The Philosophy of Richard Wagner

There is a clear and consistent philosophy behind the music dramas of Richard Wagner. He worked out many of the details in the late 1840’s and early 1850’s and used them as the basis for the Ring, Tristan, Meistersinger and Parsifal. The philosophy is a clever weaving together of ideas primarily from David Friedrich StraussThe Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835) and Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation (1844).

Portrait of David Strauss.

Portrait of David Strauss. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

David Friedrich Strauss-The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835)
Strauss’ The Life of Jesus Critically Examined was published in 1835, when he was 27 years old. It took the world by storm. It was widely read, highly influential and extremely controversial. It was so controversial that it prevented him from ever holding another academic position for the rest of his life. It is somewhat ironic that it has been all but forgotten today. It’s influence went far beyond the fields of theology and biblical criticism. It was to be a cornerstone in the system of Richard Wagner’s philosophy.

At the time there was a debate about the nature of miracle stories in the Gospels. Some believed that the miracles were the result of supernatural intervention in the natural world. Other believed the miracles had a rational explanation. Strauss created a careful and convincing argument that the miracles were neither rational or supernatural. He argues that the Gospels use the imagery of inherited religious traditions to make claims about the nature and importance of Jesus. For example the story of the loaves and fishes feeding a multitude is not a description of a supernatural or unusual natural event but a literary trope that associates the mission of Jesus with the story from Exodus of God’s providing manna to the Israelites in the wilderness.

Strauss provides a Hegelian framework for understanding biblical texts. The material realm of the senses, which includes individuals, facts and history serve as symbols or representations of the more universal realm of mind or spirit which includes humanity, ideas and the absolute. He described these stories as myths, not in the sense of wrong ideas, but as particular descriptions that serve as metaphors for communicating larger universal ideas.

Much of Arthur Schopenhauer's writing is focus...

Arthur Schopenhauer’s writing is focused on the notion of will and its relation to freedom. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Schopenhauer-The World as Will and Representation (1844)
Wagner drew even more from the work of Arthur Schopenhauer for his philosophical system. For Schopenhauer the Will is something like a universal drive or force behind the world that we see and experience. Our act of perceiving and knowing objectifies and fragments the Will into individuals. This fragmentation creates individuals that are driven against each other by lust, greed, and desire resulting in a world of constant struggle. Our quest for knowledge, science and progress creates a world of violence, pain and suffering.

Schopenhauer sees only three ways to escape the Will and suffering: the Aesthetic (the contemplation of art), the Ethical (selfless acts of compassion) and the Ascetic (renunciation and denial of the will). All three of these will figure prominently in Wagner’s music dramas. The Aesthetic has particular appeal as it places art, particularly music, in a privileged position in the moral universe as a way to transcend suffering and escape materialism by focusing your attention on something outside of the self.

English: Seated Buddha Amitabha statue, west s...

Seated Buddha Amitabha statue, west side of Borobudur, ca. 1863-1866. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are also many ideas that Wagner borrows from Buddhism. Most of them were available and probably came to him from Schopenhauer. The include the view that the material world of the senses and the individual self are not real. By conquering ignorance we can be reunited with universal consciousness or Brahmin (often equated by Wagner to something resembling the Hegelian Geist or Spirit). We have a craving for immortality, but the path of truth is not to satisfy cravings. The belief in immortality leads to immorality. It is ultimately ego-centered and selfish to seek rewards in a future life. Perhaps most importantly he draws upon the Four noble truths. First, that all life is suffering. Second, that suffering is caused by desire or attachment. Third, that the cure for suffering is non-attachment and the ability to rise above sensations. And fourth, the eightfold path of enlightenment which Wagner translates or associates with his own formulation, the Path of Self-Divestment.

English: Richard Wagner, Munich Slovenščina: N...

Richard Wagner, Munich (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wagner’s additions
There are a couple things that Wagner adds of his own, or has borrowed from a source I cannot seem to trace:

Love, Law and the Individual
In the beginning we understand nature through love. We develop natural customs that are habits based on love. Eventually egoistic yearning for power and dominion causes us to transform these natural customs into laws to protect property and possession. These are a failed attempt to make up for love and these laws imprison and restrict love and free human nature. For example marriage was created to formalize and protect a mutual loving relationship. But eventually the law of marriage enforces the contract in preference to mutual love and free choice.

This creates a conflict between the habits of age and tradition (e.g., egoism, vanity, narrow-mindedness, prejudice, etc.) and the spontaneous desires of the individual. Law protects these traditions at the expense of the individual and freedom. Greek mythology, particularly in the tragic dramas, document this conflict.

The resolution to this conflict can be found in the stories of the Christian tradition. The individual desires to free himself from religious dogma and political strife that result from power, possession and the law that protects them. He leaves this hostile generality to enter a state of absolute egoism, represented in the tradition by the innocence of Adam in the garden of Eden. In this state of pure egoism he receives but does not give. In the first step of the divestment of egoism the procreative force of love forces us to look beyond ourselves at another person. Not knowing the ultimate consequence of this journey love at first appears as evil or a sin and is represented by the story of the Fall. When this love is made universal, in the story of Jesus and the passion, it becomes a good for all humanity. Lets look at those steps in more detail, what Wagner calls the Path to Self-Divestment

The Path of Self-Divestment
Gratitude may seem like a good place to start but gratitude is not love. While gratitude acknowledges an other person, it is praising them for conferring benefits, which reinforces the ego.

“The first act of surrender of one’s self is sexual love.” Richard Wagner, Jesus of Nazareth

This opens us up to experiencing another person and is the first step away from selfish egoism. The second, love of family, expands our circle of love to parents, children and siblings but does so at the expense of those outside the family. The next level includes patriotism or love of country. It again expands our love even more and includes the selfless offer to give one’s life for others but still is in opposition to something, in this case other nations. The final step is universal love, love for everyone under all circumstances without conditions. This is closely related to Wagner’s idea of death and transfiguration which is the ultimate act of selflessness. It is the final creative parting from the ego or will. It is through death we ascend to the Universal.

Each of these steps lead us along the path to universal love but when misrepresented from the point of view of narrow egoism and material fact they appear to be evil and immoral, a breech in the law. Love appears as possession, procreation is vulgar lust, children are a burden and death is a curse to those trying to maintain egoistic individualism. It is only when viewed from the perspective universal love and absolute spirit we see that the universal makes our life creative.

This forms the basic outline of the Wagner’s philosophical system that he was to use in the construction of his music dramas Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Der Ring des Nibelungen and Parsifal. Many of the events and characters in those operas illustrate these concepts. Many of the apparent puzzles and supposed inconsistencies are explained when seen in the light of little known and infrequently studied system.


~ by severalfourmany on March 6, 2013.

4 Responses to “The Philosophy of Richard Wagner”

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  4. […] did not complete any single one. This reading provided a firm understanding of the theoretical and philosophical basis for Wagner’s music dramas and the development he went through to get there. Finally I feel I have a firmly grounded […]

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