We busted out of class, had to get away from those fools. We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school. Tonight I hear the neighbourhood drummer sound, I can feel my heart begin to pound. You say you're tired and you just want to close your eyes, And follow your dreams down.
--from "No Surrender" (Born in the USA) Bruce Springsteen
Twenty-five hundred years ago, Plato commented that the downfall of a city (polis) would result from the corruption of its tragedies. Tragedy, originally a "goat song" (tragodia) or sacred hymn performed at the festivals of Dionysus, god of wine and ecstasy, was the highest form of art in the ancient world. In tragedy, the poet (poietes) or "maker" was the teacher of grown-up men in the same way that the schoolteacher (didaskalos) was with regard to boys. Here, the case of the ancient, tragic poet-teacher is instructive in our modern context, for where a modern-day schoolteacher might be said to be an historian (historikos), or one concerned with understanding "the real facts" of the world and of human society, in his Poetics, Aristotle points out that the poet's art is something "more philosophical and serious" than history (2001, IX.1-4). In the words of Eric Voegelin, poetry "does not relate mere facts, but it conveys what is 'general'; we may say, perhaps, what is 'essential'" (Voegelin, 1957, 246). In this regard, the "much-knowing" of the historian is opposed to the "deep-knowing" of the poet and the philosopher. The poet, unlike the historian, conveys a "general" insight by participating in the great search for truth. Education in schools today is a lopsided form of "much-knowing" bereft of the poet's "deep-knowing"; fixated on the phenomenal, the immediate and the "particular," with its emphasis on competitiveness and innovation, responding to fast-paced technological changes in the flux of what is new or most "up-to-date," it tends to overlook what is "general"; in our schools, ever pressured to embrace what is most current, we (along with our students) easily lose sight of what is unchanging, eternal, or what underlies all change. In the midst of all this hustle and bustle for success, we fail to cultivate any awareness of what the ancients would understand as the tragic dimension of existence. And yet it is in this deep, tragic dimension that genuine education must have its roots.
At this point, it is important to clarify that tragedy is neither information about particular events, nor is it merely heart-wrenching fiction. As an art form, tragedy may be properly defined as the study of the human soul (psyche) in the process of making decisions. Tragic thought is "deep" thought or "deep" knowing insofar as it is fundamentally concerned with justice (dike)--not the lawyer's justice of adjudication according to the law (themis), but a search for that ground of justice, that dike beyond themis into which the soul, suffering its tensions, must descend. Voegelin remarks that tragedy only arises when themis is no longer viewed as an adequate guide for decisions in a concrete situation. It only exists where the Dionysiac soul descends into its own depths acting in favour of Dike (Voegelin, 1957, 243-266).
In order for this truest form of tragedy to be socially possible, there must exist a citizenry that willingly opens its soul to tragic conflict. However, as an art form so sublime, tragedy appears to have died with the Greeks at the Battle of Marathon. Modern day "tragedies" such as highway accidents or genocidal wars are not tragedies per se. Their ugliness and suffering are tremendous; our hearts bleed with the emotions they evoke, while our minds stretch out with questions of theodicy--of why such evils are permitted to exist in the world. And apart from the ample "opportunities" for terrible suffering that our own personal lives present, any adolescent, parent, or teacher can experience such things vicariously at the movie theatre, through story, drama, music, art, or literature. However, these experiences of suffering fall short of tragic experience insofar as they do not pin the individual in an impossible bind, where acting for justice involves tremendous suffering for dike. In Plato's time, tragedy died from its popularity and became pandering to the throng of revellers--to an audience more concerned with the emotive content of the story (mythos) than with its articulation of truth and transcendent justice. Put another way, the citizenry were no longer willing to open themselves to tragic conflict; they lost a sense for the Dionysian depths of the soul (psyche).
Nietzsche on Tragedy: The Dionysian and Anti-Dionysian
The most illuminating writer on the meaning of tragedy, the nature of the Dionysian depths, and the problem of anti-Dionysian tendencies in modern-day society may be Friedrich Nietzsche. In his earliest book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche describes all of human existence as a tension between two opposed, cosmic principles which he calls the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Named after Dionysus, "the Dionysian" designates "the mystical Oneness" (Nietzsche, 1956, 23), "the primordial One" (1956, 24), or the "original pain" that is "the sole ground of being" (1956, 33). Elsewhere, he refers to Dionysian reality as "the primal architect of the cosmos" (1956, 42), "the Original Mother" (1956,102), and "the very womb of things" (1956, 126). "The Dionysian" names the fundamental reality that human beings experience through different kinds of intoxication and ecstasy. In Dionysian experience, "not only does the bond between man and man come to be forged once more ... but nature itself, long alienated or subjugated, rises again to celebrate the reconciliation with her prodigal son, man." By virtue of Dionysian awareness, "each individual becomes not only reconciled to his fellow but actually at one with him" (1956, 23). The individual is "shattered," forgetting himself completely as he merges with "the mystical Oneness." Through this Dionysian merging, the individual participates in a "higher community" and a Oneness that knows no boundaries. This awesome experience of the Dionysian ground of all things is the beginning of wisdom, according to Nietzsche (Steel, 1998, 32-33).
Dionysian experience of the destruction and dissolution of the psycho-mental, individualized ego-self in mystical Oneness is a hard wisdom, however. In his early writing, Nietzsche contends that insight into the ground of all things is unbearable for human beings, and that it petrifies them for action: "They realize that no action of theirs can work any change in the eternal condition of things, and they regard the imputation as ludicrous or debasing that they should set right the time which is out of joint" (Nietzsche, 1956, 51). For life to proceed and to overcome "the apprehension of truth and its terror," for the individual to exist who himself has been dissolved into the Oneness, for any sort of action whatsoever, "fair illusions" are needed which might enable human beings to rejoice in their existence (Steel, 1998, 34).
Nietzsche uses "the Apollonian" to name this capacity and drive for illusion. As "the soothsaying god" of visions and dreams, Apollo is also the god of poets and musicians. Dreams are the most basic Apollonian phenomena, "in the production of which every man proves himself an accomplished artist." All human beings, as dreaming artists, forget the waking world in order to enjoy their dreams, saying of these fair illusions, "It is a dream! I want it to go on" (Nietzsche, 1956, 2021). In this way, Apollo bestows upon human beings a kind of "naivety" that allows them to enjoy dreams that they know to be dreams, and to forget the waking world while they dream on.
The Apollonian aspect of existence bestows upon the chaotic, Dionysian womb of things what Nietzsche refers to as "the principium individuationis" (Nietzsche, 1956, 22). By this principle human beings gain the illusion of distinction between themselves and the Oneness of which they are a part. Along with their reconstituted individuality, they also gain the distinctions of order, regularity, and beauty In this way, the Apollonian serves to oppose the Dionysian in a kind of contentious struggle or agon, out of which life is stimulated, art is produced, and the barbarism that might otherwise result from knowing the Dionysian nature of things is countered.
In his Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche writes that the Apollonian and the Dionysian are always in tension and opposition, "each by its taunts forcing the other to a more energetic production, both perpetuating in a discordant concord that agon which the term art but feebly designates" (Nietzsche, 1956, 19). When the tension between these two opposing forces is fierce, tragedy and Dionysian art are begotten. At such times, Nietzsche argues, there is "redemption" and "transfiguration" (Nietzsche, 1956, 26). This "redemption of the original Oneness" occurs when Dionysian reality is mirrored in Apollonian illusion in such a manner that human beings may revel and rejoice in the ground of their being and in their existence as participants in this ground. This is the "metaphysical solace" of tragedy; namely, "that, despite every phenomenal change, life is indestructibly joyful and powerful" (Nietzsche, 1956, 50). From the Apollonian-Dionysian tension exemplified in tragedy, "there arises, like the fragrance of ambrosia, a new illusory world, invisible to those enmeshed in the first: a radiant vision of pure delight, a rapt seeing through wide-open eyes" (Nietzsche 1956, 33). This is Nietzsche's view of the redemption of Oneness in Dionysian art: it is illusion grounded in the experience of reality and reflected in a way that leads to eternal rejoicing in all of existence (Steel, 1998, 35-36).
According to Nietzsche, both the Dionysian and Apollonian tendencies must be present in heightened opposition to one another for this...