The Birth of Tragedy was angrily criticized by many respected professional scholars of Greek literature. Particularly vehement was philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, who denounced Nietzsche's work as slipshod and misleading. Prompted by Nietzsche, Erwin Rohde—a friend who had written a favorable review that sparked the first derogatory debate over the book—responded by exposing Wilamowitz-Moellendorf's inaccurate citations of Nietzsche's work. Richard Wagner also issued a response to Wilamowitz-Moellendorf's critique, but his action only served to characterize Nietzsche as the composer's lackey.
In his denunciation of The Birth of Tragedy, Wilamowitz says:
- Herr N. ... is also a professor of classical philology; he treats a series of very important questions of Greek literary history. ... This is what I want to illuminate, and it is easy to prove that here also imaginary genius and impudence in the presentation of his claims stands in direct relation to his ignorance and lack of love of the truth. ... His solution is to belittle the historical-critical method, to scold any aesthetic insight which deviates from his own, and to ascribe a "complete misunderstanding of the study of antiquity" to the age in which philology in Germany, especially through the work of Gottfried Hermann and Karl Lachmann, was raised to an unprecedented height.
In suggesting the Greeks might have had problems, Nietzsche was departing from the scholarly traditions of his age, which viewed the Greeks as a happy, perhaps even naive, and simple people. The work is a web of professional philology, philosophical insight, and admiration of musical art. As a work in philology, it was almost immediately rejected, virtually destroying Nietzsche's academic aspirations. The music theme was so closely associated with Richard Wagner that it became an embarrassment to Nietzsche once he himself had achieved some distance and independence from Wagner. It stands, then, as Nietzsche's first complete, published philosophical work, one in which a battery of questions are asked, sketchily identified, and questionably answered.
Marianne Cowan, in her introduction to Nietzsche's Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, describes the situation in these words:
- The Birth of Tragedy presented a view of the Greeks so alien to the spirit of the time and to the ideals of its scholarship that it blighted Nietzsche's entire academic career. It provoked pamphlets and counter-pamphlets attacking him on the grounds of common sense, scholarship and sanity. For a time, Nietzsche, then a professor of classical philology at the University of Basel, had no students in his field. His lectures were sabotaged by German philosophy professors who advised their students not to show up for Nietzsche's courses.
By 1886, Nietzsche himself had reservations about the work, and he published a preface in the 1886 edition where he re-evaluated some of his main concerns and ideas in the text. In this post-script, Nietzsche referred to The Birth of Tragedy as "an impossible book... badly written, ponderous, embarrassing, image-mad and image-confused, sentimental, saccharine to the point of effeminacy, uneven in tempo, [and] without the will to logical cleanliness." Its reception was such a personal disappointment that he referred to it, once, as "falling stillborn from the press." Still, he defended the "arrogant and rhapsodic book" for inspiring "fellow-rhapsodizers" and for luring them on to "new secret paths and dancing places."
In 1888, in Ecce Homo, Nietzsche was back on the attack. He defends the The Birth of Tragedy by stating: "...It is indifferent toward politics,—'un-German,' to use the language of the present time—it smells offensively Hegelian, and the cadaverous perfume of Schopenhauer sticks only to a few formulas. An 'idea'—the antithesis of the Dionysian and the Apollinian—translated into the metaphysical; history itself as the development of this 'idea'; in tragedy this antithesis is sublimated into a unity; under this perspective things that had never before faced each other are suddenly juxtaposed, used to illuminate each other, and comprehended... Opera, for example, and the revolution.— The two decisive innovations of the book are, first, its understanding of the Dionysian phenomenon among the Greeks: for the first time, a psychological analysis of this phenomenon is offered, and it is considered as one root of the whole of Greek art. The other is the understanding of Socratism: Socrates is recognized for the first time as an instrument of Greek disintegration, as a typical décadent. 'Rationality' against instinct. 'Rationality' at any price as a dangerous force that undermines life!— Profound, hostile silence about Christianity throughout the book. That is neither Apollinian nor Dionysian; it negates all aesthetic values—the only values that the 'Birth of Tragedy' recognizes: it is nihilistic in the most profound sense, while in the Dionysian symbol the ultimate limit of affirmation is attained. There is one allusion [The Birth of Tragedy, 24] to Christian priests as a 'vicious kind of dwarfs' who are 'subterranean' ..."
In the title of his novel The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann alludes to a passage from The Birth of Tragedy, and the influence of Nietzsche's work can be seen in the novel's character Mynheer Peepercorn, who embodies the "Dionysian principle."
Within the context of a critical study of Nietzsche's "atheist humanism", the influential Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac considered it "a work of genius", and dedicated several pages of his study to explicate the relationship between Nietzsche's early thought and Christianity.