TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Wagner’s Anti-Semitism and German Philosophy

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Katherine McGinity looks at Michael Mack’s “Richard Wagner and the Trajectory of Transcendental Philosophy,” from Telos 123 (Spring 2002).

Michael Mack’s “Richard Wagner and the Trajectory of Transcendental Philosophy” explores the differing brands of anti-Semitism in Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, and Schopenhauer, and explains how their scrutiny of Jews as a hindrance to society was radicalized by Richard Wagner. Mack details how each philosopher’s particular form of anti-Semitism fed into Wagner’s social-political writings as well as his “total works of art.” By investigating the concepts put forth by Wagner’s philosophical predecessors, one can more fully understand how a radicalized version of Kantian moral philosophy infiltrated German national culture through the composer’s art. Mack specifically addresses how these ideas manifested in Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

German philosophers of the 18th and 19th century struggled to reconcile Christianity with secular reason. Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, and Schopenhauer all pointed to the Jews as an obstruction to Germany’s ability to embody their vision of “an idealist type of body politic” (82). Finding fault in the religious beliefs and perceived racial differences of the Jewish people, the basic issue was the threat of the Jews’ perceived heteronomy. This heteronomy was deemed incompatible with the idealistic autonomy envisioned and defended as the correct path for a functional German society. In the philosophers’ essentialized view, several aspects of Jewish life created a heteronomous “gap” in Germany’s attempts to attain autonomy within their state. These ideas become rooted in Wagner’s defense of anti-Semitism in his theoretical writings, as well as in the manifestations of radicalized characters found in his operas:

Wagner’s obsessive contrast between idealism and realism, as well as his blaming Jews for precluding a realization of the ideal, partly develops out of his study of German transcendental philosophy. Radicalizing Schopenhauer’s revision of Kant’s rational theology, Wagner tries to reconcile art with the “essence of Christianity.” Thus, his “aesthetic sensibility” involves an attempt to replace the transcendental concept of the rational. Ultimately, both concepts attempt to transform the “essence of Christianity” into a contemporary intellectual matrix: they focus on the transformation of the individual body into an autonomous and all-embracing entity. To this extent, both share a concern with the translation of the body into the body politic. This, however, does not alter the fact that Wagner also reinvests a German transcendental paradigm with an aestheticism that claims to make contingent materiality into a spiritual unity akin to the attempts of Kant and some of his followers to make reason the touchstone of a civil society defined by secularized Christian-Lutheran values. (83)

Kant posits that Jewish fault lies in their empirical interests, which override their ability to successfully participate in a “rational” body politic. Kant describes this irrationality as Jewish “superstition,” which disallows them a sense of autonomy. Kant’s rejection of the Jews as rational or autonomously functional citizens is evident in the later work of Hegel, Feuerbach, and Schopenhauer, although all the latter philosophers attempted to distance themselves from Kant’s ideas.

Mack also delves into Hegel’s view of the Jews. Hegel argued that Jews are tied to materialism due to their religious attachment to Jehovah, who holds everything in his possession. To Hegel it follows that the Jews’ attachment to the empirical world is embedded in the idea that their God and material power are one and the same. The root of Jewish spirituality—that the earth was created by God for Jews to reside upon—is something that Hegel cites as a paradoxical absence of spirit. Hegel also points to Jewish dietary laws as evidence that “Jews value life as spiritual matter”; this puts Judaism in direct opposition to his dialectics, which “speculatively attempt to pinpoint the coincidence between being and non-being” (89).

Mack claims that Wagner was able to support his more radical claims that Jews are both “demonic” and threatening to the body politic through the arguments of German idealist philosophers. The Jews’ supposed fault of overly empirical pursuits is evidenced in Wagner’s anti-Semitic characters—stereotypes, whose obsession with worldly goods is their ultimate downfall. One of Wagner’s intentions was to turn the German population against Jews with his art. Mack looks to the Ring Cycle as Wagner’s attempt to use art to popularize the ideas of the German idealist philosophers. This is allegorically executed through the obsessive pursuit of the “tragic ring of Nibelungen”:

Against this background, the illuminating analysis of the Nibelungen as anti-Semitic stereotypes can be extended to all those characters who want to keep the ring in order to raise the prospect of progress within the material world. Except for Siegfried and possibly Brünhilde and the Rhine maidens, all protagonists of the Ring Cycle depict Wagner’s racist fear of a European society that has become infiltrated by “Jehovah’s principle of power.” (102)

Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, and Schopenhauer all cited the Jews as a scapegoat for the presence of heteronomy in their society. Though Wagner’s ideas have some discontinuities with these philosophers, he was able to draw upon them to feed his robust anti-Semitism. Wagner was a master at creating art that appeals on a humanist level; however he stopped short of including Jews. By characterizing the Ring Cycle in this manner, Mack claims that Wagner is following the trajectory of German transcendental reason. Mack’s reading of the Ring Cycle sheds new light on both Wagner’s personal philosophy and the work itself.

Read the full version of Michael Mack’s “Richard Wagner and the Trajectory of Transcendental Philosophy” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

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