Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, and Capitalism

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Stephen Mallet

Stephen Mallet

Intelligent scepticism is never an overrated characteristic within modernity. I'm a Politics and International Relations student at Royal Holloway and a freelance writer. I take an interest in a variety of topics, mostly concerning political philosophy and contemporary political affairs. An advocate of critical thinking who prizes analysing the normal and justifying the non-existent.

‘God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?’ This is perhaps the most famous quote from the God killing philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche; the revolutionary of the heavens and critic of Christian morality and ethics. Nietzsche certainly became a controversial figure from the start of his intellectual life and continued to be influential beyond his own mortal life. Retrospectively, his work has been remembered for its decisiveness and forceful attempts to deconstruct what he saw to be a very problematic set of ideas; however, like many notable figures, Nietzsche’s reputation as a critic has somewhat led to an oversight of some of his subtle and more consoling philosophical works.

Nietzsche certainly intended to present a line of thinking that would attempt to disestablish the presence of Christian ethics within Europe. ‘Slave morality’ was one of his most notable slurs, a tarnishing of the ethical system he saw designed to accentuate incapability and weakness among followers, to teach inabilities as virtues; therefore, sexlessness became purity, contentedness became patience, weakness became goodness. Among Nietzsche’s substantial disdain for Christianity, he did not fail to notice the significance and fundamental importance Christian morality and Church had come to play in normal 19th-century European life. Due to this awareness, Nietzsche understood that the decline of Christianity would inevitably come with its own problems. For Nietzsche, the path forward for European morality and society was clear, denounce and deconstruct Christian ethics, and replace it with something more fulfilling and consoling, art.

Late 19th century Europe was already experiencing radical change, economics was becoming the antithesis of social structures; with Marx attacking conventional bourgeois life, and Nietzsche critiquing Christian morality. A substantial rift within faith and politics was emerging and Nietzsche intended on filling it. Art was to be the cure and replacement for conventional ethics, as nothing for Nietzsche could so fervently inspire with mysticism and subtlety as art could. It was time to lay down bibles and read Goethe, marvel at Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, to indulge in Mozart, Bach, and Tchaikovsky. Rather than filling the pews of a Church, the theatre would be truly alive. For this grand project, Nietzsche needed to find a tentative and less condemning approach to surveying his ideas, if he wanted people to listen; eventually, he settled on using the culture and pantheistic gods of Grecian society, to bring faith and art together in one. Thus, The Birth of Tragedy was born.

Within The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche constructed a social dichotomy to emphasise the balance between reason and mysticism; the Apollonian and Dionysian. Apollo and Dionysus were designated in The Birth of Tragedy as the two central principles of Greek culture. How have the Greeks so successfully blended reason and faith, philosophy and art? For Nietzsche, the Apollonian was based on the “principle of individuation” (principium individuationis), Apollo was rational thought, stoicism, logic, and in The Birth of Tragedy, Apollo was for Nietzsche science and philosophy in 19th century Europe. The Dionysian represented the Schopenhauer concept of Will, as the Dionysian gives up the concerns of reason and logic to indulge in the pleasure of belief and the greater whole. Music and art are rarely about human reason, but more so emotion and pleasure, relief and satisfaction. Nietzsche believed that within the human experience there was both an element of the Apollonian and Dionysian; a desire for reason and understanding, but also pleasure and relief.

The Birth of Tragedy emphasises the importance of dialectical values, the need for balance; during Nietzsche’s life, he saw the need to redirect the Dionysian faith and pleasure away from a dying god and towards the ecstasy of art. Contemporarily, art and religion are not considered as essential features of European society, they are still prominent; however, if Nietzsche was to write The Birth of Tragedy now it would likely feature different themes, it would perhaps concern capital. What does The Birth of Tragedy have to do with capitalism? In short, not much, the book was not written in a period in which economics was still emerging as a prominent feature of European society; however, it can be argued that many features of The Birth of Tragedy still apply and can, therefore, be constructively employed still. Dialectical values still matter, and the Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy stands as an analytical feature of social structures.

Capitalism dominates world social and economic structures, nobody was as evidently aware of this as Marx, his various publications attempted to radically redesign capital by disestablishing the value system which idolised Warenfetischismus (commodity fetishism) and its accumulation by bourgeois elites. Consumer capitalism is not absolved of values, in contrast, it heavily depends on the advocacy of central features: entrepreneurship, meritocracy, materialism, individualism, and innovative freedom. Capitalistic societies advocate a position of factual objectivity, that the way things are is because of efficiency, reason, logic; the Apollonian society. Capitalism can be very alienating, Marx emphasised this point when he presented the theory of alienation; work is no longer fulfilling and leisure is a rare luxury. The fact that leisure is a luxury indicates a problematic system. Here my intent is not to try and refute capitalistic values but to discuss primitively, a reformed approach.  To what extent can the system of capitalism be revised in consideration of Apollonian and Dionysian values? Within The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche emphasises that not one force should dominate the other and that the tension between them is necessary. Could a revised set of capitalistic values offer a productive reconstruction of such contrasting features?

If it is presumed that capitalist values are largely in line with Apollonian features, then there is a need for a modern Dionysus. As an economic, social, and political system, ideally, capitalism should aim to incorporate the mysticism and pleasure of Dionysian values. Within various literature, the need for capitalism to extend beyond physiological requirements has been heavily emphasised. Many advocate the abolishment of capital for a subsequent alternative. For a market system to appeal as more than alienating and profiteering there is a need for consideration beyond materialism and commodity fetishism. Love-fulfilment, confidence, leisure, emotional intelligence, are not purchasable goods within existing capitalist structures. There is always a new car you need, ice cream to eat, or phone to buy. Such marketed products often hint at our desire for more and use that want to sells us products. Emotional desire made physiological. An advert of the happy, loving family in the car is emotionally satisfactory, but we only end up with a car. Consumer capitalism is very effective at selling us ‘goods’ to compensate for our underlying needs. It is no surprise that many feel resentment and alienation within a system aimed at manipulating desire for the accumulation of profit. My intent here is not to condemn the capitalist system (although many fairly and reasonably do), my interest is in highlighting weaknesses and exploring plausible alternatives.

Nietzsche’s original proposition in favour of art still largely stands, art can be consoling and effective at providing us with satisfaction for desires beyond the physiological. Songs can be meaningful, paintings can inspire, literature can comfort. In many ways, contemporary faith in the unquestionable benevolence and perfection of capitalism rivals the very blind faith that Nietzsche intended on attacking. God may very well be dead, but money is your new master. The Birth of Tragedy is still a socially relevant piece of philosophical work. We contemporarily lack Dionysian values and desperately need them. If capitalism could be consoled with art, love and confidence marketed as a commodity, then perhaps capitalism could provide for desires beyond the physiological. But until then expect political alternatives to appeal, disenfranchisement to grow, and desires to be left unsatisfied. There is a need for balance between the Apollonian and Dionysian and currently, the scales are severely out of balance.

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Stephen Mallet

Stephen Mallet

Intelligent scepticism is never an overrated characteristic within modernity. I'm a Politics and International Relations student at Royal Holloway and a freelance writer. I take an interest in a variety of topics, mostly concerning political philosophy and contemporary political affairs. An advocate of critical thinking who prizes analysing the normal and justifying the non-existent.

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