Nietzsche's Dionysian pessimism and the denial of the Will in Schopenhauer

One of Nietzsche's thesis in The Birth of Tragedy is how Greek tragedy was the product of a synthesis between two very different artistic impulses, the Apollonian and the Dionysian. But what exactly does that mean? Firstly, ancient Greeks had a popular wisdom derived from their great sensibilities that led to a pessimistic worldview: “Extremely sensible, capable of great sufferings, very vulnerable to pain, the Greek had in this condition a danger to life: the painful violence of existence could lead him towards pessimism, towards the denial of existence itself.” (MACHADO, 2017) Nietzsche considered Greek popular wisdom when he wrote that, in the myth, king Midas found Silenus, a god of the wild, in the woods and asked him what was the most desirable thing. Silenus, who lived drinking and singing in the forest — in fact, he became a companion of Dionysus —, refused to answer, but after the king insisted, he said that the best thing is beyond the reach of men: not to be born. So the second best thing is to die as soon as possible.

Baccus and Ariadne, by Titian

Greek art had this starting point according to Nietzsche. Since art and religion were practically fused together in Greece, the very creation of the gods of the Olympus represented an answer to the existential problem summed up in the Wisdom of Silenus. Apollo, one of the Olympians, is treated by Nietzsche as symbol of measure, civilization, beautiful proportions, which serve as kind of great wall keeping the natural world at bay, since it is chaotic, painful, deadly, and always in constant change. Apollonian art has as its biggest representative the Homeric epic, with its heroes and beautiful gods. In the face of the pessimistic wisdom that annihilates life, Apollonian art arose to justify life, to claim that it is good, that men have value both together and individually. The Apollonian drive also represents the principle of individuation, that which defines each thing in the world as something rather than something else. There's a need of ordering in the world which this artistic impulse tries to deal with.

It is very import to make it clear that the gods of the Olympus and the art that accompanies them, although serving as defense against unordered nature, are not a form of escapism from the world. On the contrary, the Apollonian art sticks its roots in the world and intends to order it: existence and life in this world are worth it because of Apollonian art. Far from escaping the world to a reality only reachable by ascension, the Olympic religion and Homeric poetry sought to create a fortress in reality and defend it against the intrusion of a nature that is painful, chaotic, ugly, and cause of so much suffering. There is no beauty in that which is natural, but only in that which is ordered. Beauty consists in appearance. It is appearance that makes life desirable: “In order to escape from the pessimistic popular wisdom, the Greek creates a world of beauty that, instead of expressing the truth of the world, it is a strategy so that this truth doesn't come out.” (MACHADO, 2017)

Appearance is necessary because the primordial One, the metaphysical reality that exists behind things, needs beautiful appearance so it can free and individuate itself without destroying itself. This primordial One is seen by Nietzsche in the same way as Schopenhauer sees the Will: it is the real behind the world of appearances. But it is a reality that is impossible to tolerate, and that is why Apollonian art is created. It is the Apollonian impulse that brings order, individuation, the State, etc. This is the first stage analysed by Nietzsche. The second stage is that of the Dionysian art, derived of cults that came from outside of Greece and were eventually embraced by the Greek. These cults had as their figure the wild, wandering, drunk and orgiastic god Dionysus. While the Apollonian drive represented the dreamlike in the real — a civilizing dream, a dream of beautiful forms and proportions, individuated, ordered and measured — the Dionysian impulse brought with it the desire to return to the primordial One, the world of the Will, which is natural, chaotic and without measure. The Dionysian celebrates these aspects of reality, seeking more of a mystic experience of unity with everything than a desire of order and separation. This represented a danger not only to the Apollonian art and the Olympic gods, but also to the very way of life of the Greeks, since it were the Apollonian art and the Olympic religion that sustained the notion of what was to be a Greek man.

Drunkenness produced a return to the natural state where there's no differentiation, it shook the foundations not only of civilization but also existence, because it revealed once again to the Greek man that the situation in which he lived was only a dream of civilization, of individuality, of order and beauty. And if this is all a dream, we go back the Wisdom of Silenus: it is better not to be born; the second best thing is to die early. This is when, according to Nietzsche, a new form of artistic expression arrived to save the Greek man from pessimism once again: tragedy. Citing Roberto Machado, in Nietzsche and the Truth:
This new type of art — which represents the epitome of Greek civilization — does not intend to establish another trench, another bulkhead, another great wall that stops the entrance and the expansion of the Dionysian, as Apollonian art and epic poetry sought to do. The characteristic of the new artistic strategy was to integrate, and not repress, the Apollonian element, transforming the very sentiment of disgust caused by the horror and absurd of existence in a representation capable of making life possible. (MACHADO, 2017)
And in the words of Nietzsche (S.d):
Tragedy is beautiful insofar as the instinctive movement that creates the horrible in life manifests itself in tragedy as an artistic instinct, with its smile, like that of a child at play. What is exciting in tragedy itself is that we see the terrible instinct become an instinct of art and play before us. (apud MACHADO, 2017, p.37)
Tragic art is capable of uniting the Apollonian and the Dionysian, appearance and essence, the veil of Maya and the Will. However, it is a union that is not shown as a pacific and immutable coexistence, but as conflict between the two forces, where the Apollonian knowledge is temporarily defeated by the Dionysian. That is, the individuation is exposed as being the cause of all our pain and suffering, according to the Nietzschean interpretation. Nietzsche (S.d.) writes:  “The most universal form of tragic destiny is the victorious defeat or the victory achieved in defeat. Every time the individuality is defeated: and, however, we feel its annihilation as a victory” (apud, MACHADO, 2017, p.38)

The artist's metaphysics: “[...] is the conception that art is the appropriate metaphysical activity of man, the conception that only art allows an experience of life as being something indestructibly powerful and cheerful, despite the changes in phenomena.” (MACHADO, 2017) Nietzsche saw in artist's metaphysics a response to conceptual metaphysics and science. He believed that tragic art had a short life in Greece, disappearing abruptly, and identified Euripides and Socrates as the main figures responsible for the death of tragedy. For Nietzsche, Euripides was responsible for reducing the importance and the usage of an element he considered crucial in tragedy: the tragic choir. This element, used during the play, was the main focus in the tragedies that preceded Euripides, precisely because it was through the tragic choir that the audience could feel what was happening — and not only understand the events in the play as moral lessons or anything else. Nietzsche's thesis is that tragedy isn't supposed to be explained, but felt, and that is where its importance reside. It isn't merely a form of catharsis, but a drug, a therapeutic tonic that makes those who watch it feel their emotions without the need to extract from them a greater understanding of how the world functions. It is not that we can't learn from them, but this learning was connected to affections rather than to intellect. Without the choir this didn't happen, according to Nietzsche.

Euripides would be a representative of Socrates in tragic art, and because of this Nietzsche declares him to be the writer that precipitated the death of tragedy — truly a suicide, since Euripides wrote tragedy. Nietzsche's thesis affirms the following: while before Euripides tragedy made the spectators touch the real without the need to see it in an intelligible way, after Euripides we have the arrival of “Socratic aesthetic”, which occurs when the poet is subordinated to the philosopher, the one who analyses the world through reason and intends to have knowledge of that which is universal and necessary. Tragedy before did not have the need to link the events by a visible logic, events didn't have to have explicit cause and effect. Its importance resided in making the audience feel, not understand. This, according to Nietzsche, was intolerable for the philosopher. Aeschylus and Sophocles wrote their tragedies so that they could be acted in such a way that they caused a feeling of vitalist drunkenness in the spectators. Euripides, on the contrary, “[...] became the poet of Socratic rationalism: his criticism of art is the extension of the Socratic criticism of men that executed their duties out of instinct because they weren't conscious of them.” (MACHADO, 2017)

Acting out of instinct without trying to understand what one does goes against everything sought by the philosopher, which is the clearness of scientific knowledge. Tragic and artistic knowledge, that kind of understanding that connects the spectator to the primordial One, to the Will, without the necessity of a clear and conscious comprehension of the metaphysical mechanism, it something completely despised by the philosopher — and Euripides is the philosopher's spokesman among the tragic poets. Socratic philosophy, which is the mother of all sciences, including modern science, is the search for a detailed understanding of nature. It seeks to penetrate nature and reveal the essence of the world behind the appearances. While the veil of Maya covers the eyes of men, philosophy unravels the world, revealing the truth behind illusion.

Nietzsche was highly influenced by Schopenhauer, and this influence is very apparent in The Birth of Tragedy, his first book. For Schopenhauer, the essence behind appearances was the Will, a metaphysical force that is unitary, timeless and immanent, that animates all existence: from the most elementary forces of Newtonian physics to the most complex organisms. The Will doesn't have a rational purpose, an ultimate end, but only the immediate necessity of objectifying itself in things. It is from this that the individuation that we see in the material world comes from. Although we appear to be separate in the Will's representations, although there is the illusion of a rational order that we can unravel using intellect and observation, the essence behind this illusion of natural multiplicity is a irrational and chaotic Unity:
[...] about the comprehension that Schopenhauer has of the Will, we could say that, as a gratuitous and blind impulse, as an avid thirst of life, the Will would objectify immediately in ideas and mediately in phenomena. In order to satiate its incessant desire for life, the primitive unity of the Will would multiply itself by means of the principle of individuation and of causality, spreading itself in the multitude of things that constitute the world of phenomena, but even the smallest and most isolated of these fragments would remain one, a product and expression of the Will. (DIAS, 1997)
The Will, both for Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, is chaotic, unstable and cause of pain and suffering for living beings, through which it objectifies itself — pain and sufferings that have no other purpose than to perpetuate new individual representations of the Will. But while for Schopenhauer art could serve as a temporary denial of the Will, an escape from life's chaotic pain, for Nietzsche the Will is artistic in itself, and it redeems itself in the very appearances it produces. And this existential redemption doesn't occur only through tragic art, but also through Apollonian art, for example. Already during the Apollonian moment of Greek art there exists a remedy against the pains of the world, against the natural and chaotic becoming. Tragedy comes only to reconcile the Apollonian and Dionysian spirits, something that, for Nietzsche, created a superior form of redemption via art. However, as was explained earlier, for him, even the Apollonian art was already capable of making life worth living:
This happy necessity of a dreamlike experience was in the same way expressed by the Greeks in Apollo: Apollo, in the quality of the god that has configuring powers, is at the same time the divinatory god. According to the root of his “resplendent” name, the divinity of light, he also reigns above the beautiful appearances of the world of fantasy. Superior truth, the perfection of these states, in its contraposition with a common, gap-like and intelligible reality, followed by a profound consciousness of the healing and sane nature of sleep and dream, is simultaneously the symbolic analogous of divinatory capability and also artistic capability, by which life becomes possible and worth living. (NIETZSCHE, 2005)
This is in complete contradiction with Schopenhauer's pessimism and his Will denying ethics, which considers abstaining from the world as a definitive response to human condition. Already in this first work by Nietzsche we find what he would later call Dionysian pessimism: “This is the last case is the romantic pessimism in its most expressive form, be it in the Schopenhauerian philosophy of the Will, be it in Wagnerian music [...] That there could still be a very different, classic, pessimism — such intuition belongs to me [...]” (NIETZSCHE, 2001) In great part, Nietzsche's philosophy consists in an eternal attempt to repudiate the life denying pessimism of Schopenhauer, which Nietzsche started to contest. About his type of pessimism, he writes: “[...] This pessimism of the future — and it will come! I already see it coming! — I call it Dionysian pessimism.” (NIETZSCHE, 2001) This “brand” of pessimism of his would be a variant of the pessimism he saw in Greek tragedy, which embraces life with its pains and misfortunes.

We can only speculate what Schopenhauer would think of Nietzsche's pessimism. But it seems obvious that he would reject it and wouldn't even consider it a negative view of existence. When we read passages of the World as Will and as Representation it becomes hard to image Schopenhauer agreeing with the thesis that we should embrace becoming with all the pain and suffering contained in it. All of Schopenhauerian philosophy is like a great climb towards the summit of a terrible knowledge: that there is nothing good to be gained with the perpetuation of this state of things we call “life”. Even the arts, especially music, with all of its beauty and capacity of escapism, is incapable of being victorious against the Will. Therefore, the best we can do is to deny the Will in ourselves, not by killing ourselves, but abstaining from life. For Schopenhauer: “[...] we can call this total auto suppression and denial of the Will as the supreme good, summo bonum, and see it as the only and radical way to cure the disease against which all other means are anodyne, they're only palliative.” (SCHOPENHAUER, 2005)

But there was another pessimism philosopher that was capable of commenting Nietzsche's philosophy since he lived in the 20th century. I'm referring to Cioran, of course. We might not know exactly what Schopenhauer would think of Dionysian pessimism, but we have the thoughts of another philosopher that, in his way, also denied life and existence in a more profound and extreme manner, since Cioran was skeptic about precise metaphysical postulates. His denial of life happened because he considered consciousness indispensable and inseparable from pain and suffering. For Cioran, being born is existing, and existence equals suffering. About Nietzsche, Cioran wrote:
To a student who wanted to know where I stood with regard to the author of Zarathustra, I replied that I had long since stopped reading him. Why? “I find him to naive...” I hold his enthusiasms, his fervors against him. He demolished so many idols only to replace them with others: a false iconoclast, with adolescent aspects and a certain virginity, a certain innocence inherent in his solitary's career. He observed men only from a distance. Had he come closer, he could have neither conceived nor promulgated the superman, that preposterous, laughable, even grotesque chimera, a crotchet which could occur only to a mind without time to age, to know the long serene disgust of detachment. Marcus Aurelius is much closer to me. Not a moment's hesitation between the lyricism of frenzy and the prose of acceptance: I find more comfort, more hope even, in the weary emperor than in the thundering prophet. (CIORAN, 1976)


CIORAN, Emil. The Trouble with Being Born. New York: Arcade, 1976. Tradução para o inglês de Richard Howard.

DIAS, Rosa. “A influência de Schopenhauer na filosofia da arte de Nietzsche em O Nascimento da Tragédia” In Cadernos Nietzsche. n. 3, São Paulo, 1997.

MACHADO, Roberto. Nietzsche e a Verdade. São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 2017.

NIETZSCHE, Friedrich. O nascimento da tragédia. São Paulo: Cia das Letras, 2005. Tradução de J. Guinsburg.

______. A Gaia Ciência. São Paulo: Cia das Letras, 2001. Tradução de Paulo César Lima de Souza.

SCHOPENHAUER, Arthur. O Mundo como Vontade e Representação. São Paulo: UNESP, 2005. Tradução de Jair Barboza.