Scruton on the Ring

On the website of Prospect, the British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton has written eloquently and profoundly on Wagner’s four-night opera cycle ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’:

Wagner wanted to be an opera composer, plus cultural philosopher plus political agitator plus founder of a new religion: ‘Kunstreligion’, centered around his own works which – as in Christianity – focus upon redemption. (R. Strauss: ‘I don’t understand where I should have to be redeemed from’.) In most articles and essays about the Ring, Wagner’s antisemitism is always put on the table as proof of one of W’s most serious moral flaws, and the question, whether caricatures of ‘Jews’ can be found in the operas. Scruton leaves that question alone, simply dismisses it, and concentrates on the possibilities of meaning and message.

The question of antisemitism is not easily forgotten though; its influence on nazism is often read back into history in a way, as if the annexation by the nazis of Wagner’s opinions about ‘Judaism’ makes him, at least partly, responsible for the holocaust. If you read some of the bulk of what has been written about W’s antisemitism, then it becomes clear that it is not the straight-forward, stupid, primitive hatred towards ‘other races’, in this case: ‘the Jews’, but a cultural critique against the damages that the industrial revolution was causing in society and the disruption of culture resulting from wild capitalism and increasing materialism. There was much intensity in W’s hatred towards the forces that were wrecking European culture, and thus in his antisemitism, but there always was much intensity in any feeling he happened to be burdened with, as can be heard in the music and read in Cosima Wagner’s diaries.

Since many people in the elites who drove 19C society: science, culture, finance, industry and the media forwards into modern times, were of Jewish descent, W thought (as many other people at the time) that it was their ‘Jewishness’, called ‘Judaism’ in the sense of a paradigm, that was the origin and cause of their supposedly negative influence in the world. It is a conclusion on the level of: ‘I see many communists with red hair, which means that red hair causes communism and if we want to fight against communism, we have to fight against people with red hair.’ Since the opening-up of the ghettos at the beginning of the 19th century, many Jews spread through society, left their orthodox religion behind but carried with them the mental training it had provided, which gave them a great advantage in the social struggle – hence their heightened profile. Ironically, many people who supported Wagner’s works and even ideas, were of Jewish descent, they apparently did not think his antisemitism was meant for them – after all, they were ‘assimilated’. Later-on, the addition of biological elements to antisemitism in general, injected by a misconceived Darwinism, turned antisemitism into a much more poisonous abberation.

Wagner absorbed many different strands of 19C thinking but never synthesized them into a comprehensive whole, hence the many contradictory interpretations of the Ring, because really, the plot and multi-narrative has too many vague elements and different levels of possible meaning, to offer a clear ‘message’. The same is true of Tristan and Parsifal, which have stimulated a comparable range of mutually-exclusive interpretations.

Scruton has many interesting and meaningful things to say about the Ring, and I think on the point of its depiction of moral and spiritual matters in a post-religious world – i.e. our modern world – he hits upon a fundamental truth. In his analyses of details, attempting to connect rather loose patterns which are suggested in the work itself, I think there is more Scruton in them than Wagner, but given the subject that is an enrichment: the Ring stimulates further thought along a couple of its axes.

People often forget or don’t spot the insecurity which is at the root of W’s art. Hence the verbal and musical repetitions, lest there would be one audience member left who would not quite understand what the composer had meant, and thereby blurring any meaning all the more. Wagner never had an academic training and was entirely autodidact in religion, philosophy, and politics….. only in music he had some training by the organist of the Thomas church in Leipzig. Which means that often his intuition in these non-musical fields could be (kind of) apt but the clarification and objectification very clumsy. Real academics with the knife-sharp intelligence of a Scruton can pick-up some threads and spin them further.

Wagner will continue to offer food for thought….. his inconsistencies and insecurities, and what is often called his character flaws, reflect contemporary concerns, and in these fragmented mirrors we can see the predicament of our age – as it was for the 19th and the 20th century.





4 Responses to Scruton on the Ring

  1. You may have noted Dr. Scruton’s several references to my interpretation of Wagner’s “Ring” at my website, which was sponsored by Dr. Scruton, and for which he wrote the introduction.

    I bring this to your attention because you state, above, that Wagner never synthesized the various strands of 19th century thinking into a comprehensive whole. My book “The Wound That Will Never Heal,” which is the product of 38 years’ effort on my part to demonstrate the conceptual unity of Wagner’s “Ring,” and its status as the frame of reference within which his other canonic operas and music-dramas can be understood, offers what I regard as very strong evidence for the comprehensive synthesis which you deny in your remark. For this reason I thought you might find my book an interesting challenge.

    Your friend from,

    Paul Brian Heise

  2. John says:

    Thank you! That sounds really interesting….. After having read so much material about Wagner and the Ring, material which shows so much variety and conceptual differences, that my final impression increasingly pointed towards an image with many cracks and holes in it. I will look for the book.

  3. John says:

    The difficulty I have with interpretations which seek a unified ‘message’ of the Ring, could be demonstrated by this excerpt from Scruton’s introduction on Heise’s website:

    “Two ideas animate the subsequent dramas. The first is that we are redeemed not by renouncing love, but by renouncing life for the sake of love. The second is that we are redeemed through art, and through the artist-hero (Siegfried) who takes on the task that religion failed to accomplish. The artist-hero presents a new kind of redemption, which is the redemption of ‘wonder’. Instead of looking for our vindication in the transcendental world, art shows that we are vindicated here and now, by our own capacity to recognise the beauty of the world, and to weave love and allusion into the warp of the sensory order. Which of these two forms of wisdom does Wagner recommend? Heise suggests that the two philosophies coincide: redemption through loving renunciation, and redemption through art involve the same sacrificial stance.”

    To begin with, ‘redemption’ suggests suffering, in this case: existential suffering. That this comes from consciousness, is only one source; the other sources are the difficulties of life itself of which the animals, could they speak, would have really quite much to tell. That we exist at all, is already a positive, creative given; love is inextricably bound-up with life itself, and it is therefore perfectly natural that love creates new life, in a literal sense through procreation and in a mental sense in the form of stimulation and inspiration (also of art). Consciousness is also part of the creative life force, and renouncing life for the sake of love, from this point of view, does not make sense but indicates suicidal tendencies – maybe because of the incapacity of putting consciousness in the ‘right’ place in the whole of life. This is so basic, that everything following from such suicidal assumption is, in my opinion, flawed, contradictory, innerly broken. If this is exactly why Wagner’s work is considered as the apt symbol of modernity, then it may be instructive to compare it with Beethoven’s work, produced in a context of upheavels of modernity, comparable to the disruptions that characterized the 19th century, and also by a suffering artist. Beethoven thought also, like Wagner, that music had philosophical capacities, but he thought that music was a higher revelation than philosophy. If B’s work is understood philosophically, the conclusion is that in that admirable body of achievement, all the contradictions and sufferings of the human condition are there, but synthesized in a way that escaped Wagner. I think that is because B did not attempt to verbalize his vision of the world and of life, or tried to make this vision concrete through stories, myths, operatic situations. ‘Absolute music’ does not carry the bagage of opera but concentrates on the ‘inner drama’ which is non-conceptual, has no concrete meaning in the sense that language has concrete meaning (relatively speaking….).

    Then, there is a difference between spirituality and religion. The latter is the form humans create to give the ineffable inner experience of spirituality an accessible structure, a window upon ‘the beyond’ which is felt close and yet invisible and imponderable. Thus the different religions of the world cultures, and their different characters over the course of history. When the ‘artist-hero’ takes-on the task which religion failed to accomplish (which is in itself already a generalized, and very questionable statement – many people found and still find ‘redemption’ in traditional religion), the notion of spirituality has already been forgotten or denied or rejected. Siegfried is a lamentable figure in the Ring, with his cruelty, bombast, stupidity and general rudeness: an offensive symbol for something like an ‘artist-hero’. I can only interpret this protagonist as a fake, except when he is enthralled by a lady: the duets with Brunhilde in Siegfried and Gotterdammerung. And he is killed by the evil forces, so the redemption through ‘wonder’ does not achieve very much in the here and now. One can tie oneself in knots to find some explanation for this self-defeating psychological construction, like much of Christian theology is about the self-sacrifice of the Son of God, but in the latter case the depiction of the hero is more believable and in all senses, more admirable.

    The beauty in the world can be seen as relating, in some way, to the beauty of the spiritual world, if it exists. In this sense, art creates a relationship to this world by allusion and metaphor. This is a much more direct and ‘simple’ solution to the ‘problem’ that consciousness separates us from the animalistic and therefore pleasant unconsciousness which evolution forces the human species to leave behind. So, one could say: God is not dead (as Nietzsche claimed) but organized religion has not developed enough to keep pace with the changes in the human condition.

    Scruton writes: “Heise suggests that the two philosophies coincide: redemption through loving renunciation [of life; JB], and redemption through art involve the same sacrificial stance.” So, renouncing life and see and understand the beauty of the world involve both sacrifical stances? Does considering the beauty of the world require some sacrifice, beyond the spending of time that also could have been spent on something more directly related to survival? Or is something else meant? I will have to wait until having read Heise’s book. It is this woolly thinking, full of suggestion but without any clear line of thought, which is entirely and characteristically Wagnerian: full of pathos and a sense of the tragic, but without the clarity that philosophy requires, as far as it is possible. It is emotionally-loaded grand gestures.

    That the ring in the Ring is the symbol of science, as Heise seems to suggest (as mentioned by Scruton in his introduction) may be true, but as far as I know there is no single indication in the plot of the Ring or in Wagner’s own writings about it. What is the ring? Maybe it is a deep archetypal symbol for everything that contradicts the creative life forces (including love), and that may also include science. But why should it be so precise? To make it fit the other interpretations of symbols?

    Scruton is, apart from a philosopher and musicologist, also a poet, an artist, as his prose so clearly reveals, where sharp analysis often gives way to poetic flights of great pathos and beauty. I think if we want to understand what the Ring is, and what it is about, we should try to keep our head cool and not let us be taken along the grand sweeps of Wagner’s music.

    It will be clear from all of this that I am not a ‘Wagnerian’, but I will explore Heise’s interpretation further…. if I have the time for it.

  4. Paul Heise says:

    Dear John:

    Well, have you ever had the chance to read my online “Ring” book posted at If you did, you would find that I’ve answered all of the reservations you made in your remarks above, which are based entirely on what Sir Roger Scruton said about my book, rather than on my book. For instance, my book takes note of the fact that religious belief lives on among a large proportion of the people long after faith has started to decline in the mainstream culture. You’d also discover that the Ring of consciousness in my interpretation is the basis not only of science but of art and religion. In other words, man’s gift of consciousness (Alberich’s) Ring, is the basis for all uniquely human achievement. The distinction is whether one employs this gift of conscious thought for objective observation of the world (as scientific inquiry is supposed to do), or its capacity for artistic, subjective imagination to produce religion, art, and other forms of subjective value such as morality. When Wotan and Loge co-opt Alberich’s Ring power, they transfer it from the hands of someone who would use the gift of consciousness to acquire that objective knowledge which is the basis of true, worldly power, thus keeping the mind prisoner, in order to live within a subjective world of the imagination in religion and, after religious faith begins to lose its all-consuming power over society, secular art. In other words, my “Ring” study posted since 2011 at is much more nuanced than the brief summary which Sir Roger provides. I’d be interested to learn what you think about my actual online book. Your friend from, Paul Heise

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