Ancient Greek civilization gave rise to a culture with a uniquely intimate understanding of the human condition. Greek citizens from every rung of society gathered at amphitheatres to explore humanity’s grief and fallibility in the face of the natural world’s hostility. George Steiner elaborates: “Tragic drama tells us that the spheres of reason, order, and justice are terribly limited and that no progress in our science or technical resources will enlarge their relevance…the “otherness” of the world…mocks us and destroys us.” Nietzsche expresses the Greek worldview in terms of the dichotomy between Apollo and Dionysus in art: “the continuous evolution of art is bound up with the duality of the Apolline and Dionysiac in much the same way as reproduction depends on there being two sexes which coexist in a state of perpetual conflict interrupted occasionally by periods of reconciliation.” The Greeks themselves understood their struggles in the similar dichotomy between nomos, the rule of law and tradition, and physis, the untamed forces of nature. Through Nietzsche’s duality reminiscent of nomos and physis, he agrees with Steiner in suggesting that man is an alien guest in a hostile universe Steiner’s and Nietzsche’s juxtaposition of Apolline order in the polis and Dionysiac chaos in natural forces permeates Greek life and tragedy, as illustrated in Thucydides’ History, Euripides’ The Bacchae, and Plato’s Symposium and Republic.
The Bacchae highlights both the ability of wild, Dionysiac impulses to penetrate the people of the polis and the absurdity of the punishments that the Gods prescribe. At the end of the play, Dionysus responds to rejection from Cadmus’s royal house and the Thebans by prescribing a slew of harsh punishments, which include slavery, dismemberment, exile, pollution, and transformation of Cadmus into a snake. Dionysus is unyielding when Cadmus protests the severity of the punishments. The punishment’s excess in proportion the people’s guilt validates the limits of order and justice that Steiner describes. For Nietzsche, these limits underlie the encroachment of Dionysian forces, in this case through Dionysus himself, on the Greek desire for Apolline order and beauty.
My favorite Greek drama. It has some truly disturbing deaths, as well as a plot line that really is still meaningful today. It is incredible to think that this was written thousands of years ago! I guess things don't change, do they?