Full Table of Contents
21. Will to Truth
22. Eternal Recurrence
23.1 The Dionysian Aesthetic Impulse in Ancient Greece
23.2 Dionysian Philosophy
23.3 Dionysian Experience
With regard to what “truthfulness” is, perhaps nobody has ever been sufficiently truthful. [BGE, 177]
Although most modern thinkers have rejected much of ascetic discipline, and no longer believe in the world beyond, they retain an important remnant of asceticism, namely a devotion to truth as a sign of personal purity. They pretend that their love of truth is something totally disinterested and unselfish, failing to recognize that it too is an inversion of Will to Power.
In the last chapter, we read Nietzsche’s claim that nothing besides the ascetic ideal has yet offered meaning to man. Some may retort that modern science (i.e., all scholarship, not just the physical sciences) offers such a counter-ideal. Science, they claim, has the courage and will to be itself, without reference to God, another world, or negative virtues. Yet those who proclaim the triumph of “science” abuse the term, Nietzsche says.
Science has today absolutely no belief in itself, let alone in an ideal superior to itself, and wherever science still consists of passion, love, ardour, suffering it is not the opposition to that ascetic ideal, but rather the incarnation of its latest and noblest form. [GM, 3rd, 23]
Think of the modern scientist or scholar: he denies himself bodily pleasures for the sake of science. He devotes himself to the good of humanity. He values knowledge for knowledge’s sake. These are all ascetic ideals, minus the overt theological rationalization. Scientists who lack such idealism do not replace it with another meaning, but are dry mechanical laborers who offer no meaning at all. Those who believe in ideals draw them from somewhere other than science: i.e., from the Christian, liberal or socialist traditions, which all manifest the ascetic ideal.
Nietzsche does not begrudge anyone thinking they should just do their useful work in a corner and delight in it. He rejoices in their work, but the fact of science requiring hard work and having contented workers is “no proof of science as a whole having today one end, one will, one ideal, one passion for a great faith.” [GM, 3rd, 23] Nietzsche rightly observes that there does not seem to be an ideology, a system of meaning, behind science. Seeing that its content is non-teleological, should we even expect the practice of science to have a goal or purpose? Whenever it is overtly directed to some purpose, it refers to something outside of itself, namely the goals of external ideologies, e.g., Christianity, liberalism, Communism, etc., all variants of the ascetic ideal. To be sure, some will pretend to have discovered their ideals in the facts of science, but a lack of consensus among scientists belies the foundation of such claims.
In the rare cases when science is not just the latest manifestation of the ascetic ideal, it is a “hiding place for every kind of cowardice, disbelief, remorse, despectio sui, bad conscience—it is the very anxiety that springs from having no ideal, the suffering from the lack of a great love, the discontent with an enforced moderation.” [Loc. cit.] The quest for objectivity expresses an unwillingness to be oneself. Scientists even express shame or guilt for showing bias or subjectivity, which is to be ashamed of being oneself. This is effectively nihilism, which is the essence of the ascetic ideal. Such men have failed to find meaning in humanity, so they must reduce human existence to the existence of impersonal things.
The scientist is a dazed and unconscious sufferer, which is why he is easily wounded even when you pay him a compliment, Nietzsche says. [Loc. cit.] Those of us who work in academia witness various manifestations of scholarly vanity or fragile egos. What causes this? Is it their self-imposed objectivity, a pretense of suppressing oneself? Making the object rather than the observer important, is that not self-effacement? Think, for example, of the unliterary use of the passive voice in scholarly publications. It is even a rule of scholarly writing not to refer to oneself in the first person.
What of those scant few philosophers and scholars who believe themselves to be anti-idealists? Recall that Nietzsche was not the first to call himself an immoralist. In fact, he says, their only ideal seems to be their belief that they oppose the ascetic ideal. Yet belief is usually strongest in proportion to its improbability. A strong faith may cause happiness, but this does not prove the object of faith is true, rather it is that much more likely to be illusion, he claims. “[T]hese fanatics in one thing, in their claim to intellectual cleanness…”—atheists, skeptics, immoralists, etc.—are “no free spirits; for they still believe in truth.” By contrast, the assassin’s creed was: “Nothing is true, everything is allowed.” “[T]hat was freedom of thought, thereby… taking leave of the very belief in truth.” [GM, 3rd, 24]
So-called skeptics are really “monofanatics” in their belief in truth. This belief makes them abstain from both affirmation and negation, a “stoicism of intellect.” They would like to stand still in front of the actual, brute fact, “that fatalism in petit faits (ce petit faitalism, as I call it).” [Loc. cit.] We see this today among shallow thinkers who say, “I believe in science,” meaning they see no higher significance beyond the collection and description of petty facts. They try to make no meaningful interpretations, not daring to project any of their subjectivity into reality. Nietzsche, in contrast, has investigated every fact by asking what is its meaning, recognizing that the meaning can change according to historical circumstances. The mutability of meaning does not imply its unreality, only that it is something imposed by us.
The renunciation of interpretation implies a denial of all the essential attributes of virtue: forcing, doctoring, abridging, omitting, suppressing, inventing, falsifying. This is just another mode of the ascetic repudiation of the senses. [Loc. cit.] Recall that the senses also falsify and distort reality, giving only a partial representation, but they are not on that account to be repudiated. Our senses and desires have a wisdom that teaches us how to value life. To reject any of our faculties, intellectual or sensitive, on account of their partiality or subjectivity, is to reject the sources of wisdom that make possible the creation of meaning for this life.
Even the seemingly most extreme skeptics, who refuse to interpret anything, are locked into the ascetic ideal. Their belief in truth commits them to an abstinence from all interpretation, which is effectively a repudiation of the senses. Yet it is a practical necessity of interpretation that we should falsify reality. If we are to be self-affirming, we must favor our right to interpret, to evaluate, over and above the claims of truth. This is why Nietzsche, much earlier, challenged the notion that truth is desirable. If you want perfect truth without distortion, you should just stand dumbly before the object and not think about it. Isn’t this like the Buddhist who thinks he can achieve enlightenment by emptying his mind?
Those who try to make science the basis of their philosophy pretend to restrict themselves to the natural world, without need of any metaphysics. In fact they do have faith in a metaphysical value, namely the intrinsic value of truth. All sciences require presuppositions, so “a philosophy, a faith, must always exist first to enable science to gain thereby a direction, a meaning, a limit and method, a right to existence.” Those who attempt the reverse, and would establish philosophy upon a “scientific basis,” have to turn upside down philosophy and truth itself. [Loc. cit.]
Extreme truthfulness, which is the presupposition of faith in science, “asserts thereby a different world from that of life, nature, and history, and in so far as he asserts the existence of that different world, come, must he not similarly repudiate its counterpart, this world, our world?” [Loc. cit.] The world of life, nature, and history is frequently indifferent to truth, or knows nothing of it. Truth is a correspondence between reality and some ideal world of concepts. To extol truth is to disparage this world as insufficient. We instead gaze upon the ideals of pure thought.
This presupposition, though it is held even by atheist scientists, is but another form of Plato’s belief that God is truth, that truth is divine. “[W]hat if nothing proves itself to be divine, unless it be error, blindness, lies—what if God Himself proved Himself to be our oldest lie?” [Loc. cit.] Here Nietzsche is not making a simple declaration of atheism; he takes the non-existence of God for granted. Rather, he is suggesting the possibility that error and lies rather than truth might be divine (i.e., the most sublime desirables), in which case the utility of belief in God lay precisely in the fact that it was a lie.
Once you repudiate belief in the God of the ascetic ideal (truth as divine), you now have a new problem: the value of truth. Every philosophy has failed to provide a justification for the Will to Truth, leaving science without a justification. This is because “the ascetic ideal dominated all philosophy, because Truth was fixed as Being, as God, as the Supreme Court of Appeal, because Truth was not allowed to be a problem.” [Loc. cit.] Philosophers doubted whether we could know the truth, or which things were true, but not that truth is desirable. In fact, truth is consistently the highest criterion of inquiry.
Science is not independent enough to fulfill the function of an opposing ideal to the ascetic. “[I]n every department science needs an ideal value, a power which creates values, and in whose service it can believe in itself—science itself never creates values.” [GM, 3rd, 25] In practice, the values of most scientists are just uncritically accepted liberalism.
Science is not intrinsically antagonistic to the ascetic ideal, though it does represent the progressive force of that ideal. It only opposes the outworks of the ascetic ideal—its garb, its dogmatising—“it makes life in the ideal free once more, while it repudiates its superficial elements.” [Loc. cit.] Intellectual freedom, i.e., freedom from religious dogma, only removes superficial aspects of the ascetic ideal.
Science and the ascetic ideal both rest on a base of over-appreciation of truth, belief in the impossibility of valuing and criticising truth (i.e., truth as such, not this or that truth). A valuation of the ascetic ideal therefore entails a valuation of science as well. [Loc. cit.]
Art, “in which lying is sanctified and the will for deception has good conscience on its side,” is more opposed to the ascetic ideal than is science. Plato, consequently, was the “greatest enemy of art.” [Loc. cit.] This alludes not only to Plato’s moral denunciation of the poets and drama, but also to the subsequent impact of Platonic philosophy on the arts.
Contrasting Plato and Homer, Nietzsche finds that the first, immersed in the transcendental, is “the great defamer of life,” while the second is its involuntary panegyrist, “the golden nature.” When an artist is subservient to the ascetic ideal, this is the greatest absolute corruption possible. [Loc. cit.] This accounts for the virulence of Nietzsche’s criticism against Wagner.
“Considered physiologically,” science has the same basis as the ascetic ideal: an impoverishment of life, shown by “frigidity of the emotions, slackening of the tempo, the substitution of dialectic for instinct, seriousness impressed on mien and gesture.” [Loc. cit.] This attitude is less pronounced now than in the Victorian era, as scientists tend to compartmentalize their lives, yet the attitude remains in their scientific activity.
When learned men come into prominence in a nation’s history, they are periods of exhaustion, sunset, decay. “[T]he effervescing strength, the confidence in life, the confidence in the future are no more.” Symptoms of declining life are: “preponderance of mandarins… advent of democracy… arbitration instead of war, equal rights for women, the religion of pity…” [Loc. cit.] The common characteristic is a lack of virility or will to dominate. There is hedging and self-doubt. We see this in the age of Marcus Aurelius, in eighteenth-century France, and in late Victorian Europe. In our day, the cultural reach of intellectuals is more limited, but we find that same self-doubt and remorse over privilege within their subculture. The 1950s appears to be a counterexample, where scientists achieved prominence due to the Cold War, yet here the motive was to deter war, and technological optimism was advanced in an apocalyptic context.
In his retrospective preface (Aug. 1886) to The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche notes that the meaning of science cannot be given by science itself, so this book looked at science from the perspective of the artist, and at art from the perspective of life. [BT, Pref, 2] In his evaluation of art, he considered that the apparently mad sensualism of Dionysian music had life-affirming health in it, even beneath the pessimistic expression of tragedy, but the Dionysian aesthetic was disdained by Socrates, Euripides and all subsequent thinkers who pretended to confine goodness and reality to what can be subordinated to the intellect; i.e., to what can be understood. This insistence on the consolation of ideals, found in the Apollonian visual arts, reduced art to mere representation, denying it the ability to speak its own ineffable language.
Are there perhaps—a question for doctors who treat madness—neuroses associated with health… and with youthfulness? … What if it were the case that the Greeks, right in the richness of their youth, had the will for the tragic and were pessimists? What if it was clearly lunacy, to use a saying from Plato, which brought the greatest blessings throughout Greece? And, on the other hand, what if, to turn the issue around, it was precisely during the period of their dissolution and weakness that the Greeks became constantly more optimistic, more superficial, more hypocritical, and with a greater lust for logic and rational understanding of the world, as well as “more cheerful” and “more scientific”? What’s this? In spite of all “modern ideas” and the prejudices of democratic taste, could the victory of optimism, the developing hegemony of reasonableness, of practical and theoretical utilitarianism, as well as democracy itself, which occurs in the same period, perhaps be a symptom of failing power, of approaching old age, of physiological exhaustion, rather than pessimism? Was Epicurus an optimist—precisely because he was suffering? [BT, Pref, 4]
The intellectual defines progress in terms of “enlightenment,” i.e., scientific progress, because he only sees good in what is intelligible. Yet Nietzsche has consistently found that there is an unspoken wisdom of the body, teaching us a reality that cannot be reduced to concepts. Music, as Schopenhauer surmised, might be a direct expression of world-Will without representation, yet Nietzsche rejects Schopenhauer’s conclusion that tragedy teaches the world is not worthwhile. Those who refuse to listen to Dionysus follow Socrates and all later idealists in their insistence on finding value only in what is intelligible. Will to Truth, despite its scientific pretensions, is really a moralistic enterprise.
To tell the truth, there is nothing which stands in greater opposition to the purely aesthetic interpretation and justification of the world… than Christian doctrine, which is and wishes to be merely moralistic and which, with its absolute standards, beginning, for example, with its truthfulness of God, relegates art, every art, to the realm of lies—in other words, which denies art, condemns it, and passes sentence on it. Behind such a way of thinking and evaluating, which must be hostile to art, so long as it is in any way genuine, I always perceived also something hostile to life, the wrathful, vengeful aversion to life itself; for all life rests on appearance, art, illusion, optics, the need for perspective and for error. … The hatred of the “world,” the curse against the emotions, the fear of beauty and sensuality, a world beyond created so that the world on this side might be more easily slandered, at bottom a longing for nothingness, for extinction, for rest, until the “Sabbath of all Sabbaths.” [BT, Pref, 5]
The scientific Will to Truth retains this assumption that the world can be justified only by being understood or made reasonable. Any art that does not merely represent the nature understood to science must be treated as a fiction, and even representational art is false, since it replicates the real partially or imperfectly. The scientist as such, no less than the Christian ascetic, has little use for art as a separate source of insight. The Victorian scientist who pretends to be too practical or sensible for music, poetry and other arts, regarding them at best as mere diversions, not alternative sources of wisdom, is himself no less hostile to life than a Cromwell or a Savonarola.
[I]n the eyes of morality (and particularly Christian morality, that is, absolute morality) life must be seen as constantly and inevitably wrong, because life is something essentially amoral … And what about morality itself? Might not morality be a “desire for the denial of life,” a secret instinct for destruction, a principle of decay, diminution, slander, a beginning of the end? And thus, the danger of dangers? [Loc. cit.]
Modern scientists since Darwin increasingly accept that nature is amoral, yet they do not renounce morality. Instead they make intellectual pursuits into a moral imperative, and evaluate the worth of an individual or a society according to progress in systematic knowledge. This is why even those who seem to oppose Christianity most aggressively are not a true antithesis. They discover the amorality of life only to recoil from it, retreating into an intellectual asceticism.
It might seem that scientists, because of their industriousness, really do embrace worldly activity, unlike the ascetics who make themselves “poor in spirit.” Nietzsche finds that they are not “rich” in spirit, but only “hectic in spirit.” None of the “victories” of science was a victory over the ascetic ideal. On the contrary, the ascetic ideal was made stronger, more elusive, more insidious; only its outworks were destroyed. [GM, 3rd Essay, 25]
Does any one seriously suggest that the downfall of the theological astronomy signified the downfall of that ideal? — Has, perchance, man grown less in need of a transcendental solution of his riddle of existence, because since that time this existence has become more random, casual and superfluous in the visible order of the universe? [GM, 3rd, 25]
Man still looks for transcendent ideals in the invisible order. Even atheist scientists do this, invoking liberal and democratic moral and political ideals, and of course truth as an imperative. “Progress,” the “good of humanity,” “empathy for one’s fellow man” and the like are all moral ideals denying the amorality that nature presents. In fact, it is precisely because we no longer look for meaning in the visible order that we are all the more inclined to seek it elsewhere.
Has there not been since the time of Copernicus an unbroken progress in the self-belittling of man and his will for belittling himself? Alas, his belief in his dignity, his uniqueness, his irreplaceableness in the scheme of existence, is gone—he has become animal, literal, unqualified, and unmitigated animal, he who in his earlier belief was almost God (“child of God,” “demi-God”). [Loc. cit.]
Modern science, finding man to be cosmically insignificant and his instincts to be those of mere beasts, effectively disparages human nature. We do not trust our instincts, and instead put our faith in culturally constructed values. This perception of his own nothingness leads man right back to the old ascetic ideal!
…all science, natural as much as unnatural—by unnatural I mean the self-critique of reason—nowadays sets out to talk man out of his present opinion of himself, as though that opinion had been nothing but a bizarre piece of conceit; you might go so far as to say that science finds its peculiar pride, its peculiar bitter form of stoical ataraxia, in preserving man’s contempt of himself… as man’s final and most serious claim to self-appreciation… [Loc. cit.]
To despise is a form of appreciation. Note the perverse glee with which scientists emphasize the unimportance of man in physics, astronomy, biology, etc. This is just a new form of the ascetic ideal: all is vanity!
Kant’s triumph over theological dogmatism has not damaged the ascetic ideal. On the contrary, transcendentalists can now operate freely, unconstrained by the theologians. The agnostics, reverers of mystery, may now “worship their very query as God.” “Knowing” fails to satisfy, so there is no knowledge; only not knowing can satisfy! [Loc. cit.] This is to worship truth by a kind of apophatic theology.
Modern scientists and philosophers perpetuate the ascetic ideal by worshiping truth at the expense of man. By intellectual standards no less than monastic ones, man is a dirty animal. In place of an unknowable God, they exalt unattainable knowledge.
Historians in the nineteenth century likewise espoused truth-idealism, aspiring to make their writing just a mirror of factual reality. They eschewed teleology, and no longer sought to “prove” things any more. Historical writing “spurns playing the role of judge and derives its good taste from that—it affirms as little as it denies. It establishes the facts. It ‘describes’… All this is ascetic to a high degree. however, it is also, to an even higher degree, nihilistic.” [GM, 3rd, 26] This self-restraint is a suppression of one’s own vitality. Such historians, no less than scientists, are irrelevant in their personalities. They might as well be cameras or particle detectors. There is no life left in them, at least not when performing their craft.
Some modern historians flirt with life (as ascetics do), and praise contemplation, meditating on a winter landscape. “No! Let the devil take these ‘meditative’ people! I would much prefer to keep wandering with those historical nihilists through the gloomiest cold gray fog!” [Loc. cit.] Nietzsche, an anti-nihilist, despises doom-and-gloom defeatism, yet he prefers open nihilism to a pseudo-artistic asceticism, that would pretend to luxuriate in dry observation.
I know nothing that creates so much disgust as such an objective armchair, such a sweet-smelling man luxuriating in history, half cleric, half satyr, with perfume by Renan, who reveals at once in the high falsetto of his approval what he lacks, where he is deficient— [Loc. cit.]
These impotent men, too timid to judge, nonetheless consider themselves fit to describe the energetic men who made history by their actions. Nietzsche is disgusted by their pretensions to be artists, even heroes (in the case of nationalists).
All honor to the ascetic ideal insofar as it is honest! so long as it believes in itself and does not play tricks on us! … I do not like these whited sepulchers who impersonate life; I do not like these weary and played-out people who wrap themselves in wisdom and look “objective” [GM, 3rd, 26, Kaufmann trans.]
These pseudo-ascetics, afraid to create or evaluate, pretend to hold to ideals of objectivity, but they are nothing but agitators and speculators. The German nationalist and anti-Semite historians fall under this category. They offer pseudo-ideals so the idle rabble can feel empowered without actually accomplishing anything. The Christian ascetics, at least, really believed in the power of asceticism and used it to develop strengthening discipline in themselves and others.
What I have been dealing with here is only the following—to establish that the ascetic ideal has, for the time being, even in the most spiritual sphere, only one kind of true enemy who can inflict harm, and that enemy is those who play-act this ideal—for they awaken distrust.
Everywhere else, where the spirit is strong, powerful, and without counterfeiting, dispenses with the ideal—this abstinence is called atheism—except for its will to truth. Yet this remnant, the will to truth, is actually the strongest formulation of the ascetic ideal—its kernel, rather than a vestige. [GM, 3rd, 27]
Absolute atheism does not oppose the ascetic ideal, but is one of its last stages of development from its inner logic. “It demands reverence, this catastrophe of two thousand years of breeding for the truth which concludes by forbidding itself the lie of a faith in God.” [Loc. cit.] Again, Nietzsche thinks in Darwinian terms. Since the ascetic ideal made truth the supreme imperative, it effectively “breeds” for Will to Truth in the intellectual class, finally resulting in atheism, which is an expression of truth-idealism, not its antithesis.
As evidence that this is not a mere historical accident, Nietzsche remarks that the same development occurred in India, leading to the atheistic Sankhya philosophy popularized by Buddha and later made into a religion. The European case of replacing Christianity with secular liberalism likewise was a product of the old religion’s inner logic. We may say that this secularization is the triumph of Christian morality over theology.
Christian morality itself, the increasingly strict understanding of the idea of truthfulness, the subtlety of the father confessor of the Christian conscience, transposed and sublimated into scientific conscience, into intellectual cleanliness at any price. To look at nature as if it were a proof of the goodness and care of a god, to interpret history in such a way as to honour divine reason, as a constant testament to a moral world order and moral intentions, to interpret one’s own experiences, as devout men have interpreted them for long enough, as if everything was divine providence, everything was a sign, everything was thought out and sent for the salvation of the soul out of love—now that’s over and done with. That has conscience against it. Among more sensitive consciences that counts as something indecent, dishonest, as lying, feminism, weakness, cowardice… [The Gay Science, p.290.]
Scrupulous truthfulness, itself the product of Christianity, forces the more sensitive consciences to admit the absence of providence in nature and history. The very honesty cultivated by Christianity leads to its dissolution; at least, so saith Nietzsche. He finds it is a general law of life that things are dissolved by their own internal logic, i.e., by self-surpassing.
In the case of Christian Europe, we may see how some Christian principles, such as the liberty of the will, equality before God, and the tolerance that ended confessional wars were transfigured into the liberal values of freedom, equality and tolerance as categorical rights with ever broader applications. The morality of Christianity was invoked to destroy the dogma.
Now, Nietzsche holds, is the time for Christianity to be ruined even as a morality. The transition from bourgeois Christian morality to secular liberal morality began as a mass movement from 1890 onwards. Before then, Christian morality was rejected only by intellectuals. The so-called sexual revolution and other libertine movements are really just a culmination of Christian liberalism, carrying the mania for freedom and equality to their logical conclusion.
This turning of Christianity against itself, in Nietzsche’s view, questions the meaning of all Will to Truth. As he formulates it: “what sense would our whole being have if not for the fact that in us that will to truth became aware of itself as a problem?” As Will to Truth becomes self-conscious, morality is dying. He predicts this will take place in a hundred acts, over two centuries. So far, so accurate, in terms of morality dying, but it seems that Will to Truth is not at all conscious of itself.
Could ye CONCEIVE a God?—But let this mean Will to Truth unto you, that everything be transformed into the humanly conceivable, the humanly visible, the humanly sensible! Your own discernment shall ye follow out to the end!
And what ye have called the world shall but be created by you: your reason, your likeness, your will, your love, shall it itself become! [TSZ, XXIV]
While many of the 20th-21st century intelligentsia have rejected conceptions of God, they still adhere uncritically to the more fundamental conception of Will to Truth. Thus they continue to create the world in their likeness, and find nature to be friendly to liberal principles (which are just inherited Christian mores). Reality has a liberal bias only when “reality” is interpreted idealistically. We pretend we are seeing the world out there when we are in fact just seeing the image of the order in our own minds.
In our supposedly immoralist age, where every ethical principle is questioned, hardly anyone, even among atheists, dares to challenge the pursuit of truth as an ethical imperative. Nietzsche, by contrast, boldly asked: Why should we want truth, rather than untruth? [BGE, 1]
Mocking the old metaphysics of God, substance, and the thing-in-itself, he rhetorically asks: “How could anything originate out of its opposite? For example truth out of error?” [BGE, 2] Though this is impossible under the old metaphysics of Being, it is perfectly intelligible in a dialectical metaphysics, such as that of Hegel, which is well-suited to describing reality in flux. Yet even the dialectical metaphysicians and severest skeptics among them uncritically assume an antithesis of values when it comes to truth or falsity, existence or non-existence. Perhaps instead we should consider these binary values to be “merely superficial estimates, merely provisional perspectives…” [Loc. cit.]
Eliding from logical values to ethical values, Nietzsche posits:
In spite of all the value which may belong to the true, the positive, and the unselfish, it might be possible that a higher and more fundamental value for life generally should be assigned to pretence, to the will to delusion, to selfishness, and cupidity. [BGE, 2]
He does not deny positive value to truth and altruism, as some would retort against his apparent egoism, but he denies that these are absolutely the highest values.
It might even be possible that WHAT constitutes the value of those good and respected things, consists precisely in their being insidiously related, knotted, and crocheted to these evil and apparently opposed things—perhaps even in being essentially identical with them. [Loc. cit.]
The Hegelian notion that something can be essentially identical with its opposite is here employed to suggest that the goodness of altruism is in its relation to egoism, and the goodness of truth is in its relation to falsity. Altruism is good because it promotes the self-interest of many, and truth is good because it is a useful illusion, i.e., a fair enough approximation, representation or falsification of reality that turns the ineffable and unintelligible into something our minds can work upon.
Yet Nietzsche has in mind a more biological, less intellectual, derivation of the value of truth. He observes:
…the greater part of the conscious thinking of a philosopher is secretly influenced by his instincts, and forced into definite channels. And behind all logic and its seeming sovereignty of movement, there are valuations, or to speak more plainly, physiological demands, for the maintenance of a definite mode of life. [BGE, 3]
In this Darwinian understanding, even the preference for certainty and truth might be superficial valuations, necessary for maintaining beings such as ourselves.
The falseness of an opinion is not for us any objection to it: it is here, perhaps, that our new language sounds most strangely. The question is, how far an opinion is life-furthering, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps species-rearing… [BGE, 4]
Nietzsche makes ethics supreme in philosophy, more radically than did the ancient Greeks, for this is even at the expense of truth. The measure of a doctrine is its benefit to life, regardless of whether it is true. He measures benefit not according to abstract ideals, but by conduciveness to enhancing the power of man the animal, both as individual and as species. The species itself is not a fixed end, but may beget a new kind of life.
Idealization of the world with static concepts is justified by the fact that without it, the human mode of life would be impossible.
…without a recognition of logical fictions, without a comparison of reality with the purely IMAGINED world of the absolute and immutable, without a constant counterfeiting of the world by means of numbers, man could not live—that the renunciation of false opinions would be a renunciation of life, a negation of life. [BGE, 4]
Kant practically admitted as much, except he was unwilling to call our formal constructs falsifications. Once this is recognized, it follows that untruth is necessary for life.
Failing to recognize that the value of truth is precisely in its falsification of reality, philosophers instead pretend that their will to survival is a discovery of reality.
They all pose as though their real opinions had been discovered and attained through the self-evolving of a cold, pure, divinely indifferent dialectic… whereas, in fact, a prejudiced proposition… which is generally their heart’s desire abstracted and refined, is defended by them with arguments sought out after the event. [BGE, 5]
An example of this hypocrisy is Kant’s twisted dialectic leading conveniently to his “categorical imperative.” Nietzsche likewise mocks Spinoza’s love of wisdom as the timidity of a recluse.
All philosophers are secretly motivated by ethics. “Indeed, to understand how the abstrusest metaphysical assertions of a philosopher have been arrived at, it is always well (and wise) to first ask oneself: ‘What morality does he aim at?’” [BGE, 6] Admittedly, some scientists may have a mechanical impulse to knowledge, but this, Nietzsche claims, does not define who they are, for they may have other interests. A scholar’s philosophy, by contrast, defines who he is.
Any field of intellectual endeavor that is perceived as self-defining will be informed in its content by self-interest, that is, by what one prefers and thinks ought to be. Science will be informed by ethics to the extent one thinks of science as a philosophy or way of life. Those who have snobbish criteria about how a real scientist ought to behave must invariably inject their ethical preferences into such definitions. This ethics informs their epistemology, and therefore the content of their science. Today, that means scientists mostly find in nature a confirmation of their liberal humanistic beliefs. Those of us who study the history of ideas, however, see no proof in this, for every age of scholarship has found confirmation of its ethos in natural and metaphysical philosophy. Today, biology is interpreted in terms of utilitarianism, individualistic or social according to the predilections of each scientist.
A famous example of this fraudulent discovery of one’s ethics in nature is that of the Stoics. Significantly, the Stoics pretended to ground their ethics in nature, without reference to any religious doctrine. This apparently naturalistic ethics is nothing of the sort, for it deforms nature according to preconceptions.
You desire to LIVE “according to Nature?” Oh, you noble Stoics, what fraud of words! Imagine to yourselves a being like Nature, boundlessly extravagant, boundlessly indifferent, without purpose or consideration, without pity or justice, at once fruitful and barren and uncertain: imagine to yourselves INDIFFERENCE as a power—how COULD you live in accordance with such indifference? [BGE, 9]
The Stoic Logos makes nature teleological, falsfiying the purposeless indifference of reality. It is impossible to ground any ethics in the nature that really is, so Nietzsche’s ethics will not be a mere imitation of nature. “To live—is not that just endeavouring to be otherwise than this Nature? Is not living valuing, preferring, being unjust, being limited, endeavouring to be different?” [BGE, 9] Life entails not being bound by any static definition of Nature; i.e., it is self-surpassing.
The Stoics merely projected their own values onto nature:
In your pride you wish to dictate your morals and ideals to Nature, to Nature herself, and to incorporate them therein; you insist that it shall be Nature ‘according to the Stoa,’ and would like everything to be made after your own image, as a vast, eternal glorification and generalism of Stoicism! [BGE, 9]
In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche criticized the content of Stoicism, and here he dismisses it as “self-tyranny.” There is tyranny even in the means by which it is imposed on nature. More generally, philosophy is a tyrannical Will to Power, a Will to create the world in its own image.
Again, Nietzsche does not begrudge anyone their right to hypocrisy, to falsification, or to tyranny. Rather, he shows that these are the real motivations behind supposed Will to Truth. Thus the ascetic ideal, of which Will to Truth is the core impulse, cannot serve as a fundament for reality-based ethics. The Will to Truth offers meanings for life, but only false meanings. The real meaning is in the underlying Will to Power.
“Knowledge for its own sake”—that is the last snare laid by morality: we are thereby completely entangled in morals once more. [BGE, 64]
All the modern struggles to liberate man from dogmatic theology and metaphysics, or from received ethical traditions, even from the ascetic ideal, are in vain, as long as one clings to the ethic of Will to Truth. Once you prescribe the pursuit of knowledge as a goal for humanity, you become ensnared in the ascetic ideal and a host of moral precepts conducive to this pursuit. Man himself cannot be a goal, but is subservient to an abstraction.
At the same time, this is a startling admission by Nietzsche, for it indicates the precariousness of his position. If it should only be conceded that knowledge is choiceworthy for its own sake, an idealistic morality may follow.
From the revelation of Zarathustra onward, Nietzsche shows himself to be future-oriented. [TSZ, XXXVI] This is not in the sense of Enlightenment liberalism with its notion of progress. For all his use of Darwinism, Nietzsche does not envision evolution in terms of progress to better and higher forms. His decisive repudiation of progressivism is found in his doctrine of eternal recurrence. All that has been shall be again. The transition from animal to man to superman will be repeated infinitely many times. Thus neither the superman nor any other stage of development is an ideal endpoint. In this most thorough repudiation of idealism, he rejects even the notion that increase in Will to Power might itself be a cosmic goal.
The infinite repetition of all that exists is distinguished from fatalism only in that he does not find that creatures are determined by external constraints, such as natural laws or eternal decrees. Still, the recognition that the life he has lived will be eternally repeated can only beget an amor fati in Nietzsche. This Dionysian attitude, an embrace of the eternity in the flux without rendering it static, is central to Nietzsche’s philosophy, so we may appreciate why he considered his doctrine of eternal recurrence to be the key to his revelation.
Many commentators have sought to downplay the doctrine of eternal recurrence or even deny that Nietzsche himself really believed it. This is because many suppose the doctrine can be easily refuted, or at least that Nietzsche’s proof is inadequate. When it is better appreciated exactly what the doctrine means, and how Nietzsche’s notions of eternity and determinism differ from conventional ideas, we will be able to see why he found the doctrine so compelling and necessary.
On the surface, belief in eternal recurrence might seem to be a consolation akin to that of eternal life, but Nietzsche considers it to be the result of courageously facing the abyss. The guilt-ridden conscientiousness infecting all men has made them forgetful of the courage by which man conquered other animals and every pain. This courage was the willingness to attack and slay. “Courage slayeth also giddiness at abysses: and where doth man not stand at abysses! Is not seeing itself—seeing abysses?” [TSZ, XLVI] The Superman or Overman may be understood as “higher” in the sense of being able to handle standing at a great height and peering into the depth. Only a tightrope-walker sure of himself can overcome fear or anxiety of the depth. Any true vision, as opposed to imagination, involves looking into some depth or darkness, probing into the unknown without fearing what one may find.
Nietzsche chooses to probe backwards in time. If there is no Creator or moment of creation, it follows that there is an eternity in our past. Most atheists, looking only forward, fail to grasp the paradoxes inherent in an eternal past.
This Moment, there runneth a long eternal lane BACKWARDS: behind us lieth an eternity.
Must not whatever CAN run its course of all things, have already run along that lane? Must not whatever CAN happen of all things have already happened, resulted, and gone by?
And if everything have already existed, what thinkest thou, dwarf, of This Moment? Must not this gateway also—have already existed?
And are not all things closely bound together in such wise that This Moment draweth all coming things after it? CONSEQUENTLY—itself also?
For whatever CAN run its course of all things, also in this long lane OUTWARD—MUST it once more run!—
And this slow spider which creepeth in the moonlight, and this moonlight itself, and thou and I in this gateway whispering together, whispering of eternal things—must we not all have already existed?
—And must we not return and run in that other lane out before us, that long weird lane—must we not eternally return? [TSZ, XLVI]
It is not immediately clear how seriously Nietzsche takes this speculation about eternal recurrence. As an atheist, he takes the eternity of the past for granted. (Strangely and illogically, many modern atheists accept the finiteness of the past.) Implicit assumptions are the freedom of movement and material homogeneity of the cosmos, so that anything physically possible will eventually repeat itself. Given these assumptions, Nietzsche’s argument is sound, for the infinity of physical possibilities is no greater than the infinity of the continuum, which is the cardinality of time. While it is possible to construct non-repeating infinite systems, this is attained only by application of formal constraints. Nietzsche disbelieves in laws of physics as external agents, and instead considers all natural objects, which are forces not substances, free to exert themselves in lawless strife. What we call laws of physics are just descriptions of what forces actually do, not extrinsic constraints on force.
In his posthumously published notes, Nietzsche confirms that he thought of eternal recurrence as something physically real. What distinguishes this idea from the mechanism of his day is that there would not be unending progress. Nietzsche found that, “The law of the conservation of energy demands eternal recurrence.” [Will to Power, 1063 (1887-1888)] Since the total energy of the universe does not increase, there cannot be infinite progress, but only a finite number of configurations of energy. He elaborates:
If the world may be thought of as a certain definite quantity of force and as a certain definite number of centers of force—and every other representation remains indefinite and therefore useless—it follows that, in the great dice game of existence, it must pass through a calculable number of combinations. In infinite time, every possible combination would at some time or another be realized; more: it would be realized an infinite number of times. And since between every combination and its next recurrence all other possible combinations would have to take place, and each of these combinations conditions the entire sequence of combinations in the same series, a circular movement of absolutely identical series is thus demonstrated: the world as a circular movement that has already repeated itself infinitely often and plays its game in infinitum.
This conception is not simply a mechanistic conception; for if it were that, it would not condition an infinite recurrence of identical cases, but a final state. Because the world has not reached this, mechanistic theory must be considered an imperfect and merely provisional hypothesis. [Will to Power, 1066 (March-June 1888)]
Nietzsche is on solid ground in positing that there are only finitely many sources or centers of force, though it does not follow from classical physics that there should be finitely many possible states. After all, there is a continuum of possible values. With quantum mechanics, however, we know that this only an approximation, and in fact the possible states are separated by discrete quanta. Although there is no inherent upper limit to any quantum state, conservation of energy prohibits any increase ad infinitum for any source (“particle”) or center of force. Thus there really ought to be only finitely many possible configurations (or at least physically distinguishable configurations) of force.
The spatial distribution of centers of force might vary continuously, yet even on the supposition that space is a continuum, differences in distance below the Planck scale should have no effect on observable force interactions. This means the number of possible configurations is effectively finite, unless space can continue to expand indefinitely, resulting in the dissolution of the universe. If the expansion of space is limited, on the other hand, then we are left with eternal recurrence, as long as time is potentially infinite.
Nietzsche did not think it necessary to prove that there will always be time, since the notion of force itself entails flux and temporality. If there can be no destruction of energy, then neither can time ever be abolished. Interestingly, this parallel between energy conservation and time symmetry would be confirmed mathematically by Noether.
If we accept eternal recurrence as a physical reality, what does this do for Nietzsche’s ethical stress on the importance of the will? All possibilities will become actual eventually, regardless of what we do at this point, so what we will now is of no consequence. Further, this would seem to destroy the purely progressive notion of evolution Nietzsche seems to have espoused elsewhere.
Nietzsche is aware of these paradoxes, which is why he considers eternal recurrence to be his most terrifying revelation. A special kind of bravery is needed to face it. One must know that what one wills does not matter in terms of advancing cosmic evolution, yet one still wills even without any assurance of a sense of cosmic purpose or lasting achievement. The crutch of faith in humanistic progress is cast aside.
The profundity of this revelation is represented dramatically in “The Convalescent,” where Zarathustra proclaims he will reveal his most abysmal thought, but falls comatose. When he awakens, he convalesces for seven days. The animals bring him food. The eagle brings two lambs from the shepherds. He smells an apple and seems ready to speak. The animals beg him to step out of the cave and teach. “Like leavened dough layest thou, thy soul arose and swelled beyond its bounds…” [TSZ, LVII, 1-2]
When Zarathustra lets loose his overflowing wisdom, we find another presentation of eternal recurrence.
Everything goeth, everything returneth; eternally rolleth the wheel of existence. Everything dieth, everything blossometh forth again; eternally runneth on the year of existence.
Everything breaketh, everything is integrated anew; eternally buildeth itself the same house of existence. All things separate, all things again greet one another; eternally true to itself remaineth the ring of existence.
Every moment beginneth existence, around every ‘Here’ rolleth the ball ‘There.’ The middle is everywhere. Crooked is the path of eternity. [TSZ, LVII, 2]
Here the doctrine is presented as some deep insight following from his ethical teaching. The earlier quasi-formal argument was more of a plausibility argument than a proof, and not his reason for believing in it. Recurrence is something Nietzsche apprehends directly, finding in nature cycles of creation and destruction. Eternity is not in the individual perishable object or organism, but in the entire recurrence of life and death. Eternal recurrence is but a more definite form of his perception that everything is in flux.
Where do human aspirations stand against the backdrop of eternal recurrence? Until now, the only meaning that could be found in life was through the ascetic ideal, which pretends to exalt the weak over the strong.
When the great man crieth—: immediately runneth the little man thither, and his tongue hangeth out of his mouth for very lusting. He, however, calleth it his “pity.”
The little man, especially the poet—how passionately doth he accuse life in words! Hearken to him, but do not fail to hear the delight which is in all accusation!
Such accusers of life—them life overcometh with a glance of the eye. “Thou lovest me?” saith the insolent one; “wait a little, as yet have I no time for thee.” Towards himself man is the cruellest animal; and in all who call themselves “sinners” and “bearers of the cross” and “penitents,” do not overlook the voluptuousness in their plaints and accusations! [Loc. cit.]
The “voluptuousness” of the saints is their delight in accusing the world. Their “pity” for the great man’s cry is actually delight that he has fallen, vindicating their morality. We see this today when people take glee in the scandals of statesmen or celebrities. They delight in tearing down heros. Yet idealism is also a self-cruelty, an inward turning of Will to Power. Zarathustra does not condemn this concealed aggression, but its low aspiration.
And I myself—do I thereby want to be man’s accuser? Ah, mine animals, this only have I learned hitherto, that for man his baddest is necessary for his best,—
—That all that is baddest is the best POWER, and the hardest stone for the highest creator; and that man must become better AND badder:—
Not to THIS torture-stake was I tied, that I know man is bad,—but I cried, as no one hath yet cried:
“Ah, that his baddest is so very small! Ah, that his best is so very small!” [Loc. cit.]
Nietzsche points out the hypocrisy of “good men” not to accuse them, for he recognizes that they are exercising the malice that brings out the best in man. He does not criticize them for being malicious, but for having such small aspirations in their malice. They tear down only to content themselves with mediocrity.
Nietzsche recognizes the negative implication of eternal recurrence for any notion of lasting progress: “Ah, man returneth eternally! The small man returneth eternally!” The ascetic ideal and slave morality will always return. “All too small, even the greatest man!—that was my disgust at man! And the eternal return also of the smallest man!—that was my disgust at all existence!” [Loc. cit.]
Zarathustra pulls himself out of this disgust and convalescence by singing and bubbling over, for he is the first to teach the Eternal Return.
Behold, we know what thou teachest: that all things eternally return, and ourselves with them, and that we have already existed times without number, and all things with us.
Thou teachest that there is a great year of Becoming, a prodigy of a great year; it must, like a sand-glass, ever turn up anew, that it may anew run down and run out:—
—So that all those years are like one another in the greatest and also in the smallest, so that we ourselves, in every great year, are like ourselves in the greatest and also in the smallest. [Loc. cit.]
Everything repeats in a great cycle, “a great year of Becoming.” Things are always new. Zarathustra is no longer disgusted or despairing of recurrence, for the greatness also recurs, though even the greatest man is inadequate. More importantly, this recurrence itself is perpetual becoming or creation, so it is viewed positively.
But the plexus of causes returneth in which I am intertwined,—it will again create me! I myself pertain to the causes of the eternal return.
I come again with this sun, with this earth, with this eagle, with this serpent—NOT to a new life, or a better life, or a similar life:
—I come again eternally to this identical and selfsame life, in its greatest and its smallest, to teach again the eternal return of all things,—
—To speak again the word of the great noontide of earth and man, to announce again to man the Superman.
I have spoken my word. I break down by my word: so willeth mine eternal fate—as announcer do I succumb! [Loc. cit.]
There seems to be a contradiction here, as Nietzsche, the great voluntarist, would have even his voluntarist gospel be a product of fate. Nietzsche’s voluntarism is not a denial of the strong determinism of the nineteenth century (indeed, he elsewhere mocks the notion of free will), but rather it is an embrace of fate (amor fati). Will consists in acting out one’s own destiny. What makes it Will is not indeterminism, but its grounding in Self.
Applied to himself, Nietzsche accepted that his own life and work has been replicated infinitely many times. Eternal recurrence is a chaotic notion, not a mechanical cycle. He is disavowing that there is anything truly new or truly permanent. This is a total demystification of reality, denying our psychological desires for newness and permanence. Nietzsche finds this preferable to the old static notions of eternity, for the only constant is change. If you enjoy life, he believes, you will be thrilled by eternal recurrence.
Despite his pretensions of living a life free of any metaphysical consolations, it would appear that eternal recurrence is such a consolation, no less than Christian immortality or Enlightenment progress. Nietzsche later seems to confess as much:
A certain emperor always bore in mind the transitoriness of all things so as not to take them too seriously and to live at peace among them. To me, on the contrary, everything seems far too valuable to be so fleeting: I seek an eternity for everything: ought one to pour the most precious salves and wines into the sea?— My consolation is that everything that has been is eternal: the sea will cast it up again. [Will to Power, 1065 (Nov. 1887-March 1888)]
After ridiculing the Christian and Platonic desire for the eternal, Nietzsche himself recognizes that the positive value of life demands its perpetuation. He accepts a cyclical eternity rather than a final state of perfection. Like anyone else who has felt a love for the things and persons of this world, he cannot bear to think of them destroyed without returning.
This startling admission makes us wonder whether Nietzsche has really transcended the ideals he disparages. It appears that he too has recognized that the only alternative to nihilism is to seek the eternal. Where he differs from Platonists is that he finds the eternal in the visible world, and that he sees it as ever-changing rather than static. He thinks this also distinguishes him from Christians, insofar as they are Platonists, yet many theologians, especially in Eastern Orthodoxy, have recognized that static concepts of essence do not adequately grasp the ever-living God, nor is the kingdom of God something altogether apart from this world. Rather, the transcendent Divinity is also immanent in the world, which is in the process of being transfigured toward the eternal.
Nietzsche’s consolation may be called Dionysian, insofar as it finds delight in the cycles of creation and destruction without pretending to understand them in the context of some rational moral order. The only way we can enjoy eternity is not in our personal immortality, but in our unity with the eternal, ever-changing universe.
Eternal recurrence brings Nietzsche full circle to ideas he explored early in his philosophical career in The Birth of Tragedy. In this discussion of aesthetics, the young Nietzsche identified Apollonian and Dionysian instincts in ancient Greek art. They are so named because Apollo was the god of plastic arts, and also of prophecy and light, while Dionysus was a god of music and intoxication. For Nietzsche, these gods are but symbols of deeper instincts at the base of all true art. In our age, philosophy and all other aspects of culture have been subjected to rationalistic criteria, and this has shaped our notion of ethics. Nietzsche, by contrast, will judge the sciences, including philosophy, by aesthetic instincts. While Nietzsche later recanted some aspects of The Birth of Tragedy, especially its notion of metaphysical consolation in tragedy, the work is still instructive for bringing out what he means by Dionysian, a term that was later used to describe the deepest revelation.
The Dionysian is contrasted with the arts of Apollo, which represent an idealized world found in dreams. The Apollonian painter or sculptor is like a prophet, revealing the higher truth of an imagined or dreamed world, which makes life bearable and worth living. The reliance of this art on definite forms and features requires a trust in the principle of individuation (here Nietzsche follows Schopenhauer). This principle acts as a limitation on such art. [BT, 1]
Whenever the rational principle for comprehending an illusion, i.e., for interpreting dreams or analyzing beauty, finds an exception, there is an awe of discovery, an ecstatic rapture, a collapse of the principle of individuation from the depths of nature. This is the Dionysian, which is akin to intoxication. Under the Dionysian spell, man is bonded to man and to nature. All are one, regardless of status. Each man feels himself a god, moving as the gods do in dreams. He is not an artist, but a work of art. Nietzsche offers as examples the use of narcotic drink in primitive rites, celebrations of spring, or St. Vitus’s dances. Some call this a disease, but it is actually the glow of health. [BT, 1] Ironically, in the Genealogy of Morals [GM, 3rd, 21 (see sec. 20.8)] Nietzsche reverts to the conventional depiction of St. Vitus dances as a disease. He is by then so hostile to Christianity that he can see nothing Dionysian in it.
The Apollonian and Dionysian are artistic impulses that come from nature. The artist is not a creator but an imitator, either of the Apollonian dream or Dionysian intoxication. Greek tragedy uses both of these impulses. Apollonian art follows patterns with regularity of form and intelligibility, such as the geometrical ideals of Doric architecture, or music consisting only of simple rhythms. Dionysian music, by contrast, has a disturbing tonal power, a stream of melody and harmony that breaks through the Apollonian order of symbols. It may still make use of symbolism, not only of sound, but also of bodily gestures. [BT, 2] Forgetting oneself, a person in a Dionysian trance uses sound and body to express an unintelligible, chaotic world beneath Apollonian form.
These two aesthetic impulses have a striking correspondence with what the ancients considered to be two natural sources of divination: dreams and frenzies. Only when the soul is free and unencumbered can it receive divine wisdom. Yet while the Stoics and Plato explained this as a freedom of the soul from the body, Nietzsche regards this as a freedom of the body, of which the soul is but an operation. The wisdom that is expressed by these impulses is not of the gods, giving moralistic meanings to everything, but of the body in rapport with amoral nature.
Nietzsche depicts a balance between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, where the former helps us deal with the horror of the latter. Both instincts are aesthetic, not moral. The Olympian world, expressing the Apollonian impulse, “speaks to us only a full, indeed a triumphant, existence, in which everything present is worshipped, no matter whether it is good or evil.” Olympus celebrates excess of life, spirit, and sensuousness. [BT, 3] This produced serenity in the Greeks, not because they were smug or self-satisfied, but because they acutely felt the terror and horrors of existence, and needed Olympus to make these bearable. The Apollonian impulse may be seen in the drive for beauty among Greek philosophers. Even Epicurus needed gods in order to contemplate their beauty. [Loc. cit.] Some modern commentators have thought that Epicurus was an atheist, because his gods apparently did nothing for the world. In fact, they did the most important thing to a Greek, giving meaning by their beautiful existence.
The Apollonian illusion can persist only as limits are respected, and everyone stays within their roles. For this reason, there are Greek myths condemning excess in anything, even wisdom (Oedipus) or love of mankind (Prometheus). These same myths, however, give glimpses of the Dionysian, which not only condones, but celebrates the excess of nature in joy and in suffering. When the Dionysian predominates, a new form of Apollonian art is eventually developed to hold it in check. Thus the Homeric world of heroes and gods held back fear of Titanic chaos. After the Dionysian prevailed again, the Doric period brought forth majesty in architecture, Attic tragedy and the dramatic dithyramb. [BT, 4]
The contrast between Dionysian and Apollonian can be seen in poetry. The epic poet, like the plastic artist, delights in contemplating images in exquisite detail. The lyric poet, like the Dionysian musician, does not abide in images but in himself. Archilochus thus speaks in the first person, with language expressing sounds of his passions, desires, and pains. The Dionysian artist is himself a work of art, actor and spectator. We cannot call such art “subjective,” as the artist is both subject and object. He is fused with the primordial artist, and able to see the world justified as an aesthetic phenomenon. [BT, 5]
A single art form can make use of both impulses. For example, folk song expresses the content of Apollonian epic in a Dionysian manner. The melody gives fiery images representing desires, while the lyrics, of secondary importance (according to Nietzsche), can vary with each performance. The same music may produce different images of desire, so these images are not Will itself, i.e., they are not essential to Dionysian music or its content. [BT, 6]
Modern studies of folk song find that words vary not because the epic content is secondary, but because the specific details and verbal forms are secondary. There are principal facts and themes that remain consistent through each performance. The story is primary, though the same music may be used for different stories. Thus the Apollonian content is no less essential to this art form than the Dionysian.
Greek tragedy likewise uses both impulses, though it originally was a purely Dionysian art, consisting only of the chorus. The chorus were onlookers, yet they were within the dramatic action, not idealized theater spectators. In this way, the drama was insulated from external reality, and unburdened with any obligation of historical or physical realism. [BT, 7] Instead, it represented mythic reality, which the Greeks held to be most true.
The young Nietzsche (aged twenty-eight) saw tragedy as a “metaphysical consolation,” showing that “in spite of all the transformations in phenomena, at the bottom of everything life is indestructibly powerful and delightful.” Such art saves man from a Buddhist denial of the will. [BT, 7] Later, Nietzsche would reject any consolations.
Even as a consolation, tragedy carries the danger of making daily reality seem disgusting by comparison, yielding asceticism. Dionysian men, like Hamlet, glimpse the essence of things, so “it disgusts them to act, for their action can change nothing in eternal nature of things.” [BT 7] When the older Nietzsche speaks of Dionysus, he excludes such nihilistic inaction.
Dionysus is the god of the ecstasies of nature, so he is commonly accompanied by the satyrs, who are divinely inspired revellers. Nietzsche sees the satyr as an image of primordial man, participating in the delights and sufferings of nature-wisdom. Greek drama originally consisted solely of the chorus, who acted as satyrs, i.e., as revellers, expressing ecstatic states through dance and song or chant. [BT, 8] The disturbing Dionysian quality of the music in satyr plays is confirmed in a preserved fragment. [Paniagua, Gregorio. “Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 2436.” Musique de la Grèce Antique Atrium Musicae de Madrid. Rec. June 1979. (Harmonia Mundi, HMA 1901015, 1986, CD)]
The chorus gazed upon Dionysus, and in this they experienced Apollonian fulfillment, if only in imagination. Through their performance, they described what they saw sympathetically, and brought the audience into this rapture. Later, Dionysus was depicted visibly by an actor, thereby introducing drama. The dithyrambic chorus first stimulates the mood of the audience to a Dionysian level, so when the masked actor appears, he seems to be a visionary shape born of their enchantment, and they transfer their expected vision onto the actor. This uses the Apollonian impulse, making Dionysus somewhat like an epic hero. [BT, 8]
Later dramatic heroes, such as Prometheus and Oedipus, were just masks for the original hero Dionysus, now represented in Apollonian images of ideal characters. [BT, 10] The brightness of these images serve as a remedy for gazing into the inner terror of nature. [BT, 9] The Greek serenity embodied by epic heroes is not a complacency ignorant of suffering, as is possible today with modern comforts.
The myths of Oedipus and Prometheus puncture the Apollonian illusion, and teach that we can obtain goods from nature only by committing unnatural acts. Oedipus at Colonus obtains wisdom passively by suffering, in contrast to his earlier striving which led only to passivity before fate. Prometheus likewise peers behind the Apollonian veil, recognizing that the gods need men. In this myth, activity is glorified, as the hero steals fire, so that man’s greatest achievement is obtained through a crime. This is a masculine offense, in contrast with the Semitic Fall. Such myths reveal “impiety in the essence of things.” One must suffer for individuality in the attempt to become a world being. [BT 9] Prometheus is punished for his crime, which was for the benefit of mankind.
This notion of the individual suffering the contradictions of nature for the benefit of mankind is exemplified in Dionysus himself. His tears beget mankind. He is dismembered, yet the Greeks hoped that Demeter might once again give birth to him. [BT, 10] The experience of impiety yields individuality, yet turning back to the world will restore unity. As Nietzsche describes:
…mysterious doctrine of tragedy: the basic acknowledgement of the unity of all existing things, the observation that individuation is the ultimate foundation of all evil, art the joyful hope, that the spell of individuation is there for us to break, as a premonition of a re-established unity. [BT, 10]
Dionysian music uses the Apollonian myths of Olympus to teach its truth, just as Zeus faced the Titan Prometheus to learn from him. Myths had become static, resisting growth. Dionysian drama enabled them to gain youthful life. “After this last flourishing, myth collapsed…” [BT, 10]
Nietzsche faults Euripides for removing the Dionysian from drama, with the result that even the Apollonian instinct was lost from it. In his pursuit of realism, he ended up producing only counterfeit passions. [BT 10] After Euripides came the New Attic Comedy, an atrophied form of tragedy, and finally tragedy died. Euripides effectively brought the spectators as ordinary folk onto the stage, by using a realistic, middle-class manner of speech. This made possible the New Comedy, which extolled the commoner values of shrewdness, cunning, wit and caprice. The later dramatists have lost faith in the idealized past and future of immortality. Now they have only the “the serenity of the slave, who has no idea how to take responsibility for anything difficult, how to strive for anything great, how to value anything in the past or future higher than the present.” [BT, 11] It was this decadent serenity that outraged Christians, who perceived it as a “feminine flight from seriousness and terror, this cowardly self-satisfaction with comfortable consumption.” This late decadence was erroneously ascribed also to the earlier periods of tragedy. [BT, 11]
In the pursuit of democratic realism, Euripides was not pandering to the crowd, but sought the approbation of two spectators. The first is himself, not as a poet, but as a thinker. From this perspective, it seemed that the old drama mishandled the myths, using too much pomp to express simple human relations, leaving ethical problems unresolved, and relying too much on luck or chance to bring disaster. All of this was unacceptable to someone whose chief enjoyment was in reason. [BT, 11]
By removing the Dionysian elements from tragedy, Euripides was left only with a dramatic epic. Instead of identifying with the hero’s experience of the unintelligible horror of nature, the audience delights in how beautifully represented his suffering is. The sensations of fright and sadness are delights to be sought. As these sensations become the desired ends, drama degenerates even from the epic. The actor must arouse people through the passions, rather than by representing Apollonian ideals with serene detachment. [BT, 12]
The second spectator in Euripides’ mind was Socrates. In Socratic aesthetics, “Everything must be understandable in order to be beautiful.” This influence can be seen in Euripidean prologues, with far too much exposition, killing suspense. Euripides thought tragedy depends on pathos, not action. His deus ex machina is likewise designed to guarantee the truth of the outcome, so we need not worry about action and can focus on pathos. Euripides follows Socrates in his failure to understand art or appreciate that artistic creation is unconscious. [BT 12]
Revealing his ignorance of art, Socrates criticizes those who know “only from instinct.” Though he recognizes some form of intuition in his daimonon, this is not affirmative like most instincts, but is always sounding caution. [BT, 13] Socrates found tragedy only pleasant, not useful to philosophers. Plato burned his poetry to become his student. [BT, 14]
Under the influence of Euripides and Socrates, the Apollonian impulse was expressed through logical systematizing, while the Dionysian was replaced with naturalistic emotions. The Euripidean hero defends his actions with reasons, yet this dialectic optimism runs the risk of losing tragic sympathy. [BT, 14] There can be no tragedy as long as virtue is knowledge, for the unfortunate rejoice in knowing that they are right and justified, their reason having arrived at a true conclusion. Instead of tragedy, we have the banality of so-called “poetic justice,” which actually reflects a loss of artistic impulse.
Optimistic dialectic drove music out of tragedy, destroying its Dionysian essence. The chorus, whose action had diminished even under Sophocles, was no longer needed. Yet the incomprehensible aspect of reality still made itself felt even to Socrates, who felt the urge to practice music, though he interpreted this in an Apollonian sense, that he must obey the god in order not to sin. [BT, 14] Even Euripides resorts to this rationale to justify the unavoidably Dionysian, as he does in the Bacchae.
Plato, despite his Socratic training, recognized that art had value. He condemned the old art for imitating an illusion, while new art was salvaged by making it represent something beyond empirical reality, a world of Ideas that is most truly real. He mixed stylistic forms in his dialogues, which nonetheless saved poetry as a handmaiden to philosophy.[BT, 14]
As Greek thinkers followed Socrates in being guided by the pursuit of explanatory causes, a pursuit of truth which Lessing considered preferable to truth itself, they came to believe with Socrates that thinking can thereby understand Being, and even correct it. This use of reason to correct Being turns science into an art. [BT, 15] Reasoning alone, however, failed to justify existence or make it intelligible, so it needed the myth of the dying Socrates, which is an expression of the ascetic ideal.
Nietzsche recognized a positive value to the devotion of so much energy to theoretical arts instead of practical arts. Were it not for theoretical optimism, a world of pragmatic pessimists would have led us into dissolution and wars of destruction. The noblest moral deeds and heroism are reduced to something teachable. The Platonic Socrates teaches a serene, blissful existence, discharging itself in actions. [BT, 15] This is attributable to Plato’s aristocratic sensibility.
At some point, this optimistic pursuit runs against the limits of reasoning into tragic insight, creating a need for art to spread over science. [BT, 15] Dionysus shatters the spell of individuation that had permitted release through illusion, and now a “way lies open to the maternal source of being, to the innermost core of things.” [BT, 16]
Such a Dionysian breakthrough is evident when music no longer confines itself to representing beautiful forms, as Wagner remarked about Beethoven. What happens when we combine such Dionysian music with Apollonian images or ideas? &ldquo[M]usic stimulates us to the metaphorical viewing of the Dionysian universality, and music then permits that metaphorical image to come forward with the highest significance.” [BT, 16] Thus music generates myth, including tragic myth.
Dionysian art takes joy in the destruction of the individual. “[T]he hero, the highest manifestation of the will, is destroyed, and we are happy at that, because, after all, he is only an illusion, and the eternal life of the will is not disturbed by his destruction.” Apollo overcomes suffering through the eternity of illusion. Dionysus says, “Be as I am! Under the incessant changes in phenomena, the eternally creative primordial mother, eternally forcing things into existence, eternally satisfied with the changing nature of appearances!” [BT, 16]
As we seek delight behind appearances, we recognize that everything must be ready for painful destruction, and…
…gaze directly into the terror of individual existence—and nonetheless are not to become paralyzed: a metaphysical consolation tears us momentarily out of the hustle and bustle of changing forms. For a short time we really are the primordial essence itself and feel its unbridled lust for and joy in existence; the struggle, the torment, the destruction of appearances now seem to us necessary, on account of the excess of innumerable forms of existence pressing and punching themselves into life and of the exuberant fecundity of the world will. [BT, 17]
The more mature Nietzsche would eventually deny any need for metaphysical consolation in the Dionysian, though he retained this zeal for a joyous embrace of eternal transience, which expresses the fecundity of the Will to Power. It is doubtful he would still approve speaking of the “primordial essence” or any oneness with a primordial artist, as this reeks of the substantialist, static essentialism and metaphysical pantheism he would later reject as surrogates for ascetic religion. The later Nietzsche wanted no consolations (or so he professed), and sought to cheerfully accept reality as it is, with all its corruptibility.
Music loses its Dionysian quality when it no longer expresses Will, but only imitates ideas. The new Attic dithyramb succumbed to such Socratic mimesis, e.g., imitating the sounds of a storm at sea, robbing music of its mythic power. This is basically just painting with sounds. Drama likewise loses its mythic ability when characters are presented as individualized and realistic instead of a broad eternal type. Sophocles began this process, at least painting whole characters, while Euripides just painted individual traits or passions, hence the use of masks with one expression, and the reliance on character tropes (the merchant, the prostitute, etc.). [BT, 17]
Regardless of whether Nietzsche has done justice to Euripides as an artist, the diminution of the Dionysian impulse is evident. Euripides sees Dionysian behavior as mere frenzy or madness, with no justification other than that it is commanded by a god. Having lost any appreciation of the Dionysian, he must devise a new consolation in his psuedo-tragedy, the happy ending guaranteed by the deus ex machina.
With the advent of theoretical science from Aristotle to the present, we find among the learned what Nietzsche calls Alexandrian serenity. Its deus ex machina uses forces of nature to correct or improve the world through science. Scientific man confines his interest to solvable problems, so he can be cheerful toward life. [BT, 17] He has no need of poetry, music or mysticism, because he ignores the tragedy at the heart of reality.
The Apollonian desire for beauty and the Dionysian oneness with eternal life are replaced by the Socratic desire for knowledge. The young Nietzsche considers all these consolations to be stages of illusion, which appeal to noble natures who feel the weight of existence and need to be deceived by stimulants we call culture. Culture can be Socratic or artistic or tragic, with examples of each being Alexandrian, Hellenic, and Buddhist, respectively. The modern world is Alexandrian, evaluating everything by rational or scientific standards. [BT, 18]
Tragedy places between the universal validity of its music and the listener sensitive to the Dionysian an awe-inspiring parable—the myth—and with that awakens an illusion, as if the music is only the production’s highest device for bringing life to the plastic world of the myth. Trusting in this noble deception, tragedy can now move its limbs in the dithyrambic dance and abandon itself unconsciously to an ecstatic feeling of freedom; without that deception it would not dare to revel in the very essence of music. The myth protects us from the music, while it, by contrast, immediately gives the music its highest freedom… through the music, in particular, there comes over the spectator of tragedy that certain presentiment of the highest joy, the road to which leads through destruction and negation, so that he thinks what he hears is like the innermost abyss of things speaking to him out loud. [BT, 20]
The later Nietzsche will invoke Dionysus not as a consolation or state of illusion, but as the deepest insight into reality. The name Dionysus represents connection with the amoral horror of reality without any consoling illusion, yet loving it anyway. He is not altogether consistent in this, sometimes saying that we need illusion to make life bearable, hence his denial of Will to Truth. In the Dionysian, Nietzsche sees the only possible alternative to the ascetic ideal for giving meaning to life.
Tragedy needs both artistic impulses to produce its mythic effects. Music alone will not convey tragedy without the words and images. A purely Dionysian drama would be ineffectual as myth. The Apollonian is needed, delighting us with an individual, a tragic hero, pity for whom saves us from the primordial suffering of the world. The tragedy ends in a Dionysian tone, shattering the Apollonian illusion, so that Apollo speaks the language of Dionysus. [BT, 21]
Real tragedy can be appreciated only by an aesthetic listener, not the Socratic critic who measures things by realism or sound ethics. [BT, 22] Such a critic fails to grasp art, and confines wisdom only to the problems that science can answer rationally.
Still, Nietzsche offers a crutch to our reason, noting that his notion of Dionysian art can be made somewhat understandable by musical dissonance. Dissonance creates a displeasure or tension that must be resolved, so we ironically want to keep listening, yet get beyond what we hear. The joy in pain of tragic myth has the same origin. We are trying to get beyond this to the infinite, so we delight in the playful dissolution of the world. [BT, 24] That is, we take joy in the destruction of Apollonian dream of individuality in order to intoxicate ourselves with the eternity of change.
Music and tragic myth justify the existence of even this “worst of worlds.” In these arts, an individual man is a dissonance becoming human. This transfiguration uses the Apollonian impulse to keep alive the world of individuals, covering it in beauty. The Apollonian is not abolished, but must be balanced with the Dionysian. The greater the madness of Dionysus’s blessing, the greater Apollonian remedy is needed. One suffers in order to become beautiful. [BT, 25]
The later Nietzsche likewise indicates that profound suffering leads to higher wisdom. This yields an intellectual haughtiness that “finds all forms of disguise necessary to protect itself from contact with officious and sympathizing hands, and in general from all that is not its equal in suffering. Profound suffering makes noble: it separates.” [BGE, 270] In his private letters, Nietzsche alluded to how he must disguise what he thinks of his himself. In Beyond Good and Evil, he describes several such disguises.
One of the most refined forms of disguise is Epicurism, along with a certain ostentatious boldness of taste, which takes suffering lightly, and puts itself on the defensive against all that is sorrowful and profound. They are “gay men” who make use of gaiety, because they are misunderstood on account of it—they WISH to be misunderstood. [BGE, 270]
There are “scientific minds” who make use of science, because it gives a gay appearance, and because scientificness leads to the conclusion that a person is superficial—they WISH to mislead to a false conclusion… occasionally folly itself is the mask of an unfortunate OVER-ASSURED knowledge.—From which it follows that it is the part of a more refined humanity to have reverence “for the mask,” and not to make use of psychology and curiosity in the wrong place. [BGE, 270]
One of the subtlest means of deceiving, at least as long as possible, and of successfully representing oneself to be stupider than one really is—which in everyday life is often as desirable as an umbrella,—is called ENTHUSIASM, including what belongs to it, for instance, virtue. For as Galiani said, who was obliged to know it: VERTU EST ENTHOUSIASME. [BGE, 288]
The hedonistic gaiety of the Dionysian man is misleading, for this is no idle frivolity. Likewise, he may invoke science to prove this or that point, yet not because he is naive about the certainty of science and its psychological origins. The Dionysian man makes use of illusion.
The recluse does not believe that a philosopher—supposing that a philosopher has always in the first place been a recluse—ever expressed his actual and ultimate opinions in books: are not books written precisely to hide what is in us?—indeed, he will doubt whether a philosopher CAN have “ultimate and actual” opinions at all; whether behind every cave in him there is not, and must necessarily be, a still deeper cave: an ampler, stranger, richer world beyond the surface, an abyss behind every bottom, beneath every “foundation.” Every philosophy is a foreground philosophy—this is a recluse’s verdict: “There is something arbitrary in the fact that the PHILOSOPHER came to a stand here, took a retrospect, and looked around; that he HERE laid his spade aside and did not dig any deeper—there is also something suspicious in it.” Every philosophy also CONCEALS a philosophy; every opinion is also a LURKING-PLACE, every word is also a MASK. [BGE, 289]
Here we find that the static concepts of language, necessarily employed even in Nietzsche’s books, conceal reality even as they point to it. A man’s real philosophy is in how he chooses to live, so his formally stated opinions are but products of his deeper philosophy. Our focus on the last works of Nietzsche should not be construed as an attempt to discover his definitive opinions, but only the last recorded point in his progress.
Notwithstanding its outward simplicity and innocence, Dionysian immoralism is the culmination of man’s enterprise of creating life-affirming illusions.
Man, a COMPLEX, mendacious, artful, and inscrutable animal, uncanny to the other animals by his artifice and sagacity, rather than by his strength, has invented the good conscience in order finally to enjoy his soul as something SIMPLE; and the whole of morality is a long, audacious falsification, by virtue of which generally enjoyment at the sight of the soul becomes possible. [BGE, 291]
Nietzsche does not pretend that he has found a way to escape self-deception. Rather, he recognizes that even the ethic of immoralism is a necessary falsification to make life bearable. It is only by casting aside the Will to Truth that it becomes possible to have meaning in life without the ascetic ideal.
This philosophical meaning is peculiar to each individual, according to his experience. A philosopher, even though he may at first be fearful of his own insight, learns to seize and accept it.
A man who says: “I like that, I take it for my own, and mean to guard and protect it from every one;” a man who can conduct a case, carry out a resolution, remain true to an opinion, keep hold of a woman, punish and overthrow insolence; a man who has his indignation and his sword, and to whom the weak, the suffering, the oppressed, and even the animals willingly submit and naturally belong; in short, a man who is a MASTER by nature—when such a man has sympathy, well! THAT sympathy has value! [BGE, 293]
Dionysian suffering, because it is life-affirming, does not impair one’s ability to assert oneself over others and act as a master. The same cannot be said of those who complain of suffering as some burden to be borne.
But of what account is the sympathy of those who suffer! Or of those even who preach sympathy! There is nowadays, throughout almost the whole of Europe, a sickly irritability and sensitiveness towards pain, and also a repulsive irrestrainableness in complaining, an effeminizing, which, with the aid of religion and philosophical nonsense, seeks to deck itself out as something superior—there is a regular cult of suffering. The UNMANLINESS of that which is called “sympathy” by such groups of visionaries, is always, I believe, the first thing that strikes the eye.—One must resolutely and radically taboo this latest form of bad taste; and finally I wish people to put the good amulet, “GAI SABER” (“gay science,” in ordinary language), on heart and neck, as a protection against it. [BGE, 293]
It is unworthy of man to have any pity or sympathy that entails belief that pain is an evil to be avoided. This slave morality is distinct from the attitude of a master, who offers his sympathy as a gift, not as something owed. Those who are virile love what is beautiful, admiring strength and despising any effeminate fear of pain. In this regard, Nietzsche can admire religious ascetics, though not those who have appropriated ascetic morality into a religion that makes pity a duty.
Nietzsche, by contrast, praises laughter, recognizing Dionysus as the genius of the heart. “Dionysus is a philosopher, and that therefore Gods also philosophize.” [BGE, 295] Dionysus is admirable for “his courage as investigator and discoverer, his fearless honesty, truthfulness, and love of wisdom.” [Loc. cit.] This life-affirming god says: “in my opinion man is an agreeable, brave, inventive animal, that has not his equal upon earth, he makes his way even through all labyrinths. I like man, and often think how I can still further advance him, and make him stronger, more evil, and more profound… also more beautiful.” [Loc. cit.]
Dionysus is an immanent divinity at the heart of reality. He is not unchanging, but is change or life itself. This insight is similar to that of animist religion found in all primitive cultures. They revere a great spirit that is not beyond the stars, but in all of nature, imbuing it with life in a succession of creation and destruction.
In The Gay Science, Nietzsche admitted he was mistaken in thinking that nineteenth-century pessimism and German music were expressions of Dionysian power, and thus “a justifiable luxury.” Instead, they were expressions of romanticism. Philosophy exists to help growing life through suffering.
But here are two kinds of sufferers: on the one hand those that suffer from overflowing vitality, who need Dionysian art, and require a tragic view and insight into life; and on the other hand those who suffer from reduced vitality, who seek repose, quietness, calm seas, and deliverance from themselves through art or knowledge, or else intoxication, spasm, bewilderment and madness. [GS, 370, p.332.]
Romantics belong to the latter class, as do Schopenhauer and Wagner, in his final estimation.
The being richest in overflowing vitality, the Dionysian God and man, may not only allow himself the spectacle of the horrible and questionable, but even the fearful deed itself, and all the luxury of destruction, disorganisation and negation. With him evil, senselessness and ugliness seem as it were licensed, in consequence of the overflowing plenitude of procreative, fructifying power… [Loc. cit.]
By contrast, those poorest in vitality need mildness, kindliness in thought. Thus we have the salves of Christianity and Alexandrian logic. Likewise Epicurus, for all his apparent love of pleasure, really sought only mildness and calm, in order to be free from fear.
Another distinction between these classes of sufferers is that those with low vitality generally desire static being, rigidity, and perpetuation, while those with high vitality crave destruction, which breeds change, and newness, i.e., becoming. Yet not all who desire destruction are motivated by this Dionysian impulse.
The desire for destruction, change and becoming, may be the expression of overflowing power, pregnant with futurity (my terminus for this is of course the word “Dionysian”); but it may also be the hatred of the ill-constituted, destitute and unfortunate, which destroys, and must destroy, because the enduring, yea, all that endures, in fact all being, excites and provokes it. To understand this emotion we have but to look closely at our anarchists. [Loc. cit.]
Those who love revolutionary destruction out of ressentiment are not Dionysian, since their desire comes from envious weakness rather than magnanimous power.
The will to perpetuation requires equally a double interpretation. It may on the one hand proceed from gratitude and love:—art of this origin will always be an art of apotheosis, perhaps dithyrambic, as with Rubens, mocking divinely, as with Hafiz, or clear and kindhearted as with Goethe, and spreading a Homeric brightness and glory over everything (in this case I speak of Apollonian art).
It may also, however, be the tyrannical will of a sorely-suffering, struggling or tortured being, who would like to stamp his most personal, individual and narrow characteristics, the very idiosyncrasy of his suffering, as an obligatory law and constraint on others; who, as it were, takes revenge on all things, in that he imprints, enforces and brands his image, the image of his torture, upon them. The latter is romantic pessimism in its most extreme form, whether it be as Schopenhauerian will-philosophy, or as Wagnerian music:—romantic pessimism, the last great event in the destiny of our civilisation.
The desire for perpetuation is not always a sign of weakness, though it is not Dionysian. The Apollonian impulse to give glory to what exists is equally worthy of a noble will. Where the desire for the eternal goes wrong is when one imposes his own idiosyncratic struggles with desire onto the world as universal truth, to which all must conform. This tyrannical Will to Power turns us against ourselves, stifling individual expression, and damning ourselves for failing to conform to an arbitrary ascetic ideal.
(That there may be quite a different kind of pessimism, a classical pessimism—this presentiment and vision belongs to me, as something inseparable from me, as my proprium and ipsissimum; only that the word “classical” is repugnant to my ears, it has become far too worn, too indefinite and indistinguishable. I call that pessimism of the future—for it is coming! I see it coming!—Dionysian pessimism.)
Nietzsche’s “pessimism” is classical, i.e., akin to that of the ancient Greeks, but it is forward-looking, not antiquarian. It is “pessimism” because it recognizes that this is the “worst of worlds,” i.e., there is no overarching order or providence. Yet he does not despair on account of this, nor does he invent some ideal with which to torture himself and others. He nonetheless praises Apollonian art, so he still recognizes a need for illusion.
Clearly, Nietzsche considers the desires for destruction and perpetuation to be good or bad not in themselves, but according to whether they flow out of a healthy Will to Power or a sickly will turned inward against itself. This is an aesthetic distinction, so it is only fitting that he should explain it in terms of aesthetic impulses. Those with healthy motivation are driven by both Dionysian and Apollonian instincts, while the weak are driven by life-hating impulses. As Ludovici remarks in his notes on Thus Spake Zarathustra, master morality is creative, active, Dionysian, while slave morality is passive, defensive, just struggling to exist (i.e., making life bearable). This is why Nietzsche does not speak of mere “survival” of the fittest. He would do more than make life bearable, but make it superabundantly fruitful. Dionysian excess best expresses this desire.
Nietzsche is not an idle mocker of morality, for he takes moral problems seriously, but the fruit of this serious inquiry is a “joyful wisdom” (or “gay science”) that enables a man to treat such topics gaily.
This gaiety, indeed, or, to use my own language, this joyful wisdom, is a payment; a payment for a protracted, brave, laborious, and burrowing seriousness, which, it goes without saying is the attribute of but a few. But on that day on which we say from the fullness of our hearts, “Forward! our old morality too is fit material for Comedy,” we shall have discovered a new plot, and a new possibility for the Dionysian drama entitled The Soul’s Fate—and he will speedily utilise it, one can wager safely, he, the great ancient eternal dramatist of the comedy of our existence. [GM Pref 7]
Only those who have first agonized over moral problems earn the right to see the comedy in morality. This act of transcending guilt-consciousness is not a regression to hedonism, but a participation in the creative process that will advance psychological development.
This creative process is not merely intellectual discovery, but entails artistic impulses and their associated suffering.
Take, for instance, my Zarathustra; I allow no one to pass muster as knowing that book, unless every single word therein has at some time wrought in him a profound wound, and at some time exercised on him a profound enchantment: then and not till then can he enjoy the privilege of participating reverently in the halcyon element, from which that work is born, in its sunny brilliance, its distance, its spaciousness, its certainty. [GM Pref 8]
Understanding Nietzsche’s philosophy requires the same labor and aesthetic insight it takes to really grasp a poem or a musical piece. One must not merely understand what the word-symbols represent, but really feel the horror of tragedy and the Dionysian enchantment that makes it bearable. Those who do not pay these dues do not really understand Nietzsche. They are just adolescent mockers or hedonists.
Since understanding what Nietzsche calls philosophy entails aesthetic appreciation, this understanding is not merely grasping “what Nietzsche meant,” any more than understanding a work of art is reducible to the artist’s intention. We must make use of our own aesthetic instincts to peer into tragic reality and come up with our own response to this horror. We cannot simply “look up the answer” and assent to it, but must work through these problems on our own. The personality of Nietzsche is important only insofar as it helps us understand his personal journey toward Dionysian insight. It is not a template for all such journeys.
Dionysus is the closest thing to a telos found in Nietzsche’s ethical philosophy. This seems clear from the original plan of his four-volume Will to Power.
Vol. I. The Antichrist: an Attempt at a Criticism of Christianity.
Vol. II. The Free Spirit: a Criticism of Philosophy as a Nihilistic Movement.
Vol. III. The Immoralist: a Criticism of Morality, the Most Fatal Form of Ignorance.
Vol. IV. Dionysus: the Philosophy of Eternal Recurrence
Only the first volume was ever written, while Nietzsche kept changing his plan for the remainder of the work. At one point, he sought to recast the project as a Transvaluation of All Values, which would practically make himself the first Superman. For our purposes, it suffices to note that he identified Dionysian philosophy with the telos of eternal recurrence.
The criticisms of Christianity, idealist philosophy, and morality are all designed to pave the way for a fully life-affirming, world-affirming philosophy. He considers all these previous belief systems to condemn the world and all its life-affirming instincts.
Although Nietzsche repeatedly takes atheism for granted, he sometimes seems to give an almost pantheistic interpretation of Dionysus, especially in The Birth of Tragedy:
…that being who, as the single creator and spectator of that comedy of art, prepares for itself an eternal enjoyment. Only to the extent that the genius in the act of artistic creation is fused with that primordial artist of the world does he know anything about the eternal nature of art… [BT, 5]
It is understandable, then, that even H.L. Mencken, who certainly appreciated the strength of Nietzsche’s anti-Christianity, nonetheless found he believed in a sort of God:
The God that Nietzsche imagined, in the end, was not far from the God that such an artist as Joseph Conrad imagines—a supreme craftsman, ever experimenting, ever coming closer to an ideal balancing of lines and forces, and yet always failing to work out the final harmony. [H.L. Mencken, intro. to: F. Nietzsche The Antichrist, H.L. Mencken, trans. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1918), p.13.]
This differs from conventional theologies in that we are not speaking of a self-aware intellect, nor indeed anything intelligible, nor an unchanging Essence. Further, Nietzsche does not consider this supreme artist to be something distinct from the work of art (i.e., the world). We might subject this notion to the same criticism applied to all pantheism, i.e., that which imposes order (even tentatively and imperfectly) on the cosmos thereby transcends it to some extent, and is not merely immanent.
Regardless of how we finely interpret this Dionysian “theology,” it seems clear that Nietzsche does not object to religions for positing something divine or sublime, but for using such suppositions to condemn the world by contrast. He did not even begrudge the lower classes their belief in conventional forms of religion.
What he stood against was not their beliefs, but the elevation of those beliefs, by any sort of democratic process, to the dignity of a state philosophy—what he feared most was the pollution and crippling of the superior minority by intellectual disease from below. [Mencken, op. cit., p.18.]
Idealism is deadly in the hands of democracies, whether it is Christian or secular liberalism, since the masses are least capable of stepping outside their assumptions.
One hears without surprise of a Bismarck philosophizing placidly (at least in his old age) upon the delusion of Socialism and of a Frederick the Great playing the hose of his cynicism upon the absolutism that was almost identical with his own person, but men in the mass never brook the destructive discussion of their fundamental beliefs, and that impatience is naturally most evident in those societies in which men in the mass are most influential. Democracy and free speech are not facets of one gem; democracy and free speech are eternal enemies. [Ibid., p.22.]
Anyone who understands this inclination cannot be surprised by the intellectual tyranny of so-called “political correctness” and other forms of Sklavenmoral that would forbid even to think contrary to the dogma of equality.
Christianity falls under Nietzsche’s condemnation precisely because, as he experienced it in the nineteenth century, it was the most prominent rationalization of the myth of human equality. Worse, it even seemed to make ignorance and misery meritorious signs of election. [Ibid., p.31.] In fact, the notion that Christianity implied the equal worth of men was historically recent, refracted through the influence of Locke and his successors. That this is contrary to traditional Christianity is made evident by recent social developments, that would impose moral equality so broadly as to make public morality an anachronism. When all values are equal, there are no values.
In Twilight of the Idols (1895), published after his descent into madness, Nietzsche offers further guidance on what he means by Dionysian.
In the Dionysian state… the whole affective system is excited and enhanced: so that it discharges all its means of expression at once and drives forth simultaneously the power of representation, imitation, transfiguration, transformation, and every kind of mimicking and acting. The essential feature here remains the ease of metamorphosis, the inability not to react (similar to certain hysterical types who also, upon any suggestion, enter into any role). It is impossible for the Dionysian type not to understand any suggestion; he does not overlook any sign of an affect; he possesses the instinct of understanding and guessing in the highest degree, just as he commands the art of communication in the highest degree. He enters into any skin, into any affect: he constantly transforms himself. [Twilight of the Idols, Skirmishes, 10]
Dionysian frenzies, which Socrates, Euripides and all subsequent intellectuals have viewed as a disease, are actually expressions of a heightened instinct whereby one loses oneself in the body, conveying raw desire unmediated by any concept. By forgetting individual consciousness, it becomes possible to express life impulses freely. Instead of static concepts we have fluid desires.
Music, as we understand it today, is also a total excitement and a total discharge of the affects, but even so only the remnant of a much fuller world of expression of the affects, a mere residue of the Dionysian histrionicism. To make music possible as a separate art, a number of senses, especially the muscle sense, have been immobilized (at least relatively, for to a certain degree all rhythm still appeals to our muscles); so that man no longer bodily imitates and represents everything he feels. Nevertheless, that is really the normal Dionysian state, at least the original state. Music is the specialization of this state attained slowly at the expense of those faculties which are most closely related to it. [Loc. cit.]
Nietzsche modifies Schopenhauer’s idea that music is a raw expression of world-Will. Instead, it is only a limited expression of Will, confined to a subset of affects. The old Dionysian arts included dance, which allowed full expression throughout the body.
This specialization of Dionysian instincts, strangely, can lead to opposition among them.
The actor, the mime, the dancer, the musician, and the lyric poet are basically related in their instincts and, at bottom, one—but gradually they have become specialized and separated from each other, even to the point of mutual opposition. The lyric poet remained united with the musician for the longest time; the actor, with the dancer. [Ibid.., 11]
Architecture is not the expression of an aesthetic instinct, but of a noble Will that strives for art.
The architect represents neither a Dionysian nor an Apollinian state: here it is the great act of will, the will that moves mountains, the frenzy of the great will which aspires to art. The most powerful human beings have always inspired architects; the architect has always been under the spell of power. His buildings are supposed to render pride visible, and the victory over gravity, the will to power. Architecture is a kind of eloquence of power in forms—now persuading, even flattering, now only commanding. The highest feeling of power and sureness finds expression in a grand style. The power which no longer needs any proof, which spurns pleasing, which does not answer lightly, which feels no witness near, which lives oblivious of all opposition to it, which reposes within itself, fatalistically, a law among laws—that speaks of itself as a grand style. [Loc. cit.]
This notion that architecture manifests power, found among all the ancient empires, would find favor again in Nazi Germany. It is doubtful, however, whether they were able to achieve that noble self-assuredness of the ancients. Architecture is not Apollonian since it does not strive primarily for beauty, and as a plastic art using representational form, it is certainly not Dionysian. Nonetheless, the Will to Power it expresses is the same as that which motivates Dionysian art.
Nietzsche never abandoned his aesthetic theorizing, since it was indispensable to his post-moral attempt to give meaning to life. As a philosopher of flux, he clearly favored the Dionysian over the Apollonian insofar as the former embraced the inconstancy at the heart of existence. He imposed this temporality and perspectivism even over Apollonian art, noting that beauty is relative, not an eternally fixed verity. [Ibid., 19]
Where shall we find an expression of a Dionysus of the future rather than the past? Such a man, really a superman, will express all his instincts without the illusions of any morality, ancient or modern. His life finds meaning not in conformity to some ideal, nor by hope in some immaterial world, but through a cheerful, confident fatalism (i.e., embracing what actually happens, not necessitarianism).
Goethe first perceived such a Dionysus, transcending the morality of his time by embracing all natural instincts, even when they seemed opposed to each other.
Goethe—not a German event, but a European one: a magnificent attempt to overcome the eighteenth century by a return to nature, by an ascent to the naturalness of the Renaissance—a kind of self-overcoming on the part of that century. He bore its strongest instincts within himself: the sensibility, the idolatry of nature, the anti-historic, the idealistic, the unreal and revolutionary (the latter being merely a form of the unreal). He sought help from history, natural science, antiquity, and also Spinoza, but, above all, from practical activity; he surrounded himself with limited horizons; he did not retire from life but put himself into the midst of it; he if was not fainthearted but took as much as possible upon himself, over himself, into himself. What he wanted was totality; he fought the mutual extraneousness of reason, senses, feeling, and will (preached with the most abhorrent scholasticism by Kant, the antipode of Goethe); he disciplined himself to wholeness, he created himself.
In the middle of an age with an unreal outlook, Goethe was a convinced realist: he said Yes to everything that was related to him in this respect—and he had no greater experience than that ens realissimum called Napoleon. Goethe conceived a human being who would be strong, highly educated, skillful in all bodily matters, self-controlled, reverent toward himself, and who might dare to afford the whole range and wealth of being natural, being strong enough for such freedom; the man of tolerance, not from weakness but from strength, because he knows how to use to his advantage even that from which the average nature would perish; the man for whom there is no longer anything that is forbidden—unless it be weakness, whether called vice or virtue.
Such a spirit who has become free stands amid the cosmos with a joyous and trusting fatalism, in the faith that only the particular is loathesome, and that all is redeemed and affirmed in the whole—he does not negate anymore. Such a faith, however, is the highest of all possible faiths: I have baptized it with the name of Dionysus. [Ibid., 49]
Napoleon, whom Nietzsche called a superman, is here the model of the faith that he calls Dionysus. It is a trust in the Will of which the cosmos consists. This entails a trust in one’s instincts and fully expressing them without guilt. To the Superman of Dionysian faith no instinct is evil. What is loathsome is only those particular beings that are weak. The Will itself is never to be despised or hated. His contempt for the weak does not translate into hatred; indeed, he may even help the weak out of magnanimity, if not obligation. His only duty to the weak is to be strong for them: leading, ruling, assimilating, even killing them as needed. In all this activity, he is purely affirmative, for life exists precisely by means of change and destruction.
As the key to understanding the older, inexhaustibly rich and even overflowing Greek instinct, I was the first to take seriously that wonderful phenomenon which bears the name of Dionysus, which is only explicable in terms of an excess of force. Whoever followed the Greeks, like that most profound student of their culture in our time, Jacob Burckhardt in Basel, knew immediately that something had been achieved thereby; and Burckhardt added a special section on this phenomenon to his Civilization of the Greeks. To see the counter example, one should look at the almost amusing poverty of instinct among the German philologists when they approach the Dionysian. [Twilight of the Idols, Things I Owe to the Ancients, 4]
While some philologists dismissed the Dionysian rites as mere indulgence bred of boredom, Nietzsche considered them essential to the expression of Greek genius. Most scholars had been misled by Socrates and Euripides into thinking that this was some lower class stupidity, alien to higher Greek culture. Those who take this view have an impoverished understanding of Hellenism.
I have quite a different feeling toward the concept “Greek” that was developed by Winckelmann and Goethe; to me it is incompatible with the orgiastic element out of which Dionysian art grows. In fact I believe that Goethe excluded as a matter of principle any orgiastic feelings from his concept of the Greek spirit. Consequently Goethe did not understand the Greeks. For it is only in the Dionysian mysteries, in the psychology of the Dionysian state, that the basic fact of the Hellenic instinct finds expression—its “will to life.” What was it that the Hellene guaranteed himself by means of these mysteries? Eternal life, the eternal return of life, the future promised and hallowed in the past; the triumphant Yes to life beyond all death and change; true life as the continuation of life through procreation, through the mysteries of sex. For the Greeks a sexual symbol was therefore the most sacred symbol, the real profundity in the whole of ancient piety. Every single element in the act of procreation, of pregnancy, and of birth aroused the highest and most solemn feelings. In the doctrine of the mysteries, pain is pronounced holy: the pangs of the woman giving birth consecrate all pain; and conversely all becoming and growing—all that guarantees a future—involves pain. That there may be the eternal joy of creating, that the will to life may eternally affirm itself, the agony of the woman giving birth must also be there eternally.
All this is meant by the word Dionysus: I know no higher symbolism than this Greek symbolism of the Dionysian festivals. Here the most profound instinct of life, that directed toward the future of life, the eternity of life, is experienced religiously—and the way to life, procreation, as the holy way. It was Christianity, with its heartfelt resentment against life, that first made something unclean of sexuality: it threw filth on the origin, on the essential fact of our life. [Loc. cit.]
Again, Nietzsche sees eternal recurrence implied in the Dionysian. Even the apparently hedonistic aspects of the rites are really oriented toward this will to eternal creation. Although he often inveighs against libertines, he would nonetheless affirm that sexuality, like all life-affirming instincts, is perfectly clean, even a central goodness of reality. His attitude is distinct from the so-called sexual revolution, for he links the goodness of sexuality to its procreative function.
Excess is an essential feature of Dionysian expression, manifested in sexuality, wine, dance and music. Such excess shows an abundance of life force, bursting through Apollonian limits (i.e., the moral notion of moderation).
The psychology of the orgiastic as an overflowing feeling of life and strength, where even pain still has the effect of a stimulus, gave me the key to the concept of tragic feeling, which had been misunderstood both by Aristotle and even more by modern pessimists. Tragedy is so far from being a proof of the pessimism (in Schopenhauer’s sense) of the Greeks that it may, on the contrary, be considered a decisive rebuttal and counterexample. Saying Yes to life even in its strangest and most painful episodes, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustible vitality even as it witnesses the destruction of its greatest heros—that is what I called Dionysian, that is what I guessed to be the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet. Not in order to be liberated from terror and pity, not in order to purge oneself of a dangerous affect by its vehement discharge—which is how Aristotle understood tragedy—but in order to celebrate oneself the eternal joy of becoming, beyond all terror and pity—that tragic joy included even joy in destruction.
And with that I again touch on my earliest point of departure: The Birth of Tragedy was my first revaluation of all values. And on that point I again stand on the earth out of which my intention, my ability grows—I, the last disciple of the philosopher Dionysus—I, the teacher of the eternal recurrence. [Ibid., 5]
The Birth of Tragedy was the first attempt at a transvaluation of all values in that it evaluated all intellectual and moral concepts according to aesthetic criteria. Aesthetics, in turn, was judged with respect to life-affirming instinct. The Dionysian aesthetic is found to say Yes even to the most painful aspects of life. It is not pessimistic in the sense of finding that life is too painful to be any good. It recognizes the abundant pain, fear and sorrow in the world, yet celebrates the eternal creative power that brings destruction to particular beings. This is not mere catharsis, as Aristotle thought, though his observation may well apply to the decadent forms of tragedy, i.e., melodrama. Rather, it is a sense of unity with the eternal flux that brings the rise and fall of men. It is not that one takes joy in pain per se, but insofar as it is a necessary aspect of the creativity of life.
Our interpretation is confirmed in some of Nietzsche’s posthumously published notes.
Apollo’s deception: the eternity of beautiful forms; the aristocratic legislation, “thus shall it be for ever!”
Dionysus: sensuality and cruelty. Transitoriness could be interpreted as enjoyment of productive and destructive force, as continual creation. [Will to Power, 1049 (1885-1886)]
Again Dionysus is associated with flux. We enjoy destruction not as destruction, but as force, the engine of creation. Dionysus grasps the world as it is, while Apollo tries to protect us from pain through the illusion of static eternity.
And do you know what “the world” is to me? Shall I show it to you in my mirror? This world: a monster of energy, without beginning, without end; a firm, iron magnitude of force that does not grow bigger or smaller, that does not expend itself but only transforms itself; as a whole, of unalterable size, a household without expenses or losses, but likewise without increase or income; enclosed by “nothingness” as by a boundary; not something blurry or wasted, not something endlessly extended, but set in a definite space as a definite force, and not a sphere that might be “empty” here or there, but rather as force throughout, as a play of forces and waves of forces, at the same time one and many, increasing here and at the same time decreasing there; a sea of forces flowing and rushing together, eternally changing, eternally flooding back, with tremendous years of recurrence, with an ebb and a flood of its forms; out of the simplest forms striving toward the most complex, out of the stillest, most rigid, coldest forms toward the hottest, most turbulent, most self-contradictory, and then again returning home to the simple out of this abundance, out of the play of contradictions back to the joy of concord, still affirming itself in this uniformity of its courses and its years, blessing itself as that which must return eternally, as a becoming that knows no satiety, no disgust, no weariness: this, my Dionysian world of the eternally self-creating, the eternally self-destroying, this mystery world of the twofold voluptuous delight, my “beyond good and evil,” without goal, unless the joy of the circle is itself a goal; without will, unless a ring feels good will toward itself—do you want a name for this world? A solution for all its riddles? A light for you, too, you best-concealed, strongest, most intrepid, most midnightly men?—This world is the will to power—and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power—and nothing besides! [Will to Power, 1067 (1885)]
This account of the cosmos as a continuum of forces and waves, finite in extent yet without a boundary, holds up remarkably well even under modern physics. The lack of “net income” corresponds to conservation of energy, and this leads to the implication of the eternity of the world. With finitely many force centers to permute, we are left with eternal recurrence. This implies that there can be no ever-ascending progress (which would require ever greater configurations of energy ad infinitum), so all the developments of life will be destroyed at some point. There is no goal to this eternally productive and destructive creativity, which is simply Will to Power.
A philosophy that is truly Dionysian cannot be contained by mere intellectual concepts. Understanding this, Nietzsche frequently resorted to aphoristic and poetic forms of expression. In his final years, he sought to use a more overtly musical form of expression, writing his Dionysian-Dithyrambs in the fall of 1888 under the pen name of Dionysos. The dithyrambic style, as interpreted in the nineteenth century, can be heard in Schubert’s rendering of Schiller’s Dithyrambe (D.801 Opus 60/2, which can give a feel for the joyous pagan mood Nietzsche likely intended.
In “Only Fool! Only Poet!,” the poet-singer is mocked by glances of the sun. He is no suitor of the truth, but only a poet, who must lie; a fool, who speaks colorfully from behind a mask. He does not show the way to any god, i.e., any fixed truth, but is at home in the desert, doing mischief, i.e., tearing down other belief systems rather than building a new Apollonian system. His delight is in tearing apart the god and sheep in man. This is his bliss, that of a predator. At the end, Nietzsche sinks out of his truth-madness, sick from the light, sinking into darkness. He is burnt and thirsty by that truth (sunlight), so he is exiled from all truth, only fool, only poet.
The poem “Amid Birds of Prey” shows Zarathustra now hunted by himself, hung by his own self-knowing. He is sick from being within himself, and cannot be rid of himself. Two more poems, “The Beacon” and “The Sun Sinks,” speak of a seventh solitude of Zarathustra. This is a step beyond the six solitudes in Also Sprach Zarathustra. In that work, Zarathustra spoke as poetic prophet conferring wisdom, yet now he has progressed to the more advanced state of a fool.
“Ariadne’s Lament,” Dionysus”s lover is struck down, tortured by some god. She asks him for love and warmth. Her icy loneliness makes her yearn for enemies. The love or warmth she wants is affliction. She begs him to come back and keep torturing her. He is her pain, her ultimate happiness. Dionysus appears, saying one must hate oneself in order to love oneself. “I am your labyrinth.”
This paradox of self-affliction and immersion in the unknowable bear striking similarity to the ascetic ideals Nietzsche had criticized so severely. We may see a collapse in this distinction in his “madness letters,” which he signed as Dionysos or the Crucified (Der Gekrenzigte). Some of these were dedications to the Dithyrambs. This is far as Nietzsche ever came in advancing a Dionysian philosophy, and it is doubtful if he could have done better had he been given more time. Certainly no successor of note in the last century has accomplished the ambitious project outlined in The Will to Power.
Continue to Part X
 Multiverse theories have the same ethical flaw. What we choose here is of no consequence, as we will choose all other possibilities, from the benign to the monstrous, in the other realities. In order to free himself from God, man will invent a world where his free will is effectively impotent, cutting off his nose to spite his face.
 Paul S. Loeb, “Eternal Recurrence,” in Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche (2012) argues that Nietzsche really did believe in this doctrine as a cosmological truth, though he admitted he could not prove it as forcefully as he would like. Zarathustra hearing the dog howling suggests that Nietzsche remembered having lived his life before (deja vu), so he can foresee what he will do. This involves no contradiction, if all other instances have the same memory of past lives. In Loeb’s interpretation, even time itself is recurrent, so the years come down again and again, and we repeatedly live in the same year.
 See Cicero. De Divinatione, Bk. I. Nietzsche, however, regards the Apollonian to also be a kind of frenzy, pertaining to eyesight. Twilight of the Idols (1895), Skirmishes, 10.
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