unpublished materials, including Nietzsche’s musical and lyrical compositions to argue that Nietzsche never was a passionate devotee of Wagnerian music.[11] He finds nothing Wagnerian in Nietzsche’s songs between 1862 and 1865; he cites a letter of the winter 1865-66 in which Nietzsche, then a student, wrote ‘Three things are my recreations but rare recreations, my Schopenhauer, Schumann’s music, finally long walks’. He also cites a list, Nietzsche made, around the same time, of his musical favourites; Schumann, Beethoven and Schubert are most prominent.[12]


Walter Kaufman a renowned translator of Nietzsche’s works, and a philosopher and a scholar in his own right, disagrees with Fredrick Love. “Love fails to note that Nietzsche’s tribute to Von Bulow conflates two events: the one in 1861 and the other in 1872. Love also conveniently overlooks Von Bulow’s scattering letter to Nietzsche about one of Nietzsche’s compositions. It is noteworthy Nietzsche good humouredly accepted this without any trace of resentment and goes out of his way to express gratitude to performer Von Bulow for bringing him to his senses about himself and Wagner”.[13] He also claims that his writings were highly stylized and that Nietzsche did love Wagner in his early days.[14] Irrespective of his original feelings for Wagner, Nietzsche did hold it against him for his movement towards Teutonism. Anti Teutonism has been the main driving force of Nietzsche’s thought and in fact his first published work, ‘The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music’ is a great pointer at that. It exemplifies what Nietzsche means by authentic use of scholarship, yet it is from being the sort of enquiry that we describe as ‘disinterested’ or purely ‘academic’. The purpose of this book according to famous Nietzsche scholar J.P.Stern is “to give an account or illuminate (rather than explain) the origins of the greatest tradition of the West, the art and literature of classical tragedy, and the culture in which it flourished and died. It contains a major proposal to re-create, in contemporary Germany, those conditions which had made the arts of classical Greece possible and had led to the efflorescence of her uniquely rich culture. It is a philosophical understanding in the sense of giving an extended description of what Nietzsche takes to be a dichotomy in the very depth of human disposition. And finally the book is a contribution to the science of aesthetics. It is first of all those sketches and reflections which, throughout the next sixteen years, will accompany Nietzsche’s moral existential thinking, sometimes merging with it, then again drawn up in conscious opposition to it – aspects of that enigma which never ceases to fascinate him: what is the function of aesthetic in the world?”[15]

Like Schopenhauer before him, Nietzsche sees the fullest embodiment of the aesthetic in music. He follows scholarly tradition by placing the origin of tragedy in the chorus; though for him the important thing is not its message but its dithyrambs. He sees the chorus, quite literally, as the crowd of satyrs accompanying Dionysius, the God of Vine and of Ecstasy, on his drunken revels through the forest. In their ecstasy and in the dirge they sing, the satyrs and their Gods are one: they are a single undivided expression of the impermanence and desolation of human existence, its ground of experience. This ground is like the Earth that was without form and like the darkness that was upon the face of the deep. It stands for and is a single, fundamental human disposition, involving as yet no division between self and world, and thus no knowledge that is not instinctive and intuitive. This oneness is broken as soon as men come to know, and to reflect upon, their ephemeral state. “In the wake of the satyrs, King Midas roams through the forest, seeking Silenus, Dionysius’s companion and foster father, who is hiding from him. At last the mortal king catches the elusive God and forces him to speak – to tell the most devastating of all truths: “You want to know what life is about? Silenus asks. The best is out of your reach, for the best of all things is not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing”.[16]

Faced with this knowledge, men become self conscious, sober, reflective, filled with tragic apprehension. Now they make it their task to hide the terrible knowledge of their ephemeral state from themselves and from those who watch their revels, and they do this by turning their apprehension of the truth into an ecstatic show, a drama. However, by drama Nietzsche means not an action but “an episode or scene or even a fundamental mood of great pathos”.[17] Just as many poets attest the origin of lyrical poems in a musical mood, so Nietzsche argues that the origin of the pathos is in music. It connects drama with a non verbal world which he considers more authentic than the world of words and mere literature. It is the essence of the show which the chorus enacts that it should both preserve the pathos of their new knowledge and make that knowledge bearable, and the God who helps them to fashion it into a bearable form is the sun god., Apollo. In the preface that Nietzsche wrote to the ‘Birth of Tragedy in the Spirit of Music’ and directed at Wagner, he says, “Art is not the trimmings of life, but a total re-enacting of it in another medium”.[18] Its vitality and importance is confirmed by Nietzsche’s insistence on its psychosomatic parallel. As Dionysius is the God of chaos, fruitfulness and ecstasy, so Apollo is the God of the ordered form and of the dream seen as the silent recasting of life. Tragedy is born at the conjuncture of these two fundamental impulses, to which Nietzsche gives the names of their tutelary deities, the Dionysian and the Appoline. What the artist, its creator, experiences is “the whole divine comedy of life, including the inferno – not like mere shadows on the wall – for he lives and suffers with these scenes – and yet not without the fleeting sensation of illusion. And perhaps many will, like myself, recall how amid the dangers and terrors of dreams they have occasionally called out to themselves in self encouragement and not without success: ‘it is a dream I wish to dream on.”[19]  This formulation is as precarious as the moment it describes. The image making faculty is not yet contrasted with consciousness or self consciousness. The next step in the argument is the exaltation of a healthy and creative life at the cost of a merely intellectual knowledge of the world, followed by Nietzsche’s paeans to the unconscious, the natural and the instinctive as authentic modes of experience.

The aim of this Nietzschean dialectic is to maintain the interplay between two fundamental modes of knowledge and life which encompass his view of tragedy and music; its Dionysian foundation and the Appoline order imposed upon it. “The argument has its roots in Schopenhauer’s dichotomy of the world as Will and the world as Idea; it is related to Aristotle’s distinction of matter and form; its chief ancestor is Schiller’s dichotomy of the naïve and the sentimental modes of poetry. It belongs among the three or four truly memorable arguments in the history of aesthetics. Its epitome is mastered energy; its poles are chaos and epic harmony. When the Dionysian element rules, ecstasy and inchoateness threaten; when the Appoline element predominates, the tragic feeling recedes. Of the two, the Dionysian remains the fundamental, but the balance in the great works of tragic art and music is subtle and easily upset. Changes in the balance provide Nietzsche with the data of a rudimentary literary history. The balance is achieved for the first time in Aeschylus and then again in Sophocles; but by the time Euripides comes to dominate the literary scene, the Dionysian element is attenuated and at last all but completely suppressed, and in Euripides’s the Bacchae the thwarted god takes his revenge”.[20]

The predominance of the Dionysian element in the masterpieces of Greek tragedy implies that for Nietzsche, first and foremost, intuition and ecstasy are the only authentic modes of artistic creation. It implies, secondly, an interest in the origins and genealogy rather in the structure of a work of art. It is axiomatic for Nietzsche that the origins of art wholly determine its value. The dominance of Dionysius assumes an unreflective belief on the part of the playwright public in the germinal episodes or myths from which tragedy is fashioned, a belief which the poets share with their public. What these myths represent is not the nemesis of a plot, but the articulation of a fundamental mood or that which can alternatively be called a style of life. Throughout Nietzsche’s aesthetic writings, it is this conception of a mood or style of life which is his main concern. This is, for him, more fundamental than rational argument, because it is its source. For Nietzsche, the decline of Greek tragedy begins where ecstasy is suppressed and has to give way to cold calculation. Now the old myths cease to be experiences as parts of an ecstatic religious ritual and become objects of rational analysis, the gods and their stories come to be judged according to the prosy maxims of reasoned justice. By a characteristic turn of Nietzsche’s philosophical imagination this history of Greek tragedy emerges as a paradigm for every other cultural development including the decline into the decadence and degeneration he sees taking place around him. The pro-Teutonic and coldly calculated call for all things German is that which clashes with the primordial concern of the French revolution that is set up in a classically tragic situation. Wagner’s drift from the latter to the former is representative of another person joining the ranks of Nietzsche’s enemies who could potentially thwart the recreation of a classical Greece in the Germany of his own time and the Germany of the future.

For Nietzsche, Art is one of the ruses of life, tragedy has always had a vital function: to protect men from a full knowledge of the life-destroying doom that surrounds them, and at the same time to refresh their zest for life. The degeneration of tragedy at the hands of Euripides and of Socrates means that it can no longer fulfill its vital function. Interestingly for Nietzsche, Socrates is ugly and artistically ungifted and therefore not the hero that he has been for almost every other philosopher in the history of humanity. It is therefore not a thing of surprise that for him the dialogues of Plato are nothing interesting. He sees Platonic dialogue and Aesopian fables as effete parodies which in their superficiality and optimism no longer acknowledge the reality of the abyss of suffering. It is through forms such as these that instinctive feeling of awe and apprehension has been jeopardized; that feeling without which the life blood of every culture runs into the sand. For Nietzsche live culture is only possible within that narrow boundary where knowledge is manageable, yet all that threatens life is not trivialized. Stern sees it as “an area bounded by a ‘not yet’ and a ‘no longer’. The ‘not yet’ pure want, is the stage where the Dionysian song dominates to the extent of making articulation and individuation impossible (articulation of inchoate responses till they become individual characters who enact the myth). And the ‘no longer’ is the prosy state of rationalism, when the myths are accounted for in discursive and abstract terms; explained in rational – casual terms; and thus explained away”.[21]

What are the conditions under which that narrow space between ‘not yet; and ‘no longer’ comes into being? When, in the last sections of the ‘Birth of Tragedy in the Spirit of Music’, Nietzsche writes his great panegyric of Wagner who will ‘recreate’ the cultic and mythical situation of Sophoclean tragedy the deeply problematic nature of his undertaking becomes clear. Nietzsche’s is not a narrowly aesthetic view but a cultic vision, encompassing the whole life of nation and what he is seeking is no less than a concrete objective correlative to this vision in the world around him. He finds it, or thinks he finds it in Richard Wagner who he considers the most richly gifted of all his contemporaries. He is anxious to attribute to Wagner’s art, the same cultic quality which he saw in the great tragedians of Greece. Wagner readily agrees, but the break comes, not because Wagner repudiates the role of a modern mystagogue, but because in Nietzsche’s view, he cynically exploits it. “These are battles which are lost. Who could fail to sympathize with Nietzsche when he invokes ‘the rebirth of a German myth’ or when he writes ‘without a myth every culture loses its healthy, creative natural power. Only in horizon enclosed by myths gives unity to a whole cultural movement? Yet the fact that Nietzsche’s critical observation is no less relevant to the condition of our culture than it was to his, does not make his plea for the birth of a new myth less preposterous. The vital need of the age (he is saying) is for a new kind of innocence, an archaic state of cult and culture, for a sophisticated breakthrough into unsophistication. We for our part have learned that studied instinctiveness’s is humbug and that whatever’s wrong with our culture, it is not excess of consciousness”.[22] The Birth of Tragedy contains the epitome of Nietzsche’s aesthetics; his acceptance of Schopenhauer’s ideas on music and his re-evaluation of Schopenhauer’s idea of the will in the world; his challenge to the Kantian idea of the aesthetics as ‘disinterested’ and therefore his (Nietzsche’s) view of it as a defective mode of life; his contempt for language as an inferior medium, inadequate to the task of conveying the deepest mystery of life; and form following that, his ironical repudiation of the Socratic dialectic reasoning and what he (Nietzsche) regards as its optimistic shallowness. And it is at this juncture that Nietzsche expresses his maxim which will encompass his aesthetic thinking to the end. The maxim is a radical reversal of the Schopenhauerian scheme; if a man is to be saved from renunciation of his will and from the terrible nihilism to which he is driven by the awareness of his condition, then it is art and music that saves him, and through art life. Nietzsche says “only as an aesthetic phenomenon is the world and the existence of man eternally justified”.[23]


[1]Nietzsche, Friedrich, Thus spoke Zarathustra, Middlesex, England, Penguin

 Books, 1969, p.16

[2]Nietzsche, Friedrich, Anti-Christ, London, England, Vintage Books, 1962,  


[3]Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil,  London, England, Vintage

  Books, 1962, p.16

[4]Nietzsche, Friedrich, On the Genealogy of Morals, London, England, Vintage 

  Books, 1962, p.20

[5]ibid, p.17 


[7]ibid, p.19



[10]Machiavelli, Niccolo, Discourses, Middlesex, England, Penguin

  Books, 1982, p.289

[11]Love, Fredrick R., quoted in Kaufmann, Walter, Introduction to Ecce Homo, in

  foot note, Nietzsche, Friedrich, Ecce Homo, London, England, Vintage 

  Books, 1962, p.249


[13]ibid, p.250


[15]Stein, J.P., Nietzsche, London, England, Fontana Press, 1978, p.p. 40-41

[16]ibid,  p.41

[17]Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music,

    London, England, Vintage Books, 1962, p.9.

[18]ibid,  p.iv.

[19] ibid, p.ix

[20]Stein, J.P., Nietzsche, London, England, Fontana Press, 1978, p.44.

[21]ibid,  p.46.

[22]ibid,  p.47.

[23]Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music,

    London, England, Vintage Books, 1962,  p.xii