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Problems of justification

The actual birth of tragedy in ancient Greece is proclaimed by Nietzsche to be “the duplicity of the Apolline and the Dionysiac in much the same way as reproduction depends on the duality of genders which co-exist in a state of perpetual conflict interrupted only by periodic occasions of reconciliation.”[1] The temporary suspension of the conflict between these two impulses is put forth as a mechanism intended to explain how tragedy historically came into existence. To the philologically uninitiated this claim looks at least plausible on the surface: the waning of the ecstatic elements of earlier poetry, the gradual ‘individuation’ or ‘enumeration’ of characters from the Dithyrambic chorus to the spectacles of Aeschylus to the secular egalitarianism of Euripides, and the increasing tendency to ‘explain’ rather than ‘proclaim’ the will of the gods - all of these are apparent in a survey of the literature of the time in question and lend some evidential credence to Nietzsche’s assertion about these Apolline and Dionysiac tendencies.

But the status of Nietzsche’s claim is deeply problematic. For historians, literary theorists, and classicists the origin of tragedy remains largely shrouded in mystery due to the ostensible lack of direct testimony from the Ancients themselves. Beyond the dearth of textual evidence, Nietzsche’s overarching argument that the entwining of two psychological drives is manifested in the creation of tragic art, and that the predominance of one over the other leads to degenerate forms of that art, is hardly verifiable since the only observable manifestation of the ‘right’ confluence of those drives takes place precisely within the phenomenon they are said to explain. How could one, moreover, test the accordant counterfactual - that tragedy would never have developed were it not for the proper confluence of the Apolline and Dionysiac? His most basic claim about the birth of tragedy, then, is worse than unjustified; it is unjustifiable to both Sprach- and Sachphilologie, to positivists, naturalists, and indeed any historians who prefer proof to speculation.

Where specific claims in the text actually can be tested against otherwise accepted historical facts, Nietzsche’s account fares little better. Nietzsche’s contention that Euripides is a sort of puppet of Socrates is readily contradicted by the fact that Socrates was only fourteen years old when Euripides was already an international celebrity.[2] Nietzsche believes that Homer really was a single genius author, whereas many classicists even then utilized ‘Homer’ as a nominal designation for the centuries long rhapsodic tradition of poetic songs; Nietzsche fails to distinguish Pan, Silenus, and satyrs; he wrongly surmised that the folk song was older than elegy, and thereby overlooked the ostensibly non-musical elegy as the origin of lyric poetry; he misidentifies the chorus of Attic tragedy with the older satyr chorus; and he makes several chronological errors in his treatment of Aeschylus and Sophocles.[3]

But the larger problem with Nietzsche’s account is not a matter of‘getting the facts straight.’ It is not a historical, but a meta-historical issue that besets Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy. The best and duly most famous summary of this problem - a diatribe cast against Nietzsche’s mode of historiography itself — comes from his early rival, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff:

Mr. N by no means presents himself as a scholarly researcher. Insights garnered by intuition are presented part pulpit-style, part journalistic logic ... As an epopt ofhis god, Mr. N announces miracles already performed and those still to come. [...] Indeed this was the origin of his "glorious experiences.” Would it be possible to admit a vparov ^euSog [first falsehood] in a more naive fashion? Because R. Wagner affixed his seal to Schopenhauer’s "eternal truth,” namely that music has an exceptional status in comparison with other art-forms, this same insight had to be found in classical tragedy. I claim that this is the exact opposite of the type of research which the heroes of our (and ultimately only real) science have pursued. Unwavering in their pursuit of a final result and honoring only truth, they proceeded from one understanding to the next, seeking to grasp each historical phenomenon based on the sets of assumptions ofits own time, thereby justifying it in historical necessity. This critical-historical method, in principle common to the scientific community is, as I claim, the exact opposite of a dogmatic point of view which demands ongoing selfconfirmation. Mr. N could not overlook this either. His solution is to revile the historical-critical method, denouncing any aesthetic intuition which deviates from his own, and to ascribe a ‘complete misunderstanding of the study of antiquity’ to the age in which philology in Germany, due to Gottfried Hermann and Karl Lachmann was raised to an unprecedented height.[4]

We will say more about Wilamowitz, his place in the history of Sprachphilologie, and his criticism of Nietzsche in the next section. For now, his diatribe raises an important question for Nietzsche’s philosophy of history. What justifies Nietzsche’s account of the birth of tragedy? That is, on what basis does Nietzsche hope to convince us that his account is really the ‘right one’? Nietzsche offers at best scant textual and absolutely no archeological evidence for his grand speculations.[5] Indeed, how could one provide textual evidence about a phenomenon whose ‘birth’ was never written down? There is no chronology that could either support or deny his claim about the historical origin of tragedy, no written textual or even archeological evidence that could hope to confirm or disconfirm it, even in principle. More often than not, the reader is asked to take these interpretations of poetry or music for historical explanations, these shamanesque hypothetical ways of meaning-divination for justified demonstrations of historical truth.

I will not defend the specific philological mistakes listed. In fact, I think Nietzsche really was quite sloppy as a historian in this work, however brilliant his philosophical insight.[6] What I hope to provide instead is an examination of the way Nietzsche himself thought his general historical claim about the causes of tragedy was justified. Far from offering us a rhetorically fictional account, intentionally or unintentionally, I contend Nietzsche did have a fully developed, if deeply problematic, and highly unusual ‘aesthetic’ theory of historical justification at work in The Birth of Tragedy that relies upon a realist view of intuition borrowed problematically from Schopenhauer. And this view, I contend further, represents both a definitive break with and in fact rejection of his earlier philological writing, one which, moreover, he would soon after abandon.

  • [1] GT1; KSA 1, 25.
  • [2] See Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (2000), 19.
  • [3] For a more complete evaluation of these objections, see Porter (2000a), esp. Chapter 5.
  • [4] Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (2000), 3—5.
  • [5] The basic Apollonian—Dionysian dichotomy and its prevalence in early Greece was much earlierproposed by Nietzsche’s elder colleague at Basel, J. J. Bachofen. Unlike Nietzsche, however, Bachofenoffered substantial archeological evidence for his views, which Nietzsche very likely knew but chosenot to reference in his own argument. See the entirety of Bachofen (1861).
  • [6] Later scholars like Dodd, Cornford, and Burkert did construct genuinely historical accounts aroundNietzsche’s general correction of the Winckelmannian worldview. For a summary of Nietzsche’shistoriographical reception in France, see Henrichs (1984), 206.
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