Dostoevsky and Nietzsche : The Philosophy of Tragedy


     But suppose we ask again: Wozu solch Lärm? What had happened? Was Nietzsche being destroyed? Was this reason enough to curse Schopenhauer's philosophy and Wagner's music? If we recall Nietzsche's early works, if we consider Zarathustra’s "doctrine" of the superman, we see that, in effect, Nietzsche had no need whatsoever to be so upset. One life had been a failure-there is no great harm in that. Nature makes individuals by the millions, and her task lies not in preserving and developing individual specimens, but in perfecting the species. That is what Schopenhauer said. And that, or almost that, is what Zarathustra said. What does it matter if the youthful dreams of one professor were not fulfilled? Does this really threaten mankind with any danger?

     Nietzsche understood perfectly well that the philosophical principles that he had accepted from Schopenhauer contained his condemnation. If only he had the right to consider himself a remarkable man! But in justification of himself, he could not even refer to his extraordinary talents. As is obvious from the aphorism "A Martyr in Spite of Himself," quoted in the preceding chapter, he saw in himself at that time a mere wretched servant of Wagner. Why then should such a nonentity continue to exist? Wouldn't it be better quietly and inconspicuously to withdraw into the background, to yield his place in life to a more worthy representative of the human species? At that precise time, the opportunity presented itself to Nietzsche to fulfill the lofty demands of generally accepted morality, which Schopenhauer's philosophy had taken under its protection, and to prove, not in words, but in deeds, that the idea of self-abnegation and self-sacrifice is not just a name, but a great force, capable of inspiring man and giving him the courage humbly to endure the most agonizing fate. But Nietzsche acted directly counter to the demands of his former "convictions," which he had received from his great teacher Schopenhauer. In his misfortune, instead of submitting and rejoicing over the past successes and new hopes of mankind - which, above all, would have been in keeping with the convictions expressed in The Birth of Tragedy - Nietzsche decided to verify by his own fate the justice and truth of ideals bequeathed us by several millennia and brilliantly vindicated so many times by the best minds of mankind.

     As early as Human, All-Too-Human, he raised the question of "the values of non-selfish instincts, the instincts of pity, self-denial, and self-sacrifice, which Schopenhauer had so persistently painted in golden colors, idolized, and etherealized (verjenseitigt), until they finally became for him intrinsic values in themselves (an sich)." [Ibid., VII, 292-293] And in order to solve this problem, he no longer turned, as before, when writing his first works, to philosophers, poets, and preachers, in brief, to doctrines that people have transmitted from generation to generation. He felt that he would not find an answer for himself in all this; it was as if all the teachers of mankind had conspired to remain silent about what was most important for him. And for a long time he did not venture to say a single word about his own works, in which he had once spoken with the pride and certainty of an omniscient and all-understanding judge. Only later, many years later, did he make an attempt in the Foreword, or more accurately the Afterword, to The Birth of Tragedy to appraise his first literary attempts. How strangely the human heart is constructed! Despite the fact that this book seems to him to be poorly written in many respects, despite the fact that he is perfectly aware of all its defects ("but the book in which I had poured forth my youthful ardor and suspicion - what an impossible book had to grow from a task so disagreeable to youth!")[Ibid., I, 3], he cannot help feeling the tender affection of a father for it.

     Yet, strictly speaking, he should have hated it just as much as he hated Schopenhauer's books and Wagner's music. It was, after all, a perfect expression of that alienation from life, of that fear of reality, in brief, of that romanticism which, thanks to Nietzsche's typical hothouse-upbringing, had so completely possessed his trusting heart in very early youth. And not only The Birth of Tragedy, but all Nietzsche's early works down to Human, All-Too-Human must have been odious to their author for the same reason. All of them are romanticism of the first water, i.e., a more or less graceful toying with ready-made poetic images and philosophical concepts. For the young Nietzsche, Schopenhauer's word was law. "I belong," he wrote in 1875, when he was already thirty years old and when reality had already begun to make its first formidable demands on him, "to the group of readers of Schopenhauer, who know for certain after reading the first page of his works, that they will read all that he wrote and, in general, listen attentively to his every word. He immediately won my confidence, and it is no less intense now than it was nine years ago. I understand him as if he were writing purposely for me." [Ibid., 398] As you see, Nietzsche had made a poor choice of men in which to place his confidence. And, in general, one must handle "confidence" more carefully. Schopenhauer is least suitable as a teacher of youth, if only because the questions he deals with are usually of very little interest to a young man, even a gifted one. And it was no better in the case of music. Even Wagner, with his operas, is dangerous for immature people, for he obliges them to enter strange realms that are beyond their comprehension. Later on, Nietzsche himself realized this quite clearly. "I had a genuinely passionate love for art," he writes, "and finally saw nothing but art in all that exists - in those years when other passions usually excite a man's heart." [Ibid., XI, 130]

     But, strictly speaking, confidence in Schopenhauer's doctrine and love of Wagner are by no means always so fatally destructive for a person. Had Nietzsche's life proceeded without chance complications, he would perhaps have preserved in his heart his feelings of love and his devotion for his teachers until ripe old age. Romanticism by no means always mutilates and spoils human destiny. On the contrary, it often successfully protects people from a clash with reality and helps for long years to preserve that beauty of spirit, that clarity and resplendence of views, that confidence in life, which we most of all esteem in philosophers. And to his dying day, Nietzsche could have gone on developing the ideas on which he had based The Birth of Tragedy. He could have taught people to reconcile themselves to the horrors of life; he could have done as his predecessors and glorified "the philosopher, the artist, and the saint." And he would probably have won the deep respect of his contemporaries and fame from posterity: after all, Professor Riehl’ called The Birth of Tragedy a work of genius. [Alois Riehl (1844-1924), a German positivist, neo-Kantian philosopher, logician, and critic - S.R.] True, it is perhaps possible to see a certain political cunning in the German professor's appraisal. Perhaps Professor Riehl did not find it convenient to condemn absolutely everything in Nietzsche, and, wishing to give the appearance of an impartial and fair judge, he perhaps preferred to exaggerate his praise of this book of Nietzsche, which most closely resembles the books that everyone else writes, in order to have a free hand later on to attack his other works. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that if Nietzsche had continued to write in the spirit of The Birth of Tragedy, he would have had to disassociate himself from commonly accepted opinions and convictions only in so far as this is allowed by the prevailing ideas on permissible and desirable originality. Of course, at the beginning of his literary career, he would also have had enemies, but in the end, he would have achieved that virtuosity of presentation which even subdues enemies and most of all guarantees a man the joyful respect of the people around him. Undoubtedly, Nietzsche would have written differently under different circumstances, and Professor Riehl could with a clear conscience have called his works brilliant.

     But fate decided otherwise. Instead of letting Nietzsche calmly concern himself with the future of all mankind and even the whole universe, it asked him, as it did Dostoevsky, one short and simple question - about his own future. And this highly perceptive philosopher, who had intrepidly viewed the horrors of the whole world, became confused and flustered, like a child who has lost its way in a forest, before this simple and reputedly easy problem. In this matter, his past learning proved useless, even cumbersome, to him. "Everything solemn has become odious to me," he wrote. "What are we?" [Nietzsche, op. cit., XI, 153] Yet, what he called "solemn" was everything that he had formerly lived by, everything that he had regarded as the deepest wisdom, and in the dissemination of which he saw his predestined purpose. Now, all this had to be abandoned. But what would then remain? How could he look people in the face, what could he say to Wagner, how could he remain alone with himself? For a time, Nietzsche made attempts to reconcile his new life with his old "convictions." As was already pointed out, he wrote articles about Wagner and Schopenhauer, hoping that habit would prevail, and that he would again accommodate himself to a faith in ideals, which was so necessary to him now. But his calculation was false. Simulated dedication, even for a man in ordinary circumstances, is not an easy matter. And for Nietzsche, in his horrible situation, it became sheer torture. He saw that it was impossible to live as before. And knowing what awaited him, knowing that his friends, chiefly Wagner, would never forgive his treachery, he turned from the old gods and set out on a new path, although the new path as well promised nothing but danger, agonizing doubt, and perpetual loneliness.

Orphus system

   home    intro    texts    links    biblio ToC