Birth of Tragedy
Socrates: The Music-Making Logician
Alternatively dubbed that “despotic logician” and “the vortex and turning-point of so-called world history,” Socrates represents a radical departure point in the history of philosophy. To Friedrich Nietzsche, the father of rationalism puts forth a worldview that is ultimately incapable of putting forth values that affirm life. Locating value only in what is logical, Socratism rejects anything that cannot be rationally explained. Nietzsche takes issue with this view for its inability to motivate a life-affirming interpretation of an existence that is, by definition, irrational. In a deathbed conversion, Socrates sheds his logically rigid ethos for one that is capable of embracing art. Nietzsche points christens this music-making Socrates as the unifier of two divergent worldviews – reason and myth – which, together, affirm life. Nietzsche sees the music-making Socrates as the founder of a tragic and rational culture. When facing death, Socrates is unable to banish the tragedy of reason from the forefront of his mind. He is finally converted to the saving power of that art against which he protests for most of his life. An inclination of his conscience convinces him to allow the urge towards art to overtake him, functioning as the redemption of an otherwise irrational existence. Socratism dictates that virtue is knowledge, and nothing else: so that the virtuous man must make no room within himself or his pursuits for art or myth, but rather act as a dialectician. He follows knowledge to its limits out of logical necessity, for fear of committing sin out of ignorance. It is this dialectic which, in Nietzsche’s eyes, motivates the plays of Aeschylus and their mechanical character, resulting “with its usual deus ex machina,” where even God must defend himself with argument. This marks a radical contortion of the tragic genre. The loss of value attributed to illusion mirrors, for Nietzsche, the “disintegration of Dionysiac tragedy.” As Sorgner puts explains, Nietzsche understood proper tragedy as needing “a Dionysian grounding which means that it needs to be based on the insight that the world is self-contradictory, that it is permanently changing, and that in the end we do not receive any further reward for all the pain we have to bear during our lives…” To Nietzsche, the essence of tragedy is thus an embrace of a rational contradiction. With the loss of this contradiction, tragedy fails to deliver its cathartic promise for rational beings. Aesthetic Socratism, as embodied in the plays of Aeschylus and those after him, attempted to rationalize this tragic notion to the point of distortion and, ultimately, ruin.But Nietzsche points out how even Socrates must rely on a myth to uphold his worldview, though he does not acknowledge it. The role of myth within rationalism is a sort of slavish devotion to reason. Where reason and science reach their limits, a notion emerges that to know is to make and to mold. Put another way, it suggests that science “is capable, not simply of understanding existence but even of correcting it.” Nietzsche’s calls this position “theoretical optimism,” which posits that “the nature of things can be discovered.” The pursuit of knowledge is intended as a sort of cure to the affliction of existence. But even this position is a myth, an illusion, although it does not know this about itself. As knowledge approaches its limits, an existential problem arises: specifically, when the pursuit of knowledge fails to deliver a rational explanation for our existence. Here, the music-making Socrates is born, when “to his horror, he sees how logic curls up around itself at these limits and finally bites its own tail.” The saving power of knowledge as the sole source of value, pursued for its own sake, fails to deliver. The risk of nihilism demands a new type of knowledge, capable of embracing the illogical nature of existence. This “new form of knowledge breaks through, tragic knowledge, which simply to be endured, needs art for protection and as its medicine.” Knowledge of the irrational nature of existence is tragic. In order to proceed, to live, tragic knowledge demands a “medicine,” a myth that is capable of affirming life. What is tragic about this form of knowledge is that it forms a myth which knows that it is a myth, and yet is understood as a necessary illusion. Only an art form such as music, capable of affirming a tragic existence, can protect Socrates from a nihilistic demise. If theoretical optimism does not accept assistance from the saving power of art, it turns in on itself, executing its own destruction.Facing an imminent death, Socrates surprises even himself in allowing the power of art to overtake him. Unsure of the meaning of dreams that recently had been plaguing him, Socrates decides to satisfy his conscience. In these recurring dreams he finds himself instructed to write poetry and do art, and assumes that they apply to the art of philosophy, which he has practiced all his life. In the final days leading up to his execution, Socrates wonders whether or not this dream is “bidding [him] to practice this popular art…poetry.” Socrates has assumed that these dreams are a sort of cheering-on, an encouragement to continue the practice of that ultimate art form, philosophy. But something within himself remains uneasy. Perhaps he has misunderstood this dream, and it actually intents for him to practice “popular art.” He thus explains his rationalization for following the questionable command of these dreams: “I thought it safer not to leave here until I had satisfied by conscience by writing poems in obedience to the dream.” Socrates reveals here that he did not feel entirely secure having conducted his life according to his own brand of theoretical optimism. He felt there to be too great a risk in not obeying a command to embrace art, and is compelled to follow it. This incident leads Nietzsche to question whether or not “the birth of an ‘artistic Socrates’ is something actually contradictory,” or whether it represents a necessary step, one that Socrates had been moving towards even in spite of his obsession with rationality. That Socrates would be so moved by this dream to actually act upon it, despite his inability to render some kind of logical understanding, indicates to Nietzsche a sort of unacknowledged conversion. As Zuckert puts it, “Socrates himself suspected that there was something missing in his own activity.” Though Socrates does not understand why the dream compels him, he follows its command: no matter what may have “urged these exercises on him,” Socrates tacitly admits that things that he does not understand “are not automatically unreasonable.” There may be a place for art alongside philosophy, after all. Nietzsche posits what Socrates must think to himself as he follows the commands of his mysterious dream: “Perhaps there is a kingdom of wisdom from which the logician is banished? Perhaps art may even be a necessary correlative and supplement of science?” No matter what his motivations, and whether or not he acknowledges it, Socrates hesitates when the question of his own soul, his own salvation seems to indicate that he make a place within himself for music. As Woodruff puts it, that Socrates “obeys the divine command to satisfy his conscience suggests the admission of a tragic flaw, a failure to realize the human need for art.” Nietzsche locates within this hesitation the potential for a music-making Socrates, one who acknowledges a meaningful, life-affirming position for myth alongside reason. If Socrates is the founder of a rational culture — in which the faculties of knowledge and logic are recognized as the best foundations for crafting a good and valuable life — then where does his counterpart, the music-making Socrates, stand in relation? The music-maker comes to light as a symbol of the birth of tragedy that Nietzsche hopes will save nineteenth century Europe from collapsing into itself, if only it will obey its conscience as Socrates did in his final days. A closer look at Socrates’ followers as they react to his deathbed conversion illuminates our tragic hero. Phaedo admits as he begins to recount the story that he felt “a strange feeling, an unaccustomed mixture of pleasure and pain at the same time.” We can understand this pleasure as the reaction to the great philosopher Socrates, who has spent his entire life practicing philosophy as a way of preparing for death. From where, then, does this pain develop? Facing death, both Socrates and his followers are endowed with an urgency that their philosophical inclination has never confronted. Perhaps we can understand their pain as a coming to terms with the irrationality of the death of their leader, who is, after all, being executed for practicing his craft. The music-making Socrates is an image of the founding hero of a tragic culture Nietzsche imagines for the future of Europe. The final image of Socrates, the ultimate rationalist, taking on an irrational activity he had henceforth admonished, underscores Nietzsche’s message about the irrationality of culture and existence. Despite any of our best efforts to the contrary, any worldview that is not nihilistic must carve some space within itself for an embrace of the illogical. This might include the culture of science being forced finally to acknowledge that there are notions which will forever remain outside the realm of rational explanation. Perhaps it will amount to the realization that any search for truth requires a sort of faith, a leap over the abyss of reason, to be in accord with a human existence which defies reason altogether. Such a conception of truth as an equivalent expression of faith embraces the obstacle of the uncertainty of existence in its composition. Taking objective uncertainty to be a precondition for a worldview that affirms life, the music-making Socrates accepts that compulsive reason cannot triumph ontological uncertainty. Nietzsche hopes that, like Socrates, his culture can experience the freedom of conscience and spirit that arises from finally acknowledging a part of its character that it is accustomed to suppressing. He hopes that Europe might rescue itself from the ills associated with excessive logic and accept the medicine that the tragic myth offers.