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Human Redemption with Nature in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy

The Youth of Bacchus by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1884

If the Dionysian drive is embodied in the human feeling and apprehension of aesthetic phenomena, to what extents can it be truly considered a natural human drive, and not a human drive that merely alludes to an idea of the natural, but nevertheless remains an imitation that is artificial? If the Dionysian drive is accounted as a human artistic movement that embodies the Platonic and Aristotelian notion of mimesis—art that imitates nature—then to what extents can this imitation be considered a transparent mirror of nature, and to what extents can it be denounced as artificial? In this essay, I will attempt to exemplify how in Birth of Tragedy (BT), Nietzsche conceives the Dionysian drive, its potential to reconcile man with nature, and its standing as an ‘authentic’ natural drive—for which, Nietzsche’s conception of nature would require a preliminary exposition. If the Dionysian drive is indeed natural, then to what extents is its reconciliation with the Apollonian drive, a symbiosis that produces tragedy as a genere—can still be regarded natural? To address the problematic that arises in what Nietzsche sees as a predominance of Apollonian qualities in certain arts, which attempt to imitate nature, but end up with an essence that is inherently unnatural; certain aspects of irresolution that arise in the attempt to reconcile these two drives will be discussed.

Before proceeding in demonstrating the human relation to nature and to what extents can a human drive be ‘authentically’ natural; it is first necessary to provide an account of what exactly does Nietzsche presuppose when he refers to something being ‘natural’, and the relation of this word to the less theological derivations such as ‘naturalism’. To begin, a form of art that Nietzsche considers to embody the natural Dionysian forces, may serve as an initial reference point that exemplifies what specifically does it mean for an expression to embody a natural quality. The chorus for Nietzsche, is a form of art that precisely escapes all individuation and embodies an expression of a primordial relationship between form an appearance1. In this regards, Nietzsche agrees with Schiller on the significance of the chorus; by introducing and defining the qualities of chorus, Schiller makes a step towards waging a war against all naturalism in art2. In this sense, naturalism can be considered a position that accounts the experience of the ‘ideal spectator’, not as something purely aesthetic, but as something that is corporeal and empirical, a view for example, that Schlegel proposes3. The chorus therefore, escapes this corporeal individuation, and through either a satyr, or a multiplicity of singing voices, conveys the whims of human suffering as a natural expression. This form of expression however, escapes the Apollonian “ideal” domain which propels individuation and becoming, and instead, propels a dissolution manifested as a natural drive. In this sense, the natural world becomes devoided from overarching forms, and even theism as such; in the process of “de-deification” of nature, Nietzsche seeks to detach from Platonic realism, Kantian idealism, and all “shadows of God”—that transform nature into either an idealistic, or a theistic conception that attends the world with already established pre-givens4. In the dissolution that occurs in the chorus, embodies an expression of primordiality that escapes form and structure. In this move, Nietzsche does not necessarily give a mechanistic or an empirical conception of nature, but rather, one in which there can be no absolute perspective of knowing nature, and each way of knowing can only be relative to a particular perspective and interpretation.

The emphasis on de-deification of nature on one hand, and the emphasis on perspective on the other, exemplifies Nietzsche’s favor of knowledge as an “aesthetic phenomenon” which contrasts to knowledge of the Aristotelian thing-in-itself and the false dichotomy of soul and body that it presupposes5. In the attempt to aesthetically apprehend nature through an emphasis on Apollonian forms and illusions, Nietzsche claims that “the primordial Dionysian” element becomes omitted, precisely because the phenomena of bodily feeling is superseded by something that is outside the aesthetic phenomenon of natural bodily experience. The ways in which the body reacts to primordial natural forces, is the feeling that becomes artificially imitated in various art forms, which is the basis of Nietzsche’s critique of the New Dithyramb:

Music is outrageously manipulated so as to be the imitative counterfeit of a phenomenon, for instance, of a battle or a storm at sea; and thus, of course, it has been utterly robbed of it mythopoeic power. For if it seeks to arouse pleasures only by impelling us to seek external analogies between a vital or natural process and certain rhythmical figures and characteristic sounds of music.6

By putting an emphasis on music that counterfeits natural phenomena, it can be seen how the natural elements in art come from a certain imitation of natural forces. Although the position that Nietzsche takes in regards to tragedy varies from the position he takes as the author of Birth of Tragedy; Nietzsche in general, along with many other German thinkers and predecessors, takes a similar antonymous stance in regards to Aristotle’s conception of action (praxis) and katharsis in tragedy as such7. Nietzsche’s alternative to the Aristotelian emphasis on the definition of tragedy based on human action, is instead, an emphasis on ‘mood’ and ‘impression’. The Dionysian drive is not only a force that reaffirms man’s relation to other man through a disintegration of the “hostile barriers” that had been fixed among them, but is also a force that celebrates nature’s “reconciliation with her lost son, man”8. The Dionysian drive lies exactly at the apposite of the Apollonian drive, instead of basing itself on the feeling of ecstasies, strives for a continuous redemption of human suffering through illusory ideas and dreams9; the Apollonian drive also strives for a ‘Doric’ view10 that seeks to apprehend and organize the natural world in a manner that embodies order and harmony. The tendency of the Apollonian drive to avoid natural dissolution is propelled by a tendency towards individuation that seeks to maintain prevalence of form and structure. In the process of pincipium individuationis, which is a tendency for individuating oneself from nature, is inverted by the Dionysian drive, which strives towards intoxication and dissolution of individuation, order, and harmony—to produce a different form of harmony that consists of human reconcilement with nature. As Nietzsche states:

[T]he…Dionysian suffering, is like a transformation into air, water, earth, and fire, that we are therefore to regard the state of individuation as the origin and primal cause of all suffering, as something objectionable in itself.11

The Dionysian force is the attempt to redeem suffering by instigating a dissolution of form and structure that prevail over nature. Given this description, what is a natural drive, and what role does it have in relation to individuation? Is Dionysian a natural drive, or is it still, like its opposite Apollonian drive, a particular drive that is inherently unnatural since it is nevertheless manifested in human artifice, but one that alludes to a primordial state of intoxication under the name of God Dionysus? To question whether the Dionysian-Apollonian drive can resemble a true natural drive, certain similarities between the two drives should be mentioned. One of the commonalities that the Apollonian and Dionysian drives have, is the strife to overcome the human feeling of suffering; instead of doing so through dreams and images like the former however, the later does so through an expression of an excess—a phenomenon resembling a capricious cry or a whim of natural forces manifested in a human artistic drive12. In the case of music, the “Dionysian musician is, without any images, himself pure primordial pain and its primordial re-echoing”13.

Since music is also a genre that not just represents the phenomena as other arts do, but “represents metaphysical reality directly”14; not only does it serve as a Dionysian drive for redeeming human primordial relationship with nature, but also as an idealizing function by accessing something that is beyond phenomena, perhaps even an access to a realm of noumena itself. This idealizing can be contrasted with its Apollonian equivalent of sublating and redeeming pain through illusion, which although is profoundly based on the idealization of forms and ideas, nevertheless, deals with phenomena even if it claims to have access to the noumenal realm of forms, proportions and figures. In Shopenhauerian terms, music is independent of all language, and therefore becomes pure will15; which in itself appears call for an individuation. The experience that music brings through a detachment from the phenomenal realm, may pose a question if it truly embodies a natural drive that redeems human relation with nature, or alienates humans from her altogether. Or perhaps the realm beyond phenomena may indeed be the most natural, which would serve the cause of the Dionysian drive in redeeming man with nature.

Although the Apollonian drive seeks to overcome suffering similar to its Dionysian counterpart, this overcoming of suffering nevertheless contains certain Dionysian elements. In the allusion to the Apollonian Greeks, who overthrew the Titans and heroes that represented the Dionysian drive, Nietzsche proclaims that “despite all its (the Apollonian drive) beauty and moderation”, its “entire existence rested on a hidden substratum of suffering and of knowledge, revealed to him by the Dionysian”16. Nietzsche also warns against “naïve art” which through a “visionary illusion” strives “to redeem horror and suffering of existence”17. In the case of suffering, a commonality that both the Dionysian and the Apollonian share, there is an inherent tendency in both of these drives to rely on one another—and this is one of many commonalities that propels their reconcilement in later Greek arts such as the Opera, and Tragedy as such.

Although Nietzsche alludes to the Ancient Greeks precisely for his sympathy towards the balance achieved between the Dionysian and the Apollonian drives, he is more reluctant towards the other forms of Greek and modern arts that attempt to reconcile Apollonian and Dionysian drives. In the case of the New Attic Dithyramb, which proclaims to have manifested Dionysian elements, Nietzsche claims it is nevertheless “completely alienated from its true dignity as the Dionysian mirror of the world, so that the only thing left to it, as a slave of phenomena, is to imitate the formal character of phenomena and to arouse a superficial pleasure in the play of lines and proportions”18. Nietzsche’s reluctance towards this genre lies in the prevalence of Apollonian elements within it, but one that also seeks to introduce Dionysian elements through a form of order and regularity that contradicts the cause of the later drive. Nietzsche ties these progressions to the more recent developments of his time, particularly with advent of modern music, which “has, with alarming rapidity, succeeded in divesting music of its Dionysian-cosmic mission”19.

Although Nietzsche does to some extents favor certain arts that developed way after the times of Ancient Greeks, he is more reluctant towards the arts that attempted to reconcile the two drives. Just as in the case of the expression of suffering, certain elements from both of the drives are shared among one and the other; but Nietzsche also points to the fact that certain elements of the drives are sacrificed in their reconcilement. In this problem of reconcilement however, Nietzsche tends to favor the Dionysian drive and it being sabotaged by Apollonian elements as apposed to the other way around. The plays of Euripides embodied the Socratic deus ex machina which “can penetrate the deepest abysses of being…and correcting it”20; the rational, symmetric, “Doric order” that had been embodied in Spartan culture; and the Aristotelian emphasis on mimesis—are precisely the cause of Nietzsche’s reluctance towards the prevalence and predominance of Apollonian qualities in various forms of art and tragedy. This concern is expressed in the following manner: “We must enter into the midst of…struggles, which…are being waged in the highest spheres of our contemporary world between insatiable optimistic knowledge and the tragic need for art”21. Here Nietzsche alludes to form of tragedy that would bring human reconciliation with nature through a feeling and intoxication amidst the strife for knowledge and rationality that art had succumbed in.

If the reconcilement of the two drives does not seem to satisfy’s Nietzsche’s demands for producing an ‘authentic’ natural drive that can reconcile man with nature, does this necessarily mean that only the Dionysian drive can achieve this function? Overall, Nietzsche claims that rationality which derive form the Apollonian drive, has overtaken Greek tragedy ever since the the art prevailed with Socraticism. However, there are still forms of tragedy and arts that provide human reconciliation with nature, although this definition is also dependent on the conception of nature as such. Whether the Dionysian is truly a natural drive, then a further investigation in necessary that would expound on the way this drive becomes authentically manifested in human creation, and whether there are any Apollonian elements that interfere with the purity of the drive. Although Tragedy is an example of genre that incorporates both, the Apollonian and Dionysian drives, it nevertheless eventually lapses into a state that prioritizes Apollonian elements, which causes it to diverge from the state of dissolution that would represent an essence of nature.


Cox, Christoph. Nietzsche: Naturalism and Interpretation. University of California Press, 2008.

Nietzsche, Friedrich, and Walter Kaufmann. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. 2000.

Silk, M. S., and Joseph Peter Stern. Nietzsche on Tragedy. Cambridge University Press, 1981

  1. BT, p.62, sec. 8 

  2. BT, p.58, sec. 7 

  3. BT, p.57, sec. 7 

  4. Cox, Naturalism and Interpretation, p.91-92 

  5. BT, p.129, sec. 21 

  6. BT, p.107, sec. 17 

  7. Silk, Stern; Nietzsche on Tragedy, p.226 

  8. BT, p.37, sec. 1 

  9. BT, p.45, sec. 4 

  10. BT, p.47, sec. 4 

  11. BT, p.73, sec. 10 

  12. BT, p.46, sec. 4 

  13. BT, p.50, sec. 5 

  14. Silk, Stern; Nietzsche on Tragedy, p.65 

  15. Silk, Stern; Nietzsche on Tragedy, p.68 

  16. BT, p.46, sec. 4 

  17. Silk, Stern; Nietzsche on Tragedy, p.66 

  18. BT, p.119, sec. 19 

  19. Ibid 

  20. BT, p.95, sec. 15 (emphasis in original) 

  21. BT, p.99, sec. 16