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The Birth of Tragedy, Or: Hellenism and Pessimism

✒ Author
📖 Pages170
⏰ Reading time 8 hours 30 minutes
💡 Originally published1872
🌏 Original language German
📌 Types Non-fiction , Novels
📌 Genre Philosophical
📌 Section Philosophical novel

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Historical Note

The Birth of Tragedy , Nietzsche’s first book, was published in 1872, when he was 28 years old and a professor of classical philology at Basel. The book had its defenders but, in general, provoked a hostile reception in the academic community and affected Nietzsche’s academic career for the worse. As the opening section (added in 1886) makes clear, Nietzsche himself later had some important reservations about the book. However, since that time the work has exerted an important influence on the history of Western thought, particularly on the interpretations of Greek culture. In later editions part of the title of the work was changed from “Out of the Spirit of Music” to “Hellenism and Pessimism,” but the former phrase has remained more common.
Friedrich Nietzsche

The Birth of Tragedy. Friedrich Nietzsche

An Attempt at Self-Criticism


Whatever might have been be the basis for this dubious book, it must have been a question of the utmost importance and charm, as well as a deeply personal one at the time — testimony to that effect is the time in which it arose, in spite of which it arose, that disturbing era of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. While the thunderclap of the Battle of Wörth was reverberating across Europe, the meditative lover of enigmas whose lot it was to father this book sat somewhere in a corner of the Alps, extremely reflective and perplexed, thus simultaneously very distressed and carefree, and wrote down his thoughts about the Greeks — the kernel of that odd and difficult book to which this later preface (or postscript) should be dedicated. A few weeks after that, he found himself under the walls of Metz, still not yet free of the question mark which he had set down beside the alleged “serenity” of the Greeks and of Greek culture, until, in that month of the deepest tension, as peace was being negotiated in Versailles, he finally came to peace with himself and, while slowly recovering from an illness he'd brought back home with him from the field, finished composing the Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music .
— From music? Music and tragedy? The Greeks and the Music of Tragedy? The Greeks and the art work of pessimism? The most successful, most beautiful, most envied people, those with the most encouraging style of life so far — the Greeks? How can this be? Did they of all people need tragedy? Even more — art? What for — Greek art?
One can guess from all this just where the great question mark about the worth of existence was placed. Is pessimism necessarily the sign of collapse, destruction, of disaster, of the exhausted and enfeebled instincts — as it was with the Indians, as it is now, to all appearances, among us, the “modern” peoples and Europeans? Is there a pessimism of strength ? An intellectual inclination for what in existence is hard, dreadful, evil, problematic, emerging from what is healthy, from overflowing well being, from living existence to the full ? Is there perhaps a way of suffering from the very fullness of life? A tempting courage of the keenest sight which demands what is terrible as the enemy, the worthy enemy, against which it can test its power, from which it wants to learn what “to fear” means? What does the tragic myth mean precisely for the Greeks of the best, best, and bravest age? What about that tremendous phenomenon of the Dionysian? And what about what was born out of the Dionysian — the tragedy? — And by contrast, what are we to make of what killed tragedy — Socratic morality, dialectic, the satisfaction and serenity of the theoretical man? How about that? Could not this very Socratism [Sokratismus] be a sign of collapse, exhaustion, sickness, the anarchic dissolution of the instincts? And could the “Greek serenity” of later Greek periods be only a red sunset? Could the Epicurean will hostile to pessimism be merely the prudence of a suffering man? And even science itself, our science — indeed, what does all science in general mean considered as a symptom of life? What is the point of all that science and, even more serious, where did it come from ? What about that? Is scientific scholarship perhaps only a fear and an excuse in the face of pessimism? A delicate self-defence against — the Truth ? And speaking morally, something like cowardice and falsehood? Speaking unmorally, a clever trick? O Socrates, Socrates, was that perhaps your secret? O you secretive ironist, was that perhaps your — irony? —
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