Friday, November 17, 2017

Atheistic Religiosity in Kantian Conservatism: Roger Scruton on Wagner's "Ring" Cycle

Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries

Tomorrow, I will see the new production of Richard Wagner's Die Walkure at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.  This is the second of the four operas in Wagner's Ring cycle.  In the spring of 2020, Lyric will have performances of all four of the operas in one week, so that audiences can sit through all 17 hours of the cycle over a few days, as Wagner originally intended.

As I have indicated in my previous posts on Wagner (here, here, here, and here), I regard Die Meistersinger as his best opera, because it shows how a free society with only a limited "night-watchman state" can foster the full range of human virtue, from the low to the high, including the virtuous cultural activities of art, science, and philosophy, and thus it provides no support for Hitler's Nazi statism.  By contrast, Wagner's Ring cycle manifests the Romantic conception of art as appealing to the Dionysian emotions of an atheistic religiosity, which was so attractive to Hitler and the Nazis.

It is this Wagnerian art of atheistic religiosity that appeals to conservative philosophers like Roger Scruton, as is evident in his book The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung" (Allen Lane, 2016).  Scruton is one of the preeminent theorists of political conservatism; and like many conservatives in Great Britain and the United States, he thinks a religious attitude is essential for a healthy moral order, and therefore that traditional religious experience needs to be defended against a Darwinian science that claims to explain the place of human beings in the natural world without any reference to a transcendent realm beyond nature.  And yet--again like many other conservatives--Scruton does not believe in the literal truth of Christianity or any other religion.  He wants to have a sense of the sacred that comes from religious emotions, but without the need to believe any religious doctrines.  We know that God is dead, but we also know that human beings need to satisfy their religious longings for transcendence and redemption.  That's the truth that Scruton sees in Wagner's Ring cycle.

Scruton traces that truth back to Kant and to the German philosophers in the nineteenth century whose thinking was shaped by Kant's idealism: "Kant begat Fichte, who begat Hegel who begat Feuerbach; and Feuerbach begat both Wagner and Marx" (16).

I cannot embrace the atheistic religiosity of Kant, Wagner, and Scruton, because this line of thinking is incoherent self-deception, and because it led to the Nazi philosophers of the 1930s.  (I have written a post on the Kantian idealism of the Nazi philosophers.)

Scruton thinks that Wagner saw the "bleak truth" that "we are here on earth without an explanation and that if there is meaning, we ourselves must supply it" (36).  "The core religious phenomenon, Wagner believed, is not the idea of God, but the sense of the sacred. . . . religion contains deep truths about the human psyche; but these truths become conscious only in art, which captures them in symbols.  Religion conceals its legacy of truth within a doctrine.  Art reveals that truth through symbols" (40).  In other words, "Wagner sees his art as expressing and completing our religious emotions.  Art shows the believable moral realities behind the unbelievable metaphysics" (41).  Religion is an "elaborate fiction," because the gods exist only in human imagination, but in Wagner's imaginative art, the gods symbolize truthfully the spiritual needs of our human psychology (56).

Our deepest spiritual need is redemption from a world that has no meaning.  And Scruton believes that Wagner's Ring cycle satisfies our human longing for redemption.  For Scruton, this is clearest in two parts of the Ring.  First, in Act 3 of Die Walkure, which begins with the famous ride of the Valkyries.  In the previous act, Siegmund has been killed, and Brunnhilde has taken his wife Sieglinde onto the saddle of her horse to save her from Wotan.  Sieglinde sees no reason to live.  But Brunnhilde tells her that she must live to save the child--the future hero Siegfried--whom she carries in her womb.  The music introduces the motif of Siegfried as hero followed by a passionate climax with the motif of Sieglinde's blessing, which is often called the "redemption motif."  This motif is not heard again until we hear it at the very end of the cycle as the last music we hear at the end of Gotterdammerung ("The Twilight of the Gods").  So, the meaning of the whole Ring cycle, it seems, is the artfully aroused emotion of redemption.

I must say that when my wife and I saw the complete Ring cycle at the Lyric Opera in April of 2005--four operas over six days--the closing music did leave us with an ecstatic feeling that might be identified as redemption.  (Well, okay, we were also feeling exhausted relief that we had finally made it through the 17 hours of Wagnerian opera!)

But then, as Scruton admits, anyone who wonders about what this really means must ask: redemption from what, to what, by whom?  The Christian will answer: redemption from our sinful human condition, to an eternal life of bliss with God, by the grace bestowed on us by Jesus Christ.  C. S. Lewis conveyed this thought in his account of his early life in Surprised by Joy.  He remembered the first time he saw a book with the title Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods with illustrations of Wagner's Ring cycle.  He became totally taken over by Wagner and Norse mythology.  He tried to write a heroic poem on the Wagnerian version of the Nibelung story.  Here he felt what he called "the stab of Joy" that would later be fulfilled in his conversion to Christianity.  Wagner's Ring cycle was a pointer to something else--to the Joy that only Christians can know.

But since Wagner and Scruton deny the truth of these Christian doctrines, this kind of redemption is not possible for them.  The only redemption that can come through Wagner's operas is the artistically induced feeling of redemption, which does not require any belief in the literal truth of Christian redemption.

I think Nietzsche was right--during the middle period of his writing career, when he freed himself from his Dionysian enchantment with Wagner--in saying that this is all a magician's trick that gives us the fake emotions of a fake redemption.  It's entertainment for atheists who want religious feelings without religious doctrines.

Scruton restates Nietzsche's objections to Wagner (296-99).  But, oddly, Scruton doesn't even attempt to refute those objections.  His only response to Nietzsche is to point out that in his last years Nietzsche revived the love for Wagner that he had had earlier in his life.  "Clearly then, his attacks on Wagner did not cure him of the enchantment, and we are left wondering how sincerely he meant them" (299).  Scruton then passes on without any further thought about what this reveals about Nietzsche's struggle with Wagner's atheistic religiosity.

In many posts (some of which can be found hereherehereherehere, and here ), I have argued that Lou Salome (the woman who turned down Nietzsche's proposal of marriage) understood Nietzsche better than all of the other commentators on Nietzsche.  (I have also written about this in my Nietzsche chapter in Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Pinker.

Salome saw that Nietzsche was deeply moved by religious longings that made Wagner's art appealing to him, that he escaped from this only in the middle period of his writing (particularly in Human, All Too Human), when he adopted a scientific view of the world, which was the most intellectually defensible position that he ever took, but then in his later writings, he returned to the religious longings that were expressed in his attempt to create a new Dionysian religion. 

In his middle period, Nietzsche understood how the need for redemption had become so strong for human beings that even those who believe themselves to be atheists are moved by the religious desire to find some transcendent satisfaction through art.  Those who might otherwise be considered atheistic free spirits enjoy music like Wagner's operas that stirs religious feelings without requiring belief in religious doctrines.  Romantic art in general shows "the magic of religious feeling" as the modern artist appeals to those who have given up religious beliefs but who still yearn for religious ecstasy through art.  (In his essay "Nietzsche on Wagner," Scruton jumps from Nietzsche's early writings to his later writings, while passing over in silence Nietzsche's middle writings.)

In his middle period, Nietzsche defended a Darwinian science of evolution according to which "everything has evolved."  By Nietzsche's Darwinian account, morality does not elevate human beings beyond the natural world, because human morality arises as a natural development of animal nature.  There is no need for a redemptive transcendence of nature to give meaning to human life, because life, even in its mortality and contingency, is inherently good in its intrinsic purposefulness without any need for cosmic purposefulness.  (I have suggested that this thought is conveyed in Wallace Stevens' poem "Sunday Morning": "Death is the mother of beauty.")

Scruton occasionally comes close to saying something like this, but then he insists on the need for redemption in a way that renders his thought incoherent.  Explaining Wagner's operatic art, he observes:
". . . it takes the turning points of human life and frames them as religious sacrifices--it is a 'making sacred' of those moments when we must pay the full cost of being what we are.  It is not absurd to give to these moments the name that Wagner clung to when attempting to summarize their power--Erlosung, or redemption.  He did not mean that word in its Christian sense, as invoking the promise and the purchase of a better life to come.  He meant it as a description of the religious rite itself, and hence of the moment of transcendence on the tragic stage: the moment when life is shown to be intrinsically worthwhile, exactly when it is engulfed by the ambient nothingness" (302).
But if we know that life is "intrinsically worthwhile," so that we have no need for "the promise and the purchase of a better life to come," then it makes no sense to say that life's worth depends on transcendence, if only the fake transcendence of operatic emotion.  Moreover, it's hard to see how such fake transcendence works if we know it's fake.

I suppose that Scruton would say that it's not completely fake, because the longing for transcendence in human nature is a real phenomenon of human psychology.  That's his claim in his new book On Human Nature, which I will take up in my next post.

In a previous post, I have written about Matt Ridley's The Evolution of Everything, which is in a way a modern exploration of the implications of Nietzsche's thought that "everything has evolved."


Roger Sweeny said...

I love the title. And the line,

"I cannot embrace the atheistic religiosity of Kant, Wagner, and Scruton, because this line of thinking is incoherent self-deception ..."

Orwell could have written a sentence like that.

CJColucci said...

So how does a belief known (or at least thought) to be false serve the desirable functions of religious belief? I suppose it's possible that large numbers of people for whom religion functions like an exalted version of the Elks Club have no actual idea of, or interest in, the official theologies of the religions they practice. All they really believe is that there's something bigger than we can understand out there somewhere and this something wants us to be nice. (Most atheists, while not sharing this belief, might cheerfully admit that they can't actually disprove it and have no objection to others' believing this minimal theology.) But they participate in the ceremonies of the religion in which they were raised because it is good to have off-the-shelf communal ways to recognize major transitions in life, and many great artists have contributed astonishing poetry, music, architecture, and art to help do that. (Maybe they really Johann Sebastian Bach, when you get down to it.)
The last time I trotted out this theory, an Englishman piped up: "You've just described the Church of England."

W. Bond said...

Mere human art – even at its peak - may be inadequate as a replacement for God (although, to be fair, did it really stand a chance?).
Regarding your last paragraph, it seems that the question of philosophy vs theology might be the most important question we face, and is related here to the question of “What is the best, the happiest, life?”
The philosopher who is agnostic on the question of the divine may experience a deficiency regarding religious longing, if, indeed, this longing is a part of our nature. The man who devotes his intellect to the study of God may practice a religion compatible with a rich understanding of nature and human reason (consider, e.g. Exodus 3:13-15, Deuteronomy 4:6, Mark 12:28-31), even if that practice does, perforce, ultimately require faith.
Who, then, is happier, who leads the more complete human life, if our soul by nature longs for the divine? Must it not be, in this formulation, the man who takes heed of Psalm 1:1-2, and is blessed for taking delight in meditating on scripture?
Yet, faith, in the end, is not proven, or does not convince by reasoned argument alone; and, to return to your post, certainly it is the truth – even if the truth is terrible - that matters in answering questions, not self-delusion for the purpose of fulfilling psychic needs.
Human reason, however, and as we know, cannot disprove God, cannot prove faith to be a mere self-delusion.
One, I suppose, can turn to the argument that there is variation among humans, and, perhaps, philosophers – that tiny minority of humans - have less of a religious longing, and therefore may alone be truly happy without the divine. The middle Nietzsche, here, is simply the mature Nietzsche, bounded by youth and infirmity. Yet, the thoughtful believer might respond: “Is this rare psychological nature a virtue or a defect?” We don’t consider, for example, the sociopath, who lives detached from low sentiment a superior type of man, even if intelligent in other regards. Nor, of course, and to state the obvious, can less of a “need” for the divine in any way disprove God.
Does the question of whether or not one views the most important question as a question, itself pre-suppose one’s position (1 Kings 18:21)?
I’ll look forward to the advertised next post!