The whole Apollan/Dionysian tragedy is repeated daily in our press, on our television sets, and in our politics. And way too often in our lives. I think its a bit much.
Nietzsche was the tragedian in the spiritual drama of Mansoul. His very style is tragical and heavy with the rustle of prophet’s robes. So wrote Alfred Richard Orage in his 1911 book Friedrich Nietzsche.
Whoever wishes to understand Greek culture, said Nietzsche, must first penetrate the mystery of Dionysos. The statement is equally true if we substitute for Greek culture Nietzsche himself. The secret of Nietzsche is the secret of Dionysos.
It was through the gateway of Greek tragic art that Nietzsche found his way into his own world: and all his originality and daring, as well as his excesses and contradictions, become intelligible when once his tragic view is seized.
In his study of Greek art, Nietzsche was struck by a fact which had puzzled many thinkers before him.
Why did the Greeks, the blithest and best constituted race the world has ever seen, need such a tragic art as theirs?
For they were not emotionally asleep, nor was it as a medicinal purgation of soul that they suffered tragedy. On the contrary, they were a highly impressionable,profoundly aesthetic people, and the evidence shows them deeply moved, yet greatly rejoicing, in the tragic drama. Yet what need had they of tragedy?
It is plain from the form of the question that Nietzsche’s conception of art was not the ordinary conception.
The art of a people was not to be accounted for by their whims and fancies; it was to be determined by need. What does not spring from necessity is not art. Unless a people need art as they need bread, how can their art be great?
But to satisfy what imperious need did the Greeks create tragedy?
Nietzsche found the solution of the problem in the myth of Apollo and Dionysos: and the antithesis he there discovered he afterwards employed in art, literature, philosophy, morality, and life itself. Mythology, he saw, was no less than the spiritual history of a people, the records of its moods, its periods of spiritual doubt, despair, and triumph.
In the story of the coming of Dionysos into Greece, of the resistance of Apollo, and of the final reconciliation, Nietzsche saw the outlines of spiritual movements mythically veiled, the phases of the myth corresponding to historic phases of the Greek mind.
The coming of Dionysos was a popular movement of ideas: the resistance of Apollo was a popular movement of conservatism: the reconciliation was a compromise. Regarded in this way, the myth becomes history of the most intimate nature, and records the history of the Greek soul during several centuries.
All the more interesting is the story to us on account of the essential similarity between ancient Greece and modern Europe.
The issues involved in the struggle of Apollo and Dionysos are the same now as then. In truth, as Nietzsche discovered, the way to the modern world is through the portals of the ancient wisdom. The spiritual condition of Greece during the period immediately preceding the Dionysian awakening was comparable to the spiritual condition of Europe during the eighteenth century.
Greece was Apollan in the sense that Europe was religious. The long established Apollan cult was fast becoming a convention. Now that the Titans, the elemental forces of wild nature, were vanquished, and the Gods had no more enemies, Olympos, the bright and splendid Olympos, began visibly to fade. Great Zeus himself was nodding on his throne. Religion, morality, art, life itself, were losing their hold on men, and Greece was threatened with the fate of India.
Then it was that there came into Greece from the north, the home of spiritual impulse, a new power in the form of Dionysos. That its leader was a Thracian, that he brought with him the secret of wine, music, and ecstasy, that he was instantly welcomed by women, and that the movement so inaugurated began rapidly to spread over Greece—all this is clear enough even in the secular story.
But the spiritual issues were infinitely greater. For Dionysos and the Dionysian spirit were everywhere in open and direct antagonism with everything Apollan. The whole structure of the Greek mind under Apollan influence was threatened at every point by the attacks of the Dionysians. Its modes of thought, its religion, its morality, its art, its philosophy, its very existence, were challenged. In comparison with all that Greece had so far been, the Dionysian movement was revolutionary, irreligious, immoral, barbaric, and anarchic.
The reception of such a movement by the Apollan Greeks may easily be conceived by modern Europeans. However they might secretly feel the attraction of the splendid virility of the new movement, they could not but pause before accepting doctrines which flew in the face of accepted established customs.
It was true that the established customs were stale, that Olympos was fading, that Greece was dying; but the admission of Dionysos, with his train of ecstatic women, wild men, and still wilder doctrines, seemed a remedy worse than the disease. Placed once more in a position of necessity, Apollo girded himself for the fight: and the conservative forces for a while succeeded in repelling the Dionysian invaders.
Thus, by a curious reaction, the very element that threatened to destroy, served in fact to strengthen and renew.
But such an effect did not pass unnoticed among the Greeks.
It would be absurd to suppose that many individual Greeks were clearly aware of the problems they were facing.
Spiritual movements are conscious in the minds of only a few, but they have their home in the mind of the race.
The question that now presented itself was this: remembering Olympos at war with Titans, Olympos at rest and dying of rest, and Olympos renewing its youth in warwith Dionysos, was it possible, was it really true, that Olympos needed an enemy, that conflict was indispensable to Olympos?
Sworn deadly enemy of Apollo as Dionysos might be, could Apollo really live without him? Might not Dionysos, the eternal foe, be also the eternal saviour of Apollo? The question was afterwards put by Nietzsche in myriads of forms.
The whole of his work may be said, indeed, to be no less than the raising of this terrible interrogation mark. He divined and stated the problem for modern Europe as it had been stated for ancient Greece. He asked Europe the question which Greece had already asked herself, and which Greece had magnificently answered. For the answer of Greece is recorded in her Tragic Mysteries. In Greek tragic drama the answer of the Greek mind to the momentous question is a splendid affirmative.
Not Apollo alone; not Dionysos alone; but Apollo and Dionysos. — What will be Europe’s reply?
Before, however, considering any further the meaning of Greek tragedy, it is advisable to glance briefly at the issues involved in the eternal antagonism.
While, in their human aspects, Apollo and Dionysos may stand respectively for law and liberty, duty and love, custom and change, science and intuition,art andinspiration: in their larger aspects they are symbols of oppositions that penetrate the very stuff of consciousness and life; they are its warp and woof.
Thus Apollo stands for Form as against Dionysos for Life; for Matter as against Energy; for the Human as against the Superhuman. Apollo is always on the side of the formed, the definite, the restrained, the rational; but Dionysos is the power that destroys forms, that leads the definite into the infinite, the unrestrained, the tumultuous and passionate. In perhaps their profoundest antithesis, Dionysos is pure energy (which Blake, a thorough Dionysian, said was eternal delight), while Apollo is pure form, seeking ever to veil and blind pure energy.
Life, as it thus appears to the eye of the imaginative mind, is the spectacle of the eternal play and conflictof two mutually opposing principles: Dionysos ever escaping from the forms that Apollo is ever creating for him. And it is just this unceasing conflict that is the essence of life itself; life is conflict. Dionysos without Apollo would be unmanifest, pure energy. Apollo without Dionysos would be dead, inert. Each is necessary to the other, but in active opposition: for, as stage by stage the play proceeds, Apollo must build continually more beautiful, more enduring forms, which Dionysos, in turn, must continually surmount and transcend.
The drama of life is thus a perpetual movement towards a climax that never comes.
Apollo never will imprison Dionysos for ever: Dionysos never will escape for ever from Apollo. Only, as in the early stages of life, Dionysos begins by speaking in the language of Apollo; Apollo will, in the later phases, learn more and more to speak in the language of Dionysos. Life itself will become Dionysian as the eternal conflict proceeds.
In the Greek drama, Nietzsche, as has been said, found at once the problem and its solution. For what could life have meant to the spectators of the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles? What but the tragedy of the eternal strife, the ecognition of the essential tragedy of life itself, the spectacle of a never ending world-drama in which the gods played?
For the tragic Greeks, life was the Dioysian will-to-renew, at war with the Apollan will-to-preserve; life was intelligible only as an aesthetic spectacle; there was no finality, no purpose, no end, no goal; only the gods played ceaselessly.
And the business of man was to assist at the spectacle and in the play.
As a joyous spectator-actor he should enter into the strife, consciously aiding the unfolding of the eternal drama, of which he himself was both Dionysos and Apollo. For, as the world-drama is in truth the drama of mind, so the interior nature of the individual is the stage on which it is played.
The perception of this truth by the Greeks was the signal of the reconciliation of Apollo and Dionysos.
As at Delphi, the home of Apollo, the priests of Dionysos were formally admitted with their train of ceremony and festival; so in the life of the race and in the minds of the Greeks themselves the reconciliation took place. Henceforth, Greek culture was the child of both Dionysos and Apollo. And in the Tragic Mysteries was revealed to the spectator an image of the life of the world. On the stage he beheld Dionysos and the Dionysified struggling against the Apollan powers of Fate and Death. The Greek needed to behold that struggle. He needed to be constantly reassured that life was of this nature. Profoundly as he might and must sympathise with the sufferings of Apollo, he could not but sympathise even more deeply with the agonies of Dionysos. Yet in the end he could not be mortally distressed. For he felt that, fierce and terrible as the conflict was, real and moving as the pains of the tragedy must needs be, it was the game,the play ,the celestial life of gods that he was witnessing.
To rise to the height where he might joyfully behold the game without ceasing for an instant to feel the pain and sorrow of it all; to rejoice with Dionysos victorious, and yet to mourn with Apollo slain; to assist in his own life the great drama by welcoming all that promised struggle; finally, to will with all his soul the increasing triumph of Dionysos, that life and joy might be all in all —such was the meaning of Tragedy among the Greeks.
When Nietzsche had reached this conclusion, he turned to the closer examination of his own Europe. In the music of Tristan and Isolde he heard, or thought he heard, the old Dionysian strains. He believed that Europe was about to enter, through Wagner, into a repetition of the spiritual history of the Greeks. Dionysos, he thought, had come to Europe.
And if the events in Greece were to be repeated in Europe, we were already on the threshold of the new era. With Dionysos at our gates, and the spirit of joy, freedom, excess; the spirit of pure energy, the old cry of life desiring to renew itself—how could a chosen disciple of Dionysos be silent?
Nietzsche threw himself into the struggle, even as he believed Dionysos, the spirit of life itself, had already done. For was not Dionysos “The spirit of the years to come, Yearning to mix himself with life?”
Later, he regretted having mistaken Wagner for a genuine Dionysian, and reflected that the Dionysian swans of his enthusi.asm were no more than geese. But he never doubted that the history of the Greeks was about to be repeated. Failing Wagner, he himself would be the Dionysian initiator. He would transform Europe, and deliver men’s minds from the dull oppression of Apollo.
He began from that time the enormous labour of turning the Dionysian criticism on the whole fabric of European civilisation.
If he is so largely negative in his effects,the cause is not to be sought so much in him as in the times.
Positive doctrines he had in abundance. Later in life he deplored the negations into which he had been led. But the work of undermining the foundations of modern thought occupied too large a part of a comparatively brief life.
Hence we see in his work more of the struggle and less of the triumph of Dionysos. Even in this it is Greek history repeated, for Dionysos also was defeated at first.