Applying Nietzsche’s Aufhebung to Antigone

As Nietzsche discussions from the middle to the end of chapter 7 in The Birth of Tragedy, the audience of ancient Greek theater is not supposed to see the events on stage as real, but the chorus and actors are. The neutralization (Aufhebung) of the cultured Greek by the satyr chorus serves as a metaphor for the process of how someone can see past of the surface representation of events that are happening and recognize the underlying causes of the events. For Nietzsche, the chorus creates an Apollonian mask for the audience to see and which covers up the Dionysian terror that the events of the play represent. In the course of the play, both the audience and the chorus go through their own personal Aufhebung moment.

In the Aufhebung moment, in a state of Dionysian intoxication and feeling of the individual merging with the whole, the Apollonian mask comes off briefly, allowing the audience to catch a glimpse of the terrible creative and destructive Dionysian forces that are at the heart of the events portrayed in the play. Once you see and recognize the terrible creative and destructive Dionysian forces, the metaphor becomes a critique of Schopenhauer’s ideas on desire and acting on that desire. Nietzsche argues that people can choose whether or not to act on a desire if they realize that acting will not change the nature of things.

We know from chapter 5 of The Birth of Tragedy that the Apollonian “art is plastic, visual, objective, theoretical, self- conscious,” while the “Dionysian art is […] inchoate, musical, unselfconscious, and best represented by the lyrist who becomes one with the primal oneness, pain, and contradiction of the ground of all things” (Warminski 81). The Apollonian gives shape, form, individuality, to the Dionysian, the whole, the inspiration. One cannot exist without the other. The interplay between the Apollonian and Dionysian also shaped the role of Attic theater for Nietzsche.

For Nietzsche the original chorus of Attic tragedy was the satyr chorus. The satyr represented a more primitive, primal version of humans, and in a way also represented the primal forces of nature, the Dionysian, which do not change over time. For Nietzsche, the purpose of the satyr chorus was to create an artistic representation of life to protect the cultured Greek from seeing the terrible destructive chaos of reality in order be able to go on living. This thought is restated in the line: “sie [die Kunst] allein vermag jene Ekelgedanken über das Entsetzliche oder Absurde des Daseins in Vorstellungen umzubiegen, mit denen sich leben lässt[1]” (Geburt 53). The chorus and the stage created an Apollonian mask for the Dionysian dynamic of conflicting forces playing out on stage. As Robert R. Williams notes, in Sophocles’ Oedipus “the underlying theme is that Apollinian wisdom—self-knowledge, knowing one’s limits and measure—is a crime against nature” (150). Oedipus forced the Sphinx, representing nature, to reveal its secrets and he is thus punished in the end by sinning against nature, i.e. marrying his mother and killing his father (Williams, 150). These dynamics also play out in Antigone as a battle between two sides who are correct, but are also wrong, in deciding whether or not to bury an enemy, who is also a family member.

The tragic play for the chorus members, in this sense, is the pure Dionysian intoxication, the inspiration that the Apollonian mask gives shape to through the chorus. For Nietzsche, the play serves an almost religious function recreating the death and resurrection of Dionysus. Nietzsche maintains “dass alle die berühmten Figuren der griechischen Bühne Prometheus, Ödipus u.s.w. nur Masken jenes ursprünglichen Helden Dionysus sind[2]” (Geburt 68). The chorus does not act but reacts to the events on stage, “daß sie, wenn der tragische Held auf der Bühne erscheint, nicht etwa den unförmlich maskirten Menschen sehen, sondern eine gleichsam aus ihrer eignen Verzückung geborene Visionsgestalt[3]” (Geburt 59-60).

Nietzsche denies this experience to the audience. He strongly rejected portraying “naturalism” on stage. He felt that the “ideal” stage (space) upon which the satyr chorus acted out the pure Dionysian intoxication was “hoch emporgehoben über die wirkliche Wandelbahn der Sterblichen[4]”, so that the audience recognized that what he/she was watching was a play and “nicht eine empirische Realität[5]” (Geburt 49). The satyr chorus created a “living wall”, an Apollonian mask, which separates the audience from the view of the pure natural forces. It is because of the “living wall” created by the chorus that the ancient Greek is able to look into the meaningless destructive and creative chaos around them and find piece. The Apollonian mask the chorus shows on stage is how art saves the cultured Greek man from the terrible truth of the pure chaos of dynamic forces around him that were portrayed on stage. It gives a sense of meaning to life. In the course of the play, the audience catches a glimpse of these forces as they truly are. This is the process of Aufhebung for Nietzsche, this is distinct from the meaning that Hegel gave to Aufhebung.

There are two distinct moments of Aufhebung, the absorption of the part into the whole, the process of neutralization, and then the separation of the part from the whole, the coming out of the state of intoxication, when you recognize the forces for what they truly are.

Nietzsche, citing Wagner, states that the cultured Greek is neutralized (aufgehoben) by the music of the satyr chorus, described above, in the same way the “wie der Lampenschein vom Tageslicht (aufgehoben][6]” (Geburt, 51). Music is representative of the Dionysian. In this process of the part being absorbed by the whole, the gap between “state and society”, or “between man and man”, disappears with the music and creates unity leading to the “heart of nature” (Birth, 22). Nature in this case is the pure expression of these natural forces that is the Dionysian. For Nietzsche, Aufhebung is a stabilizing, or unifying, process in that you cease to see yourself as an individual and as part of the group.

Williams interprets Nietzsche’s description of the chorus of satyrs, “natural beings”, as saying that the satyr represents “the union of the human with nature, i.e., the overcoming of the limits of individuation and a reunion with life as a whole” (Williams, 147). When Nietzsche writes that the satyrs “gleichsam hinter aller Zivilisation unvertilgbar leben und trotz allem Wechsel der Generationen und der Völkergeschichten ewig dieselben bleiben[7]” he is saying that the satyrs, as representations of the Dionysian forces of creation and destruction do not change in their nature despite the passage of time (Geburt, 53). When the cultured Greek is neutralized by the satyr chorus he is brought together with his more primal essence and expression through music and intoxication. Nietzsche might imagine the ancient Greek to be rather like Socrates when, after he heard the command to play music, played music and thinking about the nature of things beyond his logical nature, the ancient Greek man could ask himself:

[I}st das mir Nichtverständliche doch nicht auch sofort das Unverständige? Vielleicht giebt es ein Reich der Weisheit, aus dem der Logiker verbannt ist? Vielleicht ist die Kunst sogar ein nothwendiges Correlativum und Supplement der Wissenschaft?[8] (Geburt 95)

When Nietzsche talks about a Buddhist denial of the will, he is referring to Schoepenhauer’s idea described in his “Prize essay on the freedom of the will,” in which he argues that “You can do what you will: but at each given moment of your life you can will only one determined thing and by no means anything other than this one” (Schoepenhauer, 48, emphasis in the original). In other words, you can do what you want, but what you want is already determined for you. Schoepenhauer believed that you had to act on what you “willed”, you would will for something new. This becomes an endless cycle, you can never stop willing new things: “Willing goes on perpetually and without final purpose: it is built into us and the whole fabric of the world” (Schoepenhauer, xix). Buddhism, with its striving for getting rid of desire, works towards no longer willing things.

So why is the Greek man in danger of “longing for a Buddhist denial of the will”? Nietzsche didn’t like Schoepenhauer’s idea that we have no control over whether or not we acted upon our desires, our will. He thought that we had some control over whether or not we acted upon the opposing forces when we recognized them.

When he says that “art saves him [the Greek man]” it is through the Apollonian mask that the terrible, destructive, meaningless forces of the Dionysian became calmed with a sense of meaning and that people, nature, are inherently good. As Williams says, “existence is good in spite of the its terrors and suffering” (147). This is expressed by life having meaning and the goodness of individuals. This goodness and meaning of life is expressed through the meaningful death of the hero.

William’s argues that Nietzsche, later in The Birth of Tragedy, states that the death of the hero reminds the audience of “another existence and a higher pleasure for which the struggling hero prepares himself by means of destruction and not by means of triumphs” (148). Thus “the destruction of the phenomenon, i.e., the tragic hero, appears as necessary and a healing” (Williams, 148). For example, Oedipus “durch sein ungeheures Leiden eine magische segensreiche Kraft um sich ausübt[9]” (Geburt, 62). Or Creon’s persecution of Antigone causes her to commit suicide, which in turn causes his son and then wife to also commit suicide. In the end Creon longs for death as he mourns his son and wife as his actions caused their deaths. However, the chorus leader reminds Creon that the best leaders are those who learn from their mistakes and become better people. Thus, through his suffering brought on by his own actions, Creon becomes a better person. Nietzsche argues that “Das Beste und Höchste, dessen die Menschheit teilhaftig warden kann, erring sie durch einen Frevel und mußt nun wieder seine Folgen dahinnehmen[10]” (Geburt, 66). In other words, there is an ultimate purpose or reconciliation for the hero’s suffering.

According to Williams, the Apollonian state, while it is beautiful and allows you to see the good in people or a situation, is “a dismemberment”, as you are cut off from the whole as an individual. When you apply this idea to Antigone, the Apollonian form, is expressed through Antigone’s intense loyalty and devotion of family and following the will of the gods, while the goodness of Creon is in his intense adherence to the law, obedience, and well-being of his state. This “dismemberment” will only be reversed when the individual is again brought back together with the natural forces. Antigone expresses the positive side of her character when she says “My nature calls for sharing love, not hate” (Mulroy, 28). However, the true form of her character doesn’t come forth until it is put into conflict with Creon’s law. After Antigone emerges from her Aufhebung moment and realizes that her will and Creon’s are in conflict that she realizes that she must decide whether or not to do what she feels is right even if it will be punished by death. This is the moment when her true character appears.

Die Verzückung des dionysischen Zustandes mit seiner Vernichtung der gewöhnlichen Schranken und Grenzen des Daseins enthält nämlich während seiner Dauer ein lethargisches Element, in das sich alles persönlich in der Vergangenheit Erlebte eintaucht.[11] (Geburt 52, emphasis in the original)

The Dionysian state is a state of ecstasy or intoxication where the Apollonian mask falls away and you feel connected to the whole, you forget your sense of self as an individual and you become part of the whole in a lethargic state. According to, “lethargy” comes from the Greek root “Lethe” meaning “forgetfulness” or “oblivion” (Dictionary). This is also the river in Hades which caused the person who fell into it to forget his past. Burnham and Jesinghausen argue that Nietzsche was using this original meaning of “lethargy” in his work. When you become a part of the whole, the Dionysian, you forget your identity as an individual and you act in accordance with the natural forces around you.

“So scheidet sich durch diese Kluft der Vergessenheit die Welt der alltäglichen und der dionysischen Wirklichkeit voneinander ab[12](Geburt, 52). This is because while in the lethargy of the Dionysian state of ecstasy it will be necessary, as will be described in more detail below, that in order to the see the pure nature of things as they are and not through a mask, it is necessary for the Apollonian and Dionysian to separate as soon as they have merged.

When Nietzsche talks about “jene alltägliche Wirklichkeit wieder ins Bewußtsein tritt[13] is he still referring to a Dionysian state just not in ecstasy where you see the creative/destructive forces for what they are (Geburt, 52)? Or is he describing the return to an Apollonian state? This line is a point where the distinction between the Apollonian and the Dionysian becomes blurred, they cannot not exist without each other, but they each have distinctions which dominate.

Williams states that each persons’ true self is not able to come forth until there is “an identification of individuals with the vital cosmic creative process which the Dionysian rebirth symbolizes” suggesting that the person is still in the Dionysian state (147). This is the coming out of the state of Dionysian ecstasy, when the “daily reality” comes back, 1) you see your true self in relation to the dynamic forces around you, and 2) you see the dynamic forces for what they are, pure forces without a sense of good and evil. Not until Antigone realizes that she and Creon are diametrically opposed to burying her dead brother and that she must oppose him alone to do what she thinks is right does her true self emerge. This is supported by her statement when being questioned by Creon: “You’re sure to find my words offensive too. / What’s more, there couldn’t be a finer cause / than caring for a brother’s burial.” (Mulroy, 27).

Creon feels that he must treat Polyneices as an enemy, and thus will not perform burial rights for him, because he fought against him the previous day. Antigone represents the will of the gods and familial devotion when she says to Ismene “I’ll lie down with him, / a holy criminal. We have to please / the dead much longer than our rulers here” (Mulroy, 27). The “disgust” that Antigone feels, then is the realization that even though she must do what she thinks is right, she will die as a consequence of her conflict with Creon and that she must bury her brother alone.

Nietzsche starts to describe the coming out of the state of intoxication when he writes: “eine asketische, willenverneinende Stimmung ist die Frucht jener Zustände[14]” (Geburt, 52). An ascetic state, or state of “extreme self-denial”, in this case not partaking in the elements that cause the Dionysian intoxication, can help bring someone to a higher spiritual state. In the ascetic state you recognize the dynamic forces for what they are. This is the “fruit” of the ascetic state and the higher spiritual state. You recognize that the Apollonian mask shows an agency or power behind the force which does not in actuality exist. You recognize these forces for what they are: forces acting without rhyme or reason. In this “asthetische, willenverneinende Stimmung” you are in a state where you no longer choose to act on your desire. This is Nietzsche’s digression from Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer would have the alleviation of willing, which never ends, be compassion. Nietzsche would prefer that the person chose not to act on a desire that they have, because they realize that there is no agency behind these forces, thus your own will cannot act upon them to stop the change.

Nietzsche’s interpretation of Hamlet serves as an additional clue to understanding the line “jene alltägliche Wirklichkeit wieder ins Bewußtsein tritt[15]” (Geburt 52). For Nietzsche, Hamlet recognizes that his “Handlung kann nichts am ewigen Wesen der Dinge ändern[16]” (Geburt, 52. In denying the power of the will, you are denying that you have the ability to change the outcome of the battle between dynamic forces. The forces that control your life, and by extension, control the lives of overs, cannot be altered whether you will them to be different or not. In this sense the creative and destructive forces of the Dionysian do not have a good or pleasurable quality as Williams might contend, rather they simply are forces with no intention behind them. Hamlet, then seems to be the opposite of the tragic hero Oedipus, who would do great things through his suffering and death.

When Nietzsche writes: “Die Erkenntniss [der Wahrheit] tötet das Handeln, zum Handeln gehört das Umschleiertsein durch die Illusion[17]he is saying that in order to act or to save the world, you need to believe that there is a way to change the course of events (Geburt 52). For Antigone, you would need to believe that you can convince Creon, before the destruction of Thebes was imminent, that he should bury an enemy or that Antigone should try to reason with Creon rather than brashly confront him. However, because Antigone recognizes the primal forces at work behind her and Creon’s actions, she realizes that there is no way to stop them from happening and does nothing to work with Creon.

Jetzt verfängt kein Trost mehr, die Sehnsucht geht über eine Welt nach dem Tode, über die Götter selbst hinaus[18]” (Geburt, 53). You can hear an echo of Nietzsche’s sentiment in Antigone when in response to Creon, after he asks her if she knew the punishment for burying Polyneices was death, says: “I knew. Why wouldn’t I? / Your words were clear” (Mulroy, 25). She knows that her desire to bury her brother, Polyneices, and his law that you don’t bury enemies, would end in conflict as the treatment of friends and enemies and burial rights were of fundamental importance in ancient Greece.

Works Cited

Burnham, Douglas, and Jesinghausen, Martin. Reader’s Guides: Nietzsche’s ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ : A Reader’s Guide (1). London, GB: Continuum, 2010. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 15 November 2016.

Mulroy, David D. Antigone. Madison, Wis.: U of Wisconsin, 2013. Wisconsin Studies in Classics. Web.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Die Geburt der Tragödie. Reclam-Verlag Stuttgart. 1958

—. The Birth of Tragedy. translated by Clifton P. Fadiman. New York: Dover Publications, 1995. Print. Dover Thrift Editions.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics. Edited and translated by Janaway, Christopher. New York: Cambridge UP, 2009. Print. Schopenhauer, Arthur, 1788-1860. Works. English. 2009.

Warminski, Andrzej. “Reading for Example: A Metaphor in Nietzscheʹs Birth of Tragedy.” Material Inscriptions: Rhetorical Reading in Practice and Theory, Edinburgh University Press, 2013, pp. 79–100,

Williams, Robert R. “Nietzsche on Tragedy.” Tragedy, Recognition, and the Death of God. Oxford UP, 2012. Tragedy, Recognition, and the Death of God, Chapter 6. Print.


[1] She (art) alone may transform these horrible reflections on the terror and absurdity of existence into representations on the terror and absurdity of existence into representations with which man may live..

[2] that in fact all the celebrated figures of the Greek Stage – Prometheus, Oedipus, etc – are but masks of this original hero, Dionysus (Birth, 34)

[3] that, when the tragic hero appears on the stage, they see do not see in him an unshapelyman wearing a mask, but they see a visionary figure, born as it ere of their own ecstasy (Birth, 28)

[4] Raised high above the actual path of mortals (Birth, 22)

[5] not portrayal of reality (Birth, 22)

[6] lamplight is neutralized by the light of day (Birth 22)

[7] live ineradicably behind every civilization, and who, despite the ceaseless change of generations and the history of nations, remain the same to all eternity (Birth 22-23)

[8] “what is not intelligible to me is not therefore unintelligible? Perhaps there is a realm of wisdom from which the logician is shut out? Perhaps art is even a necessary correlative of, and supplement to, science?

[9] Through his extraordinary sufferings, ultimately exerts a magical, healing effect on all around him (Birth, 29)

[10] The best and highest that men can acquire they must obtain by a crime, then they must endure its consequences” (Nietzsche, Birth, 32)

[11]. […] in the ecstasy of the Dionysian state, with its annihilation of the ordinary bounds and limits of existence, there is countained a lethargic element, in which are submerged all past personal experience (Birth, 23, emphasis in the original)

[12] It is this gulf of oblivion that separates the world of everyday from the world of Dionysian reality (Birth, 23).

[13] But as soon as we become conscious again of this everyday reality, we feel it as nauseating and repulsive […] (Birth, 23)

[14] and an ascetic will-negating mood is the fruit of these states (Birth, 23).

[15] But as soon as we become conscious again of this everyday reality, we feel it as nauseating and repulsive […] (Birth, 23)

[16] action cannot change the eternal nature of things (Birth, 23)

[17] Knowledge (of the true state of the primal forces) kills action, action requires the veil of illusion (Birth, 23)

[18] There is no longer any use in comfort; his longing goes beyond a world after death, beyond the gods themselves (Birth, 23)


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