Book Review: Wagner and Philosophy

February 27th, 2021

Post by Steppanwulf

I’m currently (re-)reading an excellent book entitled Wagner and Philosophy by Bryan Magee (1973), in which the author provides an overview of Wagner’s indebtedness to the philosophical legacies of Kant and namely Schopenhauer. It’s a thoroughly engaging read, fettered with prose inexhaustibly rich in historical context and careful delivery of precision. What initially struck me about the book, and in particular the chapter entitled "The Philosophy of Schopenhauer", was just how extraordinary an epoch the Neo-Volkisch movement of the 19th century was, within which truly groundbreaking ways of thinking occurred with Kant’s theory of the phenomenal and the noumenal. Regardless of what one has to say, however, of Kant’s now grossly anachronistic political philosophy - in addition to his sketchy devotion to the categorical imperative of universal, i.e., Christian, morality - Kant’s systematization of human consciousness was, inarguably, revolutionary. Indeed a mode of sheer genius defining a Zeitgeist of European brilliance of thought matched only by that of Plato hitherto.

Schopenhauer, who openly and no less defiantly negated the philosophical systematizing of Kant’s groundwork laid out by Fichte, Schelling, and most scathing of all, that of Hegel, saw his philosophy as being that which reverentially ‘perfected’ and thus completed Kant’s systematic theory of human consciousness. Irrespective of Schopenhauer’s uninhibited vituperation of Hegel, however, while reading the book, one was consumed by the aesthetical splendour with which the German and English Romantic movements elicit to those who share my refined taste. Reading the book, while naturally hearing the horn-thumping cacophony that is Wagner’s Tristan in my mind’s ear, one was also reminded of the era-defining landscape works of art by Caspar David Friedrich, John Constable, and the like.

It is indeed true that to categorise Wagner into a distinct artistic medium as music and music alone would be erroneous, for Wagner’s legacy, like that of Kant, Schopenhaur, Caspar Friedrich, Hegel, Bradley, Constable, Elgar, Goethe, Coleridge, NIetzsche, et al, would be tantamount to stripping art - as a narrow medium - of its aesthetical, oftentimes magical, significance within history-shaping cultural Zeitgeists. Wagner, Nietzsche, Constable, Goethe, and Coleridge, though each marked by differences of artistic expression in music, philosophy, painting, literature and poetry respectively, share far more in common with one another than the contemporary mediums of artistic expression. Thus Wagner the composer is indeed much more closely linked with Schopenhauer the philosopher than with the vapid, soulless earaches one hears on Radio 1 today.

To conveniently echo the sentiment of Bradley’s notion of Absolute Idealism, all things are relational within certain epochs. The trashy romance and sci-fi novels, the degenerate cultural legacy of rap music and hip hop, and the seemingly insatiable consumerist Hollywood movie industry of today all share many a common denominator: one of which being that it is all meretricious garbage conceived in order to placate the ever-increasing colossus that is cultural nihilism. But of course, I digress just a tad.

The last chapter is devoted to Nietzsche; or, rather, Nietzsche’s indebtedness to the Wagnerian legacy. Magee strains to point to Nietzsche’s fixation and influence of Wagner, given many presume the opposite to be true, and I - a self-proclaimed Nietzschean in many respects - was, much to my own surprise, happy to see Nietzsche being somewhat demoted in terms of influence compared with Schopenhauer (and even Kant), as I myself have always found it to be a great shame that Schopenhauer appears to be something of a mere footnote in regards to Nietzschean legacy in contemporary philosophical discourse, which is of course untrue.

Another aspect of Schopenhauer’s painfully neglected philosophy was his then radical preponderance of the nature of sex and conception. Magee, in agreement with his beloved Schopenhauer, draws attention to how he pioneered what one could refer to as the Metaphysics of Conception, wherein he remarks of Schopenhauer’s astute observance of the sheer neglect of which from Western philosophers hitherto. “Schopenhauer was puzzled that philosophers had given so little consideration to sex. Conception and death mark clearly the beginning and end of our existence as individuals in this world, and philosophers have thought and written endlessly about death, yet they have given scarcely any consideration to conception - which is even more important to us than death, surely, and every bit as mysterious. Each human being who has ever lived was created by an act of sexual intercourse. There must be, so to speak, a metaphysics of this.” - Bryan Magee, Chapter Nine: "The Philosophy of Schopenhauer", p-169.

It’s a very interesting book indeed. I highly recommend it to those of you who are passionate about Anglo-German Idealism and the social, political, cultural, and theological Zeitgeist that was European Romanticism.



Wagner and Philosophy, by Bryan Magee (1973). Published by Penguin Books, 2001.

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