Nietzsche on Tragedy

Robert R. Williams

in Tragedy, Recognition, and the Death of God

Published in print September 2012 | ISBN: 9780199656059
Published online January 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191744846 | DOI:
Nietzsche on Tragedy

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This chapter examines Nietzsche’s treatment of the tragic myth and break with Schopenhauer’s pessimism, his thesis that tragedy is a synthesis of Apollinian and Dionysian elements, and the problem of the philosophical interpretation of the tragic myth. Nietzsche asks why the Greek poets created the magnificent Olympian gods and world? He claims that these were an attempt to overcome pre-Homeric violence and chaos. Nietzsche claims Homer reverses the wisdom of Silenus that, in view of the terrible human condition, regarded non-being as preferable to being. This reversal is for Nietzsche the hermeneutical key to the significance of the Olympian figures: out of the ancient Titanic order of terror, the Olympian order of joy evolved through the Apollinian drive towards individuation and beauty. Thus in spite of irrational depths and terrifying chaotic powers, the Greeks affirmed that nevertheless existence was good. The spirit of tragedy arises as an affirmative yet discordant note: a pessimism of strength, to wit, not Apollinian beautiful individuation, but rather the excess of a bliss born in pain and suffering is the comprehensive tragic vision. The tragic myth is a symbolization of Dionysian wisdom through Apollinian artifice. It symbolizes a mystical ecstasy in which the destruction of the tragic hero appears as necessary, as a healing of the wound of individuation. The latter claim points up the problem of the philosophical interpretation tragedy. Nietzsche observes that the naive superficial optimistic rationalism of Socratism not only believes that it can cognitively master existence, but also correct and improve it. For Nietzsche philosophy — the spirit of Socratism — killed off tragedy. Nietzsche approves of Kant’s restriction on cognition as opening the possibility of an affirmative philosophical interpretation of tragedy, to wit, a tragic sublime. But while Kant opens the door to tragedy and tragedy embraces Dionysian excess, a truly tragic philosophy may not be able to remain within Kant’s Apollinian-Socratic vision of philosophy.

Keywords: tragic myth; Apollinian and Dionysian; theogony; philosophy excludes tragedy; Kant; tragic sublime

Chapter.  8344 words. 

Subjects: History of Western Philosophy

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