Taking Off My Subjective Weight

There is power in knowing one’s self, being one’s self, perfecting one’s self, and loving one’s self. It can be argued that without a strong self-identity, life loses much of its meaning, joy and fulfillment. For example, how can you relate with the other without first relating to yourself? Some knowledge of self is necessary in building relationships because a relationship must include a connection between one self and another.

With that said, however, the burden of my own individual subjectivity can become very heavy.[1] Who am I? I am a person limited by my body, my thoughts, and my abilities. I have my own personal history and my own personal thought patterns which are forever upon me and can never be changed. I carry around this inevitable me-ness in this particular time and space and it enters into every circumstance and encounter that I have in my life.

As humans, we look for ways to relieve our subjective weight. Sometimes we try things that appear to give us relief, and actually do temporarily, only to have the weight come back, heavier than before. Escaping to the world of fantasy, where we allow our minds to participate in actions and thoughts which we usually regard as vile and undignified, temporarily relieves our subjective weight. But, upon coming back to the world of reality, we are faced with the shame and guilt for entertaining such images and thoughts. On another level, we may take part in a mob where we move beyond our insignificant selves to become one with others around us. Acting as one, heinous crimes have been committed by those elated with feelings of freedom and unity.

Nietzsche argues that art is a way, or I should say, the way, to take off our subjective weight. In The Birth of Tragedy, he makes a distinction between two types of art: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The Apollonian art represents the ordered, beautiful and calculated art. The Dionysian, on the other hand, is art which comes from frenzy, laughter, and natural life. He argues that Dionysian art is shown through the presence of the chorus in an Ancient Greek tragedy. In the environment of the chorus, the Dionysian aesthetic is exemplified: the members of the chorus as well as anyone who joins them are able to rise to a new level of artistic experience. Nietzsche writes:

This process of the tragic chorus is the dramatic proto-phenomenon: to see oneself transformed before one’s own eyes and to begin to act as if one had actually entered into another body, another character. [2]

Through participation in the dramatic proto-phenomenon, one is able to move beyond one’s self into another. Nietzsche contrasts this with the Apollonian:

[In the Apollonian] the virgins who proceed solemnly to the temple of Apollo, laurel branches in their hands, singing a processional hymn, remain what they are and retain their civic names: the dithyrambic chorus [Dionysian chorus] is a chorus of transformed characters whose civic past and social status have been totally forgotten: they have become timeless servants of their god who live outside the spheres of society.[3]

Unlike the ordered, calm procession of the worshippers of Apollo, the worshippers of Dionysius have reached such a state of transformation that they have left behind their past and their social status. They have given themselves completely to the worship of this god. In this act, the individuals become united as one, and their identity becomes the identity of the group. Dropping their subjective weight, they can taste the freedom that comes from rising above the self.[4]

I think that many will resonate with this above description, because we too desire to have freedom from ourselves. We could argue that there is something in the human condition which pushes us toward aesthetic experiences: we long to rise above ourselves and feel part of something bigger than ourselves. Whether it is engaging in a piece of music, encountering an epic story in a movie or book, losing one’s self in a painting or acting as a character in a play, art allows us to take part in this beautiful act of freedom.

Notice, however, that while Nietzsche is writing about art, he uses the example of worship. Worship is then an aesthetic experience where we creatively adore someone above ourselves. A theist would argue that worshipping an immanent god, such as Dionysius, only provides a temporary release from our subjectivity, and that the worship of a transcendent God is needed for true subjective relief.[5] Such worship, however, cannot be on one’s own. As Nietzsche reminds us, taking off the weight of subjectivity must be done with others, acting as a united whole, where I lose my identity in a timeless communal act of worship.[6]

  1. [1] I would like to thank Phillip Rosemann for suggesting this terminology.
  2. [2] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Modern Library, 2000), Section 8, p. 64.
  3. [3] Ibid.
  4. [4] In Greek mythology, sometimes Dionysian worship did result in heinous crimes similar to the behavior of a mob, mentioned above. In one myth, Pentheus’s mother, due to her frenzied state of Dionysian worship, unknowingly participated in dismembering her own son.
  5. [5] However, it should be noted that Dionysius has characteristics of a Christ-like figure who suffers, dies and resurrects.
  6. [6] See also my post on the human need to worship: Is the “Need to Worship” Part of the Human Condition?

Heidegger and Poesy

Heidegger considers poetry to be the pinnacle of all art forms because it most accurately illustrates the essence of art. He views art as fundamentally concerned with setting-into-work of truth (i.e. bringing to light truth), and he believes that poetry is best able to perform this function. Poetry sets-into-work truth with superiority, because it is able to use language to show truth. The linguistic nature of poetry makes it stand apart from all other genres of art and, in Heidegger’s opinion, gives it a “privileged position in the domain of the arts”[1] Other art forms can still set to work truth, when they contain the essence of poetry, which Heidegger calls poesy, but they cannot reach the level of articulation that poetry is able to obtain. Poesy technically means the art of making poetry, so other arts, though they are not poetry, can still be created according to poetic principles. These poetic principles are focused on the projection of truth. Thus, all forms of art can be traced back to poetry through the notion of poesy, as Heidegger relates, “If all art is in essence poetry, then the arts of architecture, painting, sculpture, and music must be traced back to poesy.”[2]

It is unfortunate that Heidegger did not explore this notion of poesy further in his analysis of other art forms. Perhaps, through such exploration, the value of other art forms would become more explicit. Abstract music, for example, is one such art form, which jumps out as having a unique type of poesy; its message is often as loud as poetry if not louder, depending on the person and circumstances. In one sense, abstract music does not have the linguistic characteristic of poetry, and yet, in other sense, it can speak through a language all its own. It can express human emotions in a deep sense; emotions, which may not even be expressible in words. Such depth of feeling needs to be accounted for in art and while poetry proper certainly can describe and elicit such deep feelings, there also needs to be space for art forms to describe and elicit feelings incapable of being articulated in human language. Poesy may be the foundation for the art forms, but the manner in which poesy is displayed varies, making each art form play a different role in the setting-into-work of truth.

  1. [1] Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in Philosophies of Art & Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger, eds. Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1976), 695.
  2. [2] Ibid.

Music Opening the Road to Truth and Beauty: Plato and Marcel


In the construction of the theoretical city in The Republic, Socrates argues that when the appropriate kind of music is employed for the training of the youthful guardians of the city, they will be more inclined toward the love of reason. Like a fresh breeze blowing into a field, so music will bring health and life to the soul. Socrates eloquently describes:

Let our artists rather be those who are gifted to discern the true nature of the beautiful and graceful; then will our youth dwell in a land of health, amid fair sights and sounds, and receive the good in everything; and beauty, the effluence of fair works, shall flow into the eye and ear, like a health-giving breeze from a purer region and insensibly draw the soul from earliest years into likeness and sympathy with the beauty of reason.[1]

As they grow up, the youth of this theoretical city will only be exposed to music, which uses the proper words, melody and rhythm to foster a love of reason. Music will be carefully filtered to make sure that only certain words, which tell stories of good virtues, are allowed to be sung, certain melodic sequences, which are only found in the Dorian and Phrygian modes, are allowed to be used in composition,[2] and certain rhythmic patterns, which incite only the appropriate emotions, are accepted. All of this is for the sake of cultivating a love of reason so that the youth will better be able to discern the “true nature of the beautiful and graceful.” “For,” Socrates asks, “what should be the end of music if not the love of beauty?”[3] The goal for the restrictions on art and music in the city is not to deprive the guardians of pleasure for the sake of some kind of asceticism, but to use art to all the more foster an environment which allows the youth to fall in love with reason and to go after the beautiful.

In one of his more autobiographical lectures, “Music in My Life and Works,” the 20th century existentialist philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, relates his own journey directed by music toward the love of the beautiful and the love of truth.[4] Music, for him and for his family, was more than a hobby, as it played a significant role in establishing familial relationships as well as expressing life values. Marcel’s childhood mirrors Plato’s hopes for the youth of his city since he is surrounded by music from birth, by his mother, his father, his aunt and his own playing, which then “opened the road to Truth.” He recounts:

On this level my thought continues in the tradition of Schopenhauer . . . Of course, I admit his pessimism, against which I have always protested without ever forgetting that the world does seem on all sides to invite us to despair. But . . . it seems to me that it is music and music alone that has caused me to discover the saving light. It is music that has opened the road to Truth for me, towards which I have not ceased striving, this Truth beyond all the partial truths that science demonstrates and expounds, the Truth that illumines the work of the greatest composers like Bach or Mozart.[5]

Marcel finds that music revealed the notions of truth to him from an early age and though he did not consciously understand this till much later, he is able to look back and see how music was one of the primary stepping stones leading him toward his idea of truth. To apply Plato’s terms, music was a use to him in that it refined his rational abilities to follow after the beauty and the truth.

Marcel, however, would not apply the same type of restrictions to music (or art) that Plato puts forward in The Republic. He often gravitated toward art that expressed the despair that he found in his own life and in the world around him which included many diverse art forms. Not that he would make no distinctions between good and bad art, but he would argue that art promoting a multiplicity of values was what gradually allowed him to discover hope and truth. The exploration of other values allowed him the freedom to be gently led toward what he called, “the saving light.” Nevertheless, the common thread between both Plato and Marcel is significant: though the scope of music (and art) may be different, both recognized that a greater love of truth and beauty can be gleamed from music.

  1. [1] Plato, The Republic, trans. by Benjamin Jowett, In Philosophies of Art and Beauty, ed. by Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976), Book III, 401, pg. 27-28.
  2. [2] The Greek Dorian and Phrygian modes are not the same as our modern Dorian and Phrygian modes. The Phrygian mode went from the note d-d’ built on two tetrachords with a whole note in between and the Greek Dorian mode went from e-e’ built on two tetrachords with a whole note in between. The sounds, however, could differ greatly as the tetrachords could be either diatonic, enharmonic or chromatic meaning that the number of whole steps, half steps and even quarter steps composing the tetrachord could vary. Along with the patterns of notes, these modes included other characteristics coming from the people groups after which they were named. The important point here is that these two modes were seen as promoting positive values for the youth. See Don Michael Randel, Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 1978) for a very brief reference to these ideas and the article Mode (music) on Wikipedia for a more detailed overview.
  3. [3] Plato, The Republic, Book III, 403, pg. 29.
  4. [4] Marcel would claim, however, that all of his works are autobiographical as one cannot divorce his life from his writings.
  5. [5] Gabriel Marcel, “Music in My Life and Works,” In Music and Philosophy, trans. by Stephen Maddux and Robert E. Wood (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2005), 53.