The Dance of Dionysus: Musical Morality in Nietzsche’s On The Genealogy of Morals: Part 1   Leave a comment

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The three essays of Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals[1] are not essays. They have an aesthetic quality that suggests a more musical genre. In Twilight of the Idols[2] Nietzsche wrote that “without music, life would be a mistake.”[3] This privileging of music has led Georges Liébert to note that for Nietzsche, “music is the metaphor of life itself,” and a “model for all discourse.”[4] But for Nietzsche, discourse had ceased to be an art. He criticized German authors for writing books that were like “swamps of sounds that do not sound like anything and rhythms that do not dance…”[5] Instead, he emphasized the art of sentences whose tempo was “rhythmically decisive” for understanding them.[6] Writing was a musical production that is better heard than read.

When we consider Nietzsche’s suggestion in Ecce Homo that his Thus Spoke Zarathustra[7] could be “reckoned as music” that engendered “a rebirth of the art of hearing,” or that he later referred to it as a “symphony,” it seems plausible to suggest that there may be more to Nietzsche’s prose than first thought. [8] In fact, Nietzsche makes it very clear that he intended his writings “to communicate a state, an inward tension of pathos, by means of signs, including the tempo of these signs.”[9] Indeed, his writings do have a tempo, a rhythm, and they require a “third ear” to hear them.[10] Those with a third ear are “those who, immediately related to music, have in it, as it were, their motherly womb, and are related to things almost exclusively through unconscious musical relations.”[11] The essays of the Genealogy are therefore best understood as musical scores to be heard and not read, danced to and not analyzed. In the Genealogy we are asked to listen to the sound of Nietzsche’s hammer as it swings into the idols of morality “as with a tuning fork” and to dance to its Dionysian rhythms.[12] Consequently, Nietzsche did not seek readers but rather hearers who would ruminate on the tempo of his prose and dance to its rhythms.[13] But how are we to understand Nietzsche’s writings as music and what does music have to do with morality? Additionally, what is the musical structure of the Genealogy, its rhythm, and what is more, can we dance to it?

In this series of posts I will examine each of the three essays in the Genealogy and argue that they are musical compositions that follow a specific structure and rhythm which contributes to their aim. Moreover, the musical structure and the rhythm of the Genealogy’s three essays are central to understanding Nietzsche’s critique of morality which parallels his critique of art in The Birth of Tragedy. In order to bring this thesis into relief  each essay will be treated as a separate movement within a single musical composition. The structure, rhythm, and dance of each movement will be explored in order to present Nietzsche’s critique of morality as a dance that navigates between philosophical and religious perspectives on morality towards what I will term an aesthetic morality.


[1] Hereafter Genealogy.

[2] Hereafter Twilight

[3] Nietzsche, Friedrich, Twilight of the Idols (hereafter TI) in The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols and Other Writings, trans. Judith Norman (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), §33, 160.

[4] Liébert, Georges. Nietzsche and Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 2, 3.

[5] Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil (hereafter BGE) in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann  (New York: The Modern Library, 2000), 8.246, 372.

[6] Ibid, 8.246, 372.

[7] Hereafter  Zarathustra.

[8] Nietzsche, Friedrich, Ecce Homo (hereafter EH) in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: The Modern Library, 2000), 751; Nietzsche, Friedrich, Sämtliche Werke: Kritische Studienausgabe (hereafter SWKS) eds. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari, Vol. 9 (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch, 1980),  9:519.

[9] Nietzsche, EH, 721.

[10] Nietzsche, BGE, 8.246, 372.

[11] Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Birth of Tragedy (herafter BT) in Basic Writings of Nietzsche,  trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: The Modern Library, 2000), §21, 126.

[12] Nietzsche, TI, “Foreword,” 155.

[13] Nietzsche, EH, 751; Nietzsche, Friedriche, On the Genealogy of Morals (hereafter GM) in Basic Writings of Nietzsche,  trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: The Modern Library, 2000), “Preface,” 459.

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Posted 9 September 2010 by chrismmm in Uncategorized

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