Nietzsche’s Centaur

Bernard Williams

  • Nietzsche on Tragedy by M.S. Silk and J.P. Stern
    Cambridge, 441 pp, £27.50, March 1981, ISBN 0 521 23262 7
  • Nietzsche: A Critical Life by Ronald Hayman
    Weidenfeld, 424 pp, £18.50, March 1980, ISBN 0 297 77636 3
  • Nietzsche. Vol. 1: The Will to Power as Art by Martin Heidegger, translated by David Farrell Krell
    Routledge, 263 pp, £11.50, March 1981, ISBN 0 7100 0744 2

Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, was published in 1872, when he was 27, and while he was a Professor of Classics at Basel. It had the unusual effect, for him, of attracting some attention at the time of its appearance: after that, Nietzsche’s writings virtually ceased to be noticed until the 1890s, by which time he was, for the last 11 years of his life, insane, virtually without speech, and out of touch with the world.

Nietzsche said to his sister that this book was a ‘centaur’, a description which emphasises its oddness, underestimates its beauty, and misleads about the number of its components, since it is a blend not only of scholarship and literary prose, but of philosophy and assertive aesthetic judgment. It makes some historical claims in answer to an old question, the origin of tragedy among the Greeks; more importantly, it tries to characterise the nature of the Greek view of the world, how that is expressed in Greek tragedy, and what significance both that view and those plays can now have.

According to Nietzsche, two contrasting spirits stand over Greek, and over all genuine, art – Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo represents order, civilisation and the determinate image; Dionysus represents nature, fertility, rapture, and the dissolution of individuation into collective expression. Greek tragedy was a highly stylised and formal art which arose nevertheless from the cult of Dionysus, and at its highest, in Nietzsche’s view, it represents a peculiar moment at which the forces of Apollo and Dionysus were balanced – a balance which expresses a heroic understanding and acceptance of the destructive horror of things, a ‘pessimism of strength’.

These elements, the Dionysiac and the Apollonian (a term surely preferable to Silk and Stern’s ‘Apolline’), by no means merely represent, as they are often taken to do, a dichotomy of passion and reason, or of emotion and form. The basic element of the Dionysiac is indeed Rausch – ‘rapture’ in Krell’s translation of Heidegger, ‘ecstasy’ in Silk and Stern – but the corresponding idea of the Apollonian is dream, and the order which Classical art can set upon things itself has roots in a realm of illusion. The balance between these forces, and the consciousness which the tragic outlook involves, of the unity of destructive and creative forces, was embodied only in the earlier period of the Greek Classical Age – above all, in the tragedians Aeschylus and Sophocles. Of these, Nietzsche tends to emphasise Aeschylus, who was indeed the earlier, but (as Silk and Stern point out) it is certainly Sophocles who most clearly and unpityingly embodies what Nietzsche had in mind.

The third great tragedian, Euripides, destroyed tragedy, according to Nietzsche, or rather helped it to destroy itself, in association with the spirit of Socrates, that spirit of ‘Alexandrian optimism’ which trusted in reason to make the most basic questions of living into matters of discursive knowledge. That same rationalistic optimism led inevitably to a depreciation of art, including Plato’s celebrated rejection of it. The Platonic consciousness, and the later forms of moralism which in various ways Nietzsche assimilated to it, could not stand the power of tragedy, nor the metaphysical conclusion which, in The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche saw as implicit in tragedy: that ‘only as an aesthetic phenomenon can existence and the world be eternally justified.’

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