Saturday, July 01, 2006

Mencken on Nietzsche on Greece

My brother once had a Border Collie that loved doing tricks in exchange for praise or treats. She knew a couple dozen tricks; her repertoire even included whispering. If not for summer sausage this is the familiar that-smart-dog-knows-lots-of-tricks story. Summer sausage was her favorite treat. Even when it was cold she was nuts about it, but we found that when we microwaved to the point of warm-and-juicy, the smell of it alone sent her over the edge--into excited, apoplectic fits in which she attempted to simultaneously do every trick in her book--if you're happy and you know it, do all twenty-three. (I pause with hesitation at the thought of the Google searches that will be directed to that sentence.)

My intention was to say that all more succinctly. Anyhow, this week is a much needed breather for me, and I'm feeling a bit like the dog eager to do twenty-three things at once. I stumbled onto an online version of H.L. Mencken's, The Philosophy of Nietzsche. Because I'm fan of Mencken's with an interest in Nietzsche, it kept me busy this morning. Given that The Golden Mean is also a theme with me, I especially enjoyed this commentary on Nietzsche's view of Greek culture perpetually swaying between Apollonian and Dionysian and its quest for balance.

"Thus the Greeks swayed from one god to the other. During Apollo's periods of ascendancy they were contemplative and imaginative, and man, to them, seemed to reach his loftiest heights when he was most the historian. But when Dionysus was their best-beloved, they bubbled over with the joy of life, and man seemed, not an historian, but a maker of history - not an artist, but a work of art. In the end, they verged toward a safe middle ground and began to weigh, with cool and calm, the ideas represented by the two gods. When they had done so, they came to the conclusion that it was not well to give themselves unreservedly to either. To attain the highest happiness, they decided, humanity required a dash of both. There was need in the world for dionysians, to give vitality an outlet and life a purpose, and there was need, too, for apollonians, to build life's monuments and read its lessons. They found that true civilization meant a constant conflict between the two - between the dreamer and the man of action, between the artist who builds temples and the soldier who burns them down, between the priest and policeman who insist upon the permanence of laws and customs as they are and the criminal and reformer and conqueror who insist that they be changed."


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