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bryan magee • tristan chord

18 October 2002

"I have found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith." -- Immanuel Kant

I am not an opera fan, but I made a good decision last week in buying Bryan Magee's, "The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy."

I bought the book thinking I would skip over the Richard Wagner opera portions and zero in on the philosophy areas. It's been a good plan so far. I love Magee's writing; he has a wonderful ability to hit at the heart of complex ideas and express them in plain English.

Listen to what he says about Ludwig Feuerback, Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer, all philosophers who deeply influenced Wagner. I think these passage are especially interesting in light recent e-mails, and I think you will be surprised and delighted by the way they dart back and forth between theology and philosophy.

Of Feuerbach, Magee writes:

"The core of Feuerbach's philosophy, identified by Wagner as such in his autobiography, lies in the point that, far from God, or gods, having created mankind, it is mankind that has created them; so religion has to be seen entirely a product of the human mind if it is to be understood. The reason why some form of religious belief has been almost universal, Feuerbach believed, is that religion meets basic human needs. Therefore, he thought, if we understand religion aright it does indeed reveal fundamental truths to us, but these are fundamental truths about ourselves. And this is the Feuerbachian approach -- not to dismiss religion as a lot of superstition or fairy stories but to appraise it seriously as something deeply illuminating about human beings. Feuerbach argues that people are forced by experience into a realization that they are not in control of their lives, and that this leads them to attribute supreme power and control to forces outside themselves."

"It is a centrally important fact about Wagner's mental life that once he had absorbed Feuerbach's philosophy he never thereafter ceased to take a Feuerbachian attitude to the understanding of religion. He never regarded any of the established religions as true, but he nevertheless approached them with the utmost interest as being profoundly revelatory of important truths."

And skipping ahead to Kant, Magee writes:

"Kant's philosophy had cataclysmic implications for whole areas of seemingly well-established thought and writing that had been going on for hundreds if not thousands of years. These included not only the metaphysics of most previous philosophers but also the so-called natural religion and natural theology that for generation after generation had been filling whole libraries with the detailed discussions of the nature of God and of the soul. According to Kant, we could not know with absolute certainty that there even were such things as a God or a soul -- and if they did exist we could certainly never have any direct cognition of them, any determinate knowledge of them. His beliefs in this regard are now so widely accepted that it is difficult for us today to appreciate what an intellectual earthquake they caused when they first appeared.

"It is easy for us now to see that there was nothing seriously anti-religious about them, not about Kant's motivation in putting them forward -- on the contrary, he had been brought up in a zealously religious sect, the Pietists, and he declared himself a Christian to the end of his days. And yet he permanently demolished factual knowledge-claims with regard to anything outside the realm of human experience. As he famously put it, 'I have found it necessary to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.' Never in the history of philosophy had any thinker accomplished so comprehensive a demolition-job on existing beliefs and assumptions. And it was all done on the basis of rational arguments, most of which no one either then or since has conclusively rebutted. An internationally famous philosopher who was contemporary with Kant, Moses Mendelssohn (a grandfather of the composer), described Kant as 'The All-pulverizer,' meaning that -- as we might say like a modern rubbish-disposal unit -- he crunched up and destroyed intellectual garbage on a heroic scale."

And skipping ahead a bit more:

"It was Kant's view that for us to reject rational enquiry and rest on faith in matters where knowledge is possible is obscurantist. However, in areas in which he had demonstrated knowledge to be forever impossible a rational person might legitimately entertain a certain hope. That was the space which religious belief could permissibly occupy. If it ever claimed to be knowledge it was simply wrong, for it could never be that. But what it provisionally asserted might nevertheless be true, and therefore a person was certainly not being irrational in hoping that it was, or in believing it might be. Kant himself believed that the part of total reality that was not accessible to human experience included a creator God and immortal souls, but he knew that he did not know this, and it was clear to him that no one else knew it either, nor could anyone possibly be under any obligation to believe it."

And skipping ahead again, we come to Schopenhauer:

"Kant had been a Christian, or at least professed to be one all his life, whereas Schopenhauer was irreligious. He was the first truly great Western philosopher to acknowledge himself publicly to be an atheist. The reason why none had done so before is that it was not until the century in which Schopenhauer was born that anyone in Europe was able to deny God publicly without falling foul of the law. The first philosophers of any note to deny God openly were some of the eighteenth-century French philosophes -- Diderot and his colleagues. But although Schopenhauer did not believe in God, and did not believe that we have immortal souls, he was -- like Feuerbach, only for different reasons -- far from dismissing religion out of hand as a lot of fairy tales.

"On the contrary, he thought that three of the world's main religions -- Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity -- taught some of the profoundest truths that there are, for instance that this world is not everything, and it is not even lastingly important; that our true selves do not belong to it; that it is full of suffering and evil; that its values are false values, which we should repudiate; that true values are not created in this material world at all; that under the surface we are members of one another, and that the compassion to which this gives rise is the true foundation of morality and ethics; that all abiding significance and value are timeless and have their being outside this world of material objects in space and time; and that each one of us, perhaps in ways we do not understand, participates in that timeless being."


“Great doubt: great awakening. Little doubt: little awakening.
No doubt: no awakening.” — Zen proverb