Sep 10, 2012

Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy: Euripides and Socrates

A few weeks ago, spurred to do a bit of writing about Friedrich Nietzsche's early work -- The Birth of Tragedy: Out of the Spirit of Music -- while rereading and readying myself for producing new portions of an ongoing video series on Existentialism (lectures one, two, and three on the Birth of Tragedy currently available), I started exploring two of the central concepts of that work -- the Apollonian and the Dionysiac.  I've often been struck by how often readers have reduced that book to merely those two concepts -- or, more accurately, those two responses to the problem of existence.

There is, however much more to The Birth of Tragedy than just the distinction between the Apollonian and the Dionysiac.  First off, while both of these are primordial -- the Dionysiac arguably more so (at least originally) -- they also do develop, articulate themselves, assume new forms historically, through the processes of culture.  This takes on particular importance in the case of the Greeks, in whose culture these two express themselves particularly through the arts -- epic and lyric poetry, music, dance, sculpture, and drama.  The unstable but productive fusion of Dionysiac and Apollonian in tragedy -- the masterworks of Aeschylus and Sophocles -- is, in Nietzsche view, something novel, unique, and needed.  But, there is yet another response -- one which in the story he tells, supplants both the other two -- one which he identifies first with Euripides, but which he consistently terms the "Socratic-Alexandrian".

Three Fundamental Responses

This is a point on which many oversimplistic interpretations of this great and daring work go astray -- they rightly see how central the generally opposed categories of Apollonian and Dionysiac are, and they may even realize that the greatness of tragedy resides in reconciling them with each other, permitting them to draw upon the strengths offered by the other.  But they miss something just as vital, just as central -- Nietzsche narrates a tale that extends up to and (in hope at least) beyond his own present time.  And, in that account, tragedy died and now waits to be reborn, perhaps -- certainly not something one can simply count on; rather, something to be accomplished.  Likewise, the complex interplay between Apollonian and Dionysiac long ago disappeared -- those categories can still be used, of course even occasionally embodied or (in the case of the Dionysiac), break out.  But, they were replaced -- even covered over -- by the third response which sucessfully chokes them out -- the Socratic-Alexandrian.

It should be pointed out that in introducing this third term, Nietzsche does not confine the gamut of possible responses to the problem of life -- responses in terms of culture, art, but also social organization, orderings of values -- to an expanded list of three.  These are the three better, higher responses, certainly not the only ones possible or available.
In age after age the same phenomenon recurs.  Over and over the avid will finds means to maintain and perpetuate its creatures in life by spreading over existence the blandishments of illusion. One man is enthralled by the Socratic zest for knowledge and is persuaded that he can staunch the eternal wound of being with its help.  Another is beguiled by the veil of art which flutters, tantalizing, before his eyes.  Yet another is buoyed up by the metaphysical solace that life flows on, indestructible, beneath the whirlpool of appearances. . . . The three kinds of illusion I have named answer only to noble natures, who resent the burden of existence more deeply than the rest and who therefore require special beguilements to make them forget this burden.
Nietzsche also mentions "even commoner and more powerful illusions which the will hold in readiness at any moment" -- sorts of illusion, responses presumably not answering to "noble natures" but to the common, the many, the herd.  He doesn't expand on that theme in this work, but does suggest that some of these share an affinity with, or derive as it were by echo from, the Socratic-Alexandrian, and cautions:
One thing should be remembered: Alexandrian culture requires a slave class for its continued existence, but in its optimism it denies the necessity for such a class; therefore it courts disaster once the effects of its nice slogans concerning the dignity of man and the dignity of labor have worn thin.  Nothing can be more terrible than a barbaric slave class that has learned to view its existence as an injustice and prepares to avenge not only its own wrongs but those of all past generations.
This might constitute another -- in Nietzsche's view -- necessarily more plebeian, response or set of responses.  His focus in the Birth of Tragedy is clearly not to explore all of the possible perspectives or manners of moral life -- a project that gets carried out in other, later, arguably more mature works, like Beyond Good and Evil or On the Genealogy of Morals.

Socrates does typify something new, something in some sense noble, at least powerful, capable of asserting, imposing, dominating.  Nietzsche realizes that Socrates is not "merely an agent of disintegration," a falling-back from cultural progress already made.  While granting "an anti-Dionysiac tendency antedating Socrates, its most brilliant exponent," matters come to a crisis in Socrates, who Nietzsche asserts we ought to see "as the vortex and turning point of Western civilization."

Dionysos had already been driven from the tragic stage by a daemonic power speaking through Euripides.  For in a certain sense Euripides was but a mask, while the divinity which spoke through him was neither Dionyos nor Apollo but a brand new daemon calls Socrates.
Nietzsche continues:
Thenceforth the real antagonism was to be between the Dionysiac spirit and the Socratic, and tragedy was to perish in the conflict.
So, how did this occur? By what processes? And with what effects?  In the next three sections, we'll examine three themes, in the working out of which Nietzsche answers these questions.

Euripides and Socrates as Spectators

In Nietzsche's history, tragedy does not succumb to some outside force, overcome by some other type of literary or performative genre -- the New Comedy, say, or the Platonic Dialogue.  Rather, it is one of its own workers and reformers, Euripides, who undoes it, who dissects it and deals it a death blow, from within.
Greek tragedy perished in a manner quite different from the older sister arts: it died by suicide, in consequence of an insoluble conflict, while the others died serene and natural deaths at advanced ages.

When after all a new genre sprang into being which honored tragedy ass its parent, the child was seen with dismay to bear indeed the features of its mother, but of its mother during her death struggle. The death struggle of tragedy had been fought by Euripides, while the latter art is known as the New Attic comedy. Tragedy lived on there in a degenerate form, a monument to its painful and laborious death.
Why would Euripides do this, you might ask?  At the apex of a long process of developing and deepening interaction, even integration between the two great cultural forces -- the Dionysiac and the Apollonian, why ruin such a good thing?  According to Nietzsche, Euripides' decisions as a playwright were dictated by the demands of two main spectators.  Interestingly -- and reinforcing the his insistence that this response is not merely a vulgar, common one --neither of these two main spectators are the common man, the crowd, the hoi polloi.  Euripides does place more common characters up on the stage, allowing the audience to see themselves mirrored there.  But he does not take his cues from them.  Instead, the situation is the reverse.

One of these spectators, in an interesting twist, turns out to be Euripides himself, but "the thinker Euripides, not the poet":
Endowed with such talent, such remarkable intellectual lucidity and versatility, Euripides watched the performances of his predecessor's plays and tried to rediscover in them the fine lineaments which age, as happens in the case of old paintings, had darkened and almost obliterated.  And now something occurred which cannot surprise those among us who are familiar with the deeper secrets of Aeschylean tragedy.  Euripides perceived in every line, in every trait, something quite incommensurable: a certain deceptive clarity and, together with it, a mysterious depth, an infinite background. 
This presents a pressing problem for the newer playwright:
Euripides sat in the theater, pondering, a troubled spectator.  In the end he had to admit to himself that he did not understand his great predecessors.  But since he looked upon reason as the fountainhead of all doing and enjoying, he had to find out whether anybody shared these notions of his, or whether he was alone in facing up to such incommensurable features. 
The ordinary person, associated into the multitude can give him no assurance, whether affirming or denying.  On these matters, the older tragedians -- as well as all the other poets -- remain silent.  The Sophists of the time, the historians, the pre-Socratic philosophers, would any of them have been of assistance to Euripides in answering the questions pressing upon him?  There was one person who could be an ally, even a guide and master:
In this tormented state of mind, Euripides discovered his second spectator -- one who did not understand tragedy and for that reason spurned it.  Allied with him he could risk coming out of his isolation to fight that tremendous battle against the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles; not by means of polemics, but as a tragic poet determined to make his notion of tragedy prevail over the traditional notions.
Who was this fellow traveler, the second spectator to whose judgement Euripides would appeal?  It was Socrates, the philosopher who sets that very discipline on a new basis and trajectory -- and whose views, whose will-to-knowledge, possessed such immense implications for art, poetry, and specifically tragedy:
It was Socrates who expressed most clearly this radically new prestige of knowledge and conscious intelligence when he claimed to be the only one who acknowledged that he knew nothing. . . . From this point of view, Socrates was forced to condemn both the prevailing art and the prevailing ethics.  Wherever his penetrating gaze fell he saw nothing but lack of understanding, fictions rampant, and so was led to deduce a state of affairs wholly discreditable and perverse. Socrates believed that it was his mission to correct the situation.
Nietzsche sees this  assertion or assumption of an agency going far beyond anything that had been thought of -- except as the heights of hubris and folly -- as essential to the new Socratic approach, which takes on and takes shape in vast new projects,projected beyond and carried out by multiple generations.  Nietzsche writes of this as a new kind of illlusion:
that thought, guided by the thread of causation, might plumb the farthest depths of being and even correct it.  This grand metaphysical illusion has become integral to the scientific endeavor and again and again leads science to those far limits of its inquiry where it becomes art -- which is this mechanism, is what is really intended.

The New Socratic Orientation

Socrates, the "mystagogue of science," becomes through his own defiance and death a kind of exemplar or ideal, inspiring "generation after generation of inquirers, spurred by an insatiable thirst for knowledge," spreading "a common net of knowledge. . . over the whole globe"
[T]he image of the dying Socrates -- mortal man freed by knowledge and argument from the fear of death -- is the emblem which, hanging above the portal of every science, reminds the adept that his mission is to make existence appear intelligible and thereby justified.
Nietzsche writes of "the gigantic driving wheel of logical Socratism," evident in the portrait drawn of him in Plato's dialogues, "turning, as it were, behind Socrates."  Why?  Because he represents:
the prototype of an entirely new mode of existence.  He is the great exemplar of that theoretical man whose significance and aims we must now attempt to understand.
One trait of this new type is a change in the direction of desire:
Like the artist, theoretical man takes infinite pleasure in all that exists. . .  but while the artist, having unveiled the truth garment by garment, remains with us gaze fixed on what is still hidden, theoretical man takes delight in the cast garments and finds his highest satisfaction in the unveiling process itself, which proves to him his own power.
Another, just as essential trait is an optimism, aggressively pressing forward, confident in its assumptions, hoping to find them verified in its onward march into. . . everything.  What are these assumptions?  What effects do they have, both in the person making them and in the world, the culture, into which they penetrate?
Consider the consequences of the Socratic maxims:  "Virtue is knowledge; all sins arise from ignorance; only the virtuous are happy" -- these three basic formulations of optimism spell the death of tragedy.  The virtuous hero must henceforth be a dialectician; virtue and knowledge, belief and ethics, be necessarily and demonstrably connected
This change of ideals is reduplicated, not weakening like an echo, but waxing like feedback:
[E]ver since Socrates the mechanism of concepts, judgements and syllogisms has come to regarded as the highest exercise of man's powers, nature's most admirable gift.  Socrates and his successors, down to our own day, have considered all moral and sentimental accomplishments -- noble deeds, compassion, self-sacrifice, heroism, even that spiritual calm which the Apollonian Greek called sophrosune -- to be ultimately derived from the dialectic of knowledge, and therefore teachable.
The Socratic-Alexandrian response does not produce -- and indeed misunderstands -- that serenity or spiritual calm, producing and providing only "cheerfulness" in its place, an attitude which:
opposes Dionysiac wisdom and art; tries to dissolve the power of myth; puts in place of a metaphysical comfort a terrestrial consonance. . . .It believes that the whole world can be corrected through knowledge and that life should be guided by science; that it is actually in a position to confine man within the narrow circle of soluble tasks, where he can say cheerfully to life: "I want you.  You are worth knowing."

What Happened to Tragedy

Nietzsche describes and depicts the rise of the third, Socratic-Alexandrian response, and its turn against the Dionysiac, its attempt to drive it out as the merely irrational, the primitive -- to deprive it of all mystery.  In some sense, the Socratic might be seen as a mutation stemming originally from the Apollonian impulse to impose form, to bring clarity, to contribute consolation and serenity through the interplay of images.  Even if that origin might be acknowledged, however, the Socratic exceeds so far, unchecked, beyond the limits self-imposed and observed by the Apollonian, that it rapidly loses any resemblance to it -- and as Nietzsche cautions:  once you turn against and cast out Dionysus, Apollo will abandon you.  What do you have left then?

There's really three answers  to this question which Nietzsche provides -- three artistic genres -- though he does not set these out side by side so much as focus on the first and discuss the other two in passing:  Euripidean Tragedy, New Comedy, and Platonic Dialogue. 

Earlier tragedy fused together a number of Apollonian and Dionysiac elements or aspects, some of them structural, others matters of impulse, identification, or orientation.  These are not simply lost, but transformed, their depths gutted from them, in Euripides' drama:
Here there is no longer any trace of epic self-forgetfulness, of the true rhapsodist's cool detachment. . . Euripides is the actor of the beating heart, with hair standing on end. . .  The Euripidean drama is at the same time cool and fiery, able alike to freeze and consume us.  It cannot possibly achieve the Apollonian effects of the Epic, while on the other hand it has severed all connections with the Dionysiac mode, so that in order to have any impact at all it must seek out novel stimulants which are to be found neither in the Apollonian nor in the Dionysic realm. 
Again, we see that something novel, something beyond, additional, arises, and takes the place of the other, older responses.  What are these new stimulants?
on the one hand, cold  paradoxical ideas put in the place of Apollonian contemplation, and on the other fiery emotions put in the place of Dionysiac transports.
Nietzsche explains these transformations in terms ostensibly about Plato's dialogues, but applying just as well to Euripides' tragedies:
It is at this point that philosophical ideas begin to entwine themselves about art, forcing the latter to cling closely to the trunk of dialectic. The Apollonian tendency now appears as logical schematicism, just as we found in the case of Euripides a corresponding translation of the Dionysiac affect into a naturalistic one. 
There is another parallel:
Socrates, the dialectical hero of the Platonic drama, shows a close affinity to the Euripidean hero, who is compelled to justify his actions by proof and counterproof.
The Platonic dialogue, Nietzsche seems to suggest, is the product of another poet who under the Socratic spell, finds himself compelled to turn against poetry, or at the least to rethink and remake it.
[Plato's] creative gifts forced him to develop an art form deeply akin to the existing forms which he had repudiated.  
This affinity -- even though hostile to imitation, mimesis -- is displayed particularly in one feature which, for me, indicates the genius and greatness of Plato.
Tragedy had assimilated to itself all the older poetic genres.  In a somewhat eccentric sense the same thing can be claimed for the Platonic dialogue, which was a mixture of all the available styles and forms and hovered between narrative, lyric, drama, between prose and poetry, once again breaking through the old law of stylistic unity.
Dialogues like the Symposium and the Phaedrus, in which Plato deliberately replicates varied styles and genres come to mind immediately, but one this genre-integrating (and occasionally, ironically mocking) feature runs throughout his entire body of work.  Nietzsche grudgingly admits:"the Platonic dialogue was the lifeboat in which the shipwrecked older poetry saved itself, together with its numerous offspring," and he credits Plato with "provid[ing] for all posterity the pattern of a new art form, the novel."

This is a good place to leave off, on a conciliatory note -- without discussing or even citing Nietzsche's scornful assessments of the banality of New Comedy.  I'll just mention one thing about the subject of the next post in this series:  Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy is not intended as a merely historical dissertation.  Something critical was happening in his own time, an eclipse, a shaking of the predominance and confidence of the Socratic-Alexandrian, scientific, optimistic spirit, and an opening to some new resurgence, restoration, and reconfiguration of the Dionysiac and Apollonian.