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Friedrich Nietzsche and Sophocles: The Birth of Tragedy and Antigone - Sample comparative and philosophy essay

How does the chorus in Greek tragedies represent human emotion? This example philosophy essay looks at Friedrich Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy and then applies Nietzsche's thesis to Sophocles' classic Antigone. This example college philosophy paper frequently pairs Nietzsche's thoughts with direct quotes from Sophocles' work, a technique give the reader an effective way to compare these two works that were written many centuries apart. This sample essay would be a good reference for one who wants to analyze a classical work through a modern lens.

The Satyr Chorus: Life through Tragedy

At the heart of tragedy, there is the chorus. In Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, it is compared to a satyr, a primal being, humanity laid bare. It is undistorted by culture and civiliza-tion, and, despite its primitive appearance, it represents the idyllic human, the paradigm of hu-mankind. For the Greeks, it was attuned to nature and to the gods, representative of humanity's "highest and most intense emotions, the ecstatic reveler enraptured by the proximity of his god, the sympathetic companion in whom the suffering of the god is repeated, one who proclaims wisdom from the very heart of nature" (Nietzsche, 61). This is the Dionysian chorus. It is hu-mankind transcending its human inhibitions through the transforming power of music in order to unify itself with the heart of nature and the nature of human emotions. It is out of this unification that tragedy emerges, bringing with it the Greek tragedies of the stage. In themselves, these plays present mere visions of tragedy, enactments of tragic tales, but with the addition of the Dionysian chorus, the spectators no longer observe the vision, but live the tragedy, feeling the emotions physically. According to Nietzsche, this is the central purpose of the tragic chorus: to transform the human drama, the vision of tragedy, into Dionysian reality, so that the tragedy itself is lived and not seen-a purpose that is embodied in the chorus of Sophocles' Antigone.

To achieve this purpose, Sophocles' chorus must simply be-it must display the characteristics of the satyr chorus described earlier. First, according to Nietzsche's description, the chorus must embody mankind's most intense emotions, and what stronger emotion to represent than that of sorrow. After Creon passes final sentence on Antigone, the Chorus itself feels anguish, saying

". . . I cannot control the springs of my tears when I see Antigone making her way to her bed-but the bed that is rest for everyone" (Chorus: 865-869).

In themselves, these words can show little aside from the fact that this intense sorrow has mani-fested in the Chorus. The true power of the emotion would be conveyed through the music of the chorus, not the lyrics themselves. This, too, must be taken into account when examining how Nietzsche's satyr chorus personifies, secondly, the frenzied reveler enthralled by his nearness to the divine, or Dionysus, to whom the Chorus entreats,

"You of many names, glory of the Cadmeian bride, breed of loud thundering Zeus; you who watch over famous Italy; you who rule where all are welcome in Eleusis; . . . / O Bacchus that dwells in Thebes, The mother city of Bacchanals, . . . / It is Thebes which you honor most of all cities, you and your mother both, she who died by the blast of Zeus' thunderbolt. And now when the city, with all its folk, is gripped by a violent plague, come with healing foot . . . / True-born child of Zeus, appear, my lord, with your Thyiad attendants, who in frenzy all night long dance in your house" (Chorus: 1193-6, 1198-9, 1212-7, 1221-5).

Again the impact of the Chorus is all but lost as mere words on a page, but evidence exists here of one who is entranced by Dionysus, one who worships him, and one who feels near enough to the divine, to the gods, to speak directly to them, rather than through an oracle. In speaking here, the Chorus also beseeches Dionysus and his followers-"ecstatic women"-to appear, to enter the world of the stage and stir the Chorus to a frenzy in order that it may escape its suffering. Hence, the second trait is fulfilled. The passage also reflects the third quality of Nietzsche's satyr chorus-it mirrors the suffering of the god, in this case Dionysus. Just as Dionysus would feel the pain of his mother's death, the Theban Chorus too feels pain, suffering as a result of the deaths of so many that they loved, i.e. Antigone, Haemon, and Eurydice. It is in moments such as these, moments of intense emotion, that the Chorus finds the wisdom at the heart of nature, the Dionysian wisdom that it imparts to all, and this signifies the final trait of Nietzsche's satyr chorus. In one instance, the Chorus says

"Love undefeated in the fight, Love that makes havoc of possessions, Love who lives at night in a young girl's soft cheeks, Who travels over sea. Or in huts in the countryside- there is no god able to escape you nor anyone of men, whose life is a day only, and whom you possess is mad" (Chorus: 849-855).

Here, as Antigone is led to her death, the Chorus sees fit to address the nature of love, as it is love that brings her to this point and as it is love for Antigone that drives the Chorus to tears in lines 865-869 (above). Love, it says, is indestructible and chaotic, is everywhere and therefore inescapable, and lastly, drives mortals to madness. Wisdom such as this demonstrates the last of Nietzsche's four requirements.

As the embodiment of these four traits, the satyr chorus acts as a conduit from the human to the divine, bringing the spectator into the realm of tragedy, where he lives and breathes the Dio-nysian. As time has passed, however, the idea of the chorus has all but disappeared, and with it, the immortal realm of tragedy.

Works Cited
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. Trans. Walter Kaufman. Toronto: Random House, Inc., 1967.
 
Sophocles. Antigone. Trans. David Grene. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1991.
 
902 words/ 4 pages
 

 
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