The Use and Abuse of Dionysus:
Testing Nietzsche against His Standards

                 I.             Introduction

The study of ancient Greek mythology easily seduces me, filling my imagination with thoughts of mysticism, disputing gods, mortal and divine love affairs, curses, sacrifice, devotion to nature, superstitions, dream revelations, tragedy, obscure oracles, and undying passion and fear of the gods.  Greek mythology charmed Nietzsche, as well, who alludes to the mysterious gods throughout his philosophical authorship.  My project seeks to analyze Nietzsche’s philosophical attraction to Greek mythology and evaluate the validity of his philosophical treatment of mythological history.  The Greek god Dionysus is a central figure throughout Nietzsche’s work, notably in The Birth of Tragedy, Beyond Good and Evil, and Twilight of the Idols.  It becomes clear that Nietzsche cherishes ancient Greek culture and recommends his fellow men to join in his discipleship of Dionysus.  Arguably, the represented Dionysus figure changes throughout the progression and development of Nietzsche’s thought.  I ask the reader to attend cautiously to the evolving Dionysus and to examine Nietzsche’s philosophical use of history.  He offers a creative approach to history and its detail in the essay, The Use and Abuse of History, proposing standards that allow the abstraction of selected actual instances or figures of history to suit one’s philosophical purposes, but he ultimately contradicts these principles through his inventive development of the Dionysus figure.   After evaluating Nietzsche’s treatment of the proper use of history, I establish Nietzsche’s historical inaccuracy, and question his license to do so.  Nietzsche fails to account for the actual instance of the worship of Dionysus, and rather creates the god anew in his developed thought.  Nietzsche’s distortion of Dionysus weakens his avid recommendation to join in his discipleship of the god, and destroys the historical justifications of his project through violation of his own historical principles.   

                    II.            Nietzsche’s First Depiction of Dionysus

Nietzsche introduces Dionysus into his philosophy with his first book The Birth of Tragedy, as a god of opposing force against Apollo.  The battling dual of Dionysus, the Greek god of music, and Apollo, the Greek god of sculpture, makes up the “continuous development of art,” in which the harmonious coupling of the opposed gods gives history the attic tragedy (33).  To illustrate the opposition of the two gods, Nietzsche gives the reader access to the state of Apollo through a dream analogy, and to Dionysus through an intoxication analogy.  The Dionysian emotions of “intoxication” allow subjectivity and self-awareness to vanish “into complete self-forgetfulness,” thus revealing the “glowing life” of those who revel in the Dionysian state of being (BOT [1] 36-37).  That is to say, those who embrace and accept the Dionysian state of being noticeably glow with liveliness.  The Dionysian state is “an artistic energy which bursts forth from nature herself, without the meditation of the human artist,” so the Dionysian state is not manifested by human reflection or deliberation, but by nature’s untamed and uncivilized energies.  In the Dionysian state, the human being is the object of these energies: “He is no longer an artist, he has become a work of art,” free from self-reflection and awareness (BOT 37).  The Dionysian powers of nature can be thought of as the artist, and its subject, this “intoxicated” and “unaware” man unified with nature.  And under such a spell of the Dionysian, as man’s self-awareness deflates into nothingness, unity among man and nature is reconciled (BOT 37).  Conversely, in his self-aware, Apollinian state, man is horrified and alienated from nature, but in his “intoxicated” Dionysian state, man is unified with nature and expresses himself, perhaps unconsciously through song and dance, as a member of a higher community in company of the music god Dionysus (BOT 37).  This “intoxicated reality” goes further than unifying man with nature; the Dionysian state “even seeks to destroy the individual and redeem him by a mystic feeling of oneness” (BOT 38).  Man experiences a kind of death and rebirth from a state of separateness into a state of unity and oneness.  Man is destroyed and redeemed by Dionysus, so Nietzsche writes.

                  The god Dionysus was worshipped in festivals, first by barbarians living outside of Greece, and eventually, despite Apollinian opposition, the worship filtered into the country of Greece.  Nietzsche describes these festivals centered around “extravagant sexual licentiousness” or sexual recklessness (BOT 39).  He claims, “savage natural instincts were unleashed, including even that horrible mixture of sensuality and cruelty,” a kind of excitement and pleasure that might border on the edge of disgust and pain, activities which indeed overwhelmed the values and traditions of Greek family life (BOT 39).  Dionysian attitudes and lifestyles contained certain wildness and rebelliousness from the norm of Greek life, and fear accompanied the sober one who witnessed or heard of those Dionysian revelers in all their “glow.”  The Dionysian state is not one of rationality or clarity; rather, it welcomes and embraces the eternal suffering and contradictions in life’s reality, sufferings which are quite painful and even nauseating (BOT 45).

                  Such description of the contradictions of Dionysus returns Nietzsche’s thought to the Apollinian and Dionysian duality, the sides of which are “necessarily” interdependent (BOT 45).  Dionysian truth and contradiction is a reality of life, so man must have an illusory comfort to endure the harsh Dionysian realities of life, and such illusory comforts are the Apollinian dreams and images.  Man must have the image or dream illusion of Apollo in order to withstand the brutal, contradictory, and painful truth of Dionysus.  Apollo acts as man’s “redemption through mere appearance” from the pain of Dionysian truth (BOT 45).  The Apollinian illusions are necessary for the Dionysian truth-seeker to function in the world because “true knowledge, an insight into the horrible truth, outweighs any motive for action” (BOT 60).  So what can the informed, knowing Dionysian man do at this point?  How can he continue to live and take action in life if he has become paralyzed by the disgust of truth?  The Dionysian man turns to art as “a saving sorceress, expert at healing.  She alone knows how to turn these nauseas thoughts about the horror or absurdity of existence into notions with which one can live” (BOT 60).  This saving sorceress called art is a manifestation of the Apollinian impulse that exists harmoniously with the Dionysian, harmonious in the sense that both dueling states are needed for man to exist truthfully in the world.  One must experience painful Dionysian contradictions and sufferings if one seeks truth, and one must therefore, use the comfort and aid of the Apollinian illusions if one wishes to function in the world while occasionally experiencing the horrors of truth, which are manifestations of the Dionysian.  

                  Nietzsche illustrates the harmony that exists between the duality of Dionysus and Apollo in his theory of “the origin of tragedy.”  The relationship between performers and spectators of ancient Greek drama is very different from the relationship between performers and spectators that exists today and in Nietzsche’s day.  The spectator of the ancient tragedy became one with the drama, and such unity is comparable to a Dionysian experience of “oneness” with one’s surrounding environment.  The spectator relinquishes his self-awareness and imagines “in absorbed contemplation, that he himself was a chorist” (BOT 63).  This experience of oneness with the chorus and the spirits of the drama is a “Dionysian excitement,” which rouses the audience to a Dionysian state of unity, relinquishing all subjectivity, in preparation for the staging of the tragic hero, so that “when the tragic hero appeared on stage, they did not see the awkwardly masked human being but rather a visionary figure, born as it were from their own rapture” (BOT 64/66).  Nietzsche calls such experience, from conscientious, Apollinian sobriety to Dionysian ecstasy, a transformation: “In this magical transformation the Dionysian reveler sees himself as a satyr, and as a satyr, in turn, he sees the god, which means that in his metamorphosis he beholds another vision outside himself, as the Apollinian complement of his own state” (BOT 64).  The Apollinian visions complete the Dionysian frenzy by enabling the ecstatic man to behold a vision of Dionysus; thus, the gods share a “necessarily” complementary nature because the frenzied Dionysian man cannot behold a vision of his god without Apollo’s influence, which enables man to conscientiously experience his visions.

                  Nietzsche uses the myth of Dionysus, that he was torn to pieces as a boy by the Titans, and was then reborn to Demeter, to explain the “agonies of individuation” (BOT 73).  Dionysus’ coming into being is the root cause of his suffering, his individuation is the reason for his dismemberment by the Titans, and “we are therefore to regard the state of individuation as the origin and primal cause of all suffering, as something objectionable in itself” (BOT 73).  The dismembered state of Dionysus lends him to a dualistic nature, one of “a cruel, barbarized demon” and the other of “a mild, gentle ruler” (BOT 73).  Again, Nietzsche supports his claim of the contradictory qualities of Dionysian truth.  This myth of the death and rebirth of Dionysus gives way to a feeling of hope that Dionysus exudes, that the Greeks hope for his return (BOT 74).  Dionysus is described as a god who undergoes a death and a rebirth, a notion entailed within his myth.

                  In The Birth of Tragedy, the reader quickly grasps Nietzsche’s admiration for the ancient Greeks, and especially his admiration of the worship of Dionysus.  Nietzsche describes the ancients as the models of all succeeding cultures in time and as those who sincerely value truth in the face of its pain.  Succeeding cultures, unfortunately, do not live up the greatness of the Greek way of life:

And so one feels ashamed and afraid in the presence of the Greeks, unless one prizes truth above all things and dares acknowledge even this truth: that the Greeks, as charioteers, hold in their hands the reins of our own and every other culture, but that almost always chariot and horses are of inferior quality and not up to the glory of their leaders, who consider it sport to run such a team into an abyss which they themselves clear with the leap of Achilles. (94)

Succeeding cultures are always “inferior in quality” to the Greeks.  The Greeks are risk-takers, ruthless truth seekers aware of the pain and genuine joy that truth often invites into one’s life.  So Nietzsche’s message seems to be clear, that the best way of life is the ancient Greek way of life, and we would do ourselves a great service by returning to such a Golden Age, most notable, an age that worshipped the music god Dionysus.

                  Nietzsche invites his readers to proclaim a kind of rebirth of tragedy through rebirth of Dionysus:

Yes, my friends, believe with me in Dionysian life and the rebirth of tragedy.  Put on your wreaths of ivy, put the thyrsus into your hand, and do not be surprised when tigers and panthers lie down, fawning, at your feet.  Only dare to be tragic men; for you are to be redeemed.  You shall accompany the Dionysian pageant from India to Greece.  Prepare yourselves for hard strife, but believe in the miracles of your god. (BOT 124)

In this passage Nietzsche addresses man’s potential unity with nature if he follows Dionysus.  Man will be glorious, but man must “dare” to choose such glory.  It will not be a simple and easy task to follow Dionysus.  Man must be prepared for “strife;” man can, however, also expect joyful miracles from this god.  Again Nietzsche confronts redemption of man, implying hopefulness for man and his former down-trodden state of being, and such redemption is captured in the myth of Dionysus, telling of his miraculous rebirth after a horrible and gruesome dismemberment, again emphasizing the pain of individuation. 

                       III.          The Fusion of Dionysus and Apollo

Throughout his authorship, Nietzsche next mentions the frenzied, uncontrollable god in the end of his book, Beyond Good and Evil, but the god’s identity has arguably changed into a synthesis of the Apollinian and Dionysian forces described in The Birth of Tragedy. [2] In Section 295 of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche describes the philosophy of Dionysus to his readers, expressing his intention: “And I suppose I might begin at long last to offer you, my friends, a few tastes of this philosophy” (235).  The following explication of Section 295 will demonstrate both the Dionysian and Apollinian attributes assigned to the revised Dionysus since his original introduction in The Birth of Tragedy.  Upon examination of the Dionysus presented in Beyond Good and Evil, I will first cite descriptions that are consistent with those of The Birth of Tragedy, then I will cite descriptions of Dionysus that would seem to be Apollinian, concluding that Nietzsche merges Apollinian and Dionysian characteristics into one figure called Dionysus in Beyond Good and Evil

                   In Section 295 of Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche calls Dionysus “the tempter god…whose voice knows how to descend into the netherworld of every soul” (233).  According to The Birth of Tragedy characterizations, Dionysus is a tempter god of “sexual licentiousness” able to descend into the uncomfortable depths or “netherworld” of the soul in search of brutal truth.  In The Birth of Tragedy, Dionysus promotes destruction of the individual and unity among man and nature.  Further in Section 295 of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche writes of the man who has been touched by Dionysus, that he “walks away richer…broken open, blown at and sounded out by a thawing wind, perhaps more unsure…more broken, but full of hopes that as yet have no name, full of new will and currents, full of new dissatisfaction and undertows” (234).  Again, these depictions of Dionysus remain consistent with those of Nietzsche’s first book.  The painful discovery of Dionysian truth breaks man open to a new depth of existence, his comfort level is torn apart, he is unfamiliar and uncertain of the new, truer territory into which he has plunged; yet, he remains hopeful, as addressed in The Birth of Tragedy, of the return of Dionysus after his dismemberment.  In the Dionysian state, man is beyond the restraints of language; thus, there is yet “no name” or articulation of his experience.  Nietzsche teases his audience asking them of whom he speaks, and then writes, “Have I forgotten myself so far that I have not even told you his name?” (BGE 234)  The idea of forgetting the self is indeed Dionysian, supporting The Birth of Tragedy notion of destroying the individual, which is the source of pain and suffering, in order to unify with nature.  After identifying Dionysus in Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche calls him “that great ambiguous one” whose philosophy “concerns much that is secret, new, strange, odd, uncanny” (234-235).  All such depictions are consistent with the contradictory Dionysus in The Birth of Tragedy.  Nietzsche, after proclaiming himself “the last disciple and initiate of the god Dionysus,” speaks of the god’s ambition toward human beings, that Dionysus wishes for man to become stronger, more evil, and more beautiful (BGE 235-236).  The thought of man accomplishing such severe character traits as evilness and brute strength, while simultaneously becoming more beautiful exemplifies Dionysian contradiction, which is spoken of in The Birth of Tragedy.  Dionysian beauty is not necessarily sweet and gentle, but likely painful and abrasive.  The previous citations of Dionysus in Beyond Good and Evil correlate with the characterization of the god in Nietzsche’s first book.  In this text, however, Nietzsche arguably synthesizes Apollinian qualities with Dionysian ones.

                  The following are Apollinian characteristics Nietzsche assigns to Dionysus in the same Section 295 of Beyond Good and Evil, from which we can deduce that Nietzsche’s developed Dionysus has become a synthesis of the two opposed gods in The Birth of Tragedy.  In addition to naming Dionysus a “tempter god” in Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche assigns him Apollinian characteristics:

The born pied piper of consciences…whose mastery includes the knowledge of how to seem—not what he is but what is to those who follow him…in order to follow him ever more inwardly and thoroughly—the genius of the heart who silences all that is loud and self-satisfied, teaching it to listen; who smoothes rough souls and lets them taste a new desire—to lie still as a mirror, that the deep sky may mirror itself in them—the genius of the heart who teaches the doltish and rash hand to hesitate and reach out more delicately. (233)

The skill of Dionysus to “seem” a certain way in order to serve an ulterior purpose, specifically, to be followed in a more inward and thorough manner, is unquestionably an Apollinian feature.  As Nietzsche originally communicates, it is the conscientious Apollo who masters the skill of seeming, or appearing in a desired manner.  Yet in this passage, Nietzsche claims that Dionysus is the “pied piper of consciences,” whose followers become more inward, reflective people.  In this passage Nietzsche contradicts his original assertions of Apollo and Dionysus from The Birth of Tragedy by assigning Apollinian features to Dionysus, who formerly opposed Apollo, which could be problematic for Nietzsche’s thought.  To claim that Dionysus “silences all that is loud…teaching it to listen,” smoothing “rough souls,” contradicts the original description of Dionysus in Nietzsche’s first book.  In The Birth of Tragedy, it is Apollo, not Dionysus, who maintains order and opposes chaos.  Apollo is the inner-reflective god who would have lied “still as a mirror” and taught the “doltish and rash…to hesitate and reach out more delicately,” or to become gentler and more thoughtful in their ways.  One served Apollo by following the creed to “Know thyself,” which is conscientious and reflective, but certainly not Dionysian.  Dionysus, as explained in The Birth of Tragedy, would have been the “rough soul” and “the doltish and rash hand,” not the mirror or teacher.  More evidence of a changed or developed Dionysus includes Nietzsche’s dialogue with the god.  Nietzsche writes that the god often reflects on how he might advance mankind (BGE 236).  The original depiction of Dionysus is not a reflective being, but he actually opposes reflection and advocates chaotic, unaware frenzy.  This evidence settles that Nietzsche has changed the disposition of Dionysus in Beyond Good and Evil since The Birth of Tragedy.  Is Nietzsche able to take such advances with a historical figure in his philosophizing, and if yes, then why?  Inaccurate reference to a historical figure seems problematic for any philosopher who wishes to be understood coherently by his critical audience.  An appeal to a historical figure carries with it implication of historical records, and if Nietzsche distorts or abandons these historical facts, then critics ought to closely question his license to do so.

                  Nietzsche again discusses Dionysus later in his authorship in Twilight of the Idols.  This developed Dionysus appears consistent with the god presented in Beyond Good and Evil, implying that the god’s characterization remains contrary to its initial presentation in The Birth of Tragedy.  The following examines Dionysus from the information given in Twilight of the Idols, an examination leading to the issue of Nietzsche’s free interpretation with historical data.  How can Nietzsche reconcile his distortion of historical data by arguably synthesizing opposed Dionysian and Apollinian qualities into one name called Dionysus?  In the chapter “What I Owe to the Ancients” of Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche discusses the historical instance of the Greek worship of Dionysus.  The Greeks worshipped the god through participation in the Dionysian Mysteries:  “For it is only in the Dionysian Mysteries, in the psychology of the Dionysian state, that the basic fact of the Hellenic instinct finds expression—its ‘will to life’” (561).  The basic fact of the instinct of the ancient Greek man is his will to life, and Dionysus affirms life.  Even Greek tragedy with its gruesome accounts of characters’ fates affirms life in a Dionysian way.  The Dionysian Greek acknowledges the tragedy of life and still says “Yes” to life: “the will to life rejoicing over its own inexhaustibility” (TI 562).  In the face of both tragedy and joy, Dionysus embraces the “inexhaustibility,” or endlessness of life.  Orgiastic action in the Dionysian Mysteries affirms life, the Hellene guarantees himself eternal life, “the eternal return of life; the future promised and hallowed in the past; the triumphant Yes to life beyond all death and change; true life as the over-all continuation of life through procreation, through the mysteries of sexuality” (TI 561).  Orgiastic feasts in the Dionysian Mysteries were an expression of affirmation for the Dionysian man, and according to Nietzsche, it was not only the sexual actions that were an expression of Dionysian life-affirmation, but all aspects of procreation including the pregnancy and the childbirth with all of its pain.  The summation of these events “aroused the highest and most solemn feelings” within the Dionysian man (TI 561). 

                  Earlier in Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche calls the Dionysian faith the highest faith of all possible faiths.  He who believes in Dionysus “does not negate anymore” (TI 554).  Nietzsche advocates such an affirming mentality, and calls himself: “the last disciple of the philosopher Dionysus” (TI 563).  The title philosopher, first assigned to the god in Beyond Good and Evil, signifies change in Nietzsche’s interpretation of the god since The Birth of Tragedy, and so one must examine Nietzsche’s intention when applying the word philosopher to the Greek god Dionysus. [3] In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche expresses his understanding of a philosopher’s relationship to the people s/he addresses warning that the ancients should not be judged according to the values of Socratic philosophy.  He writes, “The Socratic virtues were preached because the Greeks had lost them: excitable, timid, fickle comedians, every one of them, they had a few reasons too many for having morals preached to them” (560).  The fact that they lacked these morals is what Nietzsche exalts.  He calls Socratic philosophers “the decadents of Greek culture, the counter-movement to the ancient,” preaching morals opposed to the norm of Greek culture (TI 559).  Perhaps Nietzsche calls Dionysus a philosopher in this counter-cultural sense of the word.  The frenzied and sexual Dionysus has been named a philosopher by Nietzsche, because of his would-be decadence in Nietzsche’s day.  The Dionysian mentality opposes the conventional lifestyle of Nietzsche’s day, in which upstanding morality is highly valued and pursued.  Dionysian frenzy, in the historical, Birth of Tragedy sense, would be shunned.  So this is how Dionysus is Nietzsche’s philosopher, the decadent Dionysus is counter-cultural to the moral values of Nietzsche’s time.  Nietzsche learns values for which to live not from his day, but from his ancient philosopher, Dionysus.  The question remains for Nietzsche’s thought, who exactly is this Dionysus character—the historical one Nietzsche first presents, or the synthetic one of rival forces Nietzsche later presents?   

                  Other people address Nietzsche’s changing presentation of Dionysus, including Adrian Del Caro, author of “Nietzschean self-transformation and the transformation of the Dionysian.”  His article’s project confirms the title, changes in Dionysus parallel change in Nietzsche himself, most clearly manifested when Nietzsche calls Dionysus a philosopher.  Del Caro writes:

Only as Nietzsche transformed himself was he able to transform the Dionysian.  Thus for instance his portrayal of himself as the first disciple of a philosophical Dionysus had to wait until he had become a philosopher, and similarly Dionysus only becomes a philosopher as an act of Nietzsche’s volition. (75)

According to Del Caro, as Nietzsche himself develops into a philosopher from a philologist, his Dionysus develops into a philosopher from a Greek god.  Del Caro, who supports Nietzsche’s controversial use of history, introduces views opposing Nietzsche’s historical interpretations.  Although Del Caro and these other critics disagree about the issue of Nietzsche’s use of history, they all confirm the occurrence of significant change in Dionysus.  The problem remains that Nietzsche’s use of the name Dionysus is not historically accurate to the cult of Dionysus.  Del Caro writes:

Kerenyi goes on to quote Karl Jaspers, who wrote that Nietzsche did not wish to understand the myth of Dionysus, but instead wished to identify a symbol that would serve him in his philosophizing; Nietzsche’s Dionysus is therefore otherwise than the myth, and basically this transformed Dionysus does not assume shape, according to Jaspers. (72)

Disagreement rests in the identity or “shape” of the Nietzschean Dionysus.  Although Jaspers claims the Nietzschean Dionysus has no shape, Del Caro disagrees, asserting that this Dionysus prominently and consistently represents life-affirmation.  However, the feuding critics do concur that Nietzsche’s Dionysus is, or becomes, a “deviation from the antique sources” (Del Caro 72).  Critics are left to argue about the freedom that can be allotted to Nietzsche in his discussion of historical figures while maintaining philosophical coherence, a debate requiring examination of Nietzsche’s expressed standards of history.          

                        IV.          The Approaches to History

Nietzsche does not call Dionysus a philosopher in The Birth of Tragedy; yet, Dionysus becomes a philosopher in Beyond Good and Evil, and continues to be so in Twilight of the Idols.  This variation of the god’s identity raises an issue for Nietzsche concerning his use and possible abuse of history.  Because he has taken license to alter the depiction of Dionysus throughout the succession of his authorship, he arguably exploits historical data for his own philosophical purposes. [4] Is he justified in doing this with history, specifically, exploiting the historical figure, Dionysus?  The concept of Dionysus changes with Nietzsche’s thought, but the name remains the same.  Nietzsche outlines his standards of historical manipulation for the sake of philosophy in his essay, The Use and Abuse of History.  In this text, he establishes three approaches to the use of history: the unhistorical, historical, and super-historical.  The unhistorical and historical approaches oppose one another, as their titles might suggest, and the super-historical, in essence, maximizes man’s cultural capabilities.  The person utilizing the unhistorical approach completely ignores history, to the extent that s/he has no memory of the past.  The person utilizing the historical approach delves deeply into the study of history, detail by detail, and is constantly absorbed in thoughts about the past.  The person utilizing the super-historical approach selects and studies only the historical events that may encourage him to improve his own culture.  This approach is most significant for my argument because Nietzsche attempts to enact it, since it is most conducive to the promotion of great culture.  The standards of the super-historical approach (set up by Nietzsche) are the standards that he must follow.  I will first clarify and contrast the unhistorical and historical approaches to history, and then articulate the super-historical method in order to investigate Nietzsche’s adherence to this method.  

                  The historical disposition essentially studies past events in comprehensive, sequential detail, and the unhistorical disposition completely neglects and forgets the past.  In The Use and Abuse of History, Nietzsche illustrates the unhistorical perspective by comparing man and beast.  Man envies the beast, because the beast, in its unhistorical disposition, forgets the past, and lives in ignorant bliss during the present moment (UAH 5).  The past constantly haunts and absorbs man, to the extent that his existence is “an imperfect tense that never becomes a present” (UAH 6).  Man’s attempts to completely resist and overcome the past are in vain, and these futile attempts also inhibit him from fulfilling his life in the present moment.  The Use and Abuse of History presents ways that the reader can best combat his human inability to resist and overcome the past, using his knowledge and awareness of the past as an advantage rather than a hindrance.  Man cannot completely and continually persist in this unhistorical perspective, because he has the capability and disposition to remember his past.  Man can, however, be temporarily unhistorical, or forgetful of the past, which, in turn, promotes creativity.  The unhistorical or “anti-historical” condition is necessary for action and change in the present and “is the cradle not only of unjust action, but of every just and justifiable action in the world” (UAH 9).  Man forgets and neglects his past so that he may be active and creative in the present: “No artist will paint his picture, no general win his victory, no nation gain its freedom, without having striven and yearned for it under those very ‘unhistorical’ conditions” (UAH 9).  The unhistorical forgetfulness of the past enables creativity of great men, which contributes to the maintenance and success of a culture.  The contrasting historical perspective is also necessary to the upholding of a culture: “This is the point that the reader is asked to consider: that the unhistorical and the historical are equally necessary to the health of an individual, a community, and a system of culture” (UAH 8).  Thus, Nietzsche launches the historical approach.

                  The historical approach is a detailed, informative, and traditional academic account of history.  The benefits of such a strict approach include knowledge of a comprehensive, chronological account of history, which in turn can inform man of great cultures of past, that he may learn from their triumph.  Excess interest in history can, however, be detrimental to a community or culture.  The danger lies in the fact that “the time comes to imagine that [a particular time in history] possesses the rarest of virtues, justice, to a higher degree than other time,” which in turn might presuppose a negation or resentment of the present by its people (UAH 28).  Resentment of the present surfaces when admiration of the past presumes that the present culture is inferior and incapable of victory over its past.  To maximize history’s benefits and uses for greatness, it should be written only by people of experience and character, for those who have experienced what is “great and noble” are able to write about what is great and noble (UAH 41).  Nietzsche alludes to man’s perspective; the perspective of a particular historian affects the stories revealed to the future.  Nietzsche strongly opposes rigid, objective accounts of history, because they will inevitably fail in their objectivity.  The example of studying religion historically illustrates Nietzsche’s aversion to strict and rigid historical accounts:

A religion, for example, that has to be turned into a matter of historical knowledge by the power of pure justice, and to be scientifically studied throughout, is destroyed at the end of it all.  For the historical audit brings so much to light which is false and absurd, violent and inhuman, that the condition of pious illusion falls to pieces.  And a thing can only live through a pious illusion. (UAH 42)

Nietzsche emphasizes that rigid, historical study of religion deadens it.  The historical approach brings falsity and absurdity to light making the mystical aspects of religion unbelievable.  That is, perhaps from a historical perspective, the mystery and faith of a religion seem absurd.  Powerful, believed religion, illusory as it may be, loses its strength when it is examined objectively and historically.  Nietzsche claims that religion must be lived, and not studied, in order to persevere.  History, or historical presentation, should never be honored above life (UAH 44).  And when one studies religion for the sake of history and not for the sake of discipleship, it dies.  So one must be cautious when studying history for benefit, that he does not do so in objective excess, because objective, historical excess brings about numbness of the present life. 

                  After discussing the historical and unhistorical conditions, Nietzsche presents the idea of the “super-historical” man, who views the world completely accomplished, fulfilling its “aim” at every minute (10).  Unlike the historical man, the super-historical man thinks that “the past and the present are one and the same” (11).  The super-historical man does not study history for the sake of history, but with the intention to fulfill his life, exclaiming with Nietzsche: “If we could only learn better to study history as a means to life!” (UAH 11)  History can be studied as a means to life for the super-historical “man of action” who needs “examples, teachers, and comforters,” which he cannot find among his contemporaries (UAH 12).  Such is the super-historical man’s use for history, to extract exalted examples and teachers so that he may enhance his current culture.  The super-historical man picks and chooses the instances of history that may benefit him, and he “un-historically” neglects the study of events that do not help to clarify his esteemed historical example.  Nietzsche expresses the super-historical man’s handling of history:

Man must have the strength to break up the past, and apply it too, in order to live.  He must bring the past to the bar of judgment, interrogate it remorselessly, and finally condemn it.  Every past is worth condemning; this is the rule in mortal affairs, which always contain a large measure of human power and human weakness. (UAH 20-21) 

This passage addresses man’s realization of his own potential greatness.  He must condemn the past and all of its horrors so that he may be productively more powerful than those who were before him.  Man cannot completely escape the past from which he sprang, acknowledging its error, horror and injustice, but man can promote a more powerful form of life: “We plant a new way of life, a new instinct, a second nature, that withers the first” (UAH 21).  Knowledge informs man of the errors of his past, and so there is optimistic hope for the man of action, that he may “plant a new way of life,” which is greater than his past.  The super-historical approach to history compels one to select historical events that inspire human and cultural strength, and to overlook historical events that fail to do so. 

                  Nietzsche recaps his overarching project of The Use and Abuse of History, to track down “the dangers of history” and expose them to the reader, encouraging man to approach history super-historically (65).  History should be man’s servant, and written from the viewpoint of great people rather than from the viewpoint of the masses (UAH 61/65).  Nietzsche reminds the reader of the “super-historical” power of the self, which realizes “the eternal and stable character” of present existence, and does not obsess over past events (UAH 69).  The super-historical self lives completely in the present, viewing the world as complete in each present moment, and such a characteristic is necessary for the religious man of greatness as well.  Flourishing religion, according to Nietzsche’s standards, must be believed in the present moment to survive and to produce greatness in people.  If the religion is viewed as temporarily passing through history, it will significantly fail to affect its followers’ lives.  The three approaches to history, exemplified by a preferred approach to religion, spins the discussion back to examination of Nietzsche’s philosopher-god, Dionysus. 

                     V.           Investigating Nietzsche’s Adherence to His Own Principles

To test Nietzsche’s philosophical approaches to history charitably and justly, I will apply his historical standards to his controversial presentation of Dionysus, investigating his abiding by his own historical principles throughout his liberal interpretation of the Greek god.  Presumably, Nietzsche would intend to present Dionysus in a super-historical manner, because he deems this approach superior to the others.  I will, however, speedily prove this assumption by systematically applying the unhistorical, historical, and super-historical approaches to Nietzsche’s portrayal of Dionysus, quickly eliminating the first two approaches, leaving the reader to examine the standards of the super-historical approach, interrogating Nietzsche’s possible violation of his own principles.  The unhistorical approach to Dionysus would be complete neglect of historical facts known about the worship of Dionysus.  Nietzsche does not adopt the unhistorical approach to history, because, in The Birth of Tragedy, he accurately depicts Dionysus as a Greek god of music, who was worshipped in the Dionysian Mysteries and Festivals, in which orgiastic and drunken frenzy occurred.  Nietzsche’s conveying this information indicates acknowledgment of historical records; thus, Nietzsche arguably approaches Dionysus historically, to a certain degree.  However, I have shown that Nietzsche’s presentation of Dionysus changes throughout the sequence of his authorship, specifically in Beyond Good and Evil and Twilight of the Idols.  Therefore, Nietzsche does not utilize the historical approach exclusively and continually with Dionysus.  If he were using the historical approach exclusively and continually, then Dionysus would have never evolved into the philosopher-god that synthesizes Apollinian and Dionysian qualities, as shown in Beyond Good and Evil.  Dionysus would have remained the frenzied, historically accurate god that Nietzsche introduces in The Birth of Tragedy if Nietzsche had strictly appealed to the historical approach.  So, Nietzsche does not strictly implement the unhistorical approach, he alludes to the past in his reference to the Greek god of music in The Birth of Tragedy.  Nietzsche does not, however, strictly implement the historical approach either, he creatively alters the god’s identity, calling him a philosopher god that synthesizes genuine Apollinian and Dionysian characteristics. [5] Since the unhistorical and historical approaches have been dismissed, I will investigate the super-historical approach and Nietzsche’s execution of it.

                  The super-historical approach remains the last option Nietzsche might have enacted during his creative, philosophical discussion of Dionysus.  This approach utilizes the historical approach to a limited degree and then overcomes it.  The super-historical man extracts “examples, teachers, and comforters” from history, which he cannot find among his contemporaries, to inspire improvement and enrichment for his life and culture (UAH 12).  He strives to conquer these examples, establishing himself superior to what has past before him.  The super-historical man acts historically in his selection of inspiring events by which to live and then conquer.  Then, his victory of the particular historical instance is an un-historical effort, creating newness and affirming the importance and value of the present time over what has past.  The defeat of history creates anew, enabling man to un-historically forget the past.  Nietzsche attempts to enact this approach to history, and I will question if he actually does so with his philosophical use of Dionysus.   

                  With the aid of Walter Kaufmann’s work, I will apply Nietzsche’s own super-historical approach to his developing presentation of Dionysus, testing the consistency of that presentation using his invented super-historical standard.  Kaufmann articulates Nietzsche’s super-historical approach to Dionysus in his book, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist.  He claims that all of Nietzsche’s works view history super-historically (152).  He quotes Nietzsche’s explanation of humanity’s goal concerning its treatment of history: “The goal of humanity cannot lie in the end but only in its highest specimens” (149).  Nietzsche has brought to life the linear concept of history versus a concept of history above and beyond time sequences.  The “highest specimens” of creation might have occurred at any point in time, and humanity’s goal is to achieve, emulate, and conquer, becoming greater and more cultured than what has already been.  Nietzsche disregards the historical value of progress by comparing his own culture with the mighty Greeks, as Kaufmann articulates:

Being primarily interested in art and philosophy, Nietzsche found that asking the mere question amounted to a condemnation of his contemporaries and a repudiation of any belief that history is a story of progress. (150)   

Nietzsche thought his contemporaries were not equal to the great ones of past, and concluded “what comes later in time is not necessarily more valuable” (Kaufmann 150).  In this approach, there is no regard to history as a course of events; rather, there is an exclusive emphasis on its great acts, which are to be emulated and conquered (or overcome) by man for the benefit his culture.  Kaufmann concludes that all of Nietzsche’s works including his first, The Birth of Tragedy, view history supra-historically and that his motivation was to intensify history into symbolic significance and not to recount it with strict historical accuracy (152).

                  Nietzsche consciously attempts to enforce the super-historical approach, because the other two approaches are not entirely applicable to his presentation of Dionysus, as my examination has shown. The super-historical approach to history allows the philosopher to assess history and abstract only the slices of actual instances that motivate him to strengthen his culture.  In other words, the super-historical approach permits man to neglect the insignificant details of a historical instance, and enact those details that aid his aspiration for greatness.  In accordance with this principle, Nietzsche neglects to describe every historical detail of the worship of Dionysus, but the question remains, what historically accurate details of Dionysus does he offer?  Because Nietzsche’s Dionysus changes, I will refer to his latest form presented in Twilight of the Idols throughout this inquiry; it exemplifies Nietzsche’s most developed and perfected thought.  I ask how the super-historical approach allows Nietzsche to use historical instances, ultimately determining that Nietzsche fails to comply with his standards, which weakens his recommendation to follow Dionysus and destroys his historical justification to provide ideals from actual instances. 

                  The description of Dionysus in Twilight of the Idols is a distortion of the god’s historical identity.  Nietzsche’s blend of Apollinian and Dionysian characteristics into one name “Dionysus,” first expressed in the cited passage of Beyond Good and Evil then carried over to Twilight of the Idols, alters the historically depicted god in The Birth of Tragedy.  According to historical scholarship, Dionysus was not worshipped as a god made up of both Apollinian and Dionysian qualities.  Dionysus was Dionysus and Apollo was Apollo: these gods were separate.  Nietzsche’s synthesis of the opposed gods in The Birth of Tragedy is historically unfounded.  His controversial move in Beyond Good and Evil violates his invented super-historical standards because of its historical inaccuracy.  The super-historical approach allows man to extract actual instances of history, neglecting insignificant details; the approach does not however allow alteration of actual events by Nietzsche’s own super-historical standards.  His interpretative use of Dionysus is problematic because it violates his own super-historical standards, but it also creates another issue for his project’s plea to history.  Throughout his authorship, Nietzsche clearly indicates esteem of the Greek culture, telling his readers that this valuable culture can be emulated and even defeated; yet, according to his fictional Dionysus, this culture possibly did not even exist in actuality, as he represents it, which causes the readers to question the credibility of Nietzsche’s recommendations to achieve great culture.

                  Del Caro offers a defense of Nietzsche’s approach, which might save him from such a dismissal due to his historical inaccuracy.  He associates changes in the representation of Dionysus with changes in Nietzsche himself, expressing Nietzsche’s philosophical reinterpretations of Dionysus: “The language along with the issues change, but the Dionysian undercurrent remains as the sustaining matrix of the philosophy of life-affirmation” (70).  Del Caro justifies Nietzsche’s debatable use of Dionysus, claiming that the representation consistently projects the philosophy of life-affirmation.  Del Caro describes Nietzsche’s historical inaccuracy, claiming he has no use for a mythical, cultic Dionysus; rather, Nietzsche becomes a disciple of the philosopher god Dionysus.  He does not devote himself to the religion and cult of Dionysus, but to the philosophy of Dionysus:  “Nietzsche was not concerned with remaining faithful to sources in the Dionysian religion, but had his own philosophical agenda instead” (Del Caro 75). [6]   This argument defends Nietzsche’s use of Dionysus but fails to admit Nietzsche’s problems.  The philosopher god serves a conceptual purpose to encourage life-affirmation, as Del Caro would agree, but this conceptual functioning of Dionysus does not resolve the fact that Nietzsche distorts the god and fails to follow his own super-historical standards by wedding him to Apollo.  Del Caro never addresses the super-historical approach to history, the standards of which expose Nietzsche’s problem of historical inaccuracy.  Nietzsche’s super-historical approach allows him to extract and exalt historical figures of valuable significance, but the figures, or their worship, must be factually founded according to the principles of the super-historical approach, which, in theory, prohibits Nietzsche from creating fictional figures and claiming their historical existence or worship, as he has done with Dionysus. 

                        VI.          Conclusion

Nietzsche’s super-historical attempt at depicting Dionysus fails due to his fabrication of the god.  Indeed, Nietzsche may enforce a philosophy of life-affirmation, but his distortion of history is unjustified, even by his own super-historical rules.  Therefore, Nietzsche weakens his plea to join in the discipleship of Dionysus, because his creative depiction of the god fails by his own standards.  Furthermore, Nietzsche’s effort to provide ideal examples from history is futile when his extractions of historical instances are historically inaccurate or unfounded, as demonstrated in the case of Dionysus.

                  Perhaps Nietzsche advocates his distortion of history in a desperate endeavor to be more like the Greeks.  In The Use and Abuse of History, Nietzsche compares his fellow men to the Greeks, claiming that the Germans of his day face a challenge similar to what the ancients experienced and overcame.  He writes, “German culture and religion is at present a death struggle of all foreign nations and bygone times” (UAH 72).  The German culture is in potential danger of being overcome by its past and will slip passively through history unnoticed because of their failure to revolutionize culture.  According to Nietzsche, the Greeks overcame such a struggle through strength from their religious influence, and perhaps Nietzsche hopes his culture will do the same, finding strength in his original construction of Dionysus.  However, Nietzsche’s appeal to Greek culture as a model for all cultures requires accurate citation of this Golden Age; otherwise, the project is fiction-based, concluding that his appeals to history cannot be taken earnestly. 


Dwight-David Allman, “History As Psychology?  Morality As Pathology: Nietzsche and

                  the Ethical Tradition,” in Instilling Ethics, ed. Norma Thompson (Rowman and

                  Littlefield, 2000), 97 - 115.

Adrian Del-Caro, "Nietzschean Self-Transformation and the Transformation of the

                  Dionysian," in Nietzsche, Philosophy and the Arts, ed. Salim Kemal, Ivan Gaskell

                   and Daniel W. Conway (Cambridge University Press, 1998), 70 - 91.

Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (Princeton, New Jersey:

                  Princeton University Press).

Philip Mayerson, Classical Mythology in Literature, Art, and Music (New York: New York


Friedrich Nietzsche / Walter Kaufmann, The Birth of Tragedy (New York: Vintage Books).

Friedrich Nietzsche / Walter Kaufmann, The Portable Nietzsche (New York: The

                  Viking Press). 

Friedrich Nietzsche / Adrian Collins, The Use and Abuse of History (Indianapolis: Bobbs-

                  Merrill Educational Publishing Company). 

Robert Scharff, "Nietzsche and the 'Use' of History," Man and World (1974): 67 – 77.

[1] The following abbreviations throughout the paper refer to Nietzsche’s texts: BOT (The Birth of Tragedy), BGE (Beyond Good and Evil), TI (Twilight of the Idols), and UAH (The Use and Abuse of History).  I will leave Nietzsche’s name out of the parenthetical citation for the sake of neatness in the paper.

[2] Walter Kaufmann articulates this notion, and his views on this subject will be examined later in this paper, but first I will show that changes actually occur in Nietzsche’s presentation of Dionysus.

[3] In his article, “Nietzschean self-transformation and the transformation of the Dionysian, Adrian Del Caro discusses Nietzsche’s changes in Dionysus, most notably Nietzsche’s naming him a philosopher god.

[4] This idea is derived from and articulated by Del Caro, which will be presented in more detail later in the paper when I articulate Del Caro’s defense of Nietzsche.

[5] Again, this idea of synthesis derives from Kaufmann source I have used, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, which I will soon discuss in greater detail.

[6] All of my references to Del Caro are from the same article, “Nietzschean self-transformation and the transformation of the Dionysian,” found in the book, Nietzsche, Philosophy and the Arts.

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