Wagner and German Idealism

*This article was aired on BBC Radio 3 as part of the series 'Wagner's Philosophers' - 20.5.2013

The German universities of Wagner's youth were in a state of intellectual ferment, the main cause of which was the proliferation of philosophical systems in the wake of Immanuel Kant, widely recognized today as the greatest philosopher of modern times.

 Kant called his system 'transcendental idealism'. It is transcendental because it looks beyond the world of time and space, which is a world of appearances; it is a form of idealism because it affirms that only ideas or appearances can be known. Science explores things as they appear to us, but must remain forever silent about things in themselves. We can't prove the existence of God or the immortality of the soul, nor can we affirm the existence of an independent reality behind the veil of perception. The world that we know is a world of appearances, ordered by the law of cause and effect.
Kant combined this sceptical vision with an ambitious account of the moral life. Reason speaks to us in the language of duty. It tells us what we want to do, and also what we ought to do. And since ought implies can we rational beings must be free.
Freedom, for Kant, is the essence of the human condition, the thing that distinguishes us from the rest of nature. And in exercising our freedom we reach out towards the transcendental – touching it, without knowing it.
For Kant's followers transcendental idealism was epitomized in two grand ideas: first, that the physical world is a system of appearances, and not of things in themselves; and second, that we are not part of that world, but exist on the edge of it, as pure subjects of consciousness. Kant's most influential disciple was Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who expressed those grand ideas in a theory of the self. All knowledge, Fichte argued, begins in the self. The world originates in me – for it is only in myself that I can know it.
Laws and institutions, art and music, even the world of plants, organisms and physical particles – all are ways in which the self achieves reality, by acquiring outward form. Hence the world is not material but spiritual – it is composed of the very spiritual substance of which I myself am composed, since it is composed of me.
There seems to be no place for God in this new and aggressive form of idealism. Soon Fichte was denounced as an atheist, temporarily losing his position in the University of Berlin. Fichte's greatest successor, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, began his academic career as a student of theology. He aimed to rescue the Christian faith from Fichte's excesses, while accepting that idealism in some form must be true. Schopenhauer, Hegel's arch-rival at the University of Berlin, is often singled out as the most important intellectual influence on Wagner. But when Wagner enrolled at the university of Leipzig in 1831, the year of Hegel's death, it was the Hegelian philosophy that dominated the faculties and captured the imagination of the young. And it was a reading of Hegel and the Hegelians that opened Wagner to philosophy. Like the Hegelians, Wagner saw the contest over religion as the decisive episode in the emergence of the modern world.
For Hegel the ultimate substance of the world is spirit, or Geist. Spirit achieves individuality in you and me, but in itself is greater than all of us. Science, religion, politics and art are attempts by spirit to realize itself in objective form. All ventures of the spirit are movements towards the Absolute Idea, in which the world achieves full consciousness of itself. In every sphere, therefore, – in science, religion, politics, and art – old forms die and new forms replace them. All our attempts at order must meet with their own negation, and so give way to the higher forms that replace them. It is from this idea that Wagner drew much of his inspiration for The Ring. Nothing human is permanent, and all must perish in the spirit's ongoing search for self-knowledge.
In The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel added an argument that was to have a profound influence on Wagner, and also on the course of German history, and therefore on the history of the world. The essence of spirit, Hegel argued, is freedom. But freedom is not granted to us as an unqualified gift: freedom must be achieved, and it is achieved through struggle. Only through the encounter with the other do I gain the capacity to take charge of my actions, and this encounter begins in a state of nature outside society, and therefore in a fight to the death. Freedom and self-knowledge are obtained when the other acknowledges my right to them, and when I acknowledge the other's right in turn. Freedom is a social phenomenon, and we acquire freedom by compelling the world to recognize our title to it. It is only in the moment of recognition that I become a full-fledged individual, with a will, a destiny and a self of my own. And recognition must be mutual. To be recognized as free I must recognize the freedom of others.
That idea forms the philosophical core of Marx's critique of capitalist society. It also profoundly influenced The Ring, which tells the story of Siegfried's quest for freedom and individuality, and his final self-betrayal when he enslaves the one he loves and trades her for a substitute. Freedom demands respect for the other. Lose that respect, treat the other as an object, and you too become an object, a thing of no worth, to be used and thrown away. Only at the moment of death does Siegfried regain the path to individuality and freedom; but by then it is too late.
The reverberations of Hegel's argument can be felt throughout the Ring cycle: in the self-torment of Alberich, who has foresworn love for the sake of power; in the dark underworld of Nibelheim, whose subjugated people are instruments of a will that they cannot influence; in the terrible tragedy of The Valkyrie, in which two suffering humans win through to freedom only to find that the god who planned this can no longer permit it.
After Hegel's death his followers divided into the Old Hegelians, who saw idealism as laying the foundations for the Prussian monarchy, and the Young Hegelians, who were for the most part anti-religious and leftist critics of the new bourgeois state. The Young Hegelians had been meeting and publishing in Berlin, and their influence spread rapidly through society. To be a German intellectual at that time was to be a Hegelian of one form or another. But it was not necessarily to be an idealist. The greatest of the Young Hegelians, Ludwig Feuerbach, attempted to turn Hegel's philosophy upside-down, or rather to set it on its feet. He wanted to rewrite Hegel's idealist philosophy as a form of materialism. It was this that inspired his two most influential readers – Wagner and Marx.
Feuerbach agreed with one aspect of the idealist philosophy. He agreed that our world is one of conflict, in which we strive to assert our power, to achieve knowledge of our capacities, and to win recognition and respect from others. But he disagreed with the idealist premise. Reality, he asserted, is material, not spiritual. The self is not the creator of the objective world but simply one of its by-products. Consciousness arises from life. And life is a material, not a spiritual, fact.
From this premise Feuerbach mounted a critique of religion. Since the world is material, there are no spiritual realities. Religion conjures a world of illusions. In the Virgin Mary, in Christ and in God the Father Christians idealize aspects of the human condition, endowing them with a fictitious life. They then bask in the excuse that this gives them to be morally inferior to their own fictions. Religion creates an unreal world peopled with all the virtues that we might otherwise practise here below, but which we render inaccessible by situating them in an illusory heaven. The result of this is to alienate us from the moral qualities that we need if we are to live fully in society.
Wagner created the supernatural beings of The Ring on Feuerbach's model. They are personifications of human characteristics – both good and bad. But, unlike the Christian pantheon mocked by Feuerbach, Wagner's gods are far lower in the scheme of things than the humans over whom they exert their dwindling authority. Indeed, as Brünnhilde realizes in the great scene in which she announces death to Siegmund, the human world exhibits the virtues that the gods lack and without which there can be no redemption – the virtues of self-sacrifice and renunciation. Thereafter everything that Brünnhilde does conveys the unconscious wish to descend into the world of mortals and to share their fate. In attempting to rescue Siegmund, she risks her immortality. But when the crisis comes she embraces death, knowing that it is the price of love, and that love is the way to redemption.
The core religious idea, Wagner believed, is not the idea of God, but the idea of the sacred. The great Wagnerian music dramas are built around that belief. Although Wagner accepted Feuerbach's view of the gods, as illusions born of our social needs, he believed in the sacred as an independent force in human affairs. In an essay on 'Art and Religion' Wagner tells his reader that 'It is reserved to art to salvage the kernel of religion, inasmuch as the mythical images which religion would wish to be believed as true are apprehended in art for their symbolic value, and through ideal representation of those symbols art reveals the concealed deep truth within them'. In other words, religion contains deep truths about the human psyche; but these truths become conscious only in art, which captures them in symbols. Through art, therefore, we decipher the mystery that religion conceals, which is the mystery of sacred things.
In all of Wagner's music dramas sacred moments are framed and displayed in their full human significance. They are moments of sacrifice, like the deaths of Tristan, Isolde and Siegmund, like the ritualised murder of Siegfried and the immolation of Brünnhilde. And our redemption supposedly depends on these moments. In the unity of love and death, in the willing acceptance of death for love's sake, and in the renunciation of self for other we glimpse the meaning of human life. We understand that life lived in the spirit of sacrifice is its own redemption. In one sense, this is not far from Feuerbach's materialism, since it presents the sacred as a purely human phenomenon, one that might be looked upon by a god with envy and awe, as in The Ring, but which needs no god to complete it. But it is also a long way from Feuerbach, since it takes the sacred, the spiritual and the sacrificial as fundamental aspects of the human condition, and necessary to our fulfilment. Like Hegel, who had seen religion as a stage on the way to self-knowledge rather than the final goal of it, Wagner sees his art as expressing and vindicating our religious emotions. Art shows the believable moral realities behind the unbelievable myths. Hence Tristan and Isolde and Parsifal are often described as religious works, to be compared in this respect to Bach's St Matthew Passion.
Wagner was to the end of his life a philosopher. All the currents of philosophical thinking that were important in his day, from Fichte's idolisation of the self to Marx's critique of the capitalist economy, and from Feuerbach's repudiation of religion to Schopenhauer's theory of the will, left traces in his dramas. There is no work of philosophy that delves so deeply into the paradoxes of erotic love as Tristan and Isolde, no work of Christian theology that matches Wagner's exploration of the Eucharist in Parsifal, and no work of political theory that uncovers the place of power and law in the human psyche with the perceptiveness of The Ring. While taking us into the heart of philosophical concerns, however, Wagner never sacrifices concrete emotion to abstract ideas. Indeed, Tristan and Isolde, to take what for me is the greatest example of this, succeeds in displaying the philosophical mystery of erotic love only because Wagner creates a believable drama, and music that moves with the force and momentum of desire.
During the course of writing Tristan Wagner fell under the spell of Schopenhauer, the last great representative of post-Kantian idealism. Schopenhauer's philosophy fitted the contours of the Wagnerian music dramas, and in particular gave an articulate justification of what, to many people, was their pessimistic message. But, while it is clear that Schopenhauer was of considerable significance in shaping the later parts of the Ring cycle, we should remember that the cycle was conceived, as were Tristan and The Mastersingers, much earlier, at a time when Hegel and the Young Hegelians were setting the agenda of German philosophy. During the 1848 Revolution in Dresden, when Wagner was appointed by the revolutionary faction to keep watch from a tower, he was discovered at his post deeply immersed in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. The Ring itself is a post-Hegelian work. In the descent into Nibelheim, Wagner gives us an image of industrial capitalism that says more than a thousand pages of Karl Marx. In the character of Wotan he presents a brilliant summary of the vision underlying Hegel's political philosophy. And in the drama of Siegfried and Brünnhilde he unfolds an epitome of the idealist philosophy of self-knowledge.
Looking back on this episode in cultural history, we see that Wagner was the true voice in music of Hegelian idealism. But he added a dimension that was entirely his own. Freedom, for Wagner, was a political phenomenon. But it was also a profound spiritual reality, revealed in the moment of sacrifice.
He added to all the abstract arguments of the Hegelians the crucial truth that they strove so often to hide – which is that we are mortal beings, and that love is a relation between dying things. We must find meaning here and now, not in spite of death, but through it and because of it.