Nietzsche and the Aesthetic Justification of Life

My first paper on for Sluga’s Nietzsche class, which answers the prompt: what does Nietzsche mean when he says that life can only be justified as an aesthetic phenomenon?

Of course, there are a lot of limitations in a five page paper, so a number of things will not be addressed. I’m not responsible for how you use this.

All citations refer to page numbers in the Douglas Smith translation published by Oxford University Press, 2000.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche argues that “only as an aesthetic phenomenon are existence and the world justified” (38). What he means by this radical proposition is without art, life is not worth living. Nietzsche speaks of art in a specific sense–tragic art, as exemplified by the Greek tragedies. Tragic art justifies existence, Nietzsche claims, because it redeems the essentially cruel nature of existence with beauty, thus making life worth living. In order to unpack this argument, I will first analyze Nietzsche’s metaphysics and its relationship to Greek tragedy. Second, I will consider an alternative justification for life that Nietzsche raises, namely a scientific one, and examine the reasons for why Nietzsche rejects it. Finally, I will assess whether Nietzsche’s central claim is plausible. My argument is that there is some truth in what Nietzsche says.

In order to understand Nietzsche’s analysis of Greek art, one must first understand his metaphysics. At this point in Nietzsche’s philosophical development, his metaphysical views were very much indebted to Schopenhauer, as evidenced by the abundant quotes from The World As Will and Representation. On this metaphysical view, the everyday world is merely a phenomenon, while behind the phenomenon lies a reality that is normally veiled from human experience. Nietzsche sees a correspondence in Greek mythology, with Apollo as the god of phenomenon, since in Greek mythology, Apollo is the god of light and appearances. On the other hand, Dionysus corresponds to the underlying reality that is veiled from human beings.

To flesh out the character of these two worlds, Nietzsche quotes Schopenhauer’s image of the sailor in the storm. In the image, the sailor in a boat represents human beings in the world of phenomenon, while the raging sea storms around him represents the the underlying reality. Again Nietzsche finds a correspondence to Apollo and Dionysus. Apollo, as the god of sculptor, represents the forms of things: it is through Apollo that things can appear to human beings. Thus, Apollo, according to Nietzsche, is the embodiment of “principium indivudationis” (21), or the principle of individuation, because without Apollo, individual things and beings cannot appear to us. In contrast, Dionysus, like the raging sea, is the god of the underlying reality, because the underlying reality is essentially without form. Individual things and human beings do not exist in this world because there are no forms to distinguish one thing from another. Therefore, the Dionysian world is one of “complete self-oblivion” (22). So whereas Apollo represents the stability of appearances and our ability to cognize individual things and people in the phenomenal world, Dionysus represents the underlying reality of chaos, formlessness, and all-encompassing unity.

However, the underlying Dionysian reality, like the raging storm which threatens to overwhelm the individual, is horrific to behold. Drawing on Greek mythology once more, Nietzsche uses the words of Silenus, Dionysus’ companion, to demonstrate the true nature of existence: “the very best of all things is completely beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing” (27). Silenus’ words not only show the terror of existence, but also demonstrate the Dionysian tendency to obliterate the individual to nothingness. Nietzsche contends that the Greeks understood the horrifying nature of existence “with its eternal suffering and contradiction” (30), as evidenced by the many stories of suffering in Greek mythology: Prometheus, Oedipus, Orestes, etc.

Yet how to explain the Greek love of life in the face of the knowledge of a terrifying existence? It is the Apollonian drives of the Greek, Nietzsche argues, that enabled them to tolerate and even celebrate existence. In order to tolerate existence, the Greeks created the Olympian gods whose lives form “the ideal image of their [Greek’s] own existence” (27). It is the Apollonian “drive towards beauty” (28) which created the gods, because “it was in the dreams that the magnificent forms of the gods first appeared” (19). In their gods, the Greeks were able to tolerate existence because they see the gods as the ideals to strive toward, an endeavor that “seduces the living into living on” (28). Thus, the Apollonian instinct created the gods as a kind of veil to shield themselves against the Dionysian substratum reality of suffering and terror. In this way, the Greeks were both cognizant of the Dionysian reality of suffering and yet at the same time “have the delightful vision, the pleasurable appearance, for its continual redemption” (30). Through this unity, Nietzsche argues, the Greeks learned to love life, affirming its aesthetic pleasures while also recognizing its essentially tragic nature.

Nowhere is this unity more manifest, according to Nietzsche, than Greek tragedy, which combines the Apollonian and the Dionysian in various forms: words and music, hero and chorus, respectively. The Apollonian individual hero, who always speak his lines, is essentially the individuated “masks of that original hero Dionysus” (59). The hero ultimately gains insight into the Dionysian reality of suffering and tragedy, best exemplified by Oedipus, who gains knowledge of the ultimately cruel nature of existence. With the destruction of the individual, man is once again reunited with that original unity, and he experiences “an overpowering feeling of unity which leads back to the heart of nature” (45). Therefore, what the tragic chorus demonstrates shows the Greeks is that “life at the bottom of things, in spite of the passing of the phenomena, remains indestructibly powerful” (45). Through the negation of the individual hero and the music of the eternal chorus, the Greeks were able to glimpse into the true nature of reality without being destroyed by it.

However, Nietzsche sees the emergence of Socrates as tolling the death knells of Greek tragedy. In Socrates, Nietzsche sees a new type of person for whom “knowledge is virtue” (70). This type of theoretical man, Nietzsche argues, is contrary to the Greek pessimistic spirit, because the theoretical man believes that “by following the guiding threat of causality, thought reaches into the deepest abysses of being and is capable not only of knowing but even of correcting being” (82). Thus, Socratism offers an alternative justification for existence: as an epistemological, as opposed to aesthetic, phenomenon. Instead of justifying living through art, the theoretical man justifies living through the search for knowledge.

But this effort is doomed to fail, Nietzsche argues, because eventually the theoretical man discovers limits to knowledge. Nietzsche claims that the drive for knowledge will result in “tragic knowledge” (84), which is to say that the theoretical man will discover the underlying Dionysian reality of suffering. However, “insight into the horrific truth, outweighs any motive leading to action” (46) because of the realization that “action can change nothing in the eternal essence of things” (46). Without art, the theoretical man has no real motivation to act once he has understood the Dionysian reality. It is art alone which “can reshape the disgust at the thought of the horrific or absurd aspects of life into notions with which it is possible to live” (46). But because theoretical optimism has destroyed the pessimistic spirit which makes art possible, the theoretical man has nothing to protect himself against this overwhelming, unbearable Dionysian suffering, unlike the Greeks.

In light of Nietzsche’s argument, how is one to assess the original claim: that life can only be justified as an aesthetic phenomenon. First, how are we to take Nietzsche’s essentially pessimistic view of existence? I agree with him in the sense that the individual is ultimately insignificant since everyone dies. Thus, each individual life is short, insignificant, and probably miserable. A knowledge of this fact can and does lead to depression in some people, namely, the recognition that no matter how hard one tries, one cannot change the nature of existence. Without appealing to some source of transcendental meaning, for instance God, it is hard to see the significance of human existence in the universe.

Second, I agree with Nietzsche that knowledge does not really make life any more bearable. In fact, knowledge is likely to do the opposite: make one more aware of the futility of knowledge. For example, common wisdom often repeats that we must study history in order to prevent past tragedies. But is that really the case? For example, the history of the Holocaust is now well-known, yet in the past 50 years genocides have been repeated, in Rwanda and now in Darfur. Therefore, I agree with Nietzsche that knowledge by itself is impotent to motivate action to change things.

Finally, I think the claim that life is only justified aesthetically can be interpreted in two ways. First, one can interpret the claim as saying that art offers consolation in the face of tragedy by depicting it. For example, Michaelangelo’s Pieta depicts a scene of intense suffering and sorrow, but it offers an almost spiritual comfort through Michaelangelo’s masterful sculpting work, thus expressing a Dionysian tragedy through the Apollonian art of sculpture. A second way of interpreting the original claim is to say that what is meant is that the individual must treat his life as an artist–using life as the material from which he can find his own meaning. He can’t find some pre-existing, eternal, transcendental meaning by searching for it with knowledge or religion. Rather, he must create, like an artist, his own meaning for existence. If interpreted this way, Nietzsche’s claim could be seen as a proto-existentialist philosophy.

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One Response to “Nietzsche and the Aesthetic Justification of Life”

  1. Tolkien’s Elves and r/K Selection Theory – Elfnonationalist Says:

    […] the derived Japanese aesthetic of Wabi-Sabi. It is also expressed in Nietzsche’s idea of an aesthetic justification of life which is embodied in Greek tragedy. As a destroyer of value, Time is dead — we have killed […]


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