Nietzsche and Tragedy


In Section I of The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche discusses two artistic drives; Apollonian and Dionysian. According to him their dialectical relationship is responsible for the development of art, or as he explains the development of tragedy.He maintains that the Greek culture operated based on two fundamental forces: Apollonian and Dionysian. Apollo and Dionysos as two Greek deities signify two artistic powers in Nietzsche’s theory of art. In Section II, he explains how Greek tragedy, as a form of art, developed from interacting the two drives. Those tragedies, he believes, by portraying human sufferings in life, affirmed that existence is fundamentally painful.  Art forms do not only contain logical insights but also immediate perceptions. Roughly speaking, Apollonian drive is a tendency for giving order to a chaotic reality, and Dionysian sentiment is a tendency for creating an anarchic reality. In the context of Greek literary tradition, Apollonian drive generates orderly forms whereas Dionysian creates a reality of disordered forms. Greek tragedy is a synthesis of the dialectical relationship between these two opposing poles. However, Nietzsche does not think that there is always a perpetual conflict between the two, but sometimes these two tendencies live in a temporary harmony.

            To Nietzsche, the precondition of art is to creating world of dreams. In fact, his theory of art acknowledges the role of imitation. However, unlike Aristotle who considered art as imitation of reality, Apollonian and Dionysian powers are rooted in nature that appears even without the mediate of art. Hence, a work of art merely is the manifestation of artistic drives of nature or imitation of these two forces. Like Schopenhauer, who believes that art is the reflection of the Will, in Nietzsche’s philosophy art is the reflection of the two natural drives. As he says, the Apollonian impulse brings about “oneness with the innermost ground of the world, reveals itself to him in a symbolic (gleichnishaft) dream-image” (19). Apollo signifies deliberation and concerning for proportion as embodied in Greek sculptures. Each artist imitates one of the two natural artistic energies, either the image world of dream or intoxication that destroy individuality of the person.

Nietzsche believes that art is not imitation of reality, but creating a dream-based world or recreating reality as it appears in dreams. He attributes the dream-experience to Apollo, which was the god of image-making as well as prophecy. He states,

“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.”

Nietzsche attributes Schopenhauer’s account of “principle of individuation” to explain the meaning of Apollo. As Schopenhauer maintains, we live in a world of maya and images away from the true reality of things. It is through art that we understand reality in a truer sense, or as he puts it “oneness with the inmost ground of the world.”

On the other hand, Dionysian impulse can be conveyed by the analogy of intoxication and the feeling of complete self-forgetting. Dionysian power is the factor that makes the artist to unite not only with the artwork but also to become a work of art himself. These views of art, once more resonates Schopenhauer’s view on the self-forgetting impression of art through experiencing the sublime. Nietzsche maintains, “with the gospel of universal harmony, each one feels himself not only united, reconciled, and fused with his neighbor, but as one with him, as if the veil of maya had been torn aside and were now merely fluttering in tatters before the mysterious primordial unity” (37). A Dionysian experience, according to Nietzsche, is similar to the mystical sense of oneness. Hence, losing self is another factor of aesthetic experience that is embodied in Dionysian part of art. As he maintains, “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 fact, he believes that tragedy was the offspring of the marriage between the Apollonian force and Dionysian drive; therefore, it represents a delicate balance between the two.


According to Nietzsche, Greek tragedy represents a delicate balance between Apollonian and Dionysian forces, giving chance to the audience to experience the tragedy of human condition. The music in tragic plays contained the Dionysian sentiment while the dialogues represented the Apollonian balance of the abstract nature of music. Before the emergence of tragedies, Greek culture was more Apollonian and less Dionysian. In the Apollonian era, sculpture and architecture as arts that required creating orderly forms dominated Greek culture. However, gradually the Dionysian tendencies started to emerge as a rival to the Apollonian drive, mostly through music. As he maintains, “Wherever the Dionysian prevailed, the Apollonian was checked and destroyed…. wherever the first Dionysian onslaught was successfully withstood, and the authority and majesty of the Delphic god Apollo exhibited itself as more rigid and menacing than ever” (12). To Nietzsche, in a healthy and balanced culture neither side should gain a decisive victory and drive out the other: hence, in a healthy culture the two opposing forces maintain in a check and balance.

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