In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche aims for much more than a historical analysis of Greek culture; he is meditating on the very nature of philosophy and its future prospects, indeed the coming of a new tragic age (EH “Books: BT” 4). Philosophy must always draw on preconceptual sources, namely pre-existing artistic productions and philosophy’s own creative impulses that cannot be reduced to its conceptual products. Platonic philosophy and its descendants represent an antagonistic, eliminative disposition toward preconceptual/poetic/ tragic origins. In BT, Nietzsche poses the question of whether this antagonism between philosophy and the tragic world-view is inevitable and beyond resolution (BT 17). He thinks not, and suggests an image for reconciliation in the figure of an “artistic Socrates” (BT 14, 15, 17), a thinker who is not averse to aesthetic modes, who indeed can employ such modes in the practice of philosophy. One naturally thinks of the deliberate deployment of literary and artistic devices in the course of Nietzsche’s philosophical writings. In any case the importance of art in Nietzsche’s thinking cannot be restricted to art forms per se; what he calls a “higher concept of art” is embodied in the artist-philosopher (KSA 12: 2 ).
It is not enough, however, to coordinate conceptual and artistic production in philosophy. Such coordination implies a tragic limit because of the indigenous abyss at the heart of philosophy (indeed all cultural production) owing to its creative, rather than foundational, base. Reflecting back on The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche claims that in this work he had discovered the concept of the tragic, that he sees himself as “the first tragic philosopher,” the first to offer a “transposition of the Dionysian into a philosophical pathos” (EH “Books: BT” 3). At the same time, tragic philosophy is here called the “antipode” to a pessimistic philosophy because it says Yes to becoming in all its constructive-destructive energies; it embraces “the eternal joy of becoming,” and its “Dionysian philosophy” entails the “teaching (Lehre) of ‘eternal recurrence,’ that is, of the unconditional and infinitely repeated circular course of all things.”
The thought (Gedanke) of eternal recurrence is the basic concept (Grundconception) of Zarathustra (EH “Books: Z” 1); its comprehensive entailment of all life is obviously a philosophical notion rather than a poetic image. Poetry has the edge over traditional philosophy in being overtly creative, non-foundational, and life-like in its imagery. And the narrative character of Zarathustra makes the text as such poetic. But poetry cannot suffice for the philosophical impulse to think holistically and to comprehend the deepest of questions: Can natural life on its own terms be meaningful and affirmable? The thought of eternal recurrence forces us to confront this question by ruling out any alternative to immediate life—even the alternative of nothingness.
We might sort out the questions posed in this essay by attending to the Ecce Homo Preface and the section “Books: Z.” Nietzsche calls himself a “disciple of the philosopher Dionysus” (P 2)—thus sustaining the tragic philosophy first announced in BT. Philosophy as Nietzsche understands it entails the courage to face the truth (P 3)—the tragic truth of becoming named in T1. Eternal recurrence precludes any hopes for salvation or a better life; it requires the demolition of all old ideals (“Books: Z” 8)—thus in line with T1. The traditional posit of a “true world” is a lie (T2) as measured by T1. Nietzsche describes his Zarathustra as the “greatest gift” to humanity because of its profound reach into tragic truth (P 4); and its poetic character can fit T3 because it can coexist with tragic truth in being an overt “lie,” in forming an image-world that does not pretend to be a foundational truth.
It is at this point that we might orchestrate the poetic and philosophical elements in Zarathustra. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche specifically stresses the poetic character of the text, indeed by way of the word Gleichnis. He describes how Zarathustra “came to” him, came over him in an inspired state, with an involuntary eruption of image (Bild) and Gleichnis. In such a state, “you ride on every Gleichnis to every truth” (“Books: Z” 2). The text is called a Dionysian deed that “creates truth” (in the poetic sense); it represents the greatest force of Gleichnis, the “return of language to the nature of imagery (Bildlichkeit)” (“Books: Z” 6). This sounds like a retrieval of preconceptual language as noted in BT. But then in this same section of EH, Nietzsche describes the figure of Zarathustra as expressing the concept (Begriff) of the Dionysian, as one who has thought (Gedacht) the most abysmal thought (Gedanken)—eternal recurrence—in an affirmative posture (see also “Books: Z” 1).
We can say that the entire text of Zarathustra is poetic, an artistic “lie” in a positive sense. But poetry is not the full story; it lies “too much” if it holds off philosophical thinking, which can comprehend the tragic truth about life in the deepest and most comprehensive manner, and then come to terms with this truth—not just in thought or art but in life, in one’s existential comportment. Poetry may be insufficient for philosophical understanding, but no text can stand in for the task announced in Zarathustra. Yet such an extra-textual task is not utterly divorced from the intra-textual and sub-textual forces in Nietzsche’s narrative.