Cover image for The Smile of Tragedy: Nietzsche and the Art of Virtue By Daniel R. Ahern

The Smile of Tragedy

Nietzsche and the Art of Virtue

Daniel R. Ahern


$72.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05250-2

$34.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05251-9

Available as an e-book

184 pages
6" × 9"

Literature and Philosophy

The Smile of Tragedy

Nietzsche and the Art of Virtue

Daniel R. Ahern

The Smile of Tragedy is a valuable addition to the literature on Nietzsche. The book is clearly argued and well written, with an abundance of references to the primary sources seamlessly integrated into the text. Particularly impressive is the concise and sustained development of the exposition, the arc of which unfolds without loss of shape or focus.


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
In The Smile of Tragedy, Daniel Ahern examines Nietzsche’s attitude toward what he called “the tragic age of the Greeks,” showing it to be the foundation not only for his attack upon the birth of philosophy during the Socratic era but also for his overall critique of Western culture. Through an interpretation of “Dionysian pessimism,” Ahern clarifies the ways in which Nietzsche sees ethics and aesthetics as inseparable and how their theoretical separation is at the root of Western nihilism. Ahern explains why Nietzsche, in creating this precursor to a new aesthetics, rejects Aristotle’s medicinal interpretation of tragic art and concentrates on Apollinian cruelty as a form of intoxication without which there can be no art. Ahern shows that Nietzsche saw the human body as the vessel through which virtue and art are possible, as the path to an interpretation of “selflessness,” as the means to determining an order of rank among human beings, and as the site where ethics and aesthetics coincide.
The Smile of Tragedy is a valuable addition to the literature on Nietzsche. The book is clearly argued and well written, with an abundance of references to the primary sources seamlessly integrated into the text. Particularly impressive is the concise and sustained development of the exposition, the arc of which unfolds without loss of shape or focus.

Daniel R. Ahern is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton. He is the author of Nietzsche as Cultural Physician (Penn State, 1995).





1. Dionysian Pessimism

2. The Good and Beautiful Body

I The Risk of Virtue

II An Outline for a Physiology of Aesthetics

3. The Socratic Cure for Life

I The Twilight of Ecstasy and the Birth of “Happiness”

II Apollo Democratized: The Birth of “Aesthetics”

Tomorrow and the Day After Tomorrow





The “ancient world” is one into which, Nietzsche says, “I have sought to find a way, into which I have perhaps found a new way.” This study is an attempt to follow the trail. Often the path dissolves into fragments of youthful unpublished text that, as indicators of his direction, leave nothing but a hint or, at best, a guess. Then again, we also find familiar, fairly well-defined markers—especially those warnings he placed around the dangers he identified with the birth of Socratic thought: with the birth, therefore, of Western philosophy. His cautions about “Socratism” indicate why he says, “I have perhaps found a new way” (T X 1). This “perhaps,” by no means an expression of self-doubt, is his tempting us toward this “new way.” He dangles it as a possibility and lure into chance and adventure since, after all, the word “perhaps” points to the absence of a “sure thing.”

In charting his own course into ancient Greek culture, Nietzsche discovered the things he felt were the basic requirements of a philosophical existence. First and foremost is, of course, a certain joy that, being incomprehensible, can lead to things both terrifying and perfect. Then there is this joy’s location and gift, which, depending on the strength of its generosity, let us judge who is best and worst among us. With these, Nietzsche saw the countenance of an era he believed tells us at least two things. First, commonsense and practicality, though revealing a profound intelligence, may also be signs of cowardice; and second, those seeking guarantees that an investment of time will deliver the profitable, tangible benefits of “knowledge” should avoid philosophy.

Nietzsche’s “new way” into ancient Greek culture showed him that philosophy is not a means to making us “good,” nor to providing happiness, nor to techniques promising immortality, nor to figuring out “the meaning and value of existence.” These matters of self-interest point, he thinks, to that plebeian “Socratism” which, lacking the “sublime abnormality” and “conspicuous uselessness” of the earlier cosmology, reveals the symptoms of Greek cultural decay. Ostensibly, his journey began with the publication of The Birth of Tragedy and continued onward to his call for a revaluation of all values. Throughout his expedition we see a kind of faith; one, Nietzsche says, “I have baptized . . . with the name Dionysus” (T IX 49). This name is emblematic of the “new way” he found into both the ancient world, and of his perception of the future of Western culture. Dionysus is a profound “perhaps” at the heart of Nietzsche’s faith; a faith providing him real joy in despising the nihilism he anticipated, and in the exhilarating vision of so many uncertain, only possible, tomorrows.

I initiated this study because I wanted to investigate what, for lack of a better way of putting it, we might call Nietzsche’s “aesthetics.” That is, I wanted to discern the basis of or at least clarify the categories he employs in judging art and artists—both ancient and modern—as healthy or as “decadent.” I thought Nietzsche’s encounter with Greek antiquity would be a preliminary concern, quickly dispatched before proceeding to more important matters. But the more closely I approached the “aesthetic” contours of his critique of Greek culture, the more I found the interpretations of both “virtue” and “beauty” he pursues to the end of his philosophical life. For example, as I looked at why he thought tragic poetry was beyond the ken of “that famous old serpent” (B 202) Socrates, I was drawn to questions clustered around his perceptions as to why Plato placed art in the sewers of knowledge. And how is it, I wondered, that Nietzsche is so convinced that Aristotle misunderstood tragedy (T X 5)? Why would he say this? And though, as I said above, Nietzsche’s path into the ancient world is at times well defined, I often found it simply breaks off into multiple directions. Sometimes I would turn around and end up at the same place after having gone in a completely “different” direction. The more I “proceeded,” however, the more it seemed that Nietzsche pointed at things he purposely refused to explicitly “define.” I mean, he seemed to signal a certain comportment or attitude that he would not “explain.” Hence, like so many of us who read his texts, I often ended up lingering over those measured gaps, his guesses, his little wells of silence, the old laurels of ellipses, the jokes with an em-dashed punch line, as well as those provocative, scaffold sentences that dare you to finish them.

Overall, though, I have come to think that the famously labyrinthine feature of Nietzsche’s “philosophy” is a purposely deployed web of breaks and of secret bridges running through the main themes of his thinking. These are certainly a “tangle,” but they are arranged with an eloquence pointing to the labyrinth wherein, under the rubric “Dionysus,” Nietzsche points at a pretense within the Socratic dialectics that, he believed, reduced Apollo to a cheap lucidity. Anyway, I ended up in a kind of philosophical acrobatics that Nietzsche described as a “flight of imagination . . . a leaping from possibility to possibility, with these possibilities for the moment being taken as certainties.” This interpretation of Nietzsche offers no certainties, due at times, I’m sure, to my lack of agility and at other times to that proximity, a drawing too near, perhaps, to the god without whom there can be no poetry.

In the end, this book does not, to quote the managerial class, “move forward.” As a matter of fact, it goes backwards, finding the markers Nietzsche places here and there through that maze leading to what we call his “philosophy.” Originally, I thought tragic poetry, the child of Dionysian and Apollinian powers, seemed the best way to access his perception of art and artists. I still think this is the case, but when I looked at his approaches to tragedy as an art form, I found, as I said above, what struck me more as an attitude, or maybe something like what Foucault meant in speaking of “an aesthetics of existence” as opposed to an explanation or “theory of tragedy.” In any case, the attitude or demeanour of “Dionysian pessimism” (GS 370) is the central concern of this book. I have looked at this quickened tendency, which, manifest as Nietzsche’s polemic directed at the Socratic era of Greek antiquity, will ultimately be deployed against Christianity and hence all things “modern.” This attitude is certainly recognizable in the fever pitch of contempt that sustains his philosophy’s generous scorn and sarcasm. Yet this volatile temper is also imbued with the tenderest appeals to love, a sacred, intoxicated “yes” to all innocence, and those little wells of quiet joy around which Nietzsche would harvest the subtlest expressions of gratitude.

This strangely mercurial attitude is articulated via a foreign philosophical dialect which, first heard in The Birth of Tragedy, sounded foreign and out of place, at least within the horizon of acceptable philosophical language in his lifetime. This is not surprising, since the accent of Dionysian pessimism carries a hint of contempt for the very birth of philosophy. For Nietzsche, philosophy was essentially stillborn and, in the guise of the rational “self” sustaining its history, infected Dionysian and Apollinian artistic energies. He speaks in the idiom peculiar to Dionysian pessimism; that attitude which, when brought to bear on what we would eventually call philosophy, does not conceal a desire to destroy it. In short, Nietzsche speaks with the cadence of that earlier epoch he called “the tragic age.” Here was an era wherein the young man discovered the contributions of intoxication to philosophy. He also found an age bereft of any need for a rational self and hence any distinction of mind from body; an age that perceived no schism between poetry and philosophy, and no difference between the virtuous human being and the beautiful one. The dialect of this epoch is not steeped in, nor is it by any means inclined to express, the epistemic or moral authority of human, rational identity. On the contrary, it conveys, as I have said, a Dionysian pessimism: an attitude Nietzsche fashions into a philosophical style of balancing an ever-present quiver of ecstasy upon a lucid declaration on behalf of this world—no matter what.

This style pervades Nietzsche’s texts, and I think its tone of enraptured ferocity expresses the deeply hazardous values he identified with the tragic age. These values are inseparable from Dionysian pessimism and, essential as they are to the earliest “interpretations” of the virtuous human being, led to his perception of Greek tragedy and cosmology as summits of cultural health. To attempt to speak in the manner of an era “two centuries before Socrates,” rendered, as I said above, Nietzsche’s philosophizing alien to his contemporaries. But the rejection of his obscure accent served an “untimely” project in an age whose values he thought had long ago succumbed to decay. Hence his hunt for those nimble readers who, moving between his words and lines, found him mapping our values within and without the confines of grammar (T III 5). To these readers he sought to show that, from a Dionysian perspective, a refusal to explain oneself or avoid contradiction might not be stupidity, but rather a sign of rank and even of good manners. This “unreasonable” oeuvre of joke, revenge, and song suspends Nietzsche’s thinking and, perhaps, explains the twists and turns of his various reputations. He’s been the poet-philosopher, the mad philosopher, a Nazi, an anti-Semite, forerunner of existentialism, prophet of war, postmodern pioneer, a male chauvinist, a nihilist, a mask, a mirror, the Antichrist, a guide to the perplexed, and so on. Some of these appellations are deserved and others are not. One thing is clear, though: the various characterizations of Nietzsche’s thinking, including this one, point at our incapacity to be indifferent to him. Indifferent, that is, to the ecstatic hint of the Dionysian he displays throughout his philosophy.

As I said, I wanted to look into Nietzsche’s “aesthetics” but found myself gravitating more and more to clarifying the Dionysian disposition, which, though permeating his texts, is an elusive “perhaps.” It always has a bearing of impending activity; of an impatience with knowledge of what “is,” and of scorn for judgments, for or against, the “the value of existence.” I take the term “Dionysian pessimism” to designate what, in The Gay Science, Nietzsche called “tragic insight” (GS 370). He refers to it while demarcating his standpoint from the revenge inherent to the “romantic pessimism” of Wagner’s music, and the whole philosophical tradition of “aesthetics.” In light of his withering rejection of this tradition, along with his identification of Dionysian pessimism with a tragic vision, I was drawn to the questions that guide this study. What could he mean by a “Dionysian pessimism” (GS 370)? How does the god of the most savage bliss stand in the vortex of an annihilation “that is pregnant with future” (GS 370)? Does this “pessimism of the future” (GS 370) provide a means to grasping Nietzsche’s high estimation of tragic poetry? Can it clarify his perception of tragedy’s death with the simultaneous emergence of the impoverished “aesthetics” he identifies with Socratism? The more I pursued a response to these questions, the more I found that an appreciation for the attitude of Dionysian pessimism opened up much that is “unsaid” in Nietzsche’s texts. For example, though his hints at the role of the Apollinian within his perception of aesthetics are overshadowed by the status of Dionysus, Apollo is still woven into the suffering essential to virtue and, therefore, the event of beauty. The demeanour of Dionysian pessimism also points to the delicate tone of gratitude we find in Nietzsche’s thinking insofar as it expresses a certain praise for the opportunity to suffer and be destroyed. This “opportunity” sounds strange to the contemporary ear. But these “favourable conditions” are the basis of the subtle joy attending Nietzsche’s vision of tragic art and sustain, I think, not only his aesthetics, but his overall philosophizing.

In light of the above remarks, this study is a preamble to a wider study of Nietzsche’s aesthetics and remains, therefore, within the parameters of his encounter with Greek antiquity. The significance of this encounter has been the basis for a considerable amount of Nietzsche commentary over the last century. And, to the extent that this literature takes up Nietzsche’s relationship with Socrates, it must look at the polemic Nietzsche directs at Socrates for being “among the despisers of tragedy.” For this reason, the scholarship around Nietzsche’s relationship to Greek antiquity moves, more or less, through an interpretation of his aesthetics. Scholarly contributions to this area of Nietzsche’s philosophy are too numerous to list here, but the following helped to shape the present study. Over twenty-five years ago, M. S. Silk and J. P. Stern’s Nietzsche on Tragedy introduced me to the significance of Nietzsche’s early encounter with Greek antiquity through the aesthetics articulated in The Birth of Tragedy. They also pointed me in the “opposite” direction, toward the “pre-Socratic” epoch of philosophy and hence to Nietzsche’s philological problems in his praise of this era. John Sallis’s Crossings: Nietzsche and the Space of Tragedy showed me how “the wisdom of Silenus” (BT 3) moves into “the Problem of Socrates” in Twilight of the Idols. Volume 2 of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, The Use of Pleasure, was a great assistance to me in clarifying Nietzsche’s perception of the contest among competing desires and hence interpreting the relation between “virtue” and the human being as a work of art. In this same vein, Alexander Nehamas’s Virtues of Authenticity and The Art of Living helped me to see Nietzsche’s Dionysian pessimism as an “unspoken” temperament which, counter to Socratic irony, determines the “distance” (GM I 2) between human beings. And though Julian Young’s Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Art strikes me as far too narrow in its conclusion concerning Nietzsche’s “pessimism,” this book does point to the value of looking at the role of pessimism within Nietzschean aesthetics.

The present work moves within the well-traveled parameters of Nietzsche’s encounter with Greek culture. I hope its creative value will be seen in its exploring what Nietzsche meant by “Dionysian pessimism” (GS 370) in order to grasp the “physiological” divide he saw between the tragic and Socratic epochs of Greek antiquity. I show how Greek cultural health and cultural decay stand with the phenomenon of Dionysus as a physical event the young Nietzsche identified with “the Greeks of the tragic age.” I articulate the attitude of Dionysian pessimism, which, being “irrational,” immoral, and fraught with “error,” is not only the risk of suffering and potential death, but also an expression of joy. This very ecstasy dances across Nietzsche’s perception of tragic poetry as the earliest “interpretation” of the “virtue” he believed sustained the warrior aristocracies of “the older Hellenes” (T X 2). This perilous virtue is also the inspired yes to life he identifies with pre-Socratic cosmology: “the most deeply buried of all Greek temples!” This book, therefore, attempts to illustrate the posture of Dionysian pessimism in order to clarify Nietzsche’s identification of virtue with artistic creation during the tragic age. Our study ends by tracing Nietzsche’s perception of this identity’s decay into the cherished authority the Socratic “self.”

Chapter 1 provides an initial sketch of Dionysian pessimism by excavating what Nietzsche meant when he referred to “tragic culture.” This chapter looks at how Dionysian pessimism is an attitude that, permeating the crudest mores of the earliest warrior “aristocracies,” is nevertheless expressed in both tragic art and pre-Socratic cosmology. Chapter 2 looks at how the various features of Dionysian pessimism are exhibited through what Nietzsche considered basic to “the aesthetic state.” Hence I look at the roles of “sexuality, intoxication [and] cruelty in the creation of tragic poetry and how they are therefore essential to any artistic endeavour. These two chapters delineate what, for lack of a better way to express it, we might call the characteristics or features of Dionysian pessimism. These are generally identifiable in terms of finding the “ethical” and “aesthetic” located at the site of the human body; how the body is a gift provided out of gratitude within the ethical and aesthetic gestures; and finally, how this gift expresses the “selflessness” of Dionysian pessimism by lacking the “plebeian” concern with utility, and as the means to determine the value of a human being. Chapter 3 is dedicated to tracing the revaluation of these elements of Dionysian pessimism with the emergence of Socratic philosophy.

Mailing List

Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.