Dionysus, Nietzsche, and Greek Myth

Affirmation of life even it its strangest and sternest problems, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustibility through the sacrifice of its highest types – that is what I call the Dionysian…Not so as to get rid of pity and terror, not so as to purify oneself of a dangerous emotion through its vehement discharge – it was thus Aristotle understood it – but, beyond pity and terror, to realize in oneself the eternal joy of becoming – that joy which also encompasses joy in destruction…And with that I again return to that place from which I set out –TheBirth of Tragedy was my first revaluation of all values: with that I again plant myself in the soil out of which I draw all that I will and can – I, the last disciple of the philosopher Dionysus – I, the teacher of the eternal recurrence…(Nietzsche, “What I Owe to the Ancients”)

Gwendolyn Taunton

It is a well-known fact that most of the early writings of the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, revolve around a prognosis of duality concerning the two Hellenic deities, Apollo and Dionysus. This dichotomy, which first appears in The Birth of Tragedy, is subsequently modified by Nietzsche in his later works so that the characteristics of the God Apollo are reflected and absorbed by his polar opposite, Dionysus. Though this topic has been examined frequently by philosophers, it has not been examined sufficiently in terms of its relation to the Greek myths which pertain to the two Gods in question. Certainly, Nietzsche was no stranger to Classical myth, for prior to composing his philosophical works, Nietzsche was a professor of Classical Philology at the University of Basel. This interest in mythology is also illustrated in his exploration of the use of mythology as a tool by which to shape culture. The Birth of Tragedy is based upon Greek myth and literature, and also contains much of the groundwork upon which he would develop his later premises. Setting the tone at the very beginning of The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche writes:[spacer height=”20px”]

We shall have gained much for the science of aesthetics, once we perceive not merely by logical inference, but with the immediate certainty of vision, that the continuous development of art is bound up with the Apollonian and Dionysian duality – just as procreation depends on the duality of the sexes, involving perpetual strife with only periodically intervening reconciliations. The terms Dionysian and Apollonian we borrow from the Greeks, who disclose to the discerning mind the profound mysteries of their view of art, not, to be sure, in concepts, but in the intensely clear figures of their gods. Through Apollo and Dionysus, the two art deities of the Greeks, we come to recognize that in the Greek world there existed a tremendous opposition…[spacer height=”20px”]

Initially, then, Nietzsche’s theory concerning Apollo and Dionysus was primarily concerned with aesthetic theory, a theory which he would later expand to a position of predominance at the heart of his philosophy. Since Nietzsche chose the science of aesthetics as the starting point for his ideas, it is also the point at which we shall begin the comparison of his philosophy with the Hellenic Tradition.[spacer height=”20px”][spacer height=”20px”]

Photo: Wouter Engler[spacer height=”20px”][spacer height=”20px”]

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