Wagner and Philosophy (An Overview)



Wagner’s operas and musical compositions were steeped in German philosophy and metaphysics. His politico-social idealism, which was very much ingrained in the socialism of the times, through the liberal movement known as the Young Germans, slowly dissolved and took shape in various alternate forms. As a socialist and anarchist, his views challenged the status quo of German society. Towards his friend Bakunin, he was both horrified and enthralled by the oppositional polarities of such a violent philosophy. Anarchism, in the traditional sense of the term, is in fact a humanist/idealist form of thought. It is with a sense of compassion for the plight of everyman that the anarchist seeks to rent and destroy the established institutions and fabric of society, in order therefore to create a new and improved society built on the new foundations of fraternite, egalite, and liberte. Among the left, Hegel’s dialectic become de rigeur and soon after followed Marx’s dialectical materialism.

Wagner’s essays and contributions to the cause of  the revolution, and his participation in the Dresden uprisings brought him unwanted attention from the authorities. He fled to Switzerland where he was to be exiled for many years.

Wagner never gave up his liberal ideals and values, and his quest in reshaping society to better suit the needs of art and opera through Greek tragedy, music, dance, and philosophy carried on with fervent passion.

It was through the works of Feuerbach where Wagner developed his notions of man’s relation to the Gods and the function of religion. He was not particularly religious himself, but he held the purpose of all religions in high reverence. Feuerbach turned German society on its head when he proposed in his book entitled “The Essence of Christianity” that rather than the gods having created mankind, it is in fact, mankind that has created them. Religion is therefore, man-made. From each religion, there can be gleaned what are known as fundamental truths. But the truths are of such consequence and profound meaning that they can only be conveyed through parables and mythology, and that it is an egregious error of man to take such stories as literal truth.

Furthermore, the gods we create represent the void we find within ourselves: of all things in life we fear death the most, and we create gods that are immortal. We crave control in our lives and over our environments and we develop a god that is wholly omnipotent, like Faust, we yearn for knowledge, and we develop a god that is omniscient. This carries on with all of the traits that we admire and hold in high esteem but see the lack of everywhere we turn. We then make sacrifices and idols and worship on our knees, prostrating ourselves beneath the gods that hold qualities we cannot fully possess.

The Ring cycle reflects this philosophy. The gods behave as reprobates, with the failings that reflect man’s lot. Greed, desire for power, for riches, falsity, violence upon others, subjugation of nature, etc. After all, the entire saga of destruction begins when Wotan drinks from the pool of knowledge. Once his thirst is satiated, he seeks out power. He approaches the world ash-tree and breaks a branch from it and molds a spear, thus symbolically violating Nature. Inscribed on the spear are contracts and treaties. The spear represents power, and he becomes therefore, the embodiment of the guardian of power. Order is established through the threat of violence and force.

The philosopher who most influenced Wagner, and one he continually read throughout his life was Schopenhauer. Before Schopenhauer, Kant laid the foundations of the conception of reality. He believed that whatever exists, exists independently of the human mind, since we only experience our reality via senses and perceptions, which are in turn dependent upon the complex functioning of our sense organs and brains. Many things go unnoticed simply because we lack the capacity to perceive them (our dogs’ sense of smell exceeds ours by 20,000 times). Kant developed the phenomenon and the noumenon. Within the phenomenal realm, material objects exist. As I sit here and type, I am immersed in the phenomenon. There is a differentiation between myself and the computer, and for A to be different than B, and to be perceived as such, there is a need for both time and space.  In the phenomenal realm, material objects exist and because space and time are present, causality is therefore present, through the necessity of succession. The noumenon, alternately, is a realm where causality does not exist—it is timelessness and spaceless, where all things are one and undifferentiated in immateriality. It is inaccessible to experience and knowledge and Schopenhauer built upon this theory, and suggests that the noumenal is the inner essence (soul) as phenomenal is the outer essence (body).

So fundamentally, we are all of us comprised of the same inner substance, the same soul if you will, since we are undifferentiated and unified. And Schopenhauer believed this explained the fundamentals of ethics, that being compassion. Due to this ultimate oneness of being, the wrongdoing damages the wrongdoer as much as it damages the wronged; hence the Self is simply an illusion. This may sound rather Buddhistic  and Hinduistic in nature, with implications of karma, and it certainly is. Schopenhauer independently came to such conclusions as many of the religious texts of the East. Schopenhauer’s main argument is that man survives through what is known as the Will to Live. It is this Will that drives him and pushes him forward, it is also this Will that causes him to desire, to want, and the moment things are wanted and unfulfilled or impeded in any way, pain and suffering ensue. Once a desire is fulfilled it is immediately replaced by another desire, and hence we have set ourselves up for total struggle through the act of wanting. It is through resignation of worldly materiality the pursuit of art where hope lies, the freedom from the vicious cycle of metempsychosis.

Wagner not only read Schopenhauer, but lived him, and his philosophies were at the heart of composer, such that this philosophy was transposed into the operatic medium. The next essay will be an analysis of Tristan and Isolde through a Schopenhauerian lens.