Durant 1926: Nietzsche and Wagner

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter IX Section 3 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.

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III. Nietzsche and Wagner

Early in 1872 he published his first, and his only complete, book—The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music.*

*It falls in with their later break that Wagner wrote about the same time an essay “On the Evolution of Music Out of the Drama”.

Never had a philologist spoken so lyrically. ‘He told of the two gods whom Greek art had worshipped: at first Dionysus (or Bacchus), the god of wine and revelry, of ascending life, of joy in action, of ecstatic emotion and inspiration, of instinct and adventure and dauntless suffering, the god of song and music and dance and drama;—and then, later, Apollo, the god of peace and leisure and repose, of esthetic emotion and intellectual contemplation, of logical order and philosophic calm, the god of painting and sculpture and epic poetry. The noblest Greek art was a union of the two ideals,—the restless masculine power of Dionysus and the quiet feminine beauty of Apollo. In drama Dionysus inspired the chorus, and Apollo the dialogue; the chorus grew directly out of the procession of the satyr-dressed devotees of Dionysus; the dialogue was an after-thought; a reflective appendage to an emotional experience. 

Early in 1872 he published his first, and his only complete, book—The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music. He told of the two gods whom Greek art had worshipped: the restless masculine power of Dionysus and the quiet feminine beauty of Apollo.

The profoundest feature of Greek drama was the Dionysian conquest of pessimism through art. The Greeks were not the cheerful and optimistic people whom we meet with in modem rhapsodies about them; they knew the stings of life intimately, and its tragic brevity. When Midas asked Silenus what fate is best for a man, Silenus answered: “Pitiful race of a day, children of accidents and sorrow, why do you force me to say what were better left unheard? The best of all is unobtainable–not to be born, to be nothing. The second best is to die early.” Evident1y these men had little to learn from Schopenhauer, or from the Hindus. But the Greeks overcame the gloom of their disillusionment with the brilliance of their art: out of their own suffering they made the spectacle of the drama, and found that “it is only as an esthetic phenomenon,” as an object of artistic contemplation or reconstruction, “that existence and the world appear justified.” “The sublime is the artistic subjugation of the awful.” Pessimism is a sign of decay, optimism is a sign of superficiality; “tragic optimism” is the mood of the strong man who seeks intensity and extent of experience, even at the cost of woe, and is delighted to find that strife is the law of life. “Tragedy itself is the proof of the fact that the Greeks were not pessimists.'” The days when this mood begot the Aeschylean drama and the pre-Socratic philosophy were the ”tremendous days of Greece.”

The Greeks knew the stings of life intimately, and its tragic brevity. The profoundest feature of Greek drama was the Dionysian conquest of pessimism through art. Tragic optimism is the mood of the strong man who seeks intensity and extent of experience.

Socrates—“the type of the theoretical man”—was a sign of the loosened fibre of the Greek character; “the old Marathonian stalwart capacity of body and soul was more and more sacrificed to a dubious enlightenment, involving progressive degeneration of the physical and mental powers.” Critical philosophy replaced the philosophical poetry of the pre-Socratics; science replaced art; intellect replaced instinct; dialectic replaced the games. Under the influence of Socrates, Plato the athlete became an esthete, Plato the dramatist became a logician, an enemy of passion, a deporter of poets, a “pre-Christian Christian,” an epistemologist. On the temple of Apollo at Delphi those words of passionless wisdom were inscribed—gnothe seauton (know thyself) and meden agan (nothing in excess)—which became, in Socrates and Plato, the delusion that intelligence is the only virtue, and in Aristotle the enervating doctrine of the golden mean. In its youth a people produce mythology and poetry; in its decadence, philosophy and logic. In its youth Greece produced Homer and Aeschylus; in its decay it gave us Euripides—the logician turned dramatist, the rationalist destroying myth and symbol, the sentimentalist destroying the tragic optimism of the masculine age, the friend of Socrates who replaces the Dionysian chorus with an Apollonian galaxy of dialecticians and orators.

After Socrates, critical philosophy replaced the philosophical poetry; science replaced art; intellect replaced instinct; and dialectic replaced the games; the rationalist destroying myth and symbol, the sentimentalist destroying the tragic optimism of the masculine age.

No wonder the Delphic oracle of Apollo had named Socrates the wisest of the Greeks, and Euripides the wisest after him; and no wonder that “the unerring instinct of Aristophanes … comprised Socrates and Euripides … in the same feeling of hatred, and saw in them the symptoms of a degenerate culture.” It is true that they recanted; that Euripides’ last play—The Bacchae—is his surrender to Dionysus, and the prelude to his suicide; and that Socrates in prison took to practicing the music of Dionysus to ease his conscience. “Perhaps—thus he had to ask himself—what is not intelligible to me is not therefore unreasonable? Perhaps there is a realm of wisdom from which the logician is banished? Perhaps art is even a necessary correlative of and supplement to science?” But it was too late; the work of the logician and the rationalist could not be undone; Greek drama and Greek character decayed. “The surprising thing had happened: when the poet” and the philosopher “recanted, their tendency had already conquered.” With them ended the age of heroes, and the art of Dionysus. 

Greek drama and Greek character decayed. The surprising thing had happened: when the poet and the philosopher recanted, their tendency had already conquered. With them ended the age of heroes, and the art of Dionysus. 

But perhaps the age of Dionysus may return? Did not Kant destroy once and for all the theoretical reason and the theoretical man?—and did not Schopenhauer teach us again the profundity of instinct and the tragedy of thought?—and is not Richard Wagner another Aeschylus, restoring myths and symbols, and uniting music and drama again in Dionysian ecstasy? “Out of the Dionysian root of the German spirit a power has arisen which has nothing in common with the primitive conditions of Socratic culture, …—namely, German music, … in its vast solar orbit from Bach to Beethoven, from Beethoven to Wagner.” The German spirit has too long reflected passively the Apollonian art of Italy and France; let the German people realize that their own instincts are sounder than these decadent cultures; let them make a Reformation in music as in religion, pouring the wild vigor of Luther again into art and life. Who knows but that out of the war-throes of the German nation another age of heroes dawns, and that out of the spirit of music tragedy may be reborn? 

But perhaps the age of Dionysus may return. Let the German people realize that their own instincts are sounder than these decadent cultures. Who knows but that out of the war-throes of the German nation another age of heroes dawns.

In 1872 Nietzsche returned to Basle, still weak in body, but with a spirit burning with ambition, and loath to consume itself in the drudgery of lecturing. “I have before me work enough for fifty years, and I must mark time under the yoke.” Already he was a little disillusioned with the wars, “the German Empire is extirpating the German spirit,” he wrote. The victory of 1871 had brought a certain coarse conceit into the soul of Germany; and nothing could be more hostile to spiritual growth. An impish quality in Nietzsche made him restless before every idol; and he determined to assail this dulling complacency by attacking its most respected exponent—David Strauss. “I enter society with a duel: Stendhal gave that advice.”

By 1872, Nietzsche became oath to consume his spirit in the drudgery of lecturing. He became quite restless, determined to assail  the prevailing complacency.

In the second of his well-named Thoughts out of Season—”Schopenhauer as Educator”—he turned his fire upon the chauvinistic universities. “Experience teaches us that nothing stands so much in the way of developing great philosophers as the custom of supporting bad ones in state universities…. No state would ever dare to patronize such men as Plato and Schopenhauer. … The state is always afraid of them.” He renewed the attack in “The Future of Our Educational Institutions”; and in “The Use and Abuse of History” he ridiculed the submergence of the German intellect in the minutiae of antiquarian scholarship. Already in these essays two of his distinctive ideas found expression: that morality, as well as theology, must be reconstructed in terms of the evolution theory; and that the function of life is to bring about “not the betterment of the majority, who, taken as individuals, are the most worthless types,” but “the creation of genius,” the development and elevation of superior personalities.

Two of the distinctive ideas of Nietzsche are: that morality, as well as theology, must be reconstructed in terms of the evolution theory; and that the function of life is to bring about the development and elevation of superior personalities.

The most enthusiastic of these essays was called “Richard Wagner in Bayreuth” It hailed Wagner as a Siegfried “who has never learned the meaning of fear,” and as founder of the only real art, because the first to fuse all the arts into a great esthetic synthesis; and it called upon Germany to realize the majestic significance of the coming Wagner festival -“Bayreuth signifies for us the morning sacrament on the day of battIe.” This was the voice of youthful worship, the voice of an almost femininely refined spirit who saw in Wagner something of that masculine decisiveness and courage which went later into the conception of the Superman. But the worshipper was a philosopher too, and recognized in Wagner a certain dictatorial egotism offensive to an aristocratic soul. He could not bear Wagner’s attack upon the French in 1871 (Paris had not been ‘kind to Tannhauser!); and he was astounded at Wagner’s jealousy of Brahms. The central theme even of this laudatory essay boded no good for Wagner: “The world has been Orientalized long enough; and men now yearn to be Hellenized.” But Nietzsche already knew that Wagner was half Semitic. 

Nietzsche saw in Wagner something of that masculine decisiveness and courage which went later into the conception of the Superman. But as a philosopher, he also recognized in Wagner a certain dictatorial egotism offensive to an aristocratic soul. 

And then, in 1876, came Bayreuth itself, and Wagnerian opera night after night,—without cuts,—and Wagneriennes, and emperors and princes and princelets, and the idle rich crowding out the impecunious devotees. Suddenly it dawned upon Nietzsche how much of Geyer there was in Wagner, how much The Ring of the Nibelungs owed to the theatrical effects which abounded in it, and how far the melos that some missed in the music had passed into the drama. “I, had had visions of a drama overspread with a symphony, a form growing out of the Lied. But the alien appeal of the opera drew Wagner irresistibly in the other direction.” II Nietzsche could not go in that direction; he detested the dramatic and the operatic. “I should be insane to stay here,” he wrote. “I await with terror each of these ‘long musical evenings … I can bear no more.”

Nietzsche could not stand the Wagnerian opera at Bayreuth in 1876 because it depended too much on theatrical effects and drama.

And so he fled, without a word to Wagner and in the midst of Wagner’s supreme triumph, while all the world worshiped; fled, “tired with disgust of all that is feminism and undisciplined rhapsody in that romanticism, that idealistic lying, that softening of the human conscience, which had conquered here one of the bravest souls.” And then, in far-away Sorrento, whom should he encounter but Wagner himself, resting from his victory, and full of a new opera he was writing—Parsifal. It was to be an exaltation of Christianity, pity, and fleshless love, and a world redeemed by a “pure fool,” “the fool in Christ.” Nietzsche turned away without a word, and never spoke to Wagner thereafter. “It is impossible for me to recognize greatness which is not united with candor and sincerity towards one’s self. The moment I make a discovery of this sort, a man’s achievements count for absolutely nothing with me.” He preferred Siegfried the rebel to Parsifal the saint, and could not forgive Wagner for coming to see in Christianity a moral value and beauty far outweighing its theological defects. In The Case of Wagner he lays about him with neurotic fury: 

Wagner flatters every nihilistic Buddhistic instinct, and disguises it in music; he flatters every kind of Christianity and every religious form and expression of decadence. … Richard Wagner, … a decrepit and desperate romantic, collapsed suddenly before the Holy Cross. Was there no German then with eyes to see, with pity in his conscience to bewail, this horrible spectacle? Am I then the only one he caused to suffer? … And yet I was one of the most corrupt Wagnerians. … Well, I am the child of this age, just like Wagner,—i. e., a decadent; but I am conscious of it; I defended myself against it.

Nietzsche preferred Siegfried the rebel to Parsifal the saint, and could not forgive Wagner for coming to see in Christianity a moral value and beauty far outweighing its theological defects.

Nietzsche was more “Apollonian” than he supposed: a lover of the subtle and delicate and refined, not of wild Dionysian vigor, nor of the tenderness of wine and song and love. “Your brother, with his air of delicate distinction, is a most uncomfortable fellow,” said Wagner to Frau Forster-Nietzsche; “… sometimes he is quite embarrassed at my jokes—and then I crack them more madly than ever.” There was so much of Plato in Nietzsche; he feared that art would unteach men to be hard; being tender-minded, he supposed that all the world was like himself,—dangerously near to practicing Christianity. There had not been wars enough to suit this gentle professor. And yet, in his quiet hours, he knew that Wagner was as right as Nietzsche, that Parsifal’s gentleness was as necessary as Siegfried’s strength, and that in some cosmic way these cruel oppositions merged into wholesome creative unities. He liked to think of this “stellar, friendship” that still bound him, silently, to the man who had been the most valuable and fruitful experience of his life. And when, in a lucid moment of his final insanity, he saw a picture of the long-dead Wagner, he said softly, “Him I loved much.”

But Nietzsche was a lover of the subtle and delicate and refined, not of wild Dionysian vigor. In his quiet hours, he knew that Parsifal’s gentleness was as necessary as Siegfried’s strength, and that in some cosmic way these cruel oppositions merged into wholesome creative unities.

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