- Nietzsche and The Birth of Tragedy by Paul Raimond
Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy1 is by many measures both his most accessible and his most difficult work. As Michael Tanner notes,
[W]hat marks off [The Birth of Tragedy] as sharply different from (almost) everything he wrote afterwards is its initially conventional mode of presentation, that of academic essay. He had no notions at this stage of writing a disruptive work from within the establishment—as so often in his dealings with his contemporaries, he showed himself to be strikingly naïve about what the impact of his work would be.2
Yet beneath that façade of straight-forward academic essay resides a complex work requiring an in-depth understanding of philosophy, cultural history, and Greek tragedy.
Paul Raimond Daniels’s Nietzsche and The Birth of Tragedy seeks to provide an entry point and recontextualization of Nietzsche’s early work by placing the philosopher’s ruminations within a cultural and philosophical context and in relation to his later works. Daniels argues that The Birth of Tragedy, with its theme of twin Apolline and Dionysiac forces, reflects not only what Daniels calls the wider Greek cultural spirit (2–3), but also offers a way through tragic art to disclose and transfigure “suffering and the looming threat of pessimism into a joyous affirmation of existence” (4).
Through the incorporation of these many aspects along with an examination of Nietzsche’s influences, from Schopenhauer to Burckhardt, Daniels offers a deeper understanding of the genesis of The Birth of Tragedy. This review will discuss Daniels’s attempts to demonstrate the influence of Schopenhauer’s notion of the will and representation on the later evolution of Nietzsche’s delineation of the Apolline and Dioynsiac, as well as Burkhardt’s use of cultural history and how the social institutions of a certain age functioned in certain societies to develop Nietzsche’s understanding of Greek tragedy. It will examine Daniels assertion that Nietzsche views Greek tragedy as a form of realistic affirmation of life in the face of pessimism, while scrutinizing and critiquing the historical factors and context at play. Finally, it will analyze Daniels’s effort to appraise The Birth of Tragedy in relation to Nietzsche’s later work.
Context and Influences on The Birth of Tragedy
Daniels begins with a study of key influences on Nietzsche when he wrote Birth of Tragedy, in particular the Swiss [End Page 111] cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818–97) and the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860). Nietzsche frequently attended the lectures of Burkhardt, an older colleague at the University of Basel (Daniels, 22–24). Burkhardt emphasized utilizing primary sources to provide an intrinsic feel for the texture of life during antiquity. Daniels states, “Apart from some obvious parallels between Burkhardt’s approach to cultural history and The Birth of Tragedy—including the idea that the study of art can motivate a wide study of the culture that produced it—there are a number of underlying philosophical similarities” (23). Both Burkhardt and Nietzsche are concerned with aesthetics and the ability to contextualize what life was like during a particular period. Through advances in cultural history, Burkhardt laid the groundwork for the idea that a historical time period could best be understood through the art and written works of that time, rather than through secondary sources and scholarship.
During their time as colleagues, Burkhardt and Nietzsche discussed the work of another major figure, Arthur Schopenhauer. In his magnum opus, The World as Will and Representation,3 Schopenhauer explores the dichotomous relationship between will and representation in that “the world can never be experienced as it is in itself” (Daniels, 14). Instead, the subject stands between the perception of the object and the reality of the object—making individual perception an important aspect of conceptualization of the world.
Daniels argues that the Schopenhauerian and Burckhardtian influences partially merge to form the foundation for The Birth of Tragedy. By stressing the primacy of firsthand sources and subjectivity, they provide the groundwork for Greek tragedy to coalesce...