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Nuno Nabais, Nietzsche and the Metaphysics of the Tragic, translated from Portuguese by Martin Earl

Continuum, 2006, vii-xiv + 204 p

Reviewed by Isabelle Wienand

Thanks to the English translation of Metafísica do Trágico. Estudos sobre Nietzsche (Lisbon, 1997), scholars can read and much profit from this acclaimed essay on Nietzsche’s metaphysics of the tragic (the book won the PEN club Award in 1997).

Nuno Nabais teaches philosophy at the University of Lisbon. He is the author of a number of articles on Nietzsche, Heidegger and Ricoeur. His research field also covers Husserl’s phenomenology, psychoanalysis, and aesthetics.

Against the common view, according to which Nietzsche’s seminal and most important thought about the tragic is to be found in his first published work The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nabais claims in the introduction that Nietzsche’s almost uninterrupted silence about the meaning of tragedy until Ecce Homo (1888) ought to be reconsidered: Nietzsche never abandoned the project to conceive a tragic justification of existence and it ‘is probably more present in the texts that remain silent on the subject of tragedy than in those in which Sophocles and Euripides are the subjects.’(xiii)

Before reconstructing Nietzsche’s unwritten but constant elaboration on the thought of the tragic, Nabais emphasises in the first of the six chapters that Nietzsche’s view on tragedy in BT ought to be read within the modern conception of the sublime inaugurated by Kant and revisited by Schiller, Schopenhauer and Wagner.

In the following four chapters, Nabais combines two different approaches — a thematic and a chronological one — to show that Nietzsche’s philosophy remains throughout his works committed to the idea of the tragic. Four main concepts (or pairs of) related to the tragic (individual and individuality; necessity and contingency; Stoic ethics and Nietzsche’s maxim of amor fati; and the eternal recurrence) are considered at five crucial moments in Nietzsche’s intellectual development: before Schopenhauer, following the reading of The World as Will and Representation, after the break with Schopenhauer, at the time of idea of the eternal recurrence (ER), finally from 1885 onward, when Nietzsche developed the theory of the will to power (WP) and the diagnosis of nihilism in the Lenzer Heide fragment of 1887.

In the sixth and last chapter, the author concludes that the previously four analysed sets of notions about the tragic converge in the culminating principle of WP, and not, as it is often thought, in the idea of ER.

The first chapter (1-35) suggests that one fruitful way of understanding Nietzsche’s aesthetic theory of tragedy is to read it within the Kantian frame of the sublime: ‘This is because the true model for the fundamental Dionysian/Apollonian theory is the difference between the sublime and the beautiful […]’ (10). According to Nabais, the recent debate between Habermas and Lyotard over the Critique of Judgment has overseen that Kant’s theory of the sublime was indeed the ‘true model’ for Nietzsche’s aesthetics in BT. The author shows that Schopenhauer plays a crucial role between Kant’s Critique of Judgment and BT, inasmuch as The World as Will and Representation (1884 ed., ch.37) claims that tragedy belongs to the feeling of the sublime. Nietzsche takes up the Schopenhauerian pessimism, according to which tragedy represents the essence of the world, that is the will in its unrepresentability, in which the principium individuationis of the spectator is dissolved. With Wagner’s thesis of the sublime nature of music (Beethoven, 1870), Nietzsche adds music to the Schopenhauerian model of the sublime as the exclusive art belonging to the sublime. Yet, Nietzsche differs both from Schopenhauer and Wagner in the sense that the experience of the Dionysian formless does not lead to resignation and life-negation, but to the Greek aspiration of the Apollinian appearance: ‘The beautiful that redeems the sublime is Nietzsche’s invention’ (34). Nietzsche breaks up with the primacy that his predecessors had given to morality over aesthetics: the aesthetic experience of the sublime is not a mere step to ethics, but aesthetics is the experience of the sublime.

A reading of Nietzsche’s artist’s metaphysics with the Kantian categories of the beautiful and the sublime has never been fully written yet. The author finds it paradoxical, even ‘symptomatic’ of Nietzschean postmodernists’ silence, and he goes as far as suspecting in them ‘a repressed Kantianism’(9). It is indeed an interesting psychoanalysis of postmodern philosophy, yet one other good reason for this silence is that there are no textual references to the Kantian sublime, and only one to the sublime as such is to be found in BT. Furthermore, it seems difficult to simply posit an equation between the Kantian categories of the beautiful and the sublime on the one hand, and the Apollinian/Dionysian, on the other. Does the same kind of relationship govern both, given the fact that the figure of the Apollinian disappears in the late writings? Are the beautiful and the sublime effectively interrelated in the same way as it is in the case of “the duality of the Apollonian and the Dionysian” (BT 1)?

The second chapter (37-64) focuses upon the ways Nietzsche formulates a justification of individual existence. Nietzsche’s affirmation of the individual marks a radical break with the platonic tradition of the universal One, yet his ‘ontology’ remains ‘obscure’ (38). Nabais rightly emphasises that Nietzsche’s view of the individual is profoundly marked by the paradoxical thesis in Schopenhauer’s metaphysics, which opposes strictly Individualität, understood as the Kantian intelligible character, to Individuation, understood as a mere empirical phenomenon. In the period of BT until the third Untimely Meditation, Nietzsche remains entangled in his educator’s metaphysical framework. Human, all too human (1878) inaugurates Nietzsche’s abandonment of Schopenhauer’s metaphysical dualism. The works of the so called middle period assign a central place to the notion of the individual. Even then, Nietzsche remains within the Schopenhauerian scheme, inasmuch as ‘individuality is condemned to the status of mere appearance, to being a simple representation which the “ego” creates out of itself […]’ (46). The idea of ER represents a way out of Schopenhauer’s aporia, for the eternal repetition of all events offers a cosmological basis to the individual. However, Nietzsche seems in the beginning till mid-eighties to search for another kind of justification for the individual’s individuality, that is a less temporal and more ‘internal perspective’ (46). This perspective was to become the theory of WP, in which the individuality (Grundcharakterzug) of the individual corresponds to each event. It is precisely in this ‘metaphysical correspondence [that] Nietzsche discovers the basis for a new figure for the tragic yes to universal existence with a sense of triumph.’(63)

It is a very interesting reconstruction of the Nietzschean notion of individual, yet one can wonder whether this interpretation does not omit features of the individual which do not seem to be easily subsumed to the idea of the tragic: for instance Nietzsche’s physiological-psychological analysis of the drives (Triebe) in Daybreak (e.g. § 115, 116, 118, 119) aims primarily at exhibiting the moral prejudices at work and at suggesting a naturalistic anthropology. By the same token, Nietzsche’s Kulturkritik focuses more on the conditions under which individuals can flourish or regress, than on the tragic affirmation of life. One can also wonder whether indeed Nietzsche’s ‘tragic yes to universal existence’ is not based upon a fundamental dissonance, than upon a metaphysical correspondence between individuality and external events. This last point seems to be a divergence between Nietzsche and the Stoic rationalist fatalism.

The third chapter (65-83) focuses upon Nietzsche’s elaboration of a metaphysics of necessity and his search for ‘figures of necessity’ (65): He reformulates the Stoic idea of ER and the Spinozist maxim of amor fati and integrates them in his own view of an immanent necessity, devoid of any rationality and teleology, and where ethics merge with physics. Nietzsche’s essays Fatum und Geschichte and Willensfreiheit und Fatum (1862) inaugurate a constant tension in Nietzsche’s understanding of fatum. According to Nabais, Nietzsche confuses (e.g. in the Zarathustra) metaphysical necessity (for instance the essence of each individual) with temporal necessity (the irrevocability of the past) (71f).

Under the influence of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche conceives fatum and free will in terms of thing-in-itself and phenomenon — whereas in the 1862 texts, individuality is conceived as the synthesis of necessity and freedom —. The hierarchy between a metaphysical and a temporal individuality is also at work in the third Untimely Meditation (individuality is immutable not because it is irreversible, but because it is not conditioned by time) and in the second Untimely Meditation (Nietzsche takes up the metaphysical duality between atemporal essence and existence in time by opposing life to history) (77) The supra-historical reveals that history is not a dimension of free will, since freedom is a mode of being, and not of acting. The ‘supra-historical man’, which is a figure of Dionysian ecstasy is the revelation that there is something unconditional and immutable underlying one’s becoming, and giving it its eternal character. ER will be the attempt to converge the actual and the immutable in his idea of ER with the difference that the necessary is not outside of time: ‘it is created within time as infinite repetition of each instant inside eternity.’ (83)

The fourth chapter (85-98) discusses Nietzsche’s stoic ideal of amor fati. In his programme of merging ethics into a philosophy of nature, the philologist Nietzsche was well aware (see his philological analysis from 1868 on the sources of Diogenes Laertius’ about the Stoic school of Zeno of Citium) that ‘wanting what is necessary in each happening’ was the central pillar of the Portico and embodied in the maxim ‘live in accordance with nature’ (85). It is only in 1876 that Nietzsche mentions and praises Stoic philosophy against Christianity and starts to recognise himself in the philosophy of the Stoa. The similarity between Nietzsche and the Portico is that both philosophies demand to know nature and its true necessity and want nothing that goes against nature. (91) The idea of ER reformulates this idea of wanting the necessary with Pindar’s maxim, which Nietzsche wrote at the frontispiece of his essay of 1868: ‘become what you are.’ (93). Nietzsche also inherits from the Stoics the cosmological dimension implied in their maxims, as he himself recognises in EH. Nabais emphasises the similarity of their ethical and cosmological views, which might explain Nietzsche’s critique starting in the autumns 1881 and culminating in the section 9 in BGE: ‘a subtle mechanism of rhetorical distortion’ more than a real discussion of the Stoic maxim (95). ‘Nietzsche’s similarity with the stoics increases in proportion to the ferocity with which he debates them.’ (98)

Nabais is certainly right about Nietzsche’s anxiety of influence, yet there seems to be objective reasons in his critique against the Stoics: the stoic universe is logocentric, whereas Nietzsche rejects as anthropocentric any attempt to assign a particular kind of order to the universe (e.g. GS 109, KSA 3.468: “The total character of the world, however, is in all eternity chaos […]”).

The fifth chapter (99-132) explores “the role of the idea of ER in the genesis of the project of the revaluation of all values” and critically reconsiders the tendency of identifying the latter to the former. Not only is it philologically ungrounded, for ER is absent from 1886 onward, but also philosophically biased, for it means a reduction of Nietzsche’s critique of modern morality to another “new mythology”. (101) Nabais first traces the idea of ER and the problems that the recurrence of all events creates after 1881 and secondly suggests that the doctrine of the WP and nihilism “should be read as solutions to those problems […]”(104). The reason of the revolt against the temporality of existence is no longer seen, as it was in the Zarathustra, as a consequence of human nature itself, but morality originates in the feeling of powerlessness of the ruled against the rulers, as Nietzsche claims in On the Genealogy of Morals, and especially in the Lenzer Heide text (NL 5[71]; KSA 12.211-217) about European nihilism. Nietzsche’s new typology is no longer founded on temporal categories (remorse vs. nostalgia) but on physiological ones (die Schlechtweggekommenen vs. die Stärksten) — yet, both remain essentially dualistic —. Hence there is a profound alteration in ‘Nietzsche’s view of the role of ER: the idea of the infinite repetition cannot free human existence from its temporal condition, because the origin of the revolt does not reside in time.’ (132)

The author concludes this chapter by writing that the disappearance of ER in all the texts after 1886 corroborates his thesis that Nietzsche sees in ER an expression, but not the solution to the issue of nihilism. This is not entirely accurate: there is a number of Nachlass texts after 1886 in which ER is mentioned (often) with WP in a programmatic manner (e.g. NL 9 [8] KSA12.342f.; NL 7[44] [45] KSA 12.309; NL 12[2] KSA 13.211; NL 13[2] KSA 13.214; NL 14[188] KSA 13.374f.; NL 16 [71] [72] KSA 13. 508f.; NL 18[17] KSA 13.537f.)

The sixth chapter (133-157) analyses in great detail the multi-layered meaning which the Arzt der Kultur gives to modern nihilism. His diagnosis grounded on two main perspectives: an historicist vision of phenomena in civilization governed by a logic of the dissolution of self-founding models’ and a vitalist perspective, in light of which each historical event present a single ‘chance’ for producing higher forms of civilization.’ (136) This double perspective is particularly manifest in the famous text of June 1887 entitled Der europäische Nihilismus. This Nachlass text reconstructs the fundamental moments in the process of self-dissolution of Christian morality and situates the idea of ER as its culmination; it also reveals the main theses of his anthropology of WP in his genealogy of Christian morals; and announces the figure of the “stronger men”(136). Furthermore, this fragment is also important in regard to Nietzsche’s political programme of a new hierarchy of forces (Rangordnung der Kräfte). Finally, this text is crucial inasmuch as it conceives “for the first time as the consequence of the logic itself of the devaluation of the values produced by Christian morality” (138).

This seminal text manifests also a “fundamental ambiguity” (139): two essentially distinctive narratives are at work in this text: 1- The epistemological narrative (§ 1-8) is constructed around the opposition between life and truth. In this narrative, morality is conceived as an affirmative strategy of life. Morality is conceived as the great antidote against nihilism, nihilism being regarded as a primordial fact of existence. Nietzsche distinguishes between two kinds of nihilism: the first being inherent to the human condition; the second is the consequence of the dissolution of the strategies of resistance. 2- The second narrative (9-15) adopts a typological perspective. Morality is no longer the consequence of a demand made by life in general, but made by a determined type of existence. Morality is the expression of a certain mode of life, that of ‘the kind of people and classes who were violated and oppressed by people.’ (141) With this narrative, Nietzsche is in complete contradiction with Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where morality is explained as a kind of impotency against nature. In the Lenzer Heide fragment, morality originates in the impotency against men. One of the consequences of this change of perspective is that morality is not linked to the human condition as such, but to certain types of wills.

According to Nabais, “It is WP that not only explains how morality arose in the first place, but how the idea of ER arouse as a paradoxical idea of morality, and explains how the crisis created from the appearance of nihilism creates another crisis, a process of cleansing wills .”(156) Nabais quotes the very last section of the fragment (“Wie dächte ein solcher Mensch an die ewige Wiederkunft?”) to point out that “die Stärksten” have no need to believe in the idea of ER, because they recognise in each of their action the “fundamental characteristic”, which is their will to power. (156). Nabais concludes his essay by asking whether we “shall continue to consider the idea of ER as the main subject of Nietzsche’s late works?” (157)

In the thoroughly analysed Lenzer Heide fragment, the author emphasizes the “fundamental” ambiguity which runs through the text, inasmuch as it represents the turning point between the period written around the notion of ER — GS, Z, and BGE — and the beginning of the formulation of WP, as in the text of June 1887. (139) This valuable interpretation however raises two questions: First, would BGE not rather belong to both periods, since the doctrine of WP as well as ER (to a much lesser extent) are formulated (e.g. §§ 9, 13, 22, 23, 36, 44, 51, 56, 198, 211, 259)? Second, would that mean then that the ambiguity is ‘overcome’ in the texts after June 1887?

The author provides the reader with a systematic reconfiguration of Nietzsche’s main and most complex philosophical ideas: ER and WP. One can only be thankful for his powerful clarification not only of each concept separately, but also for his attempt to establish a substantial link between both. Yet, one remains sceptical about the place that the notion of the tragic is assigned in his reconstruction of Nietzsche’s late philosophy: if the issue of the relation between man and temporality is replaced by the struggle of conflicting human types, is it still possible to maintain that Nietzsche is concerned with the idea of the tragic, given the fact that there is little textual evidence to justify this interpretation? Said differently, what is the meaning of the tragic within the context of WP? Furthermore, it remains difficult to evaluate the primacy of WP over ER: The above mentioned Nachlass texts dating from 1887 as well as the way in which Nietzsche refers to ER in his autobiography (EH, “Also sprach Zarathustra”, §6; according to Nabais, it is “only a biographical reference”) do not fully convince that Nietzsche has abandoned the idea of ER altogether.

The book is clearly structured and the English translation reads well. The reader will undoubtedly much profit with this scholarly in-depth and engaging interpretation. There is an extended multilingual bibliography and useful indices (locorum, nominum and rerum).

University of Nijmegen & University of Fribourg