March 8, 2001

Existentialism Mid-term

1. Explain Nietzsche’s distinction between the Dionysian and Apollonian principles. How does tragedy combine them?

Friedrich Nietzsche believes that tragedy resulted from the marriage, or joining together, of the Apollonian and Dionysian principles (Birth of Tragedy 19). In the following paper, I briefly look at both of these principles and then explain how Nietzsche believes tragedy combines them.

In order to understand the Apollonian principle, we need to understand Schopenhauer’s principium individuationis, or principle that individuates things. Nietzsche claims that the principle that individuates things is essentially the same thing as the Apollonian principle. As he writes, the principle that individuate things “has received its most magnificent expression in Apollo, and . . . Apollo himself may be regarded as the marvelous divine image of the principium individuationis” (22). Schopenhauer believed that the principle that individuates things distinguishes things from each other. For example, this principle enables me to distinguish you from mom, and my mom from my notebook, and my notebook from my pencil, and so on.

Nietzsche believes that the Dionysian principle is contrary to the principle that individuates things. As he writes, we are “in a position to apprehend the essence of Dionysiac rapture” by looking at what happens when the principle that individuate things is “shattered” (22). Again, he writes that the rebirth of Dionysus resulted in the “end of individuation” (67). If the Dionysian principle is contrary to the principle that individuates things, or the Apollonian principle, then it follows that, unlike the former principle, the Dionysian principle does not claim that distinctions between objects can be made. Instead, the Dionysian principle claims that no one object in the universe can be distinguished from any other object.

If no one object in the world can be distinguished from any other object, then it follows that the world is disorderly. Such world is disorderly because order is “a condition in which each thing is properly disposed with reference to other things and to its purpose; methodical or harmonious arrangement” (Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, 1995). In a world in which no object can be distinguished from any other object, it is impossible to make any one object “properly disposed with reference to other things” and to put objects in any sort of “arrangement.” Therefore, the world that the Dionysian principle claims exists is a disorderly world.

Nietzsche believes that the Apollonian principle is illusory. In other words, he does not believe that its claims reflect reality. Although the Apollonian principle claims that certain objects in the universe are distinct from other objects, such claims of distinction do not actually exist—any claim that such objects are distinct from one another does not accurately describe the way the world is. Nietzsche believes that the Dionysian principle, on the other hand, is true—that is accurately describes reality. Therefore, Nietzsche believes that the world is disorderly. Most men, Nietzsche recognizes, do not want to believe that the world is disorderly. Rather, men find comfort and security by believing that the world is orderly and rational. Most men believe that a world void of order is a world filled with “terrors and horrors” (29).

Although, as we have just seen, the Apollonian and Dionysian principles are complete opposites (the former claims that the world is orderly, while the latter claims that the world is disorderly), Nietzsche believes that these two principles eventually “accepted the yoke of marriage and, in this condition, begot Attic tragedy, which exhibits the salient features of both parents” (19). Nietzsche divides tragedy into two parts: the chorus, which he considers to be the Dionysian part, and the dialogue, which he calls the Apollonian part. Nietzsche believes that the chorus expresses the claims made by the Dionysian principle and that the dialogue expresses the claims made by the Apollonian principle. In other words, the chorus tries to convey the fact that the world is disorderly and irrational, while the dialogue pretends that the world is orderly and has a rational structure to it.

Although Nietzsche holds that the dialogue in a tragedy comes in an Apollonian form, he believes that dialogue expresses the same truths that the Dionysian chorus expresses. As he writes, tragedy is a “Dionysiac chorus which again and again discharges itself in Apollonian images” (56-57). By this statement, Nietzsche means that, through the Apollonian art form of dialogue, tragedy expresses the truths that are made known by the Dionysian principle. To put it another way, Apollonian dialogue reveals the “horror of nature” (60).

To illustrate how the dialogue in tragedy reveals the truths of Dionysus in an Apollonian form, Nietzsche provides the examples of such tragic heroes as Prometheus and Oedipus. Such protagonists tried to live as though the world was orderly—as though the Apollonian principle accurately described reality. However, these protagonists suffered great torments and were, in some way, destroyed by nature. Through their suffering and downfall, these figures showed that, just as Dionysus claims, the world is disorderly and chaotic (61). As Nietzsche writes, the real protagonist of a tragedy is Dionysus, who “ascends the stage in the likeness of a striving and suffering individual. That he can appear at all with this clarity and precision is due to dream interpreter Apollo, who projects before the chorus its Dionysiac condition in this analogical figure” (66).


2. Compare and contrast Socratic/Platonic optimism with Christian pessimism. Show both their similarities and differences.

In order to contrast Socratic optimism with Christian pessimism, we first need to understand Heraclitean pessimism, which Nietzsche considers strong pessimism. Specifically, we need to understand why Heraclitean pessimism is strong and why it is pessimistic. According to Nietzsche, Heraclitean pessimism claims that the world is indeterminate. This claim, he believes, is in accordance with reality. In other words, Nietzsche believes the world really is indeterminate. To say that the world is indeterminate is to say that it does not possess any distinctive characteristic. And if the world has no distinctive characteristic, then it follows that the world is amoral, or, as Nietzsche puts it, “beyond good and evil” (10). This follows because, if the world was moral (or had a moral nature), then it would be possible for the universe to be either good, or bad; and if the universe was either good or bad, then it would have a distinctive characteristic. Since the world is amoral and, therefore, cannot be judged as being either “good” or “evil,” Heracliteanism holds that the world can only be interpreted in “esthetic terms” (9). In other words, Heracliteanism likens the world to art since, like art, it holds that the world cannot be judged. Nietzsche believes that Heracliteanism is pessimistic because it holds that the world is indeterminate. He believes that Heracliteanism is a strong pessimism because, even though it acknowledges that the world is indeterminate, it does not condemn the world and, in so doing, judge it. Rather, Heracliteanism is able to somehow find joy in the world.

Nietzsche believes that Christian pessimism is a weak pessimism. He believes that Christianity is pessimistic because, like Heraclitean pessimism, it recognizes that the world is indeterminate. Nietzsche believes that Christianity is weak for two reasons. First, Nietzsche believes that Christianity is weak because it condemns the world and, thereby, judges it. To put it another way, Christianity does not acknowledge that the world is amoral. As Nietzsche writes, “No doubt, the purely esthetic interpretation and justification of the world I was propounding in those pages [of the Birth of Tragedy) placed them at the opposite pole from Christian doctrine, a doctrine entirely moral in purport, using absolute standards” (10). In other words, Nietzsche believes that, while he himself adheres to Heraclitean pessimism and, therefore, recognizes that the world is amoral and cannot be judged, Christianity claims that the world has a moral character and can be judged. Christianity, Nietzsche writes, judges the world by condemning it as being evil. The second reason Nietzsche believes that Christianity is weak is that it hates life. This, remember, is contrary to Heracliteanism, which finds joy in the world. Nietzsche holds that Christianity’s hatred of life is “disguised . . . with notions of an ‘other’ and ‘better’ life” (11). What he means by this is that the Christian’s hatred of life is manifested in his desire to leave this world and be in Heaven.

Nietzsche believes that Socratic optimism is a weak optimism. Socratism, he holds, is optimistic because, unlike Heraclitean pessimism, it claims that the world is determinate. Socratistm claims that the world is determinate by claiming that nature is rational and can, therefore, be “fathomed” (94). Nietzsche believes that Socratism is weak because it fails to recognize that its claim (that the world is rational and can, therefore, be comprehended) is illusory. Failing to recognize the true nature of the universe, Socratism attempts to comprehend the world and hopes that, in so doing, it can solve the world’s problems. As Nietzsche writes, people “find a deep-seated illusion, first manifested in Socrates: the illusion that thought, guided by the thread of causation, might plumb the farthest abysses of being and even correct it” (93).

Christian pessimism and Socratic optimism have a number of similarities and differences. Both philosophies are similar in the fact that they both see indeterminacy, or irrationality, as the source of evil. Christianity condemns the world, which it holds is indeterminate and, therefore, irrational. Socratism also condemns irrationality, holding that irrationality leads to immorality. (Socratism holds that men do evil things when they do not adhere to the principles of reason.) Although both philosophies see indeterminacy, or irrationality, as the source of evil, while Christianity offers no solution to combat the evil in the world, Socratism believes that evil can be overcome through philosophy. Specifically, Socratism holds that men can become more moral when they move away from having a “sheer instinct,” or unarticulated understanding of things, and develop an explicit knowledge, or more articulated understanding of things. Although, unlike Christianity, Socratism is optimistic, like Christianity, it admits that mortal men will never be able to completely convert “sheer instinct” into explicit knowledge. As Nietzsche notes, Socrates claims in the Phaedo that man’s understanding of the world is limited as long as he is trapped in his mortal body.


3. Explain Nietzsche’s notion of will to power. How is his claim that all existence is will to power equivalent to the Heraclitean worldview?

In section 349 of The Gay Science, Nietzsche reveals much about his notion of will to power by comparing it to the will to preserve oneself. Nietzsche tells us that most scientists believe that nature is constantly striving to preserve itself. To put it another way, most scientists believe that the main focus or concern of organisms in nature is to remain alive, or to put it another way, to avoid being killed. Darwinists are a good example of such scientists, as they hold to the “doctrine of the ‘struggle for existence.’” Nietzsche tells us that all such scientists are wrong and that the “wish to preserve oneself” is not the “fundamental instinct of life.”

The will to preserve oneself, Nietzsche tells us, is a limitation of the “fundamental instinct of life,” which “aims at the expansion of power and, wishing for that, frequently risks and even sacrifices self-preservation.” In other words, while most scientists claim that nature is simply trying to preserve itself, Nietzsche tells us that nature is constantly striving to become more powerful, even at the risk of dying. To put it another way, while most scientist claim that the things in nature focus on what they need in order to survive, Nietzsche believes that the things in nature constantly try to grow and become more powerful, even when they do not need to be bigger or stronger in order to survive. As he writes, “in nature it is not conditions of distress that are dominant but overflow and squandering, even to the point of absurdity.” Nietzsche calls the will to expand and become more powerful the “will to power.”

Nietzsche reveals more about the will to power in sections 116 and 347, in which he again compares the will to power with the will to preserve oneself—this time, specifically comparing it with the human will to preserve themselves. Humans, Nietzsche claims, attempt to preserve themselves by believing in and adhering to systems of morality. By morality, Nietzsche means “an order of rank of human impulses and actions” (section 116). Therefore, if someone believes in morality, they believe that different actions can be ranked, or judged as being such things as “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong.” As I explained in my response to Question #1, one who believes that the world can be judged, believes that the world is determinate and orderly. Therefore, we can say that Nietzsche believes that people try to preserve themselves by believing that the world is determinate and orderly. So why exactly do people hope to preserve themselves by believing that the world is determinate? In section 347, Nietzsche tells is that people are afraid to live in an indeterminate world. Therefore, we can say that, by becoming epistemically certain that the world is determinate, people are able to escape their fears and, in so doing, to, in a sense, preserve themselves.

In contrast to the human who tries to preserve himself, Nietzsche claims that one with will to power takes “leave of all faith and every wish for certainty, being practiced in maintaining himself on insubstantial ropes and possibilities and dancing even near abysses.” Since one who believes in morality claims that the world is determinate and is afraid to live in an indeterminate world, it follows that one with will to power (one who takes “leave of all faith and every wish for certainty”) acknowledges that the world is indeterminate and attempts to live in this indeterminate world.

In summary, we can note three things about the will to power. First, as we saw in section 349, the will to power is the basic characteristic of life. Second, as we also learned in section 349, the will to power is continually trying to expand and become more powerful. Third, as we saw in sections 116 and 347, the will to power claims that the world is indeterminate, but, despite the world’s indeterminacy, is not afraid to live in it. If we put all of these statements together, we can conclude that all existence admits that the universe is indeterminate, and boldly and daringly attempts to expand and flourish in such a universe.

To say that all existence admits that the universe is indeterminate, and boldly and daringly attempts to expand and flourish in such a universe is to say that all existence is will to power. This claim, we should notice, is equivalent to the Heraclitean worldview, which, as I wrote in my response to Question #1, also claims that the world is indeterminate.


4. What does Nietzsche mean by “God,” the “shadows of God,” and the “death of God”?

Throughout his writings, Nietzsche frequently makes the statement, “God is dead.” His most famous declaration of God’s death comes in the story of the madman in section 125 of The Gay Science. According to the story, one day a madman “lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place,” and declared to the townspeople that God was dead. “‘Whither is God?’ he cried; ‘I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers.’” Although it is generally believed that Nietzsche was referring to the God of religion when he wrote about God’s death, a closer look at his statements reveals that such was probably not his intention. In the story of the madman, for example, Nietzsche writes that even those who did not believe in God did not understand the madman. If “God” were merely the God of religion, then one would think that the atheists in the story would have been portrayed as being enlightened. But instead, they appear to be just as ignorant as everyone else.

So what, then, does Nietzsche mean by “God”? In order to understand what Nietzsche means by God, we should first turn to his comments about the “shadows of God,” found in section 109 of The Gay Science. In section 109, it is fairly clear that Nietzsche considers the “shadows of God” to consist of some of the following beliefs: the belief that the universe is a living being, or machine; the belief that the universe can possess such traits are perfection, beauty, or nobility; the belief that there are laws of nature; and the belief that there is purpose in the universe. Nietzsche does not believe that the “shadows of God” are true. Instead, he holds that the universe is chaotic—“in the sense not of a lack of necessity, but of a lack of order, arrangement, form, beauty, wisdom, and whatever other names there are for our aesthetic anthropomorophisms.” Given these statements, we can conclude that, by “shadows of God,” Nietzsche means any belief that the world is at all rational, or orderly.

Since, by “shadows of God,” Nietzsche means beliefs that the world is rational, we can infer that Nietzsche’s definition of “God” also has something to do with rationality. We can specifically learn more about Nietzsche’s conception of “God” by looking at the madman’s comments in section 125. In this section, Nietzsche more clearly reveals what he means by God by using two metaphors for God: the horizon and the sun. As the madman asks, after noting that God has been killed,

Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us?

By referring to God as the horizon, Nietzsche seems to mean that God is a fixed standard that enables us to judge things. For a horizon is a fixed background—it does not change. And because a horizon does not change, we are able to judge, or differentiate, other things against it. If it were not for the horizon, we could not judge, or differentiate any one thing from any other thing. By referring to God as the sun, Nietzsche seems to mean that God is something that gives us stability, order, and comfort. Without the sun, the earth would no longer be bound by anything, but would be unstable—“plunging continually,” moving “[b]ackward, sideward, forward, in all directions.” Without the sun, any sense of order would be eliminated—people would ask, “Is there still any up or down?” Without the sun, people would no longer feel comfortable, as the earth would become cold and dark. So, in summary, we can say that God is a fixed standard of judgment that gives the world stability and order (and which, in turn, comforts people). To put it another way, God is that which makes the world rational.

We can now see that, unlike most people believe, by God, Nietzsche does not only mean the God of religion. Rather, by God, he means any principle that people believe gives the world orderliness, or rationality. Using Nietzsche’s terms, then, we can see that, although the God of religion can be legitimately called God (since He makes the world rational), other things can also legitimately be called God. In other words, the God of religion can be considered “God” because He brings order and rationality into the universe, but other things that bring order and stability into the universe can also be considered “God.” Using Nietzsche’s terms, even atheists who believe that the world is orderly and rational—those who believe in “Laws of Nature,” for example—could be said to believe in God.

Now that we understand what Nietzsche means by God, we can better understand what he means when he claims that God is dead. We should first note that, when speaking of God’s death, Nietzsche does not mean “death” in its common sense. We know this because, according to Nietzsche, God was never alive. And if something was never alive, then it is absurd to speak of it as being dead in the normal sense of the word “dead.” We know that Nietzsche does not think that God was ever alive because he claims, throughout his writings, that the universe is not and never has been rational. In other words, Nietzsche does not believe that God, or any principle that makes the world rational, exists, or has ever existed.

In order to understand what Nietzsche means when he speaks of the death of God, we should go back to section 125, where the madman claims, “We have killed him [God]—you and I.” God, we learn here, has been killed by people. So the question we must now ask is, how can one kill something that is illusory (such as God)? The most probable answer is that one kills an illusion by recognizing that it is an illusion. In other words, one kills God by realizing that God does not exist. If this interpretation is correct, then to say that God is dead is to say that people no longer believe in Him. Or, in other words, to say that God is dead is to say that people no longer believe in the existence of any principle that makes the universe rational.