During the nineteenth-century, the German speaking world was going through a period of rapid social and political upheaval. This tumultuous period culminated in the Franco-Prussian war which ended in 1871 and ushered in a new and unified German nation. The effects of these political changes can be seen directly in the work of Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche, in particular Wagner’s Art and Revolution (AR) and later Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (BT). The question that arises is in what way did the contemporary nationalist sentiment in nineteenth-century Germany influence the thought of these two thinkers, and why was Greek tragedy seen as a central starting point for their discussion?

Wagner starts his essay AR with the claim that “In any serious investigation of the essence of our art of to−day, we cannot make one step forward without being brought face to face with its intimate connection with the Art of ancient Greece.” (AR, 5) Here Wagner is echoing a prominent trend in German thought at the time. Many German theoreticians before Wagner had been concerned with the issue of Greek art, more specifically Greek tragedy, and its relation to contemporary thought. Many of these Romantic authors specifically thought of Athens in the fourth and fifth centuries BC to be a model society upon which a new German spirit could be developed. Indeed, to Wagner, Attic tragedy, which was seen as the most typical art form of the Greeks, was not merely an aesthetic phenomenon but one that reached into other areas of society and became central to public life in Athens. Wagner describes that the Greek soul “lived only in publicity, in the great fellowship of his nation” (AR, 12), and thus, as a public being, the Greek expressed himself through his body at the public bathhouses or gymnasia, and when he is confronted with the drudgery of household labour “he thrust [it] away to Slaves” (AR, 12). The passive Athenian slave was thus represented in opposition to the pure and public creativity of the Greek; the slave makes clear to us that “Beauty and Strength, as attributes of public life, can then alone prove lasting blessings” (AR, 12). Tragedy had thus became an all-encompassing form of art in both in the spiritual and political sense; in terms of public participation and not merely passive spectating.

This dichotomy between the strong, active Greek, and weak passivity of the slave is important in Wagner’s thought because he sees that the German people had become slaves to the pursuit of wealth (echoing early socialist sentiments), and the only way to be free from  this malaise was the restore Attic tragedy through the creative force of the artist. However, Wagner saw the mere restoration of Greek drama as foolish. He believed a new, pure form of national art must arise through active revolution, one which (like the tragedies of Aeschylus) integrates multiple separate acts, a new shared mythology, and the all-encompassing nature of the musical drama (what he refers to as Gesamtkunstwerk), into the art form in order to provide the foundation of a new national identity among the German people.

Indeed, in Nietzsche’s BT, published twenty two years after Wagner’s text, he presents a formulation of the German spirit which is built upon the foundation laid out by Wagner, but is also unique in its character and its relation to the previous theories of tragedy. Like Wagner, Nietzsche also discusses the idea of slavishness, but instead relates it to “enjoyment of life and cheerfulness” (BT §11), by which he means the Christian understanding of the world that has forgotten the spirit of tragedy from which true artistic expression was born. To Nietzsche, Greek tragedy implies an inherent pessimism; it doesn’t merely affirm the illusory beauty of the world of appearances, but instead affirms the eternity of the metaphysical world. This is achieved through the destruction of the tragic hero: “we take pleasure in the negation of the hero, the supreme appearance of the Will, because he is, after all, mere appearance, and because the eternal life of the Will is not affected by his annihilation.” (BT §16). Tragedy thus reconciles our understanding of the destructibility of the individual by presenting an indestructible, yet terrifying, unity[1]. Whereas the Apollonian overcomes the individual’s suffering by glorifying the ‘eternity of appearance’, the Dionysiac, from which tragedy is born, represents: “the primal mother, eternally creative beneath the surface of incessantly changing appearances, eternally forcing life into existence” (BT §16).[2]

However, why is this theory of tragedy relevant to Nietzsche’s understanding of the ‘contemporary’ German spirit, and how was this affected by rising nationalist sentiments? Nietzsche argues that tragic culture must put wisdom in place of science as its highest goal. This wisdom is not deceived by science’s slavish optimism, it instead focuses on the “total image of the world, and in this image it seeks to embrace eternal suffering with sympathetic feelings of love, acknowledging that suffering to be its own” (BT §18). Nietzsche sees that this wisdom has been largely forgotten in the majority of modern art. The culture of the opera has reduced music to the level of entertainment which “has no inkling of the Dionysiac depths of music” (BT §19). However, in the recent development of specifically German music (from Bach and Beethoven to Wagner) there had been a gradual re-awakening of the Dionysiac spirit in which German culture had begun to reverse the progression of the Hellenic peoples in order to experience the re-birth of tragedy in the modern age.

Interestingly, the implication here is that Nietzsche is following Wagner in arguing that, through a new Gesamtkunstwerk, the German people can recapture the national spirit of the Greeks which has been lost since Antiquity. However, the tragedies, and the tragic spirit, continually referenced by both authors are part of a specifically Athenian tradition. Both Wagner and Nietzsche (like many other German philhellenes) choose the city state of Athens as a primary representation of ancient Greek culture which projects a much more modern conception of ‘the nation’ upon Athens. Indeed, although BT was published a year after the unification of Germany, the idea of formulating the basis of a new collective German identity, which Nietzsche refers to in his forward as “a grave problem for Germany” (BT, Forward) was still strong at the time. The idea of The Greek outlined by Wagner in contrast to the slave, and re-enforced by Nietzsche, is therefore not only something purely Athenian, but something that can only be understood in relation to the conception of The German. Nietzsche seems to idolise the Greek as a Dionysiac force, one which is free from slavish presentiments, and one that can serve as the foundation for a new German identity, but the projection of this identity is in itself phantasmagorical. In order to imagine a new collective future, Germany must project a collective past upon Athens as Greek (one which was never shared by all Greeks) and upon Germany as successor to Athens, but these projections are in themselves, of course, imagined. The idea of a common Greek identity that spreads beyond the realm of language is therefore merely a nationalistic idealisation; an imagined community formulated in the present and projected upon a past society in order to strengthen the idea of modern national unity.

In conclusion, Nietzsche later became critical of his own idealisation of The German and of Wagner’s music and ideas (BT, Attempt at Self-Criticism), yet even with this critical air he was unrelenting in his characterisation of the The Greek and of Greekness when referring to distinctly Athenian phenomena. This article has aimed to show how it is that Wagner’s ideas in AR influenced Nietzsche to formulate a conception of national character from the pessimistic interpretation of Hellenism, and although Nietzsche later escaped some aspects of his nationalist tendencies, some still remained years later.

[1] In Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, Cassandra, although a Trojan slave, can be seen as pure Dionysiac force, subjecting the chorus to the unbounded nature of eternity through her visions, while also being a mortal woman limited to Apollonian appearances. As the mortal who rejected the advances of a god, she is fated to exist between the world of appearances and reality. Between the Apollonian and Dionysiac.

[2] This idea can be seen throughout the plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus, but it is most explicitly stated in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon when the chorus sing: “For Zeus’s law is first in all the world. The law is this: no wisdom without pain” (178-179)


Aeschylus (2013), Agamemnon. Tr. Timothy Chappell. <http://www.open.ac.uk/people/sites/www.open.ac.uk.people/files/files/aeschylus-agamemnon-definitive.pdf.> (last accessed 25 October 2019).

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1999), The Birth of Tragedy And Other Writings. Tr. Ronald Speirs. Cambridge: CUP.

Wagner, Richard (2002), Art and Revolution. Tr. William Ashton Ellis. New York: Cornell University Library.


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