Nietzsche, Friedrich

Assigned: Nietzsche, Friedrich. From The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (740-52); “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense” (752-62). Also read the editors’ introduction (737-40).

From The Birth of Tragedy (1872)

Chapter 1

1. On 740-43 (“We shall have gained…”), Friedrich Nietzsche begins by introducing us to “the duality of the Apolline and the Dionysiac” (740) that he says is intricately connected with “the continuous evolution of art” (741). The Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus both stand for “drives” (741) that fuel artistic production, and their miraculous pairing, he says further, is responsible for the art form that most perfectly balances the two drives: Attic tragedy. At this point, what several qualities does Nietzsche attribute to Apollo, one of the Greeks’ “two deities of art” (742?) In particular, what significance does he give Apollo’s connection to dreams and to the vital principle of individuation, the principium individuationis (742-43)? What sense of Apollo’s significance for human life generally and for aesthetics in particular emerges from Nietzsche’s comments thus far?

2. On 743-44 (“In the same passage Schopenhauer…”), what powers and dimensions does Nietzsche attribute to Dionysos, the other of the Greeks’ art-gods? In what sense does Dionysos represent and encourage very different tendencies and possibilities in humanity than the ones Nietzsche associates with Apollo? How, foremost of all, is Dionysos connected with the “breakdown of the principium individuationis” (743) and with the state of profound “intoxication” that such a breakdown entails? How does Dionysos take people outside of or beyond themselves, join them into a larger community based on passion, reconnect them with the primal elements of humanity, and reposition them in terms of their relationship with nature? What does the power of Dionysus have to do with music, song, and dance?

Chapter 9

3. On 744 (“Everything that rises to the surface…”), how does Nietzsche begin to explore the underlying qualities of Sophocles’ tragic presentation of the story of Oedipus the King (who killed his royal father at a crossroads, answered the Sphinx’s riddle, and married his own mother, Queen Jocasta, in Thebes, where he ruled as king until a plague struck the city)? What is special, according to Nietzsche, about the language of the Sophoclean hero, and what metaphor does he use to convey the deeper truth that the supposedly serene, “Apolline” quality of Oedipus masks something dark and decidedly unserene inside him, or underneath his character?

4. On 745-46 (“The most suffering figure of the Greek…”), how, in Nietzsche’s reading, is the entire tale of Oedipus (including its conclusion with Oedipus as a holy exile in Oedipus at Colonus) an illustration of the truth that “The noble human being does not sin” and, ultimately, a testament to  the paradox that “in his purely passive behaviour the hero achieves the highest form of activity” (745)? How does Oedipus’ “trinity of fateful deeds” (745)—killing his father, answering the Sphinx’s riddle, and marrying his mother—signal the need for his suffering? What lesson does this suffering convey to us about the transgressive nature of “Dionysiac wisdom” (746)?

5. On 746-48 (“I shall now contrast the glory…”), what does Nietzsche draw from Aeschylus’ presentation in Prometheus Bound of the story of the titan who stole fire and gave it to humankind, thereby provoking the Olympian gods to torture him eternally? What does he identify as “the most wonderful thing” (746) about this play, and how does it drive home the importance of the concept of moira (fate) in Aeschylus’ world view? What does Nietzsche describe as “the very first philosophical problem” (747 middle), and how does it encapsulate his belief in the centrality of transgression and suffering to human civilization and progress? What larger cultural point does he make by contrasting “Aryan” civilization’s emphasis on the legend of Prometheus with the Semitic peoples’ emphasis on “the Fall” (747)? Finally, how, according to Nietzsche, is Aeschylus’ play both Dionysian and Apollonian in its handling of the titan’s legend? (748)

From Chapter 10

6. On 748-49 (“It is a matter of indisputable historical…”), how does Nietzsche convey what he considers the true nature of Greek tragedy in its relation to Apollo and Dionysos? How are great figures such as Oedipus and Prometheus “merely masks of that original hero, Dionysos” (748 bottom)? In Nietzsche’s view, what truth about the Greek tragedies—and indeed about life itself—is revealed, if we know how to read these plays as profoundly indebted to and invested in “the doctrine of the Mysteries” pertaining to the career of the god Dionysos (749)?

From Chapter 24

7. On 749-51 (“At this point we need to take…”), Nietzsche links the pleasure that audiences take in tragedy with the pleasure to be gained from the “sensation of dissonance in music” (750). How, in his view, does the Dionysiac drive ground both of these pleasurable experiences? How does Nietzsche, believing he has now “eased significantly the difficult problem of the effect of tragedy,” describe the “Dionysiac phenomenon” (750) that accompanies Greek tragedy? How, too, does he bring into play an appreciation of Richard Wagner’s myth-laden musical style in the service of his own trust in “the German spirit” (750 bottom) in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, by which German reunification was achieved?

Chapter 25

8. On 751-52 (“Music and tragic myth both express…”), how does Nietzsche both assess separately and bring together Apollo and Dionysos, highlighting the inextricable relationship between them? Why does Apollo need Dionysos, and vice versa? How does this relationship play out in ancient Greek tragedy? Ultimately, what role in human life is Nietzsche ascribing to art: what can it reveal to us, or deliver to us, about our existence and our purpose? How does an aesthetic that recognizes the necessity of both Apollo and Dionysos “justify” life, as Nietzsche has throughout suggested it can do? (See, for example, 749 bottom-750 top.)

9. General question: In The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, Friedrich Nietzsche is concerned to explore alternatives to the placid image of classical Greece that emerged from the European Enlightenment and found favor with many German classicists: a view of the classical Greeks as balanced, high-minded, and serene. It seems that Nietzsche wanted to recover something of the wildness of the pre-classical Greeks, and show that dimension as necessary to the beautiful vision set forth by the moderns. Do you find his vision compelling? Why or why not? How do you construe the value of tragedy (from any era, including our own) at the present time?

“On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense” (1873/1903)

Section 1

1. On 752-53 (“In some remote corner of the universe…”), what does Nietzsche suggest about the relative significance of human intellect in the wider context of nature on a planetary and even cosmic scale? What role has “dissimulation” played in human development and survival, and why is the appearance of what Nietzsche calls “an honest and pure drive towards truth” (753) among human beings little short of a miracle? In what sense has nature prevented humans from knowing anything about themselves below the level of what is available to them in consciousness, and what are the consequences of that hindrance?

2. On 753-54 (“Insofar as the individual wishes…”), Nietzsche invokes the social contract that puts an end to what Thomas Hobbes called in Leviathan “the war of all against all” (bellum omnium contra omnes) as the immediate setting for the emergence of the binary or paired opposing concepts “truth” and “lie.” What does he thereafter imply about the stability and value of the terms in that paired opposition? When humans say they prize “truth,” according to Nietzsche, what is it that—in all truth—they really value, or seek? Do they value the truth for its own sake, or for the sake of something else? Explain.

3. On 754-55 (“Only through forgetfulness could…”), how, according to Nietzsche, does language facilitate the sort of “forgetfulness” (754 middle) that nourishes pleasant illusions instead of truth? How does it give us a false sense of security about the state of our knowledge of the world around us? Nietzsche writes that anyone who generates language thereby “designates only the relations of things to human beings…” (755); how does even this maneuver involve not one but two metaphoric operations to complete the task of designation? How does his analogy of a deaf person’s attempt to determine what music is like from only “Chladnian sound-figures in the sand” (755) help him make his point about the deceptive promise of true knowledge that even the most basic uses of language seem to make? How might it be said, as well, that a noun (a substantive, as it’s called) inevitably harbors a lie? In responding to the latter question, consider what Nietzsche writes about our use of words such as “trees, colours, snow, and flowers”—what, according to him, are we really accomplishing when we employ such terms?

4. On 755-56 (“Let us consider in particular…”), furthering his critique of the common understanding of the relationship between words and the world, Nietzsche analyzes the formation of “concepts.” According to him, how do concepts arise?  In what sense does their coming-into-being necessarily involve a fundamental kind of abstraction or—to use terms closer to Nietzsche’s own—a species of false equivalence or “overlooking” (755 bottom) of important details? How does Nietzsche’s “leaf/leaves” illustration help him drive home the point that such abstraction-making amounts to a falsification of reality, or at least a false assertion that we know things we don’t actually know? (755) Finally, why can’t we even say that our words “do not correspond to the essence of things…” (756)? Why would that, too, be a kind of lie?

5. On 756-57 (“What, then, is truth…”), Nietzsche offers his celebrated definition of truth as “a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms…” (756). How do all these striking figures and descriptions come down to a way of honoring “the obligation to lie in accordance with firmly established convention, to lie en masse and in a style that is binding for all” (756)? What happens, according to Nietzsche, when people “forget that this is how things are” and accept the dictates of reason enforced through regularized language? At the collective social and political level, what becomes possible when conceptual “schemata” (756) take hold and the original “sensuous impressions” lose their force? In what sense, as Nietzsche explains it, does humanity deserve admiration as “a mighty architectural genius” (757) for what it can build over the abyss with its constellation of concepts, and yet not deserve praise for any “impulse to truth, to the pure cognition of things” (757)? How does all of humanity’s knowledge-seeking amount to little more than striving for a world that seems “similar in kind to humanity…” (757)?

6. On 757-58 (“Only by forgetting this primitive world…”), according to Nietzsche, if human beings were momentarily to unforget the illusory stability of the world of concepts and linguistic conventions, and grasp themselves as “artistically creative subject[s]” (758), what would at once happen to their self-consciousness, to their sense that they understand themselves and the world in which they live and perceive? Moreover, Nietzsche writes that “between two absolutely different spheres, such as subject and object are, there is no causality, no correctness, no expression, but at most an aesthetic way of relating” (758). What is he suggesting here regarding the great mass of the people’s chances of achieving genuine insight into the relationship between self and world, self and other?

7. On 758-759 (“Anyone who is at home in…”), what does Nietzsche suggest about so-called “laws of nature” (759)? Why do we think we can articulate and manipulate such laws? What error does he suggest is always involved in formulating them? How does Nietzsche characterize the role in human perception of the two fundamental categories that the German idealist Immanuel Kant theorizes so intently in his Critique of Pure Reason: space and time? What inferences does Nietzsche make based upon the fact, as he sees it, that humans “produce [the categories of space and time] within ourselves and from ourselves with the same necessity as a spider spins…” (759)?

Section 2

8. On 759 (“Originally, as we have seen…”), how does Nietzsche link the pursuit of scientific knowledge to what he has written about the formation of concepts and the fundamental drive to create metaphors? How does science assist “reason” in building up the “anthropomorphic world” in which people must live? Why does the scientist, in Nietzsche’s view, stand in need of shelter and protection—with what “fearful powers” or imperatives is the scientist in competition? Ultimately, how is science, according to Nietzsche, just as prone to the sway of illusions as language is? 

9. On 759-61 (“That drive to form metaphors…”), having spent much of his essay exploring the ways in which human creativity is tamed in exchange for a strong, if illusionary, feeling of regularity and solid comprehension, what strength does Nietzsche now attribute to the creative “drive to form metaphors” (759)? In what activities does it discover “a new area for its activity” (760) and redeliver to humanity a sense of “the world of dream” over against the stale world of reason, civil society and science? What accounts for the attraction most people have towards the artists who bring them “epic fairy-tales as if they were true” (760), and other works of art? Under what main condition, according to Nietzsche, is the intellect free to do such playful, creative things?

10. On 761-62 (“There are epochs in which…”), how does Nietzsche assess the strengths and weaknesses of “the man of reason” [the practical person or scientist] and “the man of intuition” [the artist] (761)? In what respective, and very different, ways are both involved in illusion and deception? How does Nietzsche’s treatment of the “man of reason,” and especially the final mention of the “stoic who has learned from experience” (761) impact what he has written about the “man of intuition’s” accomplishment? What is the point of comparing these two types or styles of humanity as Nietzsche has done here?

11. General question: What do you think Friedrich Nietzsche has achieved in “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense”? What has happened to the binary opposition between “truth” and “lying” with which the author began the essay, now that Nietzsche has examined it in a “non-moral” sense, and what does the author convey to us about the illusory thinking that so often governs human actions and assumptions? Why, in the end, do we pursue “truth” so strongly, even with all the intimations afforded to us of how illusory that quest is?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake