7 – Euripides

Euripides destroyed the balance between the Apollinian and the Dionysian and so wrote the last Greek tragedies. Hereafter, we are forced to trace the dissolution of this uniquely Greek poetry into decadence and a shift — to our own — in genres to the comedy, farce, and romance. Since Euripides is certainly himself a tragedian, Nietzsche maintains that Greek tragedy died by suicide. Historic closure arrives exactly at the onset of a unique form of self-consciousness, which is anti-poetic, anti-Dionysiac, most moral and most reflecting the Greeks decline. It ended not because of the introduction of more actors in opposition to a shrinking chorus, through this corresponds to losing the Dionysiac origin of tragedy, but to a shift in the psyché of the heroes, for whom they spoke and what good they sought. Up until Euripides’ time each new hero represented another mask of Dionysius; none resembled spectators. Each play, each chorus, and each tragic story veiled the god Dionysius with Apollinian appearance, a purely fictive, shared dream, but an explosively fertile reconciliation.
Until Euripides, the dismemberment of nature’s suffering into individuals was something lamentable, an event evoking profound sadness, and nature still had its pull. Through tragedy, Homeric epic poetry resurfaces into dialogue allied with Promethean independence of the soul which began with Dionysiac insight, wisdom into the will, and there is an inner affirmation of existence, an unexpected but essential joy, and all have been lost. Dionysius graduated from a fertility cult while it acquired a new mythic symbolism of appearance from Apollo, but it was a dream, and a creativity, we were to wake up from.
With Euripides, Nietzsche claims, the everyday man, the spectator who must justify his himself and actions with reasons, appears on stage. The mystery of Dionysius no longer breathes inside the hero’s mask but bows to the give-and-take, the situation as drama of protagonists who are exactly as they empirically are given to everyday consciousness, reasoning sophistically about their lives, reconciling business or love affairs, intrigue, politics, values, by means of the dialectic which aspires to non-mythic clarity, that is everydayness or common sense. Although Euripides does not imitate pedestrian conversation, it came from his very poetic talent and will to power (and his second Diamon) he couldn’t find in purely tragic poetry either theoretical justification or clear solutions to the rational problems of life. Reaching for some conclusiveness he denied the radical ambiguity from which tragedy grew and prospered, pulling up the roots, as it were, with the weeds. This clear picture of human character without enigma and without the god, Dionysius, destroyed the foundations of tragedy:

Greek tragedy met an end different from that of her older sister arts: she died by suicide, in consequence of an irreconcilable conflict: she died tragically, while all the others passed away calmly and beautifully at a ripe old age … when Greek tragedy died, there rose everywhere the deep sense of an immense void. Just as Greek sailors in the time of Tiberius once heard on a lonesome island the soul-shaking cry, “Great Pan is dead”, so the Hellenic world was now pierced by the grievous lament: “Tragedy is dead! Poetry itself has perished with her! Away with you, pale meager epigones! Away to Hades that you may for once eat your fill of the crumbs of our former masters! 50

Euripides brought the spectator and even the “botched outlines of nature” 51 on stage. From Odysseus we follow the plunge which culminates in a New Comedy character such as Graeculus, ” … the good-naturedly cunning house-slave”: 52

The words of the well-known epitaph “frivolous and eccentric when an old man” also suits aging Hellenism. The passing moment, wit, levity, and caprice are its highest deities; the fifth estate, that of the slaves, now comes to power, at least in sentiment; and if we may still speak at all of “Greek cheerfulness”, it is the cheerfulness of the slave who has nothing of consequence to be responsible for, nothing great to strive for, and who does not value anything in the past or future higher than the present. 53

Nietzsche credits Euripides with feeling superior to the masses and at first only hints at who the spectators were whom he tried to please, or to answer. However, the critical rather than artistic impulse which overthrew the god Dionysius’ presence behind the varying masks of the hero, replaced poetical insight with dialectic reasoning in verse. When tested by these critical standards the real root of torment proved to be the lack of clarity in the old myths, the lack of equitable distribution of justice, as a kind of eternal twilight clinging to the ethical horizons of human judgment. The poet in Euripides was overwhelmed by the thinker. Even though expertly composed, his poetry became an embarrassment to the critical logician who judged the versifier. Rather than a presence of the fecund irrationality of the will tamed by dreaming visions of Olympian gods and godlike heroes, poetry was now reduced to metric investigations into motives which attempt to clarify and dramatize why people act as they do. Though a poet, Euripides thus formally rejected the foundations of poetry, and so “killed” the very power which first moved his pen.
It is clear, however, that Nietzsche begrudges Euripides his nobility, his independence from what he was soon to call the herd. But when the “herd-instinct” pushes itself to the fore through the dialectical vagaries, of even a noble spectator, the epigones proliferate. Euripides is responsible for setting an unfortunate precedent, even though he stood above, as the poet who handed over the mystery, the golden age, to the epigonii, then wrote The Bacchae, in defiance:

In truth, if ever a Greek artist throughout a long life treated his public with audacity and self-sufficiency, it was Euripides. When the masses threw themselves at his feet, he openly and with sublime defiance reversed his own tendency, the very tendency with which he had won over the masses. If this genius had had the slightest reverence for the pandemonium of the public, he would have broken down long before the middle of his career, beneath the heavy blows of his failures. 54

Euripides is responsible for dispelling Dionysius from the stage, but it is evident that he cared little for popular acclaim or even for the approval of the informed spectator. Nietzsche maintains that Euripides responded to himself as to a critical-intellectual judge, and remarkably enough, also to Socrates.
It should be noted how bold this concept was, and is. The claim that Dionysiac music and its reconciliation with Apollinian art generated tragedy is surely an original insight but the claim that the death of tragedy was caused by Euripides’ interest in Socratic dialectic is a “leap” which only Nietzsche could attempt. Euripides’ plots have a deep clarity which reveal through the self-consciousness and the intellectual subtleties of his contemporary Athenians, the practical language of businessmen, politicians and sophists. Euripides demonstrates that profounder truths and rational insights can be extracted from the garrulousness of everyday life and transformed into poetry. This is what Nietzsche seems to be saying when he remarks that in his poetry there is, ” … in every line a certain deceptive distinctness at the same time an enigmatic depth, indeed an infinitude, in the background. ” 55
Nietzsche’s thesis, then, is essentially this: Euripides wrote a tragedy which brought the spectator to the stage where only the Dionysiac chorus had formerly appeared. He sought, however, only the approval of Socrates and of himself as spectator. His critical judgment assailed the old poetry, the inherited myths, and the felt dramatic tension of “tragedy” primarily in the lack of a clear sense of justice, which he sought to correct. The suspicion, current during his time of composition, that Socrates helped Euripides write his plays proves to be practically true. The elite of Athens felt the drive toward rational clarity, and Euripides clearly honored this new rationality in this plays. As mentioned above, this new spirit was incommensurate with the Olympian myths. The Dionysiac rite had to give way to a new critical (antipoetic) “maturity”. It makes sense, contextually, that Euripides was the last successful tragedian. The critical-dialectic demand championed by Socrates and dramatically explored by Euripides destroyed the radical ambiguity of the Dionysiac-Apollinian reconciliation. Only Euripides had the talent to destroy it.
This is how Nietzsche accounts for the reverence with which the epigones of New Comedy upheld Euripides — the last tragedian:

The marvel had happened: when the poet recanted his tendency had already triumphed. Dionysius had already been scared from the tragic stage, by a demonic power speaking through Euripides. Even Euripides was, in a sense, only a mask: the deity that spoke through him was neither Dionysius nor Apollo, but an altogether newborn demon, called Socrates. 56

The drama which killed tragedy was really a “dramatized epos” which sustains its calm through a contemplative fixation on images while incarnating the dreamer into an actor. And yet it is not Apollinian insofar as it dramatizes passionately, but rather as it resolves all emotions through a pregiven design (the Socratic dialectic) as it becomes snarled in the concepts which it intelligibly contemplates. It becomes lost, shunning intoxication by the elementary or primordial productivity which gave birth to the dream-epic or to tragic poetry. It is calculating, strategic, dialectically anticipatory. Euripides killed tragedy, then, through an aesthetic Socratism, which equated beauty with intelligibility and required a rationalist method where the mystery, and poetry, once triumphed:

Sophocles said of Aeschylus that he did what was right, though he did it unconsciously. This was surely not how Euripides saw it. He might have said that Aeschylus, because he created unconsciously, did what was wrong. The divine Plato, too, almost always speaks only ironically of the creative faculty of the poet, insofar as it is not conscious insight, and places it on a par with the gift of the soothsayer and dream-interpreter: the poet is incapable of composing until he has become unconscious and bereft of understanding. Like Plato, Euripides undertook to show to the world the reverse of the ‘unintelligent’ poet: his aesthetic principle that “to be beautiful everything must be conscious” is, as I have said, the parallel to the Socratic, “to be good everything must be conscious”. So we may consider Euripides as the poet of aesthetic Socratism. 57

Though his view of Socrates and Euripides seems to have been influenced by Aristophanes (especially The Frogs and The Clouds), Nietzsche notes that with Aristophanes, a nostalgia for the past had already set in:

… the old Marathonian stalwart fitness of body and soul was being sacrificed more and more to a dubious enlightenment that involved the progressive degeneration of the powers of body and soul. It is in this tone, half-indignant, half contemptuous, that Aristophanic comedy used to speak to them both — to the consternation of modern men, who are quite willing to give up Euripides, but who cannot give sufficient expression to their astonishment that in Aristophanes Socrates should appear as the first and supreme Sophist, as the mirror and epitome of all sophistical tendencies. 58

Euripides loses the contest with Aeschylus in Aristophanes’ The Frogs. His effort to liberate us from the “pompous corpulency” of the old tragic art also destroyed the Dionysiac content, the mystery which he now no longer could permit, nor understand. The pair, Socrates-Euripides, represent for Aristophanes-Nietzsche a talent for the glib, a dangerous garrulousness which destroyed the values upon which the satyr-chorus endured as a rich symbolic fiction, which probed through laughter the natural truths disclosed by the rites of a mythic intoxication with nature. For this immersion the Bacchant-revelers and tragic hero, they traded the self-conscious dialectician who could only challenge, and so, strengthen the ordinary conscious world of the every day man with logical justification. This is also why the New Comedy replaces divine irreverence, the laughter and wit of Aristophanes, with the jokes and embarrassing farces of slaves, admixed with romance. Finally, this is also why the New Comedy abolishes the chorus — and Dionysius — from the stage.