Tetsunori Koizumi, Director
The Birth of Tragedy: The Birth of Tragedy is the first book by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), published in 1872 when he was still at the young age of 28*. It was a controversial book from the very beginning and, with the exception of Richard Wagner to whom it was dedicated, was received with hostility, especially from the academic community for whom it was mainly intended. In fact, Nietzsche was so disturbed by the hostile treatment it received from the academic community that he published the new edition in 1886 with the revised title of The Birth of Tragedy, Or: Hellenism and Pessimism. He also added a short preface titled “An Attempt at a Self-Criticism.” In this “belated preface,” Nietzsche acknowledged that The Birth of Tragedy was indeed “the strange and inaccessible book … badly written, clumsy and embarrassing.”
Many things were controversial about The Birth of Tragedy. First, Nietzsche brought in two gods—Apollo and Dionysus—in his discussion of Greek art, with Apollo symbolizing the orderly world of sculpture, and Dionysus the disorderly world of music. While bringing in mythological gods in a discussion of art was already controversial, Nietzsche made it more controversial by associating “dream” with Apollo and “intoxication” with Dionysus as representing two contrasting modes of expression behind the two contrasting worlds of Greek art. Furthermore, Nietzsche asserted that Greek tragedy owes its birth to the merging of the Apollonian mode of expression, which is orderly and individual, and the Dionysian mode of expression, which is disorderly and communal. Thus, the non-verbal and ecstatic world of music was asserted to be essential for representing—and understanding—human tragedy, or suffering, which is the basic condition of life. In fact, the Dionysian world of music and intoxication, according to Nietzsche, is the world of true reality, as opposed to the Apollonian world of sculpture and dream, which is the world of appearances, or an illusionary world of representation.
Though controversial, The Birth of Tragedy has had an important influence on the evolution of Western culture. Associating Apollo with reason and the principle of individuation, the Apollonian mode of expression has been transformed into the rational and individualistic orientation in Western culture, while associating Dionysus with madness and the principle of collective experience has transformed the Dionysian mode of expression into the irrational and communal orientation in Western culture. As Nietzsche himself noted in the latter half of the book, Western civilization, especially since the rise of the Enlightenment, has been the story of the dominance of Apollonian culture over Dionysian, marked by an increasing reliance on science as the primary mode of perceiving the world and an increasing tendency towards separation of the individual from other individuals and the world.
Apollonian versus Dionysian culture: It was Ruth Benedict (1887-1948) who, as one of the pioneering figures in the growing field of anthropology in the first half of the twentieth century, took hints from Nietzsche’s two opposing modes of expression in Greek art and translated them into two contrasting types of cultures. Based on her direct observation of “primitive peoples” of the world, as was typical of the early works of anthropology, Benedict, in her Patterns of Culture (1934), developed the concepts of Apollonian and Dionysian cultures based on two contrasting personality types of “modesty and restraint” and “excess and frenzy”. Needless to say, “modesty and restraint” and “excess and frenzy” are the two contrasting sets of values which individuals exhibit in their activities, including economic. Interpreting Apollonian and Dionysian cultures as embodying the two contrasting sets of values of “modesty and restraint” and “excess and frenzy” actually gives us a clue to analyze and understand the nature of the current episode of Greek tragedy: the Greek economic crisis, which includes the Greeks’ strained relationship with other nations in the euro zone and beyond.
In the context of economics, Hellenism versus Pessimism, or Apollonian versus Dionysian cultures, can be interpreted as two opposing orientations in our motives behind economic activities and manners of executing economic transactions. Of Hellenism and Pessimism, Adam Smith (1723-1790), the founder of economic science, definitely sided with Hellenism when he characterized the progressive economy as the happiest and the most comfortable state for the laboring poor. Smith’s optimism about the future of capitalism was also based on his belief in progress for humankind, which he shared with other Enlightenment thinkers. And there is little doubt that the “dream” of the laboring poor has been realized, at least in the developed nations of the world, in the form of higher standards of living since the Industrial Revolution.
Generations of economists since Adam Smith have shown their inclination towards Hellenism, with the exception of a few economists—Robert Malthus (1766-1834), David Ricardo (1772-1823), and Karl Marx (1818-1883), among others—who were keenly aware of the elements of Pessimism inherent in the economic system, such as the disparity between population growth and food supply, the limitation on the availability of land and other natural resources, and the exploitation of the majority by a privileged minority. In addition to these systemic elements, there are also other Dionysian elements associated with value orientations and personality types such as excess, greed, manipulation, ostentation, and speculation. As for excess, Adam Smith was actually aware of the tendency of rich people to become “intoxicated” with their riches, the tendency which Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) would later call “conspicuous consumption”: “With the greater part of rich people, the chief enjoyment of riches consists in the parade of riches, which in their eyes is never so complete as when they appear to possess those decisive marks of opulence which nobody can possess but themselves” (Wealth of Nations, I, xi, c 31). If Smith did not pursue the potential danger of the Dionysian elements in capitalist development, it was because he believed in the “invisible hand” in the form of either moral sentiments or market mechanism as a restraining force.
Dionysian excess and frenzy behind the crisis of global capitalism: The neglect of the Dionysian elements such as excess, greed, manipulation, ostentation, and speculation—or the “intoxication” of supposedly rational economic men—was at the root of the Great Recession of 2008. Whether it was the breakdown of the housing market due to the spread of subprime loans or the excessive leveraging of securities traded and owned by banks and financial houses that triggered the greatest crisis of capitalism since the Great Depression, it is clear that the Great Recession was a manifestation of the Dionysian tendency towards “excess and frenzy” by bankers, currency traders, and financial speculators, helped by the inaction on the part of government regulators who failed to enforce “modesty and restraint” on these shakers and movers of global capitalism.
As a small nation interconnected with nations in the euro zone and beyond, Greece has not been immune to the Dionysian waves of “excess and frenzy” of global capitalism coming onto their shores. But part of the blame behind the current economic crisis must go to the Greeks themselves as they, too, have been caught up in the Dionysian “excess and frenzy.” For example, the size of the government budget deficit that far exceeds the EU guidelines has come about because of the disparity between spending, which has kept on increasing to meet the demand for higher wages and retirement benefits from public sector workers, and revenue, which has not kept up with increasing spending due to tax evasion, among other factors, on the part of private sector workers. This is simply a case of the government living beyond its means. While it is not necessary to keep the budget in balance at all times if fiscal policy is to perform its stabilizing role in the performance of the economy, the Greek government has lost its autonomy in conducting its fiscal policy for twin reasons: first, that its fiscal policy needs to adhere to the EU guidelines, and second, that its bonds have little appeal to investors in the highly competitive global marketplace. It is a clear case of a small nation such as Greece being caught in a dilemma between the desire for autonomy in the conduct of its economic affairs and the reality of global capitalism that prevents it from exercising that autonomy.
The situation facing Greece is quite serious, as exemplified by youth unemployment exceeding 30% and government spending on social benefits exceeding 40%. It comes as no surprise, then, that the Greeks are now seriously debating the possibility of exiting the euro zone, hoping to regain some degree of autonomy in the conduct of monetary as well as fiscal policies. EU and the international community have, of course, committed themselves to keeping Greece in the euro zone because they are afraid of the potential repercussions of the Greek exit, not only on other vulnerable euro zone economies, but also on the global economy caused by an EU-wide banking crisis. While it has potential global repercussions, the decision to exit or not to exit the euro zone is up to the Greeks. But should the decision be made solely on economic considerations? What if the current economic crisis is a symptom of the rebirth of Greek tragedy, namely, the Dionysian tendency towards “excess and frenzy” far outpacing the Apollonian tendency towards “modesty and restraint”?
The origin of the Greek economic crisis: It was in the nineteenth century that Greece became a European nation, as it won its independence from the Ottoman rule, with the help of European nations such as England, France, and Bavaria. The words in the opening sentence of the Greek Declaration of Independence in 1822, “We, the descendants of the wise and noble peoples of Hellas, we who are the contemporaries of the enlightened and civilized nations of Europe …”, attest to the self-consciousness on the part of the Greeks that they are the descendants of the originators of Western civilization and, as such, their nation should be a member of the enlightened and civilized community of nations called Europe. But what if the Greeks are not the descendants of the wise and noble peoples of Hellas?
Raising this question brings us to another controversial book on the Greeks, Black Athena, published in 1987. This book by Martin Bernal, like The Birth of Tragedy by Nietzsche, was immediately met with a hostile reaction from the academic community. What was controversial about Black Athena is Bernal’s claim that the widely accepted view of the rise of Greek civilization as the result of the conquest by Indo-European speaking northerners over non-Indo-European speaking natives in the Aegean was the fabrication of European intellectuals in the nineteenth century. Up until the nineteenth century, the accepted view was that Greek civilization arose as the result of foreigners having arrived in the Aegean from the south and east, Egyptians and Phoenicians in particular, and having introduced the arts of civilization to native inhabitants, including the alphabet, religion, and irrigation and other technologies. Hence, the subtitle of Bernal’s book: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization.
If Greek civilization did indeed have its roots in Africa and Asia, could it be that the idea which prompted the Greeks to join the European Union, namely, the idea that they are “the contemporaries of the enlightened and civilized nations of Europe” was a mistaken one? If that were the case, would it make the decision to leave the euro zone a little easier for the Greeks? Needless to say, exiting the euro zone does not mean that the Greeks will be exempt from the Dionysian “excess and frenzy” of global capitalism that engulfs all nations of the world today. It would perhaps give the Greeks some solace if that Dionysian “excess and frenzy” were something they had inherited from the ancient Egyptians. Though they are neither philosophers like Nietzsche nor scholars like Bernal, Elton John and Tim Rice suggest as much in “Elaborate Lives”, one of the songs in their popular musical Aida. In the interconnected world of global capitalism today, it is too painfully clear—whether in Greece or anywhere else for that matter—that, as the song says, “we all lead such elaborate lives, with wild ambitions in our sights” and “we all live in extravagant times, playing games we can’t all win.”
* The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geist der Musik), translated by Shaun Whiteside, Penguin Books, 1993.