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Friday, September 7th, 2012

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1:35p
Beauty and suffering ...
Yes, another of those charming little Dover Thrift Editions, which tells you that I was a buck or so short of getting to the free shipping on an order. Of course, I have tried to “kill two birds with one stone” when it comes to these, picking books that fill holes in my education, and, as I really didn't read any philosophy in college, adding some Nietzsche to my head seems like a good decision. This one, The Birth of Tragedy, was quite a pleasant surprise. I recall thinking while reading this “Hey, this is the sort of thing that gives philosophy a good name!” … which does imply that I typically approach these sorts of books a bit the way the cliché kid would the proverbial spoonful of cod liver oil … figuring it's going to be good for me, but not looking forward to the experience.

I don't know if this is a particularly engaging piece of Nietzsche's writing, or if the translator (Clifton P. Fadiman, in a 1927 publication) did an especially attractive job at rendering it into English (I know that I liked his versions of parts of it more than an on-line version that I referred to in passing along bits of this to a friend), but I found the book a delight to read, and even bothered my elder daughter (who had the misfortune of being stuck waiting for buses with me while I was in the midst of this) with out-loud readings from it.

This is, primarily, Nietzsche looking at the arts, traced back to “Tragedy” in ancient Greece. He defines two polarities, the Apollonian (typified by restraint and control), and the Dionysian (typified by passion and the irrational), with much of this being contrasted with the state of the German culture in the 1870's. That culture is returned to frequently here (this even has a Foreword specifically addressed to the famed composer Richard Wagner), and, frankly, this was the first time that I “got” where the Nazis were inspired by Nietzsche.

There were a few passages that I found particularly notable, such as:

... The story of Prometheus is an original possession of the entire Aryan race, and is documentary evidence of its capacity for the profoundly tragic. Indeed, it is not entirely improbable that this myth has the same characteristic significance for the Aryan genius that the myth of the fall of man has for the Semitic, and that the two are related like brother and sister. The presupposition of the Promethean myth is the transcendent value which a naive humanity attaches to fire as the true palladium of every rising culture. That man, however, should not receive this fire only as a gift from heaven, in the form of the igniting lightning or the warming sunshine, but should, on the contrary, be able to control it at will — this appeared to the reflective primitive man as sacrilege, as robbery of the divine nature. And thus the first philosophical problem at once causes a painful, irreconcilable antagonism between man and God, and puts as it were a mass of rock at the gate of every culture. The best and highest that men can acquire they must obtain by a crime, and then they must in turn endure its consequences, namely, the whole flood of sufferings and sorrows with which the offended divinities must requite the nobly aspiring race of man. It is a bitter thought, that, by the dignity it confers on crime, contrasts strangely with the Semitic myth of the fall of man, in which curiosity, deception, weakness in the face of temptation, wantonness,— in short, a whole series of preeminently feminine passions, — were regarded as the origin of evil. What distinguishes the Aryan conception is the sublime view of active sin as the essential Promethean virtue, and the discovery of the ethical basis of pessimistic tragedy in the justification of human evil — of human guilt as well as of the suffering incurred thereby. The pain implicit in the very structure of things — which the contemplative Aryan is not disposed to explain away — the antagonism in the heart of the world, manifests itself to him as a medley of different worlds, for instance, a Divine and a human world, both of which are in the right individually, but which, because they exist separately side by side, must suffer for that very individuation. In the heroic effort towards universality made by the individual, in his attempt to penetrate beyond the bounds of individuation and become himself the one world-being, he experiences in himself the primordial contradiction concealed in the essence of things, that is, he trespasses and he suffers. ...
Nietzsche goes into various cases of the Apollonian and Dionysian polarities, both in their Greek originals and in “degraded” examples from his current world, and eventually turns to Socrates as a pivot point, of the introduction of the “theoretical man” which appears in this telling to be the mark separating the ancient and modern world views. He describes what Socrates brought forth as an illusion

... This illusion consists in the imperturbable belief that, with the clue of logic, thinking can reach to the nethermost depths of being, and that thinking can not only perceive being but even modify it. This sublime metaphysical illusion is added as an instinct to science and again and again leads the latter to its limits, where it must change into art...
He then continues:

If we now look at Socrates in the light of this idea, he appears to us as the first who could not only live, but — what is far greater — also die by the guidance of this instinct of science: and hence the picture of the dying Socrates, as the man raised above the fear of death by knowledge and reason, is the sign above the entrance-gate of science reminding every one of its mission, namely, to make existence seem intelligible, and therefore justified: for which purpose, if arguments are not enough, myth also must be used, which I have just indicated as the necessary consequence, as the very goal of science.
This is certainly heady stuff, although I will admit that the materials about music and dramatics (really the backbone of his thesis here) did lose me on several occasions. However the “meta” themes such as the “one world being” were fascinating on a deeply involving level.

Again, The Birth of Tragedy is available through various web archives, if you just want to read the text. As noted, I found this particular translation quite agreeable, however, and the cost of this volume is only $2.50 … ideal for capping off an on-line order that's a bit shy of the $25 free-shipping promised land. However, due to the very low cover price, the odds of finding a copy of this in any but the largest brick-and-mortar stores is probably pretty low, so you may just want to keep this in mind for a shipping-saving throw-in to another order.


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