Nietzsche in Simple Language

When I first started reading Nietzsche, the main thing that shocked me was the barbaric mentality that he was proposing. He seemed to be saying that kindness, caring, and morality were bad things.

Nietzsche in Simple Language

"...underneath this reality in which we live and have our being, another and altogether different reality lies concealed, and that therefore it is also an appearance... occasionally regarding men and things as mere phantoms and dream-pictures..." (Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy 1)

      When I first started reading Nietzsche, the main thing that shocked me was the barbaric mentality that he was proposing. He seemed to be saying that kindness, caring, and morality were bad things. This is not totally true - he was arguing that there was just too much of this in modern culture. If we take Nietzsche back to basics and his root metaphysics, we can get a better perspective of his work, and a holistic view of the forces that he was trying to understand and assess. In a broad sense he was advocating a wider view of the cultural forces at work in the world, instead of a single-minded fixation on truth as objective which could endanger harmony among people. The purpose of this article is to free Nietzsche from shallow readings that dangerously undermine the valuable insight that is overlooked when doing so - the focus not on people's "true nature", but their "way of being".

      In The Birth of Tragedy, one of Nietzsche's early works, he talks about two forces, Apollo and Dionysus. He uses these two terms to attempt to tap into the mythic ethos of Apollo and Dionysus, because he is talking about the history of culture. Apollo and Dionysus were floating around in Greek imagination since times unknown, and part of his work was bringing these images to life again. Particularly, he thinks that the ancient Greeks, rather than the later Greeks and Romans, which he calls "Alexandrine" culture, had a more primordial insight into Being, which was "covered over" by later developments in culture.

"Our whole modern world is entangled in the meshes of Alexandrine culture, and recognises as its ideal the theorist equipped with the most potent means of knowledge, and labouring in the service of science, of whom the archetype and progenitor is Socrates" (Nietzsche BT 1)

Nietzsche believes we need to take a look at the Greeks before Socrates, or pre-scientific thought in order to holistically understand human nature.

      Apollo represents representation and so-called "higher-level consciousness", which are the faculties by which we use to understand and make sense of the world, as well as dreams. Apollo also represents individuation, and can be compared to the ego in Freud's theories. We make sense of the world by means of images, concepts, and artists make sense of the world in pictures, words, and images. However just as concepts, works of art are like mirrors which are reflections of the world, not the world itself. The Apollinian is also associated with structures (for Nietzsche, "plastic arts" (Nietzsche BT 1)), because we need a working model of the world, concepts and ideologies, so that we can function within it. Nietzsche uses the example of a ship afloat in a stormy sea (Nietzsche BT 1), but it can also be thought of in terms of a "house", which we build and dwell in so that we are protected from weather and the general chaos of nature, and other "acts of God". Sculpture, too, is a concrete representation of something which is not the thing itself, but rather an artist's interpretation of the person or thing she/he is trying to understand. Perception is intepretation, because we can't make sense of raw information or chaos without an affective filter.

      It's not an accident that Dionysus is associated with sailors and islands. In a Homeric hymn to Dionysus, Thyrsenoi pirates kidnap and bind Dionysus on their ship. In retaliation, Dionysus unleashes the forces of nature, wine and plants emerge from the ship and he unleashes bears and lions on the crew, who he then turns into dolphins. He spares the helmsman, the man who steers the direction of the ship, because he recognized and affirmed Dionysus and advised against his capture. (Anonymous, Homeric Hymns 7) One can see here that the attempt to delimit or negate Dionysus results in the springing forth of natural powers, and the only thing that saves the helmsman is the conscious "seeing" or recognition of Dionysus as such, although he is disguised and anthropomophrized as an image or specter of a young prince in a purple robe.

      Dionysus represents instinct, emotion, and the "beast in man". Nietzsche also refers to this drive as the "will" or later "will to power". "Power" in this sense is not meant as political power, but rather as "force" with a very basic meaning. Power only "affirms" or "negates" and when Nietzsche speaks of the Superman, he mostly speaks of "affirming" the creative power of nature, or growth (Deleuze xi). In this sense the collision of different wills is just a coincidence, like two atoms colliding as they are pushed along on the subatomic level. Apollo comes in here as he represents the mediation of the human artist, through which the human being can achieve self-mastery through conscious channeling of Dionysian forces.

Nietzsche is most misunderstood in relation to the question of power. Every time we interpret will to power as "wanting or seeking power" we encounter platitudes which have nothing to do with Nietzsche's thought. If it is true that all things reflect a state of forces then power designates the element, or rather the differential relationship, of forces which directly confront one another." (Deleuze xi)

      Nietzsche says that when we come across something that our concepts don't account for, we come across something that was there beforehand which causes us discomfort, or even "nauseau" or "sea-sickness" as we lose our footing on the boat of the individual, which tosses about in the sea - "the stupendous awe which seizes upon man, when of a sudden he is at a loss to account for the cognitive forms of a phenomenon, in that the principle of reason, in some one of its manifestations, seems to admit of an exception" (Nietzche BT 1) . According to Nietzsche, the Greeks created the gods like Prometheus created man in his own image. If the Apollinian is the formative faculty which creates sculptures, then Dionysus is the "clay" or raw material used to create that image. Nature and the world aren't sculptors, they don't have "hands". "Hands" are a concept that we have come up with to understand our own creative capacity, and are an equipment that are a modification of nature by the original creative powers of nature. Nature doesn't understand, it doesn't quite "act" like people do, it simply creates and "becomes". Nature is Dionysus, that which creates and drives without hands and eyes that "see".

      When Dionysus (the will) comes into view, we can stop obsessing in a modern scientific mindset into the nature (fundamental qualities and essence) of things, but instead into the way (manner, mode, or fashion) we do things. Indeed the confusion of definitions in the word "nature" can lead us in different directions depending on our way of thought, but by "way" here I mean the original Greek word for nature, "physis" (φύσις) in the sense of plant-like growth and becoming, or on a more basic level according to Heidegger "the event of standing forth, arising from the concealed and thus enabling the concealed to take its stand for the first time" (Heidegger 16) Thus, we can take a look at the structure of understanding and its relation to what's concealed from the light of Apollo (that is, nature or Dionysus).

      Dionysus also stands for music and dissolution of the self. "Now, at the evangel of cosmic harmony, each one feels himself not only united, reconciled, blended with his neighbour, but as one with him, as if the veil of Mâyâ has been torn and were now merely fluttering in tatters before the mysterious Primordial Unity. In song and in dance man exhibits himself as a member of a higher community..." (Nietzsche BT 1) Music doesn't interpret, it simply expresses in tones forces and emotions. If the Apollinian artist reflects and interprets, the Dionysian artist doesn't think, he or she becomes themself a work of art by expressing precognitive drives, emotions, instincts, and moods.

      For Nietzsche, great art and artistic human beings must express both of these drives. With only Dionysus, man dissolves into chaos, self-abandonment, and destructive consumption, while the purely Apollinian artist simply interprets, doesn't feel or act, and doesn't express original insight or truth. For Nietzsche, we must channel our emotions, drives, and desires, as well as the self-mastery inherent in our rational abilities. One can see here the meaning of Bertolt Brecht's phrase, "Art is not a mirror to hold up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it". The Apollinian world artist simply sees truth, while the Apollinian-Dionysian world artist creates and forms the raw material of the world into a world of art, through strength of will and self-mastery. Unfortunately, without going deeper into Nietzsche's work and others who came after him, the hammer in the wrong hands with a will that is unattended to can create problematic works of art and destroy positive, later developments in culture, which were contributed by the Greeks and others after Socrates. Nietzsche also says that over-restraint of the will and a violent, misinterpreted "binding" of the forces of nature by Apollo can result in the will lashing out in destructive ways. In the next article we will see how the negation of the will of others and the will in general is dangerous and bad according to Nietzsche, and others who interpreted and built on his thought (This is seen as the "redemption" of Nietzsche from shallow readings).


Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, 1844-1900. The Birth of Tragedy. New York: MacMillan, 1910. Electronic

Deleuze, Gilles. Nietzsche and Philosophy. London: Continuum, 2002. Print.

Heidegger, Martin. Introduction to Metaphysics. New Haven & London: Yale, 2000. Print.

Anonymous. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Homeric Hymns. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914.


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