Apollo versus Dionysus

Excerpts from The Birth of Tragedy (1871), translated by Ian Johnston.

Friedrich Nietzsche




We will have achieved much for the study of aesthetics when we come, not merely to a logical understanding, but also to the immediately certain apprehension of the fact that the further development of art is bound up with the duality of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, just as reproduction depends upon the duality of the sexes, their continuing strife and only periodically occurring reconciliation. We take these names from the Greeks who gave a clear voice to the profound secret teachings of their contemplative art, not in ideas, but in the powerfully clear forms of their divine world.

With those two gods of art, Apollo and Dionysus, we link our recognition that in the Greek world there exists a huge contrast, in origins and purposes, between visual (plastic) arts, the Apollonian, and the non-visual art of music, the Dionysian. Both very different drives go hand in hand, for the most part in open conflict with each other and simultaneously provoking each other all the time to new and more powerful offspring, in order to perpetuate for themselves the contest of opposites which the common word “Art” only seems to bridge, until they finally, through a marvelous metaphysical act, seem to pair up with each other and, as this pair, produce Attic tragedy, just as much a Dionysian as an Apollonian work of art.

In order to get closer to these two instinctual drives, let us think of them next as the separate artistic worlds of dreams and of intoxication, physiological phenomena between which we can observe an opposition corresponding to the one between the Apollonian and the Dionysian.

According to the ideas of Lucretius, the marvelous divine shapes first appeared to the mind of man in a dream. It was in a dream that the great artist saw the delightful anatomy of superhuman existence, and the Hellenic poet, questioned about the secrets of poetic creativity, would have recalled his dreams and given an explanation exactly similar to the one Hans Sachs provides in Die Meistersinger.

My friend, that is precisely the poet’s work —
To figure out his dreams, mark them down.
Believe me, the truest illusion of mankind
Is revealed to him in dreams:
All poetic art and poeticizing
Is nothing but interpreting true dreams.

The beautiful appearance of the world of dreams, in whose creation each man is a complete artist, is the condition of all plastic art, indeed, as we shall see, an important half of poetry. We enjoy the form with an immediate understanding, all shapes speak to us, nothing is indifferent and unnecessary.

For all the very intense life of these dream realities, we nevertheless have the thoroughly disagreeable sense of their illusory quality. At least that is my experience. For their frequency, even normality, I can point to many witnesses and the utterances of poets. Even the philosophical man has the presentiment that this reality in which we live and have our being is an illusion, that under it lies hidden a second quite different reality. And Schopenhauer specifically designates as the trademark of philosophical talent the ability to recognize at certain times that human beings and all things are mere phantoms or dream pictures.

Now, just as the philosopher behaves in relation to the reality of existence, so the artistically excitable man behaves in relation to the reality of dreams. He looks at them precisely and with pleasure, for from these pictures he fashions his interpretation of life; from these events he rehearses his life. This is not merely a case of agreeable and friendly images which he experiences with a complete understanding. They also include what is serious, cloudy, sad, dark, sudden scruples, teasing accidents, nervous expectations, in short, the entire “divine comedy” of life, including the Inferno — all this moves past him, not just like a shadow play, for he lives and suffers in the midst of these scenes, yet not without that fleeting sensation of illusion. And perhaps several people remember, like me, amid the dangers and terrors of a dream, successfully cheering themselves up by shouting: “It is a dream! I want to dream it some more!” I have also heard accounts of some people who had the ability to set out the causal connection of one and the same dream over three or more consecutive nights. These facts are clear evidence showing that our innermost beings, the secret underground in all of us, experiences its dreams with deep enjoyment, as a delightful necessity.

The Greeks expressed this joyful necessity of the dream experience in their god Apollo, who, as god of all the plastic arts, is at the same time the god of prophecy. In accordance with the root meaning of his association with brightness, he is the god of light. He also rules over the beautiful appearance of the inner fantasy world. The higher truth, the perfection of this condition in contrast to the sketchy understanding of our daily reality, as well as the deep consciousness of a healing and helping nature in sleep and dreaming, is the symbolic analogy to the capacity to prophesy the truth, as well as to art in general, through which life is made possible and worth living. But also that delicate line which the dream image may not cross so as to work its effect pathologically (otherwise the illusion would deceive us as crude reality) — that line must not be absent from the image of Apollo, that boundary of moderation, that freedom from more ecstatic excitement, that fully calm wisdom of the god of images. His eye must be sun-like, in keeping with his origin. Even when he is angry and gazes with displeasure, the consecration of the beautiful illusion rests on him.

And so one may verify (in an eccentric way) what Schopenhauer says of the man trapped in the veil of Maja: “As on the stormy sea which extends without limit on all sides, howling mountainous waves rise up and sink and a sailor sits in a row boat, trusting the weak craft, so, in the midst of a world of torments, the solitary man sits peacefully, supported by and trusting in the principium individuationis [the principle of individuality]” (World as Will and Idea, Vol. I, p. 416). Yes, we could say of Apollo that the imperturbable trust in that principle and the calm sitting still of the man conscious of it attained its loftiest expression in him, and we may even designate Apollo himself as the marvelous divine image of the principium individuationis, from whose gestures and gaze all the joy and wisdom of illusion, together with its beauty, speak to us.

In the same place Schopenhauer also described for us the monstrous horror which seizes a man when he suddenly doubts his ways of comprehending illusion, when the sense of a foundation, in any one of its forms, appears to suffer a breakdown. If we add to this horror the ecstatic rapture, which rises up out of the same collapse of the principium individuationis from the innermost depths of human beings, yes, from the innermost depths of nature, then we have a glimpse into the essence of the Dionysian, which is presented to us most closely through the analogy to intoxication.

Either through the influence of narcotic drink, of which all primitive men and peoples speak, or through the powerful coming on of spring, which drives joyfully through all of nature, that Dionysian excitement arises. As its power increases, the subjective fades into complete forgetfulness of self. In the German Middle Ages under the same power of Dionysus constantly growing hordes waltzed from place to place, singing and dancing. In that St. John’s and St. Vitus’s dancing we recognize the Bacchic chorus of the Greeks once again, and its precursors in Asia Minor, right back to Babylon and the orgiastic Sacaea [a riotous Babylonian festival].

There are men who, from a lack of experience or out of apathy, turn mockingly away from such phenomena as from a “sickness of the people,” with a sense of their own health and filled with pity. These poor people naturally do not have any sense of how deathly and ghost-like this very “Health” of theirs sounds, when the glowing life of the Dionysian throng roars past them.  Under the magic of the Dionysian, not only does the bond between man and man lock itself in place once more, but also nature itself, now matter how alienated, hostile, or subjugated, rejoices again in her festival of reconciliation with her prodigal son, man. The earth freely offers up her gifts, and the beasts of prey from the rocks and the desert approach in peace. The wagon of Dionysus is covered with flowers and wreaths. Under his yolk stride panthers and tigers.

If someone were to transform Beethoven’s Ode to Joy into a painting and not restrain his imagination when millions of people sink dramatically into the dust, then we could come close to the Dionysian. Now is the slave a free man, now all the stiff, hostile barriers break apart, those things which necessity and arbitrary power or “saucy fashion” have established between men. Now, with the gospel of world harmony, every man feels himself not only united with his neighbour, reconciled and fused together, but also as if the veil of Maja has been ripped apart, with only scraps fluttering around before the mysterious original unity. Singing and dancing, man expresses himself as a member of a higher unity. He has forgotten how to walk and talk and is on the verge of flying up into the air as he dances. The enchantment speaks out in his gestures. Just as the animals speak and the earth gives milk and honey, so now something supernatural echoes out of him. He feels himself a god. He now moves in a lofty ecstasy, as he saw the gods move in his dream. The man is no longer an artist. He has become a work of art. The artistic power of all of nature, the rhapsodic satisfaction of the primordial unity, reveals itself here in the intoxicated performance. The finest clay, the most expensive marble — man — is here worked and chiseled, and the cry of the Eleusianian mysteries rings out to the chisel blows of the Dionysian world artist: “Do you fall down, you millions? World, do you have a sense of your creator?“


Up to this point, we have considered the Apollonian and its opposite, the Dionysian, as artistic forces which break forth out of nature itself, without the mediation of the human artist and in which the human artistic drive is for the time being satisfied directly — on the one hand as a world of dream images, whose perfection has no connection with an individual’s high level of intellect or artistic education, on the other hand, as the intoxicating reality, which once again does not respect the individual, but even seeks to abolish the individual and to restore him through a mystic feeling of collective unity. In comparison to these unmediated artistic states of nature, every artist is an “Imitator,“ and, in fact, an artist either of Apollonian dream or Dionysian intoxication or, finally, as in Greek tragedy, for example, simultaneously an artist of intoxication and dreams. As the last, it is possible for us to imagine how he sinks down in the Dionysian drunkenness and mystical obliteration of the self, alone and apart from the rapturous throng, and how through the Apollonian effects of dream his own state now reveals itself to him, that is, his unity with the innermost basis of the world, in a metaphorical dream picture.

In accordance with these general assumptions and comparisons, let us now approach the Greeks, in order to recognize to what degree and to what heights the natural artistic drives had developed in them and how we are in a position to understand more deeply and assess the relationship of the Greek artist to his primordial images or, to use Aristotle’s expression, his “imitation of nature.“ 

In spite of all their literature on dreams and numerous dream anecdotes, we can speak of the dreams of the Greeks only hypothetically, although with fair certainty. Given the incredibly clear and accurate plastic capability of their eyes, along with their intelligent and open love of colour, one cannot go wrong in assuming that (to the shame all those born later) their dreams also had a logical causality of lines and circumferences, colours, and groupings, a sequence of scenes rather like their best bas reliefs, whose perfection would justify us, if such a comparison were possible, to describe the dreaming Greek man as a Homer and Homer as a dreaming Greek man, in a deeper sense than when modern man, with respect to his dreams, has the temerity to compare himself with Shakespeare

On the other hand, we do not need to speak merely hypothetically when we have to expose the immense gap which separates the Dionysian Greeks from the Dionysian barbarians. In all quarters of the old world (setting aside here the newer worlds), from Rome to Babylon, we can confirm the existence of Dionysian celebrations, of a type, at best, related to the Greeks in much the same way as the bearded satyr whose name and characteristics are taken from the goat is related to Dionysus himself. Almost everywhere, the central point of these celebrations consisted of an exuberant sexual promiscuity, whose waves flooded over all established family practices and traditional laws. The wildest bestiality of nature was here unleashed, creating an abominable mixture of lust and cruelty, which has always seemed to me the real witches’ potion.

From the feverish excitement of these festivals, knowledge of which reached the Greeks from all directions, by land and sea, they were apparently for a long time completely secure and protected through the figure of Apollo, drawn up in all his pride. Apollo could counter by holding up the head of Medusa in the face of the unequalled power of this crude and grotesque Dionysian force. Doric art has immortalized this majestic bearing of Apollo as he stands in opposition. This opposition became more dubious and even impossible as similar impulses gradually broke out from the deepest roots of Hellenic culture itself. Now the effect of the Delphic god, in a timely process of reconciliation, limited itself to taking the destructive weapon out of the hand of his powerful opponent.

This reconciliation is the most important moment in the history of Greek culture. Wherever we look the revolutionary effects of this experience manifest themselves. It was the reconciliation of two opponents, who from now on observed their differences with a sharp demarcation of the border line between them and with occasional gifts send to honour each other. Basically the gap was not bridged over. However, if we see how, under the pressure of this peace agreement, the Dionysian power revealed itself, then we now understand the meaning of the festivals of world redemption and days of transfiguration in the Dionysian orgies of the Greeks, in comparison with the Babylonian Sacaea, which turned human beings back into tigers and apes.

In these Greek festivals, for the first time nature achieves its artistic jubilee. In them, for the first time, the tearing apart of the principii individuationis [the individualizing principle] becomes an artistic phenomenon. Here that dreadful witches’ potion of lust and cruelty was without power. The strange mixture and ambiguity in the emotions of the Dionysian celebrant remind him, as healing potions remind him of deadly poison, of that sense that pain awakens joy, that the jubilation in his chest rips out cries of agony. From the most sublime joy echoes the cry of horror or the longingly plaintive lament over an irreparable loss. In those Greek festivals it was as if a sentimental feature of nature is breaking out, as if nature has to sigh over her dismemberment into separate individuals.

The language of song and poetry of such a doubly defined celebrant was for the Homeric Greek world something new and unheard of. Dionysian music especially awoke in that world fear and terror. If music was apparently already known as an Apollonian art, this music, strictly speaking, was a rhythmic pattern like the sound of waves, whose artistic power had developed for presenting Apollonian states of mind. The music of Apollo was Doric architecture expressed in sound, but only in intimate tones, characteristic of the cithara [a traditional stringed instrument]. The un-Apollonian character of Dionysian music keeps such an element of gentle caution at a distance, and with that turns music generally into emotionally disturbing tonal power, a unified stream of melody, and the totally incomparable world of harmony.

In the Dionysian dithyramb man is aroused to the highest intensity of all his symbolic capabilities. Something never felt before forces itself into expression — the destruction of the veil of Maja, the sense of oneness as the presiding genius of form, of nature itself. Now the essence of nature must express itself symbolically; a new world of symbols is necessary, the entire symbolism of the body, not just the symbolism of mouth, face, and words, but the full gestures of the dance — all the limbs moving to the rhythm. And then the other symbolic powers grow, those of music, rhythm, dynamics, and harmony — all with sudden spontaneity.

To grasp this total unleashing of all symbolic powers, man must already have attained that high level of freedom from the self which seeks to express itself symbolically in those forces. Because of this, the dithyrambic servant of Dionysus will understand only someone like himself. With what astonishment must the Apollonian Greek have gazed at him! With an amazement which was all the greater as he sensed with horror that all this may not be really foreign to him, that even his Apollonian consciousness was covering the Dionysian world in front of him, like a veil.


In order to grasp this point, we must dismantle that artistic structure of Apollonian culture, as it were, stone by stone, until we see the foundations on which it is built. Here we become aware for the first time of the marvelous Olympian divine forms, which stand on the pediments of this building and whose actions decorate its friezes all around in illuminating bas relief. If Apollo also stands among them, as a single god next to the others and without any claim to the pre-eminent position, we should not on that account let ourselves be deceived. The same instinct which made Apollo perceptible to the senses gave birth to the entire Olympian world in general. In this sense, we must value Apollo as the father of them all. What was the immense need out of which such an illuminating group of Olympic beings arose?

Anyone who steps up to these Olympians with another religion in his heart and seeks from them ethical loftiness, even sanctity or spiritual longing for the non-physical, for loving gazes filled with pity, must soon enough despondently turn his back on them in disappointment. For here there is no reminder of asceticism, spirituality, and duty. Here speaks to us only a full, indeed a triumphant, existence, in which everything present is worshipped, no matter whether it is good or evil. And thus the onlooker may well stand in real consternation in front of this fantastic excess of life, to ask himself with what magical drink in their bodies these high-spirited men could have enjoyed life so that wherever they look, Helen laughs back at them, that ideal image of their own existence, “hovering in sweet sensuousness.”

However, we must summon back this onlooker who has already turned around to go away. “Don’t leave them. First listen to what Greek folk wisdom expresses about this very life which spreads out before you here with such inexplicable serenity. There is an old saying to the effect that King Midas for a long time hunted the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, in the forests, without catching him. When Silenus finally fell into the king’s hands, the king asked what was the best thing of all for men, the very finest. The daemon remained silent, motionless and inflexible, until, compelled by the king, he finally broke out into shrill laughter and said, ’Suffering creature, born for a day, child of accident and toil, why are you forcing me to say what is the most unpleasant thing for you to hear? The very best thing for you is totally unreachable: not to have been born, not to exist, to be nothing. The second best thing for you, however, is this: to die soon.’”

What is the relationship between the Olympian world of the gods and this popular wisdom? It is like the relationship of the entrancing vision of the tortured martyr to his pain.

Now, as it were, the Olympic magic mountain reveals itself to us and shows us its roots. The Greek knew and felt the terror and horror of existence. In order to live at all, he must have placed in front of him the gleaming Olympians, born in his dreams. That immense distrust of the titanic forces of nature, that Moira [Fate] enthroned mercilessly above all knowledge, that vulture that devoured Prometheus, friend of man, that fatal lot drawn by wise Oedipus, that family curse on the House of Atreus, that Orestes compelled to kill his mother, in short, that entire philosophy of the woodland god, together with its mythical illustrations, from which the melancholy Etruscans died off, all that was overcome time after time by the Greeks (or at least hidden and removed from view) through the artistic middle world of the Olympians

In order to be able to live, the Greeks must have created these gods out of the deepest necessity. We can readily imagine the sequential development of these gods: through that instinctive Apollonian drive for beauty there developed by slow degrees out of the primordial titanic divine order of terror the Olympian divine order of joy, just as roses break forth out of thorny bushes. How else could a people so emotionally sensitive, so spontaneously desiring, so singularly capable of suffering have endured their existence, unless the same qualities manifested themselves in their gods, around whom flowed a higher glory. The same instinctual drive which summons art into life as the seductive replenishment for further living and the completion of existence also gave rise to the Olympian world, by which the Hellenic “Will” held before itself a transfiguring mirror.

In this way the gods justify the lives of men because they themselves live it — that is the only satisfactory theodicy! Existence under the bright sunshine of such gods is experienced as worth striving for in itself, and the essential pain of the Homeric men consists in the separation from that sunlight, above all in the fact that such separation is close at hand., so that we could say of them, with a reversal of the wisdom of Silenus, “the very worst thing for them was to die soon, the second worst was to die at all.” When the laments resound now, they tell of short-lived Achilles, of the changes in the race of men, transformed like leaves, of the destruction of the heroic age. It is not unworthy of the greatest heroes to long to live on, even as a day labourer. In the Apollonian stage, the “Will” so spontaneously demands to live on, the Homeric man fills himself with that feeling so much, that even his lament becomes a song of praise.

At this point we must point out that this harmony, this union of man with nature (something looked on enviously by more recent ages), for which Schiller coined the artistic slogan “naïve,” is in no way such a simple, inevitable, and, as it were, unavoidable condition (like a human paradise) which we necessarily run into at the door of every culture. Such a belief is possible only in an age which seeks to believe that Rousseau’s Emile is an artist and imagines it has found in Homer an artist like Emile raised in the bosom of nature. Wherever we encounter the “naïve” in art, we have to recognize the highest effect of Apollonian culture, something which always must come into existence to overthrow the kingdom of the Titans, to kill monsters, and through powerfully deluding images and joyful illusions to emerge victorious over the horrific depths of what we observe in the world and the most sensitive capacity for suffering. But how seldom does the naïve, that sense of being completely swallowed up in the beauty of appearance, succeed. For that reason, how inexpressibly noble is Homer, who, as a single person, was related to Apollonian popular culture as the single dream artist to his people’s capacity to dream and to nature in general.

Homeric “naïveté” is only to be understood as the complete victory of the Apollonian illusion. It is the sort of illusion which nature uses so frequently in order to attain her objectives. The true goal is concealed by a deluding image. We stretch our hands out toward this image, and nature reaches its goal through the deception. With the Greeks it was a case of the “Will” wishing to gaze upon itself through the transforming power of genius and the world of art. In order to celebrate itself, its creatures had to sense that they were worthy of being glorified — they must see themselves again in a higher sphere, without this complete world of contemplation affecting them as an imperative or as a reproach. This is the sphere of beauty, in which they saw their mirror images, the Olympians. With this mirror of beauty, the Hellenic “Will” fought against the talent for suffering and the wisdom of suffering which is bound up with artistic talent, and as a memorial of its victory Homer, the naïve artist, stands before us.


Using the analogy of a dream we can learn something about this naïve artist. If we recall how the dreamer, in the middle of his illusory dream world, calls out to himself, without destroying that world, “It is a dream. I want to continue dreaming,” and if we can infer, on the one hand, a deep inner delight at the contemplation of dreams, and, on the other, that he must have completely forgotten the pressing problems of his daily life, in order to be capable of dreaming at all with such an inner contemplative joy, then we may interpret all these phenomena, with the guidance of Apollo, the interpreter of dreams, in something like the manner which follows below.

To be sure, with respect to both halves of life, the waking and the dreaming states, the first one strikes us as disproportionately better, more important, more valuable, more worth living — the only way to live. Nevertheless I can assert (something of a paradox to all appearances) on the basis of the secret foundation of our essence, whose manifestation we are, precisely the opposite evaluation of dreams. For the more I become aware of those all-powerful natural artistic impulses and the fervent yearning for illusion contained in them, the desire to be redeemed through appearances, the more I feel myself forced to the metaphysical assumption that the true basis of being , the ever suffering and entirely contradictory primordial oneness, constantly uses the delightful vision, the joyful illusion, to redeem itself. We are compelled to experience this illusion, totally caught up in it and constituted by it, as the truly non-existent, that is, as a continuing development in time, space, and causality, in other words, as an empirical reality. But if we momentarily look away from our own “reality, ” if we grasp our empirical existence and the world in general as an idea of the primordial oneness created in each moment, then we must consider our dreams as illusions of illusions, as well as an even higher fulfillment of the primordial hunger for illusion. For the same reasons, the innermost core of nature takes an indescribable joy in the naïve artist and naïve works of art, which is, in the same way, only “an illusion of an illusion.“

Rafael, himself one of those immortal “naïve” artists, in one of his allegorical paintings, has presented that issue of transforming an illusion into an illusion, the fundamental process of the naïve artist and Apollonian culture as well. In his Transfiguration the bottom half shows us, in the possessed boy, the despairing porters, and the helplessly frightened disciples, the mirror image of the eternal primordial pain, the sole basis of the world. The “illusion” here is the reflection of the eternal contradiction, the father of things. Now, out of this illusion there rises up, like an ambrosial fragrance, a new world of illusion, like a vision, invisible to those trapped in the first scene, something illuminating and hovering in the purest painless ecstasy, a shining vision to contemplate with eyes wide open.

Here we have before our very eyes in the highest symbolism of art that Apollonian world of beauty and its foundation, the frightening wisdom of Silenus, and we understand, through intuition, the reciprocal necessity for both of them. But Apollo confronts us once again as the divine manifestation of the principii individuationis [the individualizing principle], in which the eternally attained goal of the primordial oneness, its redemption through illusion, comes into being. He shows us, with his awe-inspiring gestures, how the entire world of torment is necessary, so that through it the individual is pushed to create the redemptive vision and then, absorbed in contemplation of that vision, sits quietly in his rowboat, tossing around in the middle of the ocean.

This deification of the principle of individualization, if it is thought of in general as commanding and proscriptive, understands only one law, that of the individual, that is, observing the limits of individualization, moderation in the Greek sense. Apollo, as the ethical divinity, demands moderation from his followers and self-knowledge, so that they can observe moderation.. And so alongside the aesthetic necessity of beauty run the demands “Know thyself” and “Nothing in excess.” Arrogance and excess are considered the essentially hostile daemons of the non-Apollonian sphere, therefore characteristic of the pre-Apollonian period, the age of the Titans, and of the world beyond the Apollonian, that is, the barbarian world. Because of his Titanic love for mankind Prometheus had to be ripped apart by the vulture. For the sake of his excessive wisdom, which solved the riddle of the sphinx, Oedipus had to be overthrown in a bewildering whirlpool of evil. That is how the Delphic god interpreted the Greek past.

To the Apollonian Greeks the effect aroused by the Dionysian also seemed “Titanic” and “barbaric.” But they could not, with that response, conceal that they themselves were, nonetheless, internally related and similar to those deposed Titans and heroes. Indeed, they must have felt even more that their entire existence, with all its beauty and moderation, rested on some hidden underground of suffering and knowledge which was reawakened through that very Dionysian. And look! Apollo could not live without Dionysus! The “Titanic” and the “barbaric” were, in the end, every bit as necessary as the Apollonian.

And now let us imagine how in this world, constructed on illusion and moderation and restrained by art, the ecstatic sound of the Dionysian celebration rang out all around with a constantly tempting magic, how in such celebrations the entire excess of nature sang out loudly in joy, suffering, and knowledge, even in the most piercing scream. Let’s imagine what the psalm-chanting Apollonian artist, with his ghostly harp music could offer in comparison to this daemonic popular singing. The muses of the art of “illusion” withered away in the face of an art which spoke truth in its intoxicated state: the wisdom of Silenus cried out “Woe! Woe!” against the serene Olympian. Individualism, with all its limits and moderation, was destroyed in the self-forgetfulness of the Dionysian condition and forgot its Apollonian principles.

Excess revealed itself as the truth. The contradictory ecstasy born from of pain spoke of itself right out of the heart of nature. And so the Apollonian was canceled and destroyed, above all where the Dionysian penetrated. But it is just as certain that in those places where the first onslaught was halted, the high reputation and the majesty of the Delphic god manifested itself more firmly and threateningly than ever. For I can explain the Doric state and Doric art only as a constant Apollonian war camp. Only through an uninterrupted opposition to the Titanic-barbaric essence of the Dionysian could such a defiantly aloof art, protected on all sides with fortifications, such a harsh upbringing as a preparation for war, and such a cruel and ruthless basis for government endure.

Up to this point I have set out at some length what I observed at the opening of this essay: how the Dionysian and the Apollonian ruled the Hellenic world, in a constant sequence of births, one after the other, mutually intensifying each other, how, out of the “first” ages, with their battles of the Titans and their harsh popular philosophy, the Homeric world developed under the rule of the Apollonian drive for beauty, how this “naïve” magnificence is swallowed up once more by the breaking out of the Dionysian torrent, and how in opposition to this new power the Apollonian erected the rigid majesty of Doric art and the Doric world view.

If in this way the ancient history of the Greeks, in the struggle of these two hostile principles, falls into four major artistic periods, we are now impelled to ask more about the final stage of this development and striving, in case we should consider the last attained period, the one of Doric art, as the summit and intention of these artistic impulses. Here, the lofty and highly much praised artistic achievement of Attic tragedy and the dramatic dithyramb presents itself before our eyes, as the common goal of both artistic drives, whose secret marriage partnership, after a long antecedent struggle, celebrated itself with such a child, simultaneously Antigone and Cassandra.


We are now approaching the essential goal of our undertaking, which aims at a knowledge of the Dionysian-Apollonian genius and its works of art, or at least an intuitive understanding of its mysterious unity. Here now we raise the question of where that new seed first appears in the Hellenic world, the seed which later develops into tragedy and the dramatic dithyramb. On this question classical antiquity itself gives us illustrative evidence when it places Homer and Archilochus next to each other as the originators and torch-bearers of Greek poetry in paintings, cameos, and so on, in full confidence that only these two should be considered equally the original natures from whom a fire-storm flowed out over the entire later world of the Greeks.

Homer, the ancient self-absorbed dreamer, the archetype of the naïve Apollonian artist, now stares astonished at the passionate head of wild Archilochus, the fighting servant of the muses, battered by existence. In its interpretative efforts, our recent aesthetics has known only how to indicate that here the first “subjective” artist stands in contrast to the “objective” artist. This interpretation is of little use, since we recognize the subjective artist as a bad artist and demand in every art and every high artistic achievement, first and foremost, a victory over the subjective, redemption from the “I,” and the silence of every individual will and desire — indeed, we are incapable of accepting the slightest artistic creation as true, unless it has objectivity and a purely disinterested contemplation

Hence, our aesthetic must first solve the problem of how it is possible for the “lyricist” to be an artist. For he, according to the experience of all ages, always says “I” and sings out the entire chromatic sequence of the sounds of his passions and desires. This Archilochus immediately startles us, alongside Homer, through his cry of hate and scorn, through the drunken eruptions of his desire. By doing this, isn’t Archilochus (the first artist called subjective) essentially a non-artist? But then where does that veneration come from, which the Delphic oracle, the centre of “objective” art, showed to him, the poet, in very remarkable sayings.

Schiller has illuminated his own writing process with a psychological observation, inexplicable to him, which nevertheless does not appear questionable. He confesses that when he was in a state of preparation, before he actually started writing, he did not have something like a series of pictures, with a structured causality of ideas, in front of him, but rather a musical mood: “With me, feeling at first lacks a defined and clear object — that develops for the first time later on. A certain musical emotional state comes first, and from this, with me, the poetic idea then follows.“

Now, if we add the most important phenomenon of the entire ancient lyric, the union, universally acknowledged as natural, between the lyricist and the musician, even their common identity (in comparison with which our recent lyrics look like the image of a god without a head) then we can, on the basis of the aesthetic metaphysics we established earlier, account for the lyric poet in the following manner. He has, first of all, as a Dionysian artist, become entirely one with the primordial oneness of his painful contradictory nature and produces the reflection of this primordial oneness as music, if music can with justice be called a re-working of the world, its second coat. But now this music becomes perceptible to him once again, as in a metaphorical dream image, under the influence of Apollonian dreaming. That reflection, which lacks imagery and concepts, of the original pain in music, together with its redemption in illusion, gives rise now to a second reflection as the particular metaphor or illustration. The artist has already surrendered his subjectivity in the Dionysian process. The image which now reveals his unity with the heart of the world is a dream scene, which symbolizes that original contradiction and pain, together with the primordial joy in illusion. The “I” of the lyric poet thus echoes out of the abyss of being. What recent aestheticians mean by his “subjectivity” is mere fantasy.

When Archilochus, the first Greek lyric poet, announces his raging love and, at the same time, his contempt for the daughters of Lycambes, it is not his own passion which dances in front of us in an orgiastic frenzy. We see Dionysus and the maenads; we see the intoxicated reveler Archilochus sunk down in sleep — as Euripides describes in the Bacchae, asleep in a high Alpine meadow in the midday sun — and now Apollo steps up to him and touches him with his laurel. The Dionysian musical enchantment of the sleeper now, as it were, flashes around him fiery images, lyrical poems, which are called, in their highest form, tragedies and dramatic dithyrambs.

The plastic artist as well as his relation, the epic poet, is absorbed in the pure contemplation of images. The Dionysian musician lacks any image and is in himself only and entirely the original pain and original reverberation of that image. The lyrical genius feels a world of images and metaphors grow up out of the mysteriously unified state of renunciation of the self. These have a colour, causality, and speed entirely different from that world of the plastic artist and the writer of epic. While the last of these (the epic poet) lives in these pictures and only in them with joyful contentment and does not get tired of contemplating them with love, right down to the smallest details. Even the image of the angry Achilles is for him only a picture whose expressions of anger he enjoys with that dream joy in illusions, so that he, by this mirror of appearances, is protected against the development of that sense of unity and being fused together with the forms he has created. By contrast, the images of the lyric poet are nothing but himself and, as it were, only different objectifications of himself. He can say “I” because he is the moving central point of that world. Only this “I” is not the same as the “I” of the awake, empirically real man, but the single “I” of true and eternal being in general, the “I” resting on the foundation of things. Through its portrayal the lyrical genius sees right into the very basis of things.

Now let’s imagine how he looks upon himself among these likenesses, as a non-genius, that is, as his own “Subject,” the entire unruly crowd of subjective passions and striving of his will aiming at something particular, which seems real to him. If it now seems as if the lyrical genius and the non-genius bound up with him were one and the same and as if he first spoke that little word “I” about himself, then this illusion could no longer deceive us, not at least in the way it deceived those who have defined the lyricist as a subjective poet.

To tell the truth, Archilochus, the man of passionately burning love and hate, is only a vision of the genius who is no longer Archilochus any more but a world genius and who expresses his primordial pain symbolically in Archilochus as a metaphor for man. That subjectively willing and desiring man Archilochus can never ever be a poet. It is not at all essential that the lyric poet see directly in front of him the phenomenon of the man Archilochus as a reflection of eternal being. Tragedy shows how far the visionary world of the lyric poet can distance itself from that phenomenon clearly standing near at hand.

Schopenhauer, who did not hide from the difficulty which the lyric poet creates for the philosophical observer of art, believed that he had discovered a solution (something which I cannot go along with) when in his profound metaphysics of music he found a way setting the difficulty decisively to one side, as I believe I have done in his spirit and with due honour to him. He describes the essential nature of song as follows:.

The consciousness of the singer is filled with the subject of willing, that is, his own willing, often as an unleashed satisfied willing (joy), but also, and more often, as a restricted willing (sorrow). It is always a mobile condition of the heart: emotional and passionate. However, alongside this condition, the singer simultaneously, through a glimpse at the surrounding nature, becomes aware of himself as a subject of the pure, will-less knowledge, whose imperturbable, blessed tranquilly now enters to contrast the pressure of his always dull, always still limited willing. The sensation of this contrast, this game back and forth, is basically what expresses itself in the totality of the song and what, in general, creates the lyrical state. In this state, pure understanding, as it were, comes to us, to save us from willing and the pressures of willing. We follow along, but only moment by moment. The will, the memory of our personal goals, constantly interrupts this calm contemplation of ours, over and over again, but the next beautiful setting, in which pure will-less knowledge presents itself to us, always, once again, releases us from willing. Hence, in the song and the lyrical mood, willing (our personal interest in our own purposes) and pure contemplation in the setting which presents itself are miraculously mixed up together. We seek and imagine relationships between them both. The subjective mood, the emotional state of the will, communicates with the surroundings we contemplate, and the latter, in turn, gives its colour to our mood, in a reflex action. The true song is the expression of this entire emotional condition, mixed and divided in this way.” (World as Will and Idea, I, 295)

Who can fail to recognize in this description that here the lyric has been characterized as an incompletely realized art, a leap, as it were, which seldom attains its goal, indeed, as a semi-art, whose essence must consist of the fact that the will and pure contemplation, that is, the unaesthetic and the aesthetic conditions, must be miraculously mixed up together? In contrast to this, we maintain that the entire opposition, which even Schopenhauer uses as a measurement of value to classify art, that opposition of the subjective and the objective, has generally no place in aesthetics, since the subject, the willing individual demanding his own egotistical purposes, can only be thought of as an enemy of art not as its origin.

But insofar as the subject is an artist, he is already released from his individual willing and has become, so to speak, a medium through which a subject of true being celebrates its redemption. For we need to be clear on this point, above everything else (to our humiliation or ennoblement): the entire comedy of art does not present itself for us in order to make us better or to educate us — even less so that we should be the true creators of the art world. We should really look upon ourselves as beautiful pictures and artistic projections of the true creator, and in that significance as works of art we have our highest value, for only as an aesthetic phenomena are existence and the world eternally justified, while, of course, our own consciousness of this significance of ours is no different from the consciousness which soldiers painted on canvas have of the battle portrayed there.

Hence our entire knowledge of art is basically completely illusory, because, as knowing people, we are not one with or identical to that being who, as the single creator and spectator of that comedy of art, prepares for itself an eternal enjoyment. Only to the extent that the genius in the act of artistic creation is fused with that primordial artist of the world, does he know anything about the eternal nature of art, only in that state in which (as in the weird picture of fairy tales) he can miraculously turn his eyes and contemplate himself. Now he is simultaneously subject and object, all at once poet, actor, and spectator.


With respect to Archilochus, learned scholarship has revealed that he introduced the folk song into literature and that, because of this achievement, he earned his place next to Homer in the universal estimation of the Greeks. But what is the folk song in comparison to the completely Apollonian epic poem? What else but the perpetuum vestigum [the eternal mark] of a union between the Apollonian and the Dionysian? Its tremendous expansion, extending to all peoples and constantly increasing with new births, testifies to us how strong that artistic duality of nature is: which, to use an analogy, leaves its trace behind in the folk song just as the orgiastic movements of a people leave their traces in its music. Indeed, it must also be historically demonstrable how that period rich in folk songs at the same time was stirred in the strongest manner by Dionysian trends, something which we have to recognize as the foundation and precondition of folk songs.

But to begin with, we must view the folk song as the musical mirror of the world, as the primordial melody, which seeks for a parallel dream image of itself and expresses this in poetry. The melody is thus primary and universal, for which reason it can undergo many objectifications, in several texts. It is also far more important and more essential in the naïve evaluations of the people. Melody gives birth to poetry from itself, over and over again. The forms of the strophes in the folk song indicate that to us. I have always observed this phenomenon with astonishment, until I finally came up with this explanation. Whoever looks at a collection of folk songs, for example, Des Knaben Wunderhorn [The Boy’s Miraculous Horn] with this theory in mind will find countless examples of how the continually fecund melody emits fiery showers of images all around. These images, with their bright colours, sudden alteration, and their wild momentum, reveal a power completely foreign to the epic illusion and its calm forward progress. From the standpoint of epic this uneven and irregular word of images in the lyric is easy to condemn — something no doubt the solemn rhapsodists of the Apollonian celebrations did in the age of Terpander.

Thus, in the poetry of the folk song we see the language of poetry most strongly pressured to imitate music. Hence, with Archilochus a new world of poetry begins, something which conflicts very profoundly with the Homeric world. Here we have demonstrated the one possible relationship between poetry and music, word and tone: word, image, and idea look for metaphorical expression in music and experience the power of music. In this sense we can distinguish two main streams in the history of the language of the Greek people: language which imitates appearance and images and language which imitates the world of music.

Let’s think for a moment more deeply about the linguistic difference in colour, syntactic structure, and vocabulary between Homer and Pindar in order to grasp the significance of this contrast. It will become crystal clear to some that between Homer and Pindar the orgiastic flute melodies of Olympus must have rung out, music which even in the time of Aristotle, in the midst of an infinitely more sophisticated music, drove people into raptures of drunken enthusiasm and with their natural effects no doubt stimulated all the poetical forms of expression of contemporaries to imitate them.

I recall here a well-known phenomenon of our own times, something which strikes our aestheticians as objectionable. Again and again we experience how a Beethoven symphony makes it necessary for the individual listener to talk in images, even if it’s true that the collection of different worlds of imagery created by a musical piece really looks fantastically confused, even contradictory. The most proper style of our aestheticians is to exercise their lame wits on such a collection and to overlook the phenomenon which is really worth explaining. Even when the tone poet has spoken in images about his composition, for example, when he describes a symphony as a pastoral, one movement as “A Scene by the Brook,” and another as “A Frolicking Meeting of Peasants,” these expressions are in any event only metaphors, images born out of the music and not some objective condition imitated by the music. These notions cannot teach us anything at all about the Dionysian content of the music and have no exclusive value alongside other pictures.

Now, we have only to transfer this process of unloading music into pictures to a large, youthful, linguistically creative population in order to sense how the strophic folk song arose and how the entire linguistic capability was stimulated by a new principle, the imitation of music. If we can thus consider the lyrical poem as the mimetic efflorescence of music in pictures and ideas, then we can now ask the following question: “What does music look like in the mirror of imagery and ideas?” It appears as the will, taking that word in Schopenhauer’s sense, that is, as the opposite to the aesthetic, pure, contemplative, will-less state. Here we should differentiate as sharply as possible the idea of being from the idea of appearance. For it is impossible for music, given its nature, to be the will, because if that were the case we would have to ban music entirely from the realm of art. For the will consists of what is inherently unaesthetic. But music appears as the will.

In order to express that appearance in images, the lyric poet needs all the excitement of passion, from the whispers of affection right to the ravings of lunacy. Under the impulse to speak of music in Apollonian metaphors, he understands all nature and himself in nature only as eternal willing, desiring, yearning. However, insofar as he interprets music in images, he is resting in the still tranquility of the sea of Apollonian observation, no matter how much everything which he contemplates through that medium of music is moving around him, pushing and driving. Indeed, if he looks at himself through that same medium, his own image reveals itself to him in a condition of emotional dissatisfaction. His own willing, yearning, groaning, and cheering are for him a metaphor which he interprets the music for himself. This is the phenomenon of the lyric poet: as an Apollonian genius he interprets the music through the image of the will, while he himself, fully released from the greed of his will, is a pure, untroubled eye of the sun.

This entire discussion firmly maintains that the lyric is just as dependent on the spirit of music as is music itself. In its complete freedom, music does not use image and idea, but only tolerates them as something additional to itself. The poetry of the lyricist can express nothing which was not already latent in the immense universality and validity of the music, which forces him to speak in images. The world symbolism of music for this very reason cannot in any way be overcome by or reduced to language, because music addresses itself symbolically to the primordial contradiction and pain in the heart of the original oneness, and thus presents in symbolic form a sphere which is above all appearances and prior to them. In comparison with music, each appearance is far more a mere metaphor. Hence, language, the organ and symbol of appearances, never ever converts the deepest core of music to something external, but always remains, as long as it involves itself with the imitation of music, only in superficial contact with the music. The full eloquence of lyric poetry cannot bring us one step closer to the deepest meaning of music.


We must now seek assistance from all the artistic principles laid out above in order to find our way correctly through the labyrinth — a descriptive term we have to use to designate the origin of Greek tragedy. I don’t think I’m saying anything illogical when I claim that the problem of this origin has not once been seriously formulated up to now, let alone solved, no matter how frequently the scattered scraps of ancient tradition have been put together in combinations with one another and then again ripped apart.

This tradition tells us very emphatically that tragedy developed out of the tragic chorus and originally consisted only of a chorus and nothing else. This fact requires us to look into the heart of this tragic chorus as the essential original drama, without allowing ourselves to be satisfied in any way with the common styles of talking about art — that the chorus is the ideal spectator or had the job of standing in for the people over against the royal area of the scene.

That last mentioned point, a conceptual explanation which sounds so lofty for many politicians (as though the invariable moral law was presented by the democratic Athenians in the people’s chorus, which was always proved right in matters dealing with their kings’ passionate acts of violence and excess) may have been suggested by a word from Aristotle. But such an idea has no influence on the original formation of tragedy, since all the opposition between people and ruler and every political-social issue in general is excluded from those purely religious origins. Looking with hindsight back on the classical form of the chorus known to us in Aeschylus and Sophocles we might well consider it blasphemous to talk of a premonition of the “constitutional popular representation” here. Others, however, have not been deterred from this blasphemous assertion. The ancient political organizations had no practical knowledge of a constitutional popular representation and they never once “had a hopeful premonition” of such things in their tragedies.

Much more famous than this political explanation of the chorus is A.W. Schlegel’s idea. He recommended that we consider the chorus to some extent as a sample embodiment of the crowd of onlookers, as the “ideal spectator.” This view, combined with that historical tradition that originally the tragedy consisted entirely of the chorus, reveals itself for what it is, a crude and unscholarly, although dazzling, claim. But the glitter survives only in the compact form of the expression, from the real German prejudice for everything which is called “ideal,” and from our momentary astonishment.

For we are astonished, as soon as we compare the theatre public we know well with that chorus and ask ourselves whether it would be at all possible on the basis of this public to derive some idealization analogous to the tragic chorus. We silently deny this and then are surprised by the audacity of Schlegel’s claim as well as by the totally different nature of the Greek general public. For we had always thought that the proper spectator, whoever he might be, must always remain conscious that he has a work of art in front of him, not an empirical reality. By contrast, the tragic chorus of the Greeks is required to recognize the shapes on the stage as living, existing people. The chorus of Oceanids really believes that they see the Titan Prometheus in front of them and consider themselves every bit as real as the god of the scene.

And is that supposed to be the highest and purest type of spectator, a person who, like the Oceanids, considers Prometheus vitally alive and real? Would it be a mark of the ideal spectator to run up onto the stage and free the god from his torment? We had believed in an aesthetic public and considered the individual spectator sufficiently capable, the more he was in a position to take the work of art as art, that is, aesthetically. This saying of Schlegel’s indicates to us that the completely ideal spectator lets the scenic world work on him, not aesthetically at all, but vitally and empirically. “Oh, what about these Greeks!” we sigh, “they are knocking over our aesthetics!” But once we get used to that idea, we repeat Schlegel’s saying every time we talk about the chorus.

But that emphatic tradition speaks here against Schlegel. The chorus in itself, without the stage, that is, the primitive form of tragedy, and that chorus of ideal spectators are not compatible. What sort of artistic style would we have if from this the idea of the spectator we derived, as its essential form, the “spectator in himself” (the pure spectator). The spectator without a play is a contradictory idea. We suspect that the birth of tragedy cannot be explained either from the high estimation of the moral intelligence of the masses or from the idea of the spectator without a play. And we consider this problem too profound to be touched by such superficial styles of commentary.

Schiller has already provided an infinitely more valuable insight into the meaning of the chorus in the famous preface to the Bride from Messina — the chorus viewed as a living wall which tragedy draws about itself in order to separate itself cleanly from the real world and to protect its ideal space and its poetical freedom for itself. With this as his main weapon Schiller fought against the common idea of naturalism, against the common demand for illustionistic dramatic poetry. While in the theatre daytime might be only artistic and stage architecture only symbolic, and the nature of the metrical language might have an ideal quality, nevertheless, on the whole, a misconception still ruled: it was not enough, Schiller claimed, that people merely tolerated as poetic freedom what was the essence of all poetry. The introduction of the chorus, according to Schiller, was the decisive step with which war was declared openly and nobly against naturalism in art.

Such a way of looking at things is the one, it strikes me, for which our age (which considers itself so superior) uses the dismissive catch phrase “pseudo-idealism.” I suspect, by contrast, that with our present worship of naturalism and realism we are situated at the opposite pole from all idealism, namely, in the region of a wax works collection. In that, too, there is an art, as in certain romance novels of the present time. Only let no one pester us with the claim that with this we have overthrown the artistic “pseudo-idealism” of Schiller and Goethe.

Of course, it is an “ideal” stage on which, following Schiller’s correct insight, the Greek satyr chorus, the chorus of the primitive tragedy, customarily strolled, a stage lifted high above over the real strolling stage of mortal men. For this chorus the Greeks constructed a suspended hovering framework of an imaginary natural condition and on it placed imaginary natural beings. Tragedy grew up out of this foundation and, for that very reason, has, from its inception, been spared the embarrassing business of counterfeiting reality.

That is not to say that it is a world arbitrarily fantasized somewhere between heaven and earth. It is much rather a world possessing the same reality and credibility for the devout Greek as the world of Olympus, together with its inhabitants. The satyr as the Dionysian chorus member lives in a reality permitted by religion, sanctioned by myth and culture. The fact that tragedy begins with him, that out of him the Dionysian wisdom of tragedy speaks, is a phenomenon as foreign to us here as the development of tragedy out of the chorus generally.

Perhaps we can reach a starting point for this discussion when I offer the claim that the satyr himself, the imaginary natural being, is related to the cultural person in the same way that Dionysian music is related to civilization. On this last point Richard Wagner states that civilization is neutralized by music in the same way lamplight is by daylight. In just such a manner, I believe, the cultured Greek felt himself neutralized by the sight of the chorus of satyrs. This is the most direct effect of Dionysian tragedy: generally , the state and society, the gap between man and man give way to an invincible feeling of unity which leads back to the heart of nature.

The metaphysical consolation, which as I have already indicated, true tragedy leaves us, that at the bottom of everything, in spite of all the transformations in phenomena, life is indestructibly power and delightful, this consolation appears in lively clarity as the chorus of satyrs, the chorus of natural beings, who live, as it were, behind civilization, who cannot disappear, and who, in spite of all the changes in generations and a people’s history, always remain the same. With this chorus, the profound Greek, capable of the most delicate and the most severe suffering, consoled himself, the man who looked around with a daring gaze in the middle of the terrifying destructive instincts of so-called world history and equally into the cruelty of nature and who is in danger of longing for the denial of the will of Buddhism. Art saves him, and through art life saves him.

The ecstasy of the Dionysian state, with its destruction of the customary manacles and boundaries of existence, contains, of course, for as long as it lasts a lethargic element, in which everything personally experienced in the past is immersed. Through this gulf of oblivion, the world of everyday reality and the Dionysian reality separate from each other. As soon as that daily reality comes back again into consciousness, one feels it as something disgusting. The fruit of this condition is an ascetic condition, in which one denies the power of the will.

In this sense the Dionysian man has similarities to Hamlet. Both have had a real glimpse into the essence of things. They have understood, and it now disgusts them to act, for their actions can change nothing in the eternal nature of things. They perceive as ridiculous or humiliating the fact that it is expected of them that they should set right a world turned upside down. The knowledge kills action, for action requires a state of being in which we are covered with the veil of illusion. That is what Hamlet has to teach us, not that really venal wisdom about John-a-Dreams, who cannot move himself to act because of too much reflection, too many possibilities, so to speak. It’s not a case of reflection. No! The true knowledge, the glimpse into the cruel truth overcomes the driving motive to act, both in Hamlet as well as in the Dionysian man.

Now no consolation has any effect. His longing goes out over the world, even beyond the gods themselves, toward death. Existence is denied, together with its blazing reflection in the gods or an immortal afterlife. In the consciousness of once having glimpsed the truth, man now sees everywhere only the horror or absurdity of being; now he understands the symbolism in the fate of Ophelia; now he recognizes the wisdom of the forest god Silenus. It disgusts him.

Here the will in in the highest danger. Thus, to be saved, it comes close to the healing magician, art. Art alone can turn those thoughts of disgust at the horror or absurdity of existence into imaginary constructs, which permit living to continue. These constructs are the Sublime as the artistic mastering of the horrible and the Comic as the artistic release from disgust at the absurd. The chorus of satyrs in the dithyramb is the saving fact of Greek art. The emotional fits I have just described play themselves out by means of the world of these Dionysian attendants.


The satyr and the idyllic shepherd of our more recent times are both the epitome of a longing directed toward the primordial and natural, but with what a strong fearless grip the Greek held onto his men from the woods, and how timidly and weakly modern man toys with the flattering image of a delicate and gentle flute-playing shepherd! The Greek who had not been worked on as yet by any knowledge which kept culture imprisoned saw nature in his satyr, and so he did not yet mistake satyrs for apes. Quite the contrary: the satyr was the primordial image of man, the expression of his highest and strongest emotions, as an inspired reveler, enraptured by the approach of the god, as a sympathetic companion, in whom the suffering of the god was repeated, as a messenger bringing wisdom from the deepest heart of nature, as a perceptible image of the sexual omnipotence of nature, which the Greek was accustomed to observing with reverent astonishment.

The satyr was something sublime and divine — that’s how he must have seemed especially to the painfully broken gaze of the Dionysian man, who would have been insulted by our well groomed fictitious shepherd. His eye lingered with sublime satisfaction on the exposed, vigorous, and magnificent script of nature. Here the illusion of culture was wiped away by the primordial image of man. Here the real man revealed himself, the bearded satyr who cried out with joy to his god. In comparison with him the man of culture was reduced to a misleading caricature. Schiller was also right to see in these matters the start of tragic art: the chorus is a living wall against the pounding reality, because it — the satyr chorus — presents existence more genuinely, truly, and completely than does the civilized person, who generally considers himself the only reality.

The sphere of poetry does not lie beyond this world as the fantastic impossibility of a poet’s brain. It wants to be exactly the opposite, the unadorned expression of the truth, and it must therefore cast off the false costume of that truth thought up by the man of culture. The contrast of this real truth of nature and the cultural lie which behaves as if it is the only reality is similar to the contrast between the eternal core of things, the thing-in-itself, and the total world of appearances. And just as tragedy, with its metaphysical consolation, draws attention to the eternal life of that existential core in the continuing destruction of appearances, so the symbolism of the satyr chorus already expresses metaphorically that primordial relationship between the thing-in-itself and appearances. That idyllic shepherd of modern man is only a counterfeit, the totality of cultural illusions which he counts as nature. The Dionysian Greek wants truth and nature in their highest power: he seems himself transformed into a satyr.

The enraptured horde of those who served Dionysus rejoiced under the influence of such moods and insights, whose power transformed them before their very eyes, so that they imagined themselves as restored natural geniuses, as satyrs. The later constitution of the tragic chorus is the artistic imitation of that natural phenomenon, in which now a division was surely necessary between the Dionysian spectators and those under the Dionysian enchantment. But we must always remind ourselves that the public in Attic tragedy rediscovered itself in chorus of the orchestra and that basically there was no opposition between the public and the chorus. For everything is only a huge sublime chorus of dancing and singing satyrs or of those people who permit themselves to be represented by these satyrs.

We must now appropriate that saying of Schlegel’s in a deeper sense. The chorus is the “ideal spectator,” insofar as it is the only onlooker, the person who sees the visionary world of the scene. A public of spectators, as we know it, was unknown to the Greeks. In their theatre, given the way the spectators’ space was built up in terraces, raised up in concentric rings, it was possible for everyone quite literally to look out over the collective cultural world around him and with a complete perspective to imagine himself a member of the chorus. Given this insight, we can call the chorus, in its primitive stages of the prototypical tragedy, the self-reflection of Dionysian men, a phenomenon which we can make out most clearly in the experience of the actor, who, if he is really gifted, sees perceptibly before his eyes the image of the role he has to play, hovering there for him to grasp.

The satyr chorus is, first and foremost, a vision of the Dionysian mass, just as, in turn, the world of the acting area is a vision of this satyr chorus. The power of this vision is strong enough to dull and desensitize the impression of “reality,” the sight of the cultured people ranged in their rows of seats all around. The form of the Greek theatre is a reminder of a solitary mountain valley. The architecture of the scene appears as an illuminated picture of a cloud, which the Bacchae gaze upon, as they swarm down from the mountain heights, as the majestic setting in the middle of which the image of Dionysus is revealed.

This primitive artistic illusion, which we are putting into words here to explain the tragic chorus, is, from the perspective of our scholarly views about the basic artistic process, almost offensive, although nothing can be more obvious than that the poet is only a poet because of the fact that he sees himself surrounded by shapes which live and act in front of him and into whose innermost being he gazes. Through some peculiar weakness in our modern talent, we are inclined to imagine that primitive aesthetic phenomenon in too complicated and abstract a manner.

For the true poet, metaphor is not a rhetorical trope, but a representative image which really hovers in front of him in the place of an idea. The character is for him not a totality put together from individual traits collected bit by bit, but a living person, insistently there before his eyes, which differs from the similar vision of the painter only through its continued further living and acting. Why does Homer give us descriptions so much more vivid than all the poets? Because he sees so much more around him. We speak about poetry so abstractly because we all tend to be poor poets. The aesthetic phenomenon is fundamentally simple: if someone just possesses the capacity to see a living game going on and to live all the time surrounded by hordes of ghosts, then that man is a poet. If someone just feels the urge to change himself and to speak out from other bodies and souls, then that person is a dramatist.

Dionysian excitement is capable of communicating this artistic talent to an entire multitude, so that they see themselves surrounded by such a horde of ghosts with which they know they are innerly one. This dynamic of the tragic chorus is the original dramatic phenomenon: to see oneself transformed before one’s eyes and now to act as if one really had entered another body, another character. This process stands right at the beginning of the development of drama. Here is something different from the rhapsodist, who never fuses with his images, but, like the painter, sees them with an observing eye outside himself. In this drama there is already a surrender of individuality by entering into a strange nature. And this phenomenon breaks out like an epidemic; an entire horde feels itself enchanted in this way.

For this reason the dithyramb is essentially different from every other choral song. The virgins who move solemnly to Apollo’s temple with laurel branches in their hands singing a processional song as they go, remain who they are and retain their names as citizens. The dithyrambic chorus is a chorus of transformed people, for whom their civic past, their social position, is completely forgotten. They have become their god’s timeless servants, living beyond all regions of society. All other choral lyrics of the Greeks are only an immense intensification of the Apollonian solo singer; whereas in the dithyramb a congregation of unconscious actors stands before us, who look upon each other as transformed. Enchantment is the precondition for all dramatic art. In this enchantment the Dionysian reveler sees himself as a satyr, and then, in turn, as a satyr he looks at his god. That is, in his transformed state he sees a new vision outside himself as an Apollonian fulfillment of his condition. With this new vision drama is complete.

With this knowledge in mind, we must understand Greek tragedy as the Dionysian chorus which over and over again constantly discharges itself in an Apollonian world of images. Those choral passages interspersed through tragedy are thus, as it were, the maternal bosom of the entire dialogue so-called, that is, of the totality of the stage word, the drama itself. This primordial basis of tragedy sends its vision pulsing out in several discharges following one after the other, a vision which is entirely a dream image and therefore epic in nature, but, on the other hand, as an objectification of a Dionysian state, it presents not the Apollonian consolation in illusion, but its opposite, the smashing of individuality and becoming one with primordial being. With this, drama is the Apollonian projection of Dionysian knowledge and effects, and thus is separated by an immense gulf from epic.

This conception of ours provides a full explanation for the chorus of Greek tragedy, the symbol for the total frenzied Dionysian multitude. While, given what we are used to with the role of the chorus on the modern stage, especially the chorus in opera, we are totally unable to grasp how this tragic chorus could be older, more original, even more important than the real “action” (as tradition tell us so clearly), while we cannot then figure out why, given that traditionally high importance and original preeminence, that chorus would be put together only out of lowly serving creatures, at first only out of goat-like satyrs, and while for us the orchestra in front of the acting area remains a constant enigma, we have now come to the insight that the acting area together with the action is basically and originally thought of only as a vision, that the single “reality“ is the chorus itself, which creates the vision out of itself and speaks of that with the entire symbolism of dance, tone, and word.

This chorus in its vision gazes at its lord and master Dionysus and is thus always the chorus of servants. The chorus sees how Dionysus, the god, suffers and glorifies himself, and thus it does not itself act. But in this role, as complete servants in relation to the god, the chorus is nevertheless the highest (that is, the Dionysian) expression of nature and, like nature, thus in its frenzy speaks the language of oracular wisdom, as the sympathetic as well as wise person reporting the truth from the heart of the world. So arises that fantastic and apparently offensive figure of the wise and frenzied satyr, who is, at the same time, “the naïve man” in contrast to the god: an image of nature and its strongest drives, a symbol of that and at the same time the announcer of its wisdom and art: musician, poet, dancer, visionary — in a single person.

According to this insight and to the tradition, Dionysus, the essential stage hero and centre of the vision, was not really present in the very oldest periods of tragedy, but was only imagined as present. That is, originally tragedy was only “chorus” and not “drama.” Later the attempt was made to show the god as real and then to present in a way visible to every eye the form of the vision together with the transfiguring setting. At that point “drama” in the strict sense begins. Now the dithyrambic chorus takes on the task of stimulating the mood of the listeners right up to the Dionysian level, so that when the tragic hero appeared on the stage, they did not see something like an awkward masked person but a visionary shape born, as it were, out of their own enchantment.

If we imagine Admetus thinking deeply about his recently departed wife Alcestis and pining away in his spiritual contemplation of her, and how suddenly is led up to him an image of a woman of similar form and similar gait, but in disguise, if we imagine his sudden trembling anticipation, his emotional comparisons, his instinctive conviction — then we have an analogy to the sensation with which the aroused Dionysian spectator sees the god stride onto the stage, with whose suffering he has already become one. Spontaneously he transfers the whole picture of the god, which like magic trembles in his soul, onto that masked form and dissolves the reality of that figure as if in a ghostly unreality. This is the Apollonian dream state, in which the world of day veils itself and a new world, clearer, more comprehensible, more moving than the first, and yet shadow-like generates itself anew in a continuing series of changes before our eyes.

With this in mind, we can recognize in tragedy a drastic contrast of styles: speech, colour, movement, dynamics of speech appear in the Dionysian lyric of the chorus and also in the Apollonian dream world of the scene as expressive spheres completely separate from each other. The Apollonian illusions, in which Dionysus objectifies himself, are no longer “an eternal sea, a changing weaving motion, a glowing sense of living” (as is the case with the music of the chorus), no longer those powers which are only felt and cannot be turned into poetic images, in which the frenzied servant of Dionysus feels the approach of the god. Now, from the acting area the clarity and solemnity of the epic form speaks to him; now Dionysus no longer speaks through forces but as an epic hero, almost with the language of Homer.


Everything which comes to the surface in the Apollonian part of Greek tragedy, in the dialogue, looks simple, translucent, and beautiful. In this sense the dialogue is an image of the Greeks, whose nature reveals itself in dancing, because in dancing the greatest power is only latent, betraying its presence in the lithe and rich movement. The language of the Sophoclean heroes surprises us by its Apollonian clarity and brightness, so that we immediately imagine that we are glimpsing the innermost basis of their being, with some astonishment that the path to this foundation is so short.

However, once we look away from the character of the hero as it surfaces and becomes perceptible (a character which is basically nothing more than a light picture cast onto a dark wall, that is, an illusion through and through) we penetrate further into the myth which projects itself in this bright reflection. At that point we suddenly experience a phenomenon which is the reverse of a well known optical one.. When we make a determined attempt to look directly at the sun and turn away blinded, we have dark coloured specks in front of our eyes, like a remedy. Those illuminated illusory pictures of the Sophoclean heroes are the reverse of that: briefly put, the Apollonian of the mask, necessary creations of a glimpse into the inner terror of nature, are like bright spots to heal us from the horrifying night of the disabled gaze. Only in this sense can we think of correctly grasping the serious and significant idea of “Greek serenity“; whereas nowadays we run into the false idea of this as a condition of safe contentment with all of life’s paths and bridges

The most painful figure of the Greek stage, the unlucky Oedipus, is understood by Sophocles as the noble man who is destined for error and misery in spite of his wisdom, but who at the end through his immense suffering exerts a beneficial effect around him which is effective on those different from him. The noble man does not sin — that’s what the profound poet wishes to tell us: through Oedipus’ actions every law, every natural principle of order, indeed, the entire moral world may collapse, but because of these actions a higher circle of consequences is created, which will found a new world on the ruins of the old world which has been overthrown. Insofar as the poet is also a religious thinker, that is what he says to us. As a poet, he shows us first a wonderfully complicated legal knot, which the judge, link by link, undoes, in the process destroying himself. The real joy for the Greek in this dialectical solution is so great that a sense of powerful serenity invests the entire work, which breaks the sting of the dreadful pre-conditions which started the process.

In Oedipus in Colonus we run into this same serenity, but elevated by an immeasurable transformation. Unlike the old man afflicted with excessive suffering, a man who merely suffers as the victim of everything which happens to him, now we have the unearthly serenity which descends from the sphere of the gods and indicates to us that the hero in his purely passive conduct achieves his highest action, which reaches out far over his own life (whereas his conscious striving in his earlier life led him to pure passivity). Thus for the mortal eye the inextricably tangled legal knot of the Oedipus story is slowly untangled, and the most profound human joy suffuses us with this divine dialectical companion piece..

If we have here correctly explained the poet, one can still ask whether the content of the myth has been exhausted in that explanation. And here we see that the entire conception of the poet is nothing other than that illuminated image which nature as healer holds up before us after a glimpse into the abyss. Oedipus the murderer of his father, the husband of his mother, Oedipus the solver of the riddle of the sphinx! What does the secret trinity of these fatal events tell us? There is a very ancient folk belief, especially in Persia, that a wise magus could be born only out of incest. With hindsight on Oedipus as the solver of riddles and emancipator of his mother, what we have to interpret right away is the fact that right there where, through prophecy and magical powers, the spell of present and future is broken, that rigid law of individuation and the essential magic of nature in general, then an immense natural horror (for example, incest) must have come first as the original cause. For how could we compel nature to yield up its secrets, if not for the fact that we fight back against her and win, that is, if not for the fact that we commit unnatural actions?

I see this idea stamped out in that dreadful trinity of Oedipus’s three fates: the same man who solved the riddle of nature (the ambiguous sphinx) must also break the most sacred natural laws when he murders his father and marries his mother. Indeed, the myth seems to want to whisper to us that wisdom — especially Dionysian wisdom — is something horrific and hostile to nature, that a man who through his knowledge pushes nature into the destructive abyss, has to experience in himself the disintegration of nature. “The lance of knowledge turns itself against the wise man. Wisdom is a crime against nature.” The myth calls out such frightening statements to us. But, like a ray of sunlight, the Greek poet touches the sublime and fearful Memnon’s Column of Myth, so that the myth suddenly begins to play out Sophoclean melodies.

Now I’m going to compare the glory of passivity with the glory of activity which illuminates Aeschylus’s Prometheus.. What Aeschylus the thinker had to say to us here, but what Aeschylus as a poet could only hint at through a metaphorical picture — that’s what young Goethe knew how to reveal in the bold words of his Prometheus:

“Here I sit — I make men
in my own image,
a race like me,
to suffer, to weep,
to enjoy life and rejoice,
and then to pay no attention,
like me.“

Man, rising up into something Titanic, is victorious over his own culture and compels the gods to unite with him, because in his self-controlled wisdom he holds their existence and the limits to their authority in his hand. The most marvelous thing in that poem of Prometheus, which is, according to its basic concepts, is a hymn celebrating impiety, is, however, the deep Aeschylean impulse for justice. The immeasurable suffering of the brave “individual“, on the one hand, and, on the other, the peril faced by the gods, even a presentiment of the twilight of the gods, the compelling power for a metaphysical oneness, for a reconciliation of both these worlds of suffering — all this is a powerful reminder of the central point and major claim of the Aeschylean world view, which sees fate (Moira) enthroned over gods and men as eternal justice.

With respect to the astonishing daring with which Aeschylus places the Olympian world on his scales of justice, we must remind ourselves that the deep-thinking Greek had an unshakably firm basis for metaphysical thinking in his mystery cults, and that he could unload all his skeptical moods onto the Olympians. The Greek artist, in particular, in looking back on these divinities, felt a dark sense of reciprocal dependency. And this sense is symbolized especially in Aeschylus’s Prometheus. The Titanic artist (Prometheus) found in himself the defiant belief that he could make men and, at the very least, destroy Olympian gods — all this through his higher wisdom, which he, of course, was compelled to atone for in eternal suffering. The magnificent capability of the great genius, for whom eternal suffering itself is too cheap a price, the harsh pride of the artist — that is the content and soul of Aeschylean poetry; whereas, Sophocles in his Oedipus makes his case by sounding out the victory song of the holy man.

But also this meaning which Aeschylus gave the myth does not fill the astonishing depth of its terror. The artist’s joy in being, the serenity of artistic creativity in spite of that impiety, is only a light picture of cloud and sky, which mirrors itself in a dark ocean of sorrow. The Prometheus saga is a primordial possession of the Aryan population collectively and documentary evidence of their talent for the profoundly tragic. In fact, it could be the case that for the Aryan being this myth has the same defining meaning as the myth of the Fall has for the Semitic peoples, and that both myths are, to some degree, related, as brother and sister.

The pre-condition of this Prometheus myth is the extraordinary value which a naïve humanity associates with fire as the true divine protector of that rising culture. But the fact that man freely controls fire and does not receive it merely as a gift from heaven, as a stirring lightning flash or warming rays of the sun, appeared to these contemplative primitive men as an outrage, a crime against divine nature. And so right there the first philosophical problem posed an awkward insoluble contradiction between man and god and pushed it right up to the door of that culture, like a boulder. The best and loftiest thing which mankind can share is achieved through a crime, and people must now accept the further consequences, namely, the entire flood of suffering and troubles with which the offended divine presences afflict the nobly ambitious human race. Such things must happen — an austere notion which, through the value which it gives to a crime, stands in a curious contrast to the Semitic myth of the Fall, in which curiosity, lying falsehoods, temptation, lust, in short, a row of predominantly female emotions are look upon as the origin of evil.

What distinguishes the Aryan conception is the lofty view of an active transgression as the essentially Promethean virtue. With this, the ethical basis of pessimistic tragedy is established together with the justification of human evil, that is, human guilt as the penalty for that sin. The impiety in the essence of things — that’s what the thinking Aryan is not inclined to quibble away. The contradiction in the heart of the world reveals itself to him as the interpenetration of different worlds, for example, a divine and human world, each one of which is right in its separate way but which must suffer for its individuality as the two worlds come close together.

With this heroic push of the individual into the universal, with this attempt to stride out over the limits of individuation and to wish to be oneself a world being, man suffers in himself the contradiction hidden in things, that is, he violates the laws and he suffers. Just as among the Aryans crime is seen as male, and among the Semites sin is seen as female, so the original crime was committed by a man, the original sin by a woman. In this connection, the chorus of witches [in Goethe’s Faust] says:

We’re not so particular in what we say:
Woman takes a thousand steps to get her way.
But no matter how quickly she hurries on,
With just one leap the man will get it done.

Anyone who understands this innermost core of the Prometheus saga, namely, the imperative requirement that the individual striving like a Titan has to fall into crime, must also sense at the same time the un-Apollonian quality of this pessimistic concept. For Apollo wants to make these separate individual worlds tranquil precisely because he establishes the border line between them and, with his demands for self-knowledge and moderation, always reminds us once again of the most sacred laws of the world. However, to prevent this Apollonian tendency from freezing form into Egyptian stiffness and frigidity and to prevent the movement of the entire ocean from dying away, through the attempts of the Apollonian tendency to prescribe to the individual waves their path and extent, from time to time the high flood of the Dionysian destroys those small circles in which the one-sided Apollonian will seeks to confine the Greek spirit. Now suddenly a tidal wave of the Dionysian takes the single small individual crests on its back, just as the brother of Prometheus, the Titan Atlas, shouldered the Earth. This Titanic impulse to become something like the Atlas of all individuals and to bear them on one’s wide back, higher and higher, further and further, is the common link between the Promethean and the Dionysian.

In this view, the Aeschylean Prometheus is a Dionysian mask; while, in that previously mentioned deep desire for justice Aeschylus betrays to those who understand his paternal descent from Apollo, the god of individuation and the limits of justice. And the double nature of the Aeschylean Prometheus, his simultaneously Dionysian and Apollonian nature, can be expressed in an understandable way with the following words: “Everything present is just and unjust and both aspects are equally justified.“

That is your world! That’s what one calls a world!


It is an incontestable tradition that Greek tragedy in its oldest form had as its subject only the suffering of Dionysus and that for a long time later the individually present stage heroes were only Dionysus. But with the same certainty we can assert that right up to the time of Euripides Dionysus never ceased being the tragic hero, that all the famous figures of the Greek theatre, like Prometheus, Oedipus, and so on, are only masks of that primordial hero Dionysus. The fact that behind all these masks stands a divinity, that is the fundamental reason for the frequently admired characteristic “ideality” of those well known figures.

Someone (I don’t know who) asserted that all individuals, as individuals, have to be taken as comic and thus untragic, that the Greeks in general could not tolerate individuals in their tragic theatre. In fact, they seem to have felt this way. That Platonic distinction between and evaluation of the “idea” in contrast to the “idol” in connection with likenesses lies deeply grounded in the nature of the Greeks. But for us to make use of Plato’s terminology, we would have to talk of the tragic figures of the Greek stage in something like the following terms: the one truly real Dionysus appears in a multiplicity of shapes, in the mask of a struggling hero and, as it were, bound up in the nets of the individual will. So now the god made manifest talks and acts in such a way that he looks like an erring, striving, suffering individual. The fact that he appears in general with this epic definition and clarity is the effect of Apollo, the interpreter of dreams, who indicates to the chorus its Dionysian state by this metaphorical appearance.

In reality, however, that hero is the suffering Dionysus of the mysteries, that god who experiences the suffering of the individual in himself, the god about whom the amazing myths tell how he, as a child, was dismembered by the Titans and now in this condition is venerated as Zagreus. Through this is revealed the idea that this dismemberment, the essentially Dionysian suffering, is like a transformation into air, water, earth, and fire, that we also have to look upon the condition of individuation as the source and basis for all suffering, as something in itself reprehensible. From the laughing of this Dionysus arose the Olympian gods, from his tears arose mankind. In that existence as dismembered god Dionysus has the dual nature of a cruelly savage daemon and a lenient, gentle master.

The initiates in the Eleusinian mysteries hoped for a rebirth of Dionysus, which we now can understand as the mysterious end of individuation. The initiate’s song of jubilation cried out to this approaching third Dionysus. And only with this hope was there a ray of joy on the face of the fragmented world, torn apart into individuals, just as myth reveals in the picture of the eternal sorrow of sunken Demeter, who rejoices again for the first time when someone says to her that she might be able once again to give birth to Dionysus. In these established concepts we already have assembled all the components of a profound and pessimistic world view, together with the mysterious teachings of tragedy: the basic acknowledgement of the unity of all existing things, the idea of individuation as the ultimate foundation of all evil, art as the joyful hope that the spell of individuation is there for us to break, as a premonition of a reestablished unity.

It has been pointed out earlier that the Homeric epic is the poetry of Olympian culture, with which it sang its own song of victory over the terrors of the fight against the Titans. Now, under the overwhelming influence of tragic poetry, the Homeric myths were newly reborn and show in this metamorphosis that by now the Olympian culture is overcome by an even deeper world view. The defiant Titan Prometheus reported to his Olympian torturer that for the first time his rule was threatened by the highest danger, unless he quickly joined forces with him. In Aeschylus we acknowledge the union of the frightened Zeus, worried about the end of his power, with the Titan.

Thus the earlier age of the Titans is belatedly brought back from Tartarus into the light once more. The philosophy of wild and naked nature looks with the unconcealed countenance of truth at the myths of the Homeric world dancing past it. Before the flashing eyes of this goddess, those myths grow pale and tremble, until they press the mighty fist of the Dionysian artist into the service of the new divinity. The Dionysian truth takes over the entire realm of myth as the symbol of its knowledge and speaks of this knowledge, partly in the public culture of the tragedy and partly in the secret celebrations of the dramatic mystery celebrations, but always in the disguise of the old myths. What power was it which liberated Prometheus from his vultures and transformed myth to a vehicle of Dionysian wisdom? It was the Herculean power of music. Music, which attained its highest manifestation in tragedy, had the power to interpret myth with a new significance in the most profound manner, something we have already described before as the most powerful capacity of music.

For it is the lot of every myth gradually to creep into the crevice of an assumed historical reality and to become analyzed as a unique fact in answer to the historical demands of some later time or other. The Greek were already fully on their way to labeling cleverly and arbitrarily the completely mythical dreams of their youth as historical, pragmatic, and youthful history. For this is the way religions tend to die out, namely, when the mythical pre-conditions of a religion, under the strong, rational eyes of an orthodox dogmatism become classified as a closed totality of historical events and people begin anxiously to defend the credibility of their myths, but to resist the naturally continuing life and growth of those myths, and when the feeling for the myth dies out and in its place the claim to put religion on a historical footing steps onto the scene.

The newly born genius of Dionysian music now seized these dying myths, and in its hands myth blossomed again, with colours which it had never shown before, with a scent which stirred up a longing premonition of a metaphysical world. After this last flourishing, myth collapsed, its leaves grew pale, and soon the mocking Lucians of antiquity grabbed up the flowers, scattered around by all winds, colourless and withered. Through tragedy myth attains its most profound content, its most expressive form. It lifts itself up again, like a wounded hero, and with the excessive power and wise tranquilly of a dying man, its eyes burn with its last powerful light.

What did you want, you rascal Euripides, when you sought to force this dying man once more into your service? He died under your powerful hands. And now you had to use a counterfeit, masked myth, which was able only to dress itself up with the old splendour, like Hercules’s monkey. And as myth died with you, so died the genius of music as well. Even though you plundered with greedy hands all the gardens of music, you achieved only a counterfeit masked music. And because you abandoned Dionysus, you were then abandoned by Apollo. Even if you hunted out all the passions from their beds and charmed them into your circle, even though you sharpened and filed a really sophisticated dialectic for the speeches of your heroes, nevertheless your heroes have only counterfeit, masked passions and speak only a counterfeit, masked language.


Greek tragedy died in a manner different from all its ancient sister arts: it died by suicide, as a result of an insoluble (hence tragic) conflict; whereas, all the others passed away in advanced old age with the most beautiful and tranquil deaths. If it is an appropriately happy natural condition to depart from life with beautiful descendants and without any painful strains in one’s life, the end of those ancient artistic genres manifests to us such a fortunate natural state of things. They disappeared slowly, and their more beautiful children were already standing there before their dying gaze, impatiently lifting their heads in courageous gestures. By contrast, with the death of Greek tragedy there was created an immense emptiness, profoundly felt everywhere. Just as the Greek sailors at the time of Tiberius heard from some isolated island the shattering cry “The great god Pan is dead,” so now, like a painful lament, rang out throughout the Greek world, “Tragedy is dead! Poetry itself is lost with it! Away, away with you, you stunted, emaciated epigones! Off with you to hell, so you can for once eat your fill of the crumbs from your former masters!”

If now a new form of art blossomed which paid tribute to tragedy as its predecessor and mistress, it was looked upon with fright, because while it carried the characteristics of its mother, they were the same ones she had shown in her long death struggle. Tragedy’s death struggle was fought by Euripides, and this later art form is known as New Attic Comedy. In it the atrophied form of tragedy lived on, as a monument to tragedy’s extremely laborious and violent death.

Looking at things this way makes understandable the passionate fondness the poets of the newer comedies felt for Euripides. Thus, Philemon’s wish (to be hanged immediately so that he could seek out Euripides in the underworld, provided only he could be convinced that the dead man was still in possession of his wits) is no longer something strange. However, if we ask ourselves to indicate, briefly and without claiming to say anything in detail, what Euripides might have in common with Menander and Philemon and what was so excitingly exemplary and effective for them in Euripides, it is enough to say that the spectator in Euripides is brought up onto the stage. Anyone who recognizes the material out of which the Promethean tragedians before Euripides created their heroes and how remote from them was any intention of bringing the true mask of reality onto the stage will see clearly the totally deviant tendencies of Euripides.

As a result of Euripides, the man of ordinary life pushed his way out of the spectators’ space and up onto the acting area. The mirror in which earlier only great and bold features had been shown now displayed a painful fidelity which conscientiously reflected the unsuccessful features of nature. Odysseus, the typical Greek of the older art, now sank in the hands of the newer poets into the figure of Graeculus, who from now on stands right at the centre of dramatic interest as the good hearted, clever slave. What Euripides in Aristophanes’ Frogs gives himself credit for as a service, namely, that through his household medicines he freed tragic art of its pompous hustle and bustle, that point we can trace above all in his tragic heroes.

Essentially the spectator now saw and heard his double on the Euripidean stage and was happy that that character understood how to talk so well. But this was not the only delight. People themselves learned from Euripides how to speak. He praises himself on this very point in the contest with Aeschylus — how through him the people learned to observe in an artistic way, with the keenest sophistication, to judge, and to draw consequences. Because of this complete transformation in public language he also made the new comedy possible. For from that time on there was nothing mysterious about how ordinary life could appear on stage and what language it would use.

Middle-class mediocrity, on which Euripides built all his political hopes, now came into prominence. Up to that point, in tragedy the demi-god and in comedy the intoxicated satyr or semi-human had determined the nature of the language. And so the Aristophanic Euripides gave himself high praise for how he presented common, well-known, ordinary living and striving, which any person was capable of judging. If now the entire crowd philosophized, administered their lands and goods with tremendous astuteness, and carried on their own legal matters, well then, he claimed, that was to his credit and the achievement of the wisdom which he had drummed into the people.

The new comedy could now direct its attention to such a prepared and enlightened crowd, for whom Euripides became, to some extent, the choir master. Only this time the chorus of spectators had to have practice. As soon as the chorus was well trained to sing in the Euripidean musical key, a style of drama like a chess game arose, the new comedy, with its continuing triumph of sly shrewdness. But Euripides, the leader of the chorus, was incessantly praised. Indeed, people would have let themselves be killed in order to learn more from him, if they had not been aware that tragic poets were just as dead as tragedy itself.

With tragedy the Greeks had surrendered their faith in immortality, not merely the faith in an ideal past, but also the faith in an ideal future. The saying from the well-known written epitaph, “as an old man negligent and trivial” is applicable also to the old age of Hellenism. The instantaneous, the witty, the foolish, and the capricious — these are its loftiest divinities, the fifth state, that of the slave (or at least the feelings of a slave) now come to rule. And if it is possible to talk still of a “Greek serenity,” it is the serenity of the slave, who has no idea how to take responsibility for anything difficult, how to strive for anything great, or how to value anything in the past or future higher than the present.

It was this appearance of “Greek serenity” which so outraged the profound and fearful natures of the first four centuries of Christianity. To them this feminine flight from seriousness and terror, this cowardly self-satisfaction with comfortable consumption, seemed not only despicable but also the essentially anti-Christian frame of mind. And to the influence of this outrage we can ascribe the fact that the view of Greek antiquity as a time of rose-coloured serenity lasted for centuries with almost invincible tenacity, as if Greek antiquity had never produced a sixth century, with its birth of tragedy, its mystery cults, its Pythagoras and Heraclitus, indeed, as if the artistic works of the great age simply did not exist — although these works, each and every one of them, cannot be explained at all on the grounds of such a senile joy in existence and serenity, moods appropriate to a slave, or of things which testify to a completely different world view as the basis of their existence.

Finally, when it is asserted that Euripides brought the spectator onto the stage in order to make him really capable for the first time of judging drama, it may appear as if the older tragic art had not resolved its false relationship to the spectator, and people might be tempted to value the radical tendency of Euripides to attain an appropriate relationship between the art work and the public as a progressive step beyond Sophocles. However, the “public” is only a word and not at all a constant, firm thing of value. Why should an artist be duty-bound to accommodate himself to a power whose strength is only in numbers?

And if, with respect to his talent and intentions, he senses that he is superior to every one of these spectators, how could he feel more respect for the common expression of all these capacities inferior to his own than for the most highly talented individual spectator. To tell the truth, no Greek artist handled his public over a long lifetime with greater daring and self-satisfaction than Euripides. As the masses threw themselves at his feet, he nonetheless, with a sublime act of defiance, threw his own individual attitudes in their faces, those same attitudes with which he had conquered the masses. If this genius had had the slightest reverence for the pandemonium of the public, he would have broken apart under the cudgel blows of his failures long before the middle of his lifetime.

Taking this into account, we see that our expression — Euripides brought the spectator onto the stage, in order to make the spectator capable of making judgments — was only provisional and that we have to seek out a deeper understanding of his dramatic tendencies. By contrast, it is well known everywhere how Aeschylus and Sophocles during their lifetime and, indeed, well beyond that, stood in full possession of popular favour, and thus, given these predecessors of Euripides, there is no point in talking about a misunderstanding between the art work and the public. What drove the richly talented artist (Euripides), constantly under the urge to create, away from the path above which shone the sun of the greatest poetic names and the cloudless sky of popular approval? What curious consideration of the spectator led him to go against the spectator? How could he be contemptuous of his public out of a high respect for his public?

The solution to the riddle posed immediately above is this: Euripides felt himself as a poet higher than the masses, but not higher than two of his spectators. He brought the masses up onto the stage. Those two spectators he honoured as the only judges capable of rendering a verdict and as the masters of all his art. Following their instructions and reminders, he transposed the entire world of feelings, passions, and experiences, which up to that point had appeared in the rows of spectators as an invisible chorus in every celebratory presentation, into the souls of his stage heroes. Following the demands of these two judges, he sought out for his heroes new characters, a new language, and a new tone. In the vote of these two spectators alone he heard judgment pronounced on his creation, just as much as he heard encouragement promising victory, when he saw himself once again condemned by the justice of the general public.

The first of these two spectators is Euripides himself, Euripides the thinker, not the poet. Of him we can say that the extraordinarily richness of his critical talent, like that of Lessing, constantly stimulated, even if it did not create, an additional productive artistic drive. With this talent, with all the clarity and agility of his critical thinking, Euripides sat in the theatre and struggled to recognize the masterpieces of his great predecessors, as with a painting darkened by age, feature by feature, line by line. And here he encountered something familiar to those who know the profound secrets of Aeschylean tragedy: he became aware of something incommensurable in each feature and in each line, a certain deceptive clarity and, at the same time, an enigmatic depth, the infinity of the background.

The clearest figure still always had a comet’s tail attached to it, which seemed to hint at the unknown, the inexplicable. The same duality lay over the construction of the drama, as well as over the meaning of the chorus. And how ambiguously the solution of the ethical problems remained for him. How questionable the handling of the myths! How unequal the division of luck and disaster! Even in the language of the old tragedies there was a great deal he found offensive or, at least, enigmatic. He especially found too much pomp and circumstance for simple relationships, too many figures of speech and monstrosities for the straightforward characters. So he sat there in the theatre, full of uneasy thoughts, and, as a spectator, he came to realize that he did not understand his great predecessors. Since his reason counted for him as the root of all enjoyment and creativity, he had to ask himself and look around to see if there was anyone who thought the way he did and could in the same way attest to that incommensurability of the old drama.

But the public, including the best individuals among them, met him only with a suspicious smile. No one could explain to him why his reflections about and objections to the great masters might be correct. And in this agonizing condition he found the other spectator, who did not understand tragedy and therefore did not value it. United with him, Euripides could dare to begin emerging from his isolation to fight the immense battle against the art works of Aeschylus and Sophocles — not with critical writings, but as a dramatic poet, who sets up the presentation of his tragedy in opposition to the tradition.


Before we designate this other spectator by name, let’s linger here a moment to reconsider that characteristic duality and incommensurability at the heart of Aeschylean tragedy (something we described earlier). Let us think about how strange we find the chorus and the hero of those tragedies, which were not able to reconcile with what we are used to or with our traditions, until we recognized that duality itself as the origin and essence of Greek tragedy, as the expression of two artistic drives woven together, the Apollonian and the Dionysian.

To cut that primordial and all-powerful Dionysian element out of tragedy and to rebuild tragedy as a pure, new, and un-Dionysian art, morality, and world view — that has now revealed itself to us very clearly as the tendency of Euripides. Near the end of his life, Euripides himself propounded as emphatically as possible the question about the value and meaning of this tendency in a myth to his contemporaries. Should the Dionysian exist at all? Should we not eradicate it forcefully from Greek soil? Of course we should, the poet says to us, if only it were possible, but the god Dionysus is too powerful. The most intelligent opponent, like Pentheus in the Bacchae, is unexpectedly charmed by Dionysus and runs from him in this enchanted state to his destruction.

The judgment of the two old men, Cadmus and Tiresias, seems also to be the judgment of the aged poet: the mind of the cleverest individual does not throw away that old folk tradition, that eternally propagating reverence for Dionysus; indeed, where such amazing powers are concerned, it is appropriate at least to demonstrate a diplomatically prudent show of joining in. But even with that, the god might still possibly take offense at such a lukewarm participation and transform the diplomat finally into a dragon (as happens here with Cadmus).

The poet tells us this, a poet who fought throughout his long life against Dionysus with heroic force, only to conclude his life finally with a glorification of his opponent and a suicide, like a man suffering from vertigo who, in order to escape the dreadful dizziness, which he can no longer endure, throws himself off a tower. That tragedy is a protest against the practicality of his artistic program, and that program had already succeeded! A miracle had taken place: just when the poet recanted, his program was already victorious. Dionysus had already been chased off the tragic stage, and by a daemonic power speaking out from Euripides. But Euripides was, to some extent, only a mask. The divinity which spoke out of him was not Dionysus, and not Apollo, but an entirely new-born daemon called Socrates.

This is the new opposition: the Dionysian and the Socratic. And from this contrast, Greek tragedy perished as a work of art. No matter now how much Euripides might seek to console us with his retraction, he was unsuccessful. The most magnificent temple lay in ruins. What use to us are the laments of the destroyer and his awareness that it had been the most beautiful of all temples? And even if Euripides himself, as a punishment, has been turned into a dragon by the artistic critics of all ages, who can be satisfied with this paltry compensation?

Let’s get closer now to this Socratic project, with which Euripides fought against and conquered Aeschylean tragedy.

What purpose (that’s the question we need to ask at this point) could Euripides’ intention to ground drama solely on the un-Dionysian have had, if we assume its implementation had the very highest ideals? What form of drama remained, if it was not to be born from the womb of music, in that mysterious half-light of the Dionysian? All it could be was dramatic epic, an Apollonian art form in which the tragical effect is naturally unattainable.

This is not a matter of the content of the represented events. I might even assert that in Goethe’s proposed Nausikaa it would have been impossible to make the suicide of that idyllic being (which was to be carried out in the fifth act) grippingly tragic, for the power of the Apollonian epic is so extraordinary that it magically transforms the most horrific things through that joy in and redemption through appearances right before our very eyes. The poet of the dramatic epic cannot completely fuse with his pictures, any more than the epic rhapsodist can. It is always a matter of still calm, tranquil contemplation with open eyes, a state which sees the images in front of it. The actor in this dramatic epic remains, in the most profound sense, still a rhapsodist; the consecration of the inner dream lies upon all his actions, so that he is never completely an actor.

How is Euripides’ work related with respect to this ideal of Apollonian drama? It is just like the relationship of the solemn rhapsodist of the olden times to the younger attitude, whose nature is described in Plato’s Ion: “When I say something sad, my eyes fill with tears. But if what I say is horrifying and terrible, then the hairs on my head stand on end from fright, and my heart knocks.” Here we do not see any more the epic dissolution of the self in appearances, the disinterested coolness of the real actor, who remain, even in his highest achievements, totally appearance and delight in appearances. Euripides is the actor with the beating heart, with his hair standing on end. He designs his work as a Socratic thinker, and he carries it out as a passionate actor.

Euripides is a pure artist neither in planning his work nor in carrying it out. Thus the Euripidean drama is simultaneously a cool and fiery thing, equally capable of freezing or burning. It is impossible for it to attain the Apollonian effect of the epic, while, on the other hand, it has divorced itself as much as possible from the Dionysian elements, and now, in order to work at all, it needs new ways to arouse people, methods which can no longer lie within either of the two individual artistic drives of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. These method of arousing people are detached paradoxical ideas, substituted for Apollonian objects of contemplation, and fiery emotional effects, substituted for Dionysian enchantment. The fiery effects are, to be sure, imitated with a high degree of realism, but the ideas and emotional effects are not in the slightest way imbued with the spirit of art.

If we have now recognized that Euripides did not succeed in basing his drama solely on Apollonian principles, that his un-Dionysian tendencies much rather led him astray into an inartistic naturalism, we are now able to move closer to the essential quality of his Socratic aesthetics, whose most important law runs something like this: “Everything must be understandable in order to be beautiful,” a corollary to the Socratic saying, “Only the knowledgeable person is virtuous.” With this canon at hand, Euripides measured all the individual features and justified them according to this principle: the language, characters, dramatic construction, the choral music.

What we habitually assess so frequently in Euripides, in comparison with Sophoclean tragedy, as a poetical deficiency and a backward step is for the most part the product of his emphatic critical process, his daring intelligence. Let the Euripi dean prologue serve as an example of what that rationalistic method produces. Nothing can be more offensive to our stage techniques than the prologue in Euripides’s plays. That a single person should step forward at the beginning of a work and explain who he is, what has gone on before the action starts, what has happened up to this point, and even what will occur in the unfolding of the work, that would strike a modern poetical dramatist as a wanton, inexcusable abandonment of all the effects of suspense. If we know everything which is going to happen, who will want to sit around waiting to see that it really does happen? For here there is nothing like the stimulating relationship between a prophetic dream and a later real event. Euripides thought quite differently about the matter.

The effect of tragedy never depends on epic suspense, on the tempting uncertainty about what will happen now and later. It depends far more on those great rhetorical-lyrical scenes in which the passion and dialectic of the main hero swelled up into a wide and powerful storm. Everything was preparing for pathos, not for action. What did not prepare the way for paths was considered disposable. But what hinders most seriously the listener’s delighted devotion to such scenes is any missing part, any gap in the network of the previous events. As long as the listener still has to figure out what this or that person means, what gives rise to this or that conflict in motives or purposes, then his full immersion in the suffering and action of the main character, his breathless sympathy with and fear for them are not possible. The Aeschylean-Sophoclean tragedies made use of the most elegant artistic methods in the opening scenes to provide the spectators, as if by chance, all the necessary clues to understand everything, a technique in which their noble artistry proves its worth by allowing the necessary features to appear, but, so to speak, as something masked and accidental.

But Euripides still believed he noticed that during these first scenes the spectator was oddly disturbed having to figure out the simple arithmetic of the previous events so that the poetical beauties and the pathos of the exposition was lost on him. Therefore Euripides set up the prologue even before the exposition and put it in the mouth of a person whom people could trust — a divinity would necessarily confirm the outcome of the tragedy for the public, more or less, and take away any doubts about the reality of the myth, in a manner similar to the way in which Descartes could establish the reality of the empirical world through an appeal to the truthfulness of God and his inability to lie. At the end of his drama, Euripides once again made use of this same divine truthfulness in order to confirm his hero’s future for the public. That is the task of the notorious deus ex machina. Between the epic prologue and epilogue lay the lyrical, dramatic present, the essential “drama.“

So Euripides as a poet is, above all, the echo of his conscious knowledge, and it is precisely this which confers upon him such a memorable place in the history of Greek art.

In view of his critically productive creativity it must have often struck him that he must be bringing alive in drama the opening of Anaxagoras’s text, the first lines of which go as follows: “In the beginning everything was a confused mixture, but then came reason and created order.” And if, among philosophers, Anaxagoras, with his concept of mind, seems to be the first sober man among total drunkards, so Euripides might have conceptualized his relationship to the other poets with a similar image. So long as the single creator of order and ruler of all, the mind, was still excluded from artistic creativity, everything was still mixed up in a chaotic primordial pudding. That’s how Euripides must have thought about it; that’s how he, the first “sober” poet must have passed sentence on the “drunken” poets.

What Sophocles said about Aeschylus — that he does what’s right, without being aware of it — was certainly not said in any Euripidean sense. Euripides would have conceded only that Aeschylus created improperly because he created without any conscious awareness. Even the god-like Plato speaks of the creative capability of poets and how this is not a conscious understanding, but for the most part only ironically, and he draws a comparison with the talent of prophets and dream interpreters, for the poet is not able to write until he has lost his conscious mind and reason no longer resides in him. Euripides undertook the task (which Plato also took on) to show the world the opposite of the “irrational” poet. His basic aesthetic principle, “everything must be conscious in order to be beautiful,” is, as I have said, the corollary to the Socratic saying, “Everything must be conscious in order to be good.”

With this in mind, it is permissible for us to assess Euripides as the poet of Socratic aesthetics. Socrates, however, was that second spectator, who did not understand the old tragedy and therefore did not value it. With Socrates as his ally, Euripides dared to be the herald of a new artistic creativity. If old tragedy perished in this development, then Socratic aesthetics is the murdering principle. Insofar as the fight was directed against the Dionysian of the older art, we recognize in Socrates the enemy of Dionysus, the new Orpheus, who roused himself against Dionysus, and who, although destined to be torn apart by the maenads of the Athenian Court of Justice, nevertheless himself made the powerful god fly away. Dionysus, as before, when he fled from Lycurgus, King of the Edoni, saved himself in the depths of the sea, that is, in the mysterious floods of a secret cult which would gradually overrun the entire world.


That Socrates had a close relationship to Euripides’ project did not escape their contemporaries in ancient times, and the clearest expression for this happy intuition is the rumour floating around Athens that Socrates was in the habit of helping Euripides with his poetry. Both names were invoked by the supporters of the “good old days” when it was time to list the present popular leaders whose influence had brought about a situation in which the old strength of mind and body manifested at the Battle of Marathon was being increasingly sacrificed for a dubious way of explaining things, in a continuing erosion of the physical and mental powers.

This was the tone — half indignation, half contempt — in which Aristophanic comedy habitually talked of these men, to the irritation of the newer generations, who, although happy enough to betray Euripides, were always totally amazed that Socrates appeared in Aristophanes as the first and most important sophist, the mirror and essence of all sophistic ambitions. As a result, they took consolation in putting Aristophanes himself in the stocks as an impudent lying Alcibiades of poetry. Without here defending the profound instinct of Aristophanes against such attacks, I will proceed to demonstrate the close interrelationship between Socrates and Euripides as the ancients saw it. It’s particularly important to remember in this connection that Socrates, as an opponent of tragic art, never attended the performance of a tragedy, and only joined the spectators when a new piece by Euripides was being produced. The best known connection, however, is the close juxtaposition of both names in the oracular pronouncements of the Delphic Oracle, which indicated that Socrates was the wisest of men and at the same time delivered the judgment that Euripides captured second prize in the contest for wisdom.

Sophocles was the third person named in this hierarchy, the man who could praise himself in comparison with Aeschylus by saying that he (Sophocles) did what was right because he knew what was right. Obviously the degree of clarity in these men’s knowledge was the factor that designated them collectively as the three “wise men” of their time.

But the most pointed statement about this new and unheard of high opinion of knowledge and reason was uttered by Socrates, when he claimed that he was the only person to assert that he knew nothing; whereas, in his critical wandering about in Athens conversing with the greatest statesmen, orators, poets, and artists, everywhere he ran into people who imagined they knew things. Astonished, he recognized that all these famous people had no correct and clear insight into their occupations and carried out their work instinctually. “Only from instinct” — with this expression we touch upon the heart and centre of the Socratic project.

With this expression Socratic thought condemns existing art as well as contemporary ethics. Wherever he directs his searching gaze, he sees a lack of insight and the power of delusion, and from this he infers the inner falsity and worthlessness of present conditions. On the basis of this one point, Socrates believed he had to correct existence. He, one solitary individual, stepped forward with an expression of contempt and superiority, as the pioneer of a brand new style of culture, art, and morality, into that world, a scrap of which we would count it an honour to catch.

That is the immensely disturbing thing which grips us about Socrates whenever we run into him and which over and over again always stimulates us to find out the meaning and intention of this man, the most problematic figure of ancient times. Who is the man who can dare, as an individual, to deny the very essence of Greece, which with Homer, Pindar, Aeschylus, Phidias, Pericles, Pythia, and Dionysus is certainly worthy of our highest veneration? What daemonic force is it that could dare to sprinkle this magic drink into the dust? What demi-god is it to whom the ghostly chorus of the noblest specimens of humanity had to cry out: “Alas, alas! You have destroyed our beautiful world with your mighty fist. It is collapsing, falling to pieces!”

A key to the heart of Socrates is offered by that amazing phenomenon indicated by the term Socrates’s daimonon. Under special circumstances in which his immense reasoning power was stalled in doubt, he resolved his irresolution firmly with a divine voice which expressed itself at such times. When this voice came, it always sounded a cautionary note. In this totally strange character instinctive wisdom reveals itself only in order to confront the conscious knowledge now and then as an impediment. Whereas in all productive men instinct is the truly creative and affirming power, and consciousness acts as a critical and cautioning reaction, in Socrates the instinct becomes the critic, consciousness becomes the creator — truly a monstrous defect.

Now, we see here a grotesque defect in mythical consciousness, so that Socrates can be considered specifically a non-mystic man in whom the logical character has become too massive through excessive use, just like instinctive wisdom in the mystic. On the other hand, it was impossible for that logical drive, as it appeared in Socrates, to turn against itself. In its unfettered rush it demonstrates a natural power of the sort we meet, to our shuddering surprise, only in the very greatest instinctive powers. Anyone who has sensed in the Platonic texts the merest scent of the god-like naïveté and confidence in the direction of Socrates’s teaching has also felt how that immense drive wheel of Socratic logic is, at it were, in motion behind Socrates and how we have to see this behind Socrates, as if we were looking through a shadow.

That he himself had a premonition of this relationship comes out in the dignified seriousness with which he assessed his divine calling everywhere, even before his judges. To censure him for this is as impossible as it is to approve of his influence on the removal of instinct. When Socrates was hauled before the assembly of the Greek state, there was only one form of sentence for this irreconcilable conflict, namely, banishment. People should have expelled him beyond the borders as something enigmatic, unclassifiable, and inexplicable, so that some future world could not justly charge the Athenians with acting shamefully.

The fact that death and not exile was pronounced over him Socrates himself appears to have brought about, fully clear about what he was doing and without the natural horror of death. He went to his death with the same tranquility Plato describes him showing as he leaves the Symposium, the last drinker in the early light of dawn, beginning a new day, while behind him, on the benches and the ground, his sleeping dinner companions stay behind, to dream of Socrates the truly erotic man. The dying Socrates was the new ideal of the noble Greek youth, never seen before. Right in the vanguard, the typical Greek youth, Plato, prostrated himself before Socrates’s picture with all the fervent adoration of his passionately enthusiastic soul.


Let’s now imagine that one great Cyclops eye of Socrates focused on tragedy, that eye in which the beautiful madness of artistic enthusiasm never glowed—let’s imagine how it was impossible for that eye to peer into the Dionysian abyss with a feeling of pleasure. Then what must that eye have seen in the “lofty and highly praised” tragic art, as Plato calls it? Something really unreasonable, with causes without effects, actions which apparently had no causes, and as a whole so varied and with so many different elements that any reasonable person had to reject it, but dangerous tinder for sensitive and easily excitable minds. We know which single form of poetry Socrates understood: Aesop’s fables. And no doubt his reaction involved that smiling complacency with which the noble and good Gellert in his fable of the bee and the hen sings the praises of poetry:

You see in me the use of poetry —
To tell the man without much sense
A picture image of the truth of things.

But for Socrates tragic art did not seem “to speak the truth” at all, apart from the fact that it did address itself to those “without much sense,” and thus not to philosophers, a double excuse to keep one’s distance from it. Like Plato, he assigned it to the art of cosmetics, which present only a pleasant surface, not the useful, and he therefore demanded that his disciples abstain and stay away from such unphilosophical temptations, with so much success that the young poet of tragedy, Plato, immediately burned his poetical writing in order to be able to become Socrates’s student. But where invincible talents fought against the Socratic instructions, his power, together with the force of his immense personality, was always still strong enough to force poetry itself into new attitudes, unknown up until then.

An example of this is Plato himself. To be sure, in his condemnation of tragedy and art in general he did not remain back behind the naïve cynicism of his master. But completely from artistic necessity he had to create an art form related directly to the existing art forms which he had rejected. The major criticism which Plato made about the old art—that it was the imitation of an illusion and thus belonged to a lower level than the empirical world—must above all not be directed against his new work of art. And so we see Plato exerting himself to go beyond reality and to present the Idea which forms basis of that pseudo-reality.

With that, however, the thinker Plato reached by a detour the very place where, as a poet, he had always been at home and from where Sophocles and all the old art was protesting against Plato’s criticism. If tragedy had assimilated all earlier forms of art, so the same holds true, in an odd way, for Plato’s dialogues, which were created from a mixture of all available styles and forms and hover between explanation, lyric, drama, prose and poetry, right in the middle, and in so doing broke through the strict old law about the unity of stylistic form. The Cynic philosophers went even further along the same path. With their excessively garish and motley collection of styles, weaving back and forth between prose and metrical forms, they produced the literary image of “raving Socrates,” which they were in the habit of presenting in their own lives.

The Platonic dialogue was, so to speak, the boat on which the shipwreck of the old poetry, along with all its children, was saved. Pushed together into a single narrow space and with an anxious Socrates at the helm they humbly set off now into a new world, which never could see enough fantastic images of this event. Plato really gave all later worlds the image of a new form of art, the image of the novel, which can be characterized as an infinitely intensified Aesopian fable, in which the relative priorities of poetry and dialectical philosophy were the same as the relative priorities of that very philosophy and theology for many hundreds of years. Poetry, in other words, was subservient. This was poetry’s new position, the place into which Plato forced it under the influence of the daemonic Socrates.

Now philosophical ideas grew up around art and forced it to cling to the trunk of dialectic. Apollonian tendencies metamorphosed into logical systematizing, something corresponding to what we noticed with Euripides, as well as a translation of the Dionysian into naturalistic effects. Socrates, the dialectical hero in Platonic drama, reminds us of the changed nature of the Euripidean hero, who has to defend his actions with reasons and counter-reasons and thus frequently runs the risk of losing our tragic sympathy. For who can fail to recognize the optimistic element in the heart of dialectic, which celebrates a jubilee with every conclusion and can breathe only in a cool conscious brightness, that optimistic element, which, once pushed into tragedy, gradually overruns its Dionysian regions and necessarily drives them to self-destruction, right to their death leap into middle-class drama.

Let people merely recall the consequences of the Socratic sayings “Virtue is knowledge; sin arises only from ignorance; the virtuous person is the happy person.” In these three basic forms of optimism lies the death of tragedy. For now the virtuous hero must be a dialectician. Now there must be a perceptible link between virtue and knowledge, belief and morality. Now the transcendental vision of justice in Aeschylus is lowered to the flat and impertinent principle of “poetical justice” with its customary deus ex machina.

What does this new Socratic optimistic stage world look like with respect to the chorus and the whole musical-Dionysian basis for tragedy in general? All that seem to be something accidental, a reminder of the origin of tragedy which we can well do without, because we have come to realize that the chorus can be understood only as the origin of tragedy and the tragic in general. Already in Sophocles the chorus reveals itself as something of an embarrassment, an important indication that even with him the Dionysian stage of tragedy was beginning to fall apart. He did not dare to trust the Chorus to carry the major share of the action, but limited its role to such an extent that it appears almost as one of the actors, just as if it had been lifted out of the orchestra into the scene. This feature naturally destroys its nature completely, no matter how much Aristotle approved of this arrangement of the chorus.

This demotion in the position of the chorus, which Sophocles certainly recommended in his dramatic practice and, according to tradition, even in a written text, is the first step toward the destruction of the chorus, whose phases in Euripides, Agathon, and the New Comedy followed with breakneck speed one after the other. Optimistic dialectic, with its syllogistic whip, drove music out of tragedy, that is, it destroyed the essence of tragedy, which can be interpreted only as a manifestation and imaginary presentation of Dionysian states, as a perceptible symbolizing of music, as the dream world of a Dionysian intoxication.

We have noticed an anti-Dionysian tendency already effective before Socrates, which only achieves in him an expression of incredible brilliance. Now we must not shrink back from the question of where such a phenomenon as Socrates points. For we are not in a position, given the Platonic dialogues, to see that phenomenon as a force of totally negative dissolution. And so, while it’s true that the immediate effect of the Socratic drive was to bring about the destruction of Dionysian tragedy, the profound living experiences of Socrates himself force us to the question whether or not there must necessarily be only an antithetical relationship between Socrates’s doctrines and art and whether the birth of an “artistic Socrates” is in general something of a contradiction.

Where culture is concerned, that despotic logician now and then had the feeling of a gap, an emptiness, a partial sense of reproach for a duty he might have neglected. As he explains to his friends in prison, often one and the same dream apparition came to him, always with the words, “Socrates, practise music!” He calmed himself, right up to his last days, with the interpretation that his philosophizing was the highest musical art, and believed that it was incorrect that a divinity would remind him of “common, popular music.” Finally in prison he came to understand how, in order to relieve his conscience completely, to practice that music which he had considered insignificant. And in this mood, he composed a poem to Apollo and rendered a few of Aesop’s fables in verse.

What drove him to this practice was something like the voice of his warning daemon. It was his Apollonian insight that, like a barbarian king, he did not understand a divine image and was in danger of sinning against a divinity through his failure to understand. That statement of Socrates’s dream vision is the single indication of his thinking about something perhaps beyond the borders of his logical nature. So he had to ask himself: Have I always labeled unintelligible things I could not understand? Perhaps there is a kingdom of wisdom which is forbidden to the logician? Perhaps art is even a necessary correlative and supplement to scientific understanding?


These excerpts, from sections 1 though 14 of The Birth of Tragedy, are provided courtesy of the translator, Professor Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, British Columbia. Prof. Johnston has made available a large number of splendid translations of classic texts. They may be accessed here.