Encountering Tragedy: Thoughts on Nietzsche and Plato

The goal of this post is to put onto ‘paper’ some thoughts regarding Nietzsche’s rendering of tragedy in The Birth of Tragedy and the way in which tragedy functions in Plato’s The Republic. I have prepared these thoughts within the context of writing a paper on Nietzsche and Bloch and preparing the syllabus for the introduction to philosophy course I am currently teaching at California State University Bakersfield. As I am now unable to produce anything like a lucid non-academic blog post, I have chosen to write this in essay format.

Thesis

The confrontation Nietzsche seeks throughout his project with the figure of Socrates, I argue, is summarily available to his readers through the way in which Plato construes tragedy negatively as an inappropriately imitative form of art. My thesis is that Plato’s censorship of particular genres and modes of storytelling reflect the positive content Nietzsche locates within tragedy for the unleashing of the human without the constraint of a purely Apolline, epistemic, ontological commitment.

Defining Key Terms

Several key terms forms the basic building blocks for my argument and necessitate clear definition – aesthetics and tragedy. Ancillary concepts, which I define within the body of the essay, are “affirmation” and “repetition.” The order of my argument follows: aesthetics, tragedy, repetition and affirmation as tragic, and hope.

By aesthetics, I am referring to the realm of experience in which concepts of beauty, terror, or any other example within the range of human being finds expression through art and by which art elicits from people such emotions and experiences.[1] Such experiences do not occur in abstraction from philosophical concerns regarding ontology and politics, rather, the aesthetic names an integral doorway into such concerns, engaging them in ways that formal discourse cannot reach.[2]

By tragedy, I refer to particular aesthetic performances on dramatic stages. Such narratives are those that frame heroic existence against the background of the inevitability of the heroes demise. Fate will always destroy the life of the tragic person. Yet, the person continues to fight, she resists her fated destiny even to the point of death. It is precisely this resistance that occupies my attention; tragedy renders individuals in-themselves, against any transcendental grounding or guarantee of their ontological identity.

What Aesthetics Do

Insofar as I identify the tragic as a particular kind of aesthetic production capable of producing specific effects in the political lives of persons, the role of aesthetics in relationship to other modes of inquiry becomes clear; the aesthetic dimension acts together with other modes of human creation as an access points into the metaphysical realities of the world. Poetic prose, musical movements and other formations of creative art expose what Nietzsche, following Schopenhauer, refers to as the primordial one. The primordial one is the basically immanent unity from which individuated entities, social formations and power relations all arise. The one is the causal core of the world, its common substance. This “one” is precisely that which individuated being, in its initial formation before the tragic experience, denies in its persistence to remain individuated, within the status quo’s projected ontology.

With regard to the general concept of art in this context, the aesthetic moves the person from the everydayness of life in which people find themselves individuated in their notions of identity and truth. The presupposition is that the ways people exist in societal structures of power correspond to reality as such. Hierarchical thinking in morality, religion and politics serve as examples for this initial state of the person in the world.

The critical function of aesthetic production is to collapse the structure of being, to render the world to the audience as essentially one with regard to its causal contingency, its lack of teleological grounding. Such a collapse disorients notions of propriety with regard to social relations. Thus, Nietzsche’s writing on the genealogy of morals proclaims, “It might even be possible that what constituted the value of these good and revered things is precisely that they are insidiously related, tied to, and involved with these wicked, seemingly opposite things – maybe even one with them in essence.”[3]

The aesthetic is always metaphysical even as it seeks to project an anti-metaphysical posture; the aesthetic is in a verbal sense, claiming something about the nature of reality within its moving of individuals toward a reflexive awareness of one’s connection to nature’s unified causal meaninglessness. The critical nature of tragedy is that the tragic performs the function of instilling in the audience a reflexive posture with regard to such meaninglessness.

The reflexivity Nietzsche wishes to engender through tragic drama is not the sort of posture one finds in the form of idealist thought. Rather, in affirming that existence, that nature itself, is an aesthetic phenomenon, Nietzsche advances a vision of human being that turns the nihilist pain of nature’s being into a resource for what Deleuze refers to as “the joy of affirmation as such,” the reorienting of the self to the immediacy of experience. The problem is not individuation in-itself but rather the sort of individuated structures of life that obscure primal realities of chaotic force in the erection of concepts of meaning.

Affirmation in the context of the movement into the primordial pain and chaos of existence and back out into an individuated state of self we may term “repetition.”[4] I want to position “repetition” within Giles Deleuze’s reading of Nietzsche; repetition denotes the affirmation of the validity of every singularity of being, different from the other and from transcendental definition. Repetition is the affirmation of every individuation that occurs after exposure to the primordial pain of reality humans experience through aesthetic exposure.[5]

Here I must be clear with regard to the differentiation between an affirmation of individuation and that of subjectivity. Subjectivity is a concept reliant upon the structures of traditional ontological discourse. Repetition, however, is the affirmation of life’s unlimited singularity within the univocal reality of the world’s chaos. In this sense, Nietzsche’s tragic movement of the person constitutes an affirmation of agency in the moment.

Nietzsche’s tragic person corresponds to an agency of “will.” This is a notion of agency in which all transcendental conditions for “the subject” become diffuse across the plane of immanent exposure to the primal realities of life .

We are to recognize that everything which comes into being must be prepared for painful destruction; we are forced to gaze into the terrors of individual existence – and yet we are not to freeze in horror: its metaphysical solace tears us momentarily out of the turmoil of changing figures. For brief moments we are truly the primordial being itself and we feel its unbound greed and lust for being…we are pierced by the furious sting of these pains at the very moment when, as it were, we become one with the immeasurable….Despite fear and pity, we are happily alive.[6]

Nature as Aesthetic Phenomenon

Nietzsche defines nature as an essentially aesthetic phenomenon, and in so doing addresses the problematic political relationship between oneness and individuation. Individuation in the first instance denotes a political ontology of an authoritarian nature; it denies the primal oneness and contingency of the world, and subsumes the subversive transgression against nature that is human agency in light of contingent being. Only an ontology that abandons this notion of individuation within the order of nature is able to posit a concept of identity that does not subsume the person within a hierarchical, or theological, structure of being-qua-being.

Rather, the Nietzschean realisation of tragic being attempts to ‘ground’ singular existent persons on no thing other than their self-assertion, their will-to-be, in themselves.[7] Tragic individuation turns out to be a notion of agency, which denies nature’s order in the assertion of the person’s singularity against the backdrop of death. The person in everyday existence is transformed into a tragic hero insofar as she asserts her singular newness of life in the face of her fated being-in-one, insofar as she grabs ahold of the contingency of her being and lets go of the false individuations, which metaphysicians and moralists sale for comfort.

In order to undo the condition of un-reflexive individuation and reach the concept of subversive agency, Nietzsche must render nature itself as an essentially aesthetic phenomenon. Nietzsche’s assertion takes form in the theoretical arena of metaphysical problems concerning transcendence and immanence, oneness and plurality; the question is how does one justify existence in all of its individuated forms, which include Church dogma, when the nihilistic reality of oneness in-death looms overhead?

By posing the question in this context Nietzsche takes aim against both the theoretical underpinnings and the societal structuring of human reality itself. Tragedy is that movement of music, bodies on the stage and emotions that confronts the individuated audience and beckons them into reality’s inevitable unity. The tragic rendering of the gods, for example, illustrates this function of tragic drama insofar as the gods are made to live the lives of humans and represent the elemental forms of nature. Through this representation the gods seduce human beings to continue living through a catharsis of seeing the truth of their being mediated. Thus, Nietzsche calls nature as an aesthetic phenomenon “the only satisfactory theodicy,” justifying the world through solidarity as opposed to logic.[8]

Here the importance of thinking tragedy becomes clear with regard to religion; the gods who correspond to the capricious natural elements function in a mythological sense in the same way as the stage itself, creating the necessary distance in which the audience is able to approach the nihilistic core of being without being overwhelmed and destroyed. Religious imagery and experience will function for Bloch in a similar fashion, bringing the religious person into contact with parts of their political and ontological reality that are unknown prior to the aesthetic experience.

The Mechanism of Tragedy: Schein

I want to explain the mechanics of Nietzsche’s tragedy that allows for the creation of the necessary distance between the audience and the reality of the world through the gods and stage. I wish to draw attention to the role of “semblance” as the primary vehicle through which tragedy accomplishes its dual task of deconstruction and reconstruction of individuals. The link between ‘representation’ and metaphysics is the essential feature of Nietzsche’s theory of nature and semblance is where this link occurs; semblance is the artistic creation on which human meaning is founded.

Semblance names the aesthetic element that Nietzsche finds basic in human existence. Nietzsche begins The Birth of Tragedy by accounting for the occurrence of dreaming as one instance of semblance’s appearance, denoting its basically hidden place in the constitution of human nature. Nietzsche writes, “When this dream-reality is most alive, we nevertheless retain a pervasive sense that it is semblance…philosophical natures even have a presentiment that hidden beneath the reality in which we live and have our being there also lies a…quite different reality…this too is a semblance.”[9] Thus, the world of human life is essentially aesthetic semblance.

To be clear, semblance does not denote something unreal, but rather identifies the mechanical reality of how humans think about the real. Tragedy does something to the audience insofar as it engages this hitherto unknown metaphysical feature of human being. Tragedy moves the audience into the flux of the emotive and spiritual realms of their existence. This movement questions the terms of agreed upon social ontology in its exposure of ontology itself, as a discourse of power, as semblance. The deconstruction of ontology itself frees the individual, empowering her to assert her will in-the-world without regard for essentialist notions of identity or ultimate meaning beyond her immanently given self.

Plato’s Censorship of Schein

It is the role of schein in the tragic production which Plato finds damaging in The Republic. Semblance of this kind enables humans, through an imitative experience to sympathize with and to live-into the reality of the stage, in opposition to the hitherto unacknowledged semblance of everyday existence in ordered society. Such imitative possibility is the definition of subversion with regard to the necessary ordering of the polis’ life.

Plato establishes early on in book III of The Republic a sense of moral propriety with which the rulers of the polis are to judge particular stories. Interestingly, and politically telling given the above analysis of Nietzsche, Plato positions the poetic merit of a story as coterminous with a story’s potential to affect corruption upon the city’s youth.[10] More pertinent to the theoretical divide between Nietzsche’s upholding of tragedy against the figure of Socrates, however, is the way in which Plato proceeds to define three specific modes by which one is able to tell a particular story. “Now I think I can make it clear t you what I couldn’t make clear before, that one type of poetry and storytelling is purely imitative – this is tragedy and comedy, as you say. In another type, the poet tells his own story…The third type, using both imitation and narrative.”[11]

Each type of storytelling corresponds with a particular set of behaviors and habits that each story produces within people. In short, the founders should censor any aesthetic production that engenders imitation inappropriate to one’s “natural aptitude” and corresponding role within the city.[12] It is precisely this schematization and censorship of aesthetic production itself, suspending concern for particular content, that separates the Socratic posture and the liberated will of human spirit in Nietzsche’s work.

The drive of the Socratic posture is the equation of knowledge and wisdom, and the political correspondent equates to each manifests as the properly ordered, intelligible, society.[13] The power of the unconstrained tragic production to pull oneself into the purely imitative posture subverts this rational, scientific and moral order.

“For there is an infinite number of points on the periphery of the circle of science, and while we have no way of foreseeing how the circle could ever be completed, a noble and gifted man inevitably encounters, before the mid-point of his existence, boundary points on the periphery like this, where he stares into that which cannot be illuminated. When, to his horror, he sees how logic curls up around itself at these limits and finally bites its own tail, then a new form of knowledge breaks through, tragic knowledge, which, simply to be endured, needs art for protection and as medicine.”[14]

Conclusion

What tragedy breaks apart is the inability of the person to exist in limitation with regard to one’s relationship to aesthetic production. The danger Plato’s locates in comedy and tragedy as imitative kinds of aesthetic production is exactly where Nietzsche locates the horrific freedom for life after tragedy. Tragic truth obliterates the surety of moral and epistemic order, leaving the door open for tragic agency in the world to emerge in opposition to every sense of propriety.

What I find most interesting is how each thinker’s analysis, opposite as they are with regard to prescriptive argument, details the same affect aesthetic form has upon people. The formal movement that occurs in the imitative tragedy is what is most dangerous and liberative. In this sense, both Plato and Nietzsche locate the potency of tragedy in the same fashion. The only difference is with regard to ontological commitment.

[1] Audi, R., The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Second Edition: 1999, Cambridge England; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 12. “Questions specific to the field of aesthetics are: Is there a special attitude, the aesthetic attitude, which we should take toward works of art and the natural environment, and what is it like? Is there a distinctive type of experience, an aesthetic experience, and what is it? Is there a special object of attention that we can call the aesthetic object? Finally, is there a distinctive value, aesthetic value, comparable with moral, epistemic, and religious values?”

[2] Eagleton, T. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. 1990, Oxford, UK ; Cambridge, Mass., USA; Blackwell. p. 3. Eagleton, admitting that his readers will most likely find his definition of aesthetic too vague or all-encompassing with regard to the political qualifications of aesthetics writes, “But is the aesthetic returns with such persistence, it is partly because of a certain interdeterminancy of definition which allows it to figure in a varied span of preoccupations: freedom and legality, spontaneity and necessity, self-determination, autonomy, particularity and universality, along with several others. My argument, broadly speaking, is that the category of the aesthetic assumes the importance it does in modern Europe because in speaking of art it speaks of these other matters too, which are at the heart of the middle class’s struggle for political hegemony.”

[3] Nietzsche, F.W. and W.A. Kaufmann, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. 1989, New York: Vintage Books. p. 10

[4] Deleuze, G., Nietzsche and Philosophy. European Perspectives. 1983, New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 71-72. Here Deleuze offers a picture of how repetition manifests within Nietzsche’s work via the concept of the eternal return. “The eternal return is the being of becoming. But becoming is double: becoming-active and becoming-reactive, becoming-active of reactive forces and becoming reactive of active forces. But only becoming-active has being; it would be contradictory for the being of becoming to be affirmed of a becoming-reactive, of a becoming that is itself nihilistic. The eternal return would become contradictory if it were the return of reactive forces. The eternal return teaches us that becoming-reactive has no being. Indeed, it also teaches us of the existence of a becoming-active. It necessarily produces becoming-active by reproducing becoming…The old song is the cycle and the whole, universal being. But the complete formula of affirmation is: the whole, yes, universal being, yes, but universal being ought to belong to a single becoming, the whole ought to belong to a single moment.” Repetition is the continual movement into the newness of life in-the-world, a decision to be oneself, to create oneself, to be(come) one’s singular existent, to borrow from Jean-Luc Nancy’s lexicon.

[5] Deleuze. Difference and Repetition. p. 57. Here the relationship between the dismantling of transcendental reasoning and the affirmation of will-in-itself, through within the singular occurrences difference as ‘will’, becomes clear. “It is always differences which resemble one another, which are analogous, opposed or identical: difference is behind everything, but behind difference there is nothing. Each difference passes through all the others; it must ‘will’ itself or find itself through all the others.”

[6] [6] Nietzsche, F.W., R. Geuss, and R. Speirs, The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. 1999, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 80-81. Here Nietzsche is specifically describing the function of Dionysian art. However, for the purposes of my analysis of agency, his description illustrates the sort of movement into the univocal reality of chaos from which the will emerges in assertive, tragically heroic, force.

[7] Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy. p. 82. While Nietzsche provides other examples of the sort of hierarchies he attempting to deconstruct, or more appropriately ‘reevaluate,’ here Nietzsche illustrates the logic behind such hierarchical individuations of human being. The logic which Nietzsche opposes is, “the dialectical drive towards knowledge and the optimism of science…there is an eternal struggle between the theoretical and the tragic views of the world.” Socrates represents the quintessential anti-tragic thinker insofar as he embodies this posture toward knowledge over and against tragic embodiment of life in-the-world as primary. While Nietzsche refers specifically to science in this instance, theological morality Here, as my invocation of Heidegger’s neologism suggests, the Nietzschean posture informs the Heideggerian disavowal of metaphysics, of the onto-theological constitution of metaphysics. Against “Being” as “ground,” the most elementary definition of “nature,” both Nietzsche and Heidegger render Being as somewhat perverse, as chaotic and in opposition to singular beings, participating in reality with them but not defining their various essences. See: M. Heidegger, Identity and Difference. 1st ed. 1969, New York,: Harper & Row. p. 57.

[8] Nietzsche. Birth of Tragedy. p. 24.

[9] Nietzsche. Birth of Tragedy. p. 15.

[10] Plato, G.R.F. Ferrari, and T. Griffith, The Republic. Cambridge texts in the history of political thought. 2000, Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 71-72. Here, Plato specifically refers to the censoring of theological stories. “We shall have to ask them to stop being so negative about the underworld, and find something positive to say about it instead…Not that they lack poetic merit, or that they don’t give pleasure to most people. They do. But the more merit they have, the less suitable they are for boys and men who are expected to be free, and fear slavery more than death.”

[11] Plato. The Republic. p. 82

[12] Plato. The Republic. p. 52. Natural aptitude, the natural place of each individual in the world, forms the basis by which the person socializes into society. “And one thing immediately struck me when you said that, which is that one individual is by nature quite unlike another individual, that they differ in their natural aptitudes, and that different people are equipped to perform different tasks.”

[13] Plato. The Republic. p. 60. “And are love of knowledge and love of wisdom the same thing?’ ‘They are.”

[14] Nietzsche. Birth of Tragedy. p. 75.

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3 thoughts on “Encountering Tragedy: Thoughts on Nietzsche and Plato

  1. This little essay has some fine turns of thought, the best and worst of which deserve careful and repeated attention. Some very curious questions raised, and often cogent answers given; but slippery in the finest ways, not all of it without logical contradiction. But there is a Science here, to me that much is clear. Perhaps poignant criticism can be had on some points, which may clarify more than oppose that given. Very fun read…and shall remain so. Thanks!

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