A Philosophy of Wine
Nietzsche’s first work, The Birth of Tragedy, proclaimed the religious origins of art, and the rediscovery of Dionysus as the god of joy, dance and recurrence. Panned by the academic critics, the book effectively brought its author’s precocious career as a professor of philology to an end. It is nevertheless the best thing that has ever been written on tragedy and, in my view, the work of Nietzsche’s which is most clearly focussed on intellectual questions – by which I mean questions that exist independently of the one who asks them, in this case independently of Nietzsche. It is also a tribute to Dionysus that deserves to be washed down with the god’s greatest gift to us.
But then, there are the later writings, the Problematik of which is not independent of Nietzsche at all. Indeed they are the most egoistic writings ever to have been received as wisdom. Moreover, they seem progressively to lose sight of the real meaning of Dionysus. Towards the end of the sane portion of his life we find Nietzsche writing (The Will to Power, s. 252) ‘Dionysus versus the “Crucified”: there you have the antithesis’. As though Dionysus had not been taken up by the Crucified: as though the Eucharist had not shown what the god of wine is capable of!
And then there is his influence. Thus Spake Zarathustra was hailed by the Nazis, who saw its godless invocation of the Superman as foreshadowing their own pagan suprematism. Foucault took Nietzsche as authority for the view that power is the root of human society, and transgression the most liberating response to it. And all those who find themselves, for whatever reason, in antagonistic relation to agape in all its forms, can take comfort from Nietzsche, whose message, as currently understood, might be adapted from Shakespeare’s Polonius: ‘To thine own self be true, and the bigger the self the better’.
Nietzsche believed that you could undermine morality by giving a ‘genealogy of morals’; morality demands that we fight back with a genealogy of Nietzsche – and what a pitiable creature then emerges. Nietzsche’s writings are brilliant eruptions of a self-obsessed neurotic, and they appear, when set in their full biographical context, as so many exercises in self-deception. These invocations of life, health, cruelty and the will to power are the masks of a timid invalid, who lived a largely hermetic life, and who never achieved power over anything or anyone, let alone himself. Although we should drink to the author of The Birth of Tragedy, therefore, it should be with a thin, hypochondriac potion, maybe a finger of Beaujolais in a glass topped up with soda-water.
-Roger Scruton, I Drink Therefore I Am, 188-189.