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The Occidental Observer April 10, 2017

Wagner Reclaimed:
A Review of "The Ring of Truth" by Roger Scruton



Roger Scruton is Britain’s (many would say the world’s) leading conservative philosopher and intellectual. His prolific output includes books on philosophy, politics, art, architecture, music and aesthetics. Scruton, who was knighted in 2016, writes with unusual clarity and fluency and is a model for how to combine analytical rigor with lucidity and accessibility. His critiques of leftist thought are, however, ultimately hamstrung by his unwillingness to stray outside the bounds of acceptable thought. Scruton has assiduously avoided straying into the forbidden fields of race realism or an honest discussion of the Jewish Question.

Despite his timid and ultimately ineffectual brand of intellectual conservatism, Scruton has much to offer readers on the Alt-Right. He has a profound knowledge of European high culture and particularly the Western musical tradition. His analyses of the German composer Richard Wagner are always insightful, and his 2016 book The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungis no exception. It offers readers a rich account of Wagner’s masterpiece though an examination of its drama, music, symbolism and philosophy. Scruton’s goal is to interpret one of the supreme works of the European imagination to “show its relevance to the world in which we live.”

Wagner’s Ring cycle is enormous in every way. Performed over four evenings, and made up of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, it lasts some fifteen hours. Its composition began in 1848, a year when Europe was torn by nationalist and democratic revolutions, but not finished until 26 years later. The final product is widely considered the finest piece of musical theatre ever written, and even critics of Wagner grudgingly acknowledge the magnitude and importance  of his achievement, agreeing with Tchaikovsky’s assessment that: “Whatever one might think of Wagner’s titanic work, no one can deny the monumental nature of the task he set himself, and which he has fulfilled; nor the heroic inner strength needed to complete the task. It was truly one of the greatest artistic endeavors which the human mind has ever conceived.” The German critic Wilhelm Mohr, who had originally dismissed Bayreuth as "cloud-cuckoo land,” left the 1876 premiere of The Ring comparing Wagner to the "two masters of all masters, Shakespeare and Beethoven."[2]

The Ring began life as a single drama, devoted to the story of Siegfried's death as Wagner had extracted and embellished it from his reading of the old German Nibelungenlied and the Icelandic Völsunga saga. The original is a far cry from the masterpiece that Wagner eventually composed from its useable fragments. He looked for a subject that would provide a suitably large-scale vehicle for his vision of contemporary German society and destiny. The result, notes Scruton, while "far from authentic as an account of Viking theology," is nevertheless "a remarkable attempt to give coherence and meaning to the pagan narratives."[3] The final product, which Wagner intended to "involve all life" encompasses an emotional spectrum wider than any other opera, from superhuman rage and self-annihilating heroism to the meanest of base emotions.

The opera revolves around a ring, fashioned in gold stolen from the Rhinemaidens by the dwarf Alberich — a ring that grants its possessor the power to rule the world. Alberich is tricked out of the ring by the god Wotan who uses to it pay the giants Fafner and Fasolt for building Valhalla. It is subsequently hoarded by Fafner, then won by Wotan's grandson Siegfried who slays Fafner (who has magically transformed himself into a dragon). Siegfried and his betrothed Brunnhilde later foil Alberich's son Hagen's plan to acquire the ring, which is finally returned to the Rhinemaidens when Siegfried is killed by Hagen as the old world is destroyed by fire and water. Certain themes recur throughout the tetralogy: the abuse of power, the immutability of fate, the need for atonement and redemption, and the status of love as the "final true and knowing redeemer."

Many of these themes will be familiar to readers of the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien who unconvincingly denied he had been influenced by Wagner. As the composer intermittently worked on the dramatic poem and music over a quarter of a century, it was reconceived as a quasi-religious festival, with the Oresteia of Aeschylus in mind. It was to unfold "a world-embracing myth, through intimate human dramas."[4] Its characters were conceived both as believable people and symbols of universal powers. By following their fate the audience would be led by natural sympathy towards a vision of redemption in which human beings stand higher than the gods.

Sir Roger Scruton

The essence of Wagnerian opera lies in the music which deepens and subtilizes the overt meaning of the storyline. Profound, far-reaching psychic changes are accomplished through the music with little or no help from the words, and The Ring includes some of the most powerful scenes in all opera: the opening which conjures up the Rhine in a single, extended and elaborated chord; the Entry of the Gods into Valhalla at the end of Rheingold; the Ride of Valkyries and Magic Fire Music in the third act of Die Walküre; or Siegfried’s funeral march from Götterdämmerung.

The Ring is notable for its 150 or so leitmotifs, musical phrases associated with an idea or character. Not simply accompanying the libretto, they reveal the subconscious feelings of the characters or anticipate what will happen later in the story. There is no one-for-one correspondence between a leitmotif and the concept, idea or emotion that is first attached to it. The leitmotif has a potential to develop — but to develop musically. Scruton observes how “by implanting the principal of musical development in the heart of the drama Wagner is able to lift the action out of the events portrayed on the stage, and to endow it with a universal, cosmic and religious significance.”[5]

The construction of Wagner as anti-Semitic moral defective

As I have previously discussed at length, a full appreciation of Wagner’s genius and remarkable artistic and intellectual legacy has, in recent decades, been occluded by the preoccupation of our Jewish-dominated intellectual establishment with Wagner’s “anti-Semitism” and his putative status as the intellectual and spiritual forerunner to Adolf Hitler. Even Scruton, while mostly dismissive of the aura of moral turpitude that now disfigures the composer’s memory, feels compelled to mildly validate the construction of Wagner as “anti-Semitic” moral defective. The task the author sets himself in The Ring of Truth — of conveying the intellectual and artistic meaning of Wagner’s great masterpiece — is made all the more difficult, he notes, by the fact that

enormous obstacles stand in the way of this endeavour, by no means the least of them being Richard Wagner, whose vast ambitions and titanic character have made him into a regular target of denigration in our anti-heroic age. From the point of view of his posthumous reputation, Wagner’s life was riddled with mistakes. He made no secret of his anti-Semitism, and broadcast it to the world in a notorious pamphlet. He provided the story and the characters that would, in their Nazi caricature, become the icons of German racism. …

Nor did his mistakes end with his death. Not only did he become Hitler’s favourite composer, but the Nazi caricature of the Jew was read back into Wagner’s villains. Alberich, Mime and Klingsor were regularly presented on the German stage as though imagined by Dr Goebbels, and his theatre in Bayreuth was used to turn Wagner into the founder and high priest of a new and sinister religion.[6]

The denigration of Wagner in the post-World War II era, spearheaded by Jewish musicologists and intellectuals (e.g., T.W. Adorno), established the pattern of treating his works as expressions of a deeply pathological personality, where the musicological task at hand was to “analyse them as exhibits in a medical case study, and to create the impression that we can best understand them not for what they say but for what they reveal about their creator.”[7] Wagner’s autobiography is regularly trawled for evidence of psychopathology and “for the proof — however fleeting and arcane — that in this or that respect he was just as ordinary as the rest of us, even though the mind revealed in the book is one of the most extraordinary and comprehensive that has ever existed.”[8]

This approach can be traced back to the late-nineteenth century when Nietzsche tried to break the spell Wagner had cast on him in The Case of Wagner (1888) and Nietzsche Contra Wagner (1895). In these books the philosopher rejected Wagner’s moral vision which, he claimed, translated directly into aesthetic faults in music that corrupted listeners by encouraging surrender to a polluted ideal. Nietzsche insisted that Wagner’s music is disingenuous, only pretending to the emotion it proclaims. The noble music only serves to disguise the fact that the “heroic” characters seeking redemption in his operas are just analogues of the morally sick refuse of nineteenth century society. Nietzsche also repeatedly attacked Wagner for his personal “anti-Semitism.”

Wagner was surprised, but not displeased, by the backlash that resulted from the publication of his Judaism in Music. In a letter to the composer Franz Liszt he noted that “I seem to have struck home with terrible force, which suits my purpose admirably, since that is precisely the sort of shock I wanted to give them.”[9] In panicked response to Wagner’s cogent and incisive critique of Jewish influence on German art and culture, Jewish critics soon settled on the response of ascribing psychiatric disorders to the composer, and this has been the stock approach ever since. As early as 1872 the Jewish psychiatrist Theodor Puschmann, offered a psychological assessment of Wagner which was widely reported in the German press. He claimed Wagner was suffering from “chronic megalomania, paranoia … and moral derangement.”[10] Cesare Lombroso, the famous nineteenth-century Jewish Italian criminologist branded Wagner “a sexual psychopath.”[11]

Later, with the advent of Freudian psychoanalysis and expressionism in art and music, the habit arose of treating works of art as journeys into the inner life of their creator. Scruton observes:

From the first days of psychoanalysis, Wagner’s works were singled out as both confirming and demanding a psychoanalytic reading. Their super-saturated longing, their cry for redemption through sexual love, their exaltation of Women as the vehicle of purity and sacrifice — all these features have naturally suggested, to the psychoanalytic mind, incestuous childhood fantasies, involving a fixation on the mother as wife. Such is the interpretation maintained by [the Jewish psychoanalysts] Max Graf and Otto Rank, both writing in 1911. Thereafter the habit of reading the works in terms of the life became firmly established in the literature.[12]         

It was only, however, after World War II that the notion that Wagner’s music dramas contained implicit fascism and “anti-Semitism” gained traction. Frankfurt School intellectual Theodor Adorno led the assault, condemning Wagner as a symbol of all that was hateful in the culture of nineteenth-century Germany. Scruton notes how Adorno’s criticisms of Wagner were deeply influenced by “the Holocaust and all that it meant concerning the roots of German nationalism.”[13]

Theodor Adorno

Adorno attacked Wagner as a purveyor of “phantasmagoria” whose aim and effect is to falsify reality, and likened Wagner’s system of leitmotifs to advertising jingles in the way they imprinted themselves on the memory. Adorno detected a sinister agenda behind Wagner’s stated purpose regarding The Ring that: “I shall within these four evenings succeed in artistically conveying my purpose to the emotional — not the critical — understanding of the spectators.” Adorno here echoed Nietzsche in dismissing the Wagnerian magic as a kind of manipulation. Wagner’s musical innovations (ironically later imitated by Hollywood) intoxicated audiences, leaving them dangerously susceptible to political indoctrination. In every crowd applauding a Wagnerian work, Adorno insisted, “lurked the virulent old evil” of “demagogy.” Elizabeth Whitcombe points out how

Adorno believed that Wagner’s work is “proselytizing” and “collective-narcissistic.” Adorno’s complaint about the “collective-narcissistic” quality of Wagner’s music is really a complaint that Wagner’s music appeals to deep emotions of group cohesion. Like the Germanic myths that his music was often based on, Wagner’s music evokes the deepest passions of ethnic collectivism and ethnic pride. In Adorno’s view, such emotions are nothing more than collective narcissistic, at least partly because a strong sense of German ethnic pride tends to view Jews as outsiders — as the “other.” It is also not surprising that Adorno, as a self-consciously Jewish intellectual, would find such music abhorrent.[14]

Adorno set the template for a generation of Jewish intellectuals and musicologists, including Robert Gutman who, in his egregious 1968 book Richard Wagner: The Man, The Mind and His Music, portrayed his subject as a racist, psychopathic, proto-Nazi monster. Gutman’s scholarship was questioned at the time, but this did not prevent his widely reviewed and promoted book from becoming a best-seller. One source notes how “An entire generation of students has been encouraged to accept Gutman’s caricature of Richard Wagner. Even intelligent people, who have never read Wagner’s writings or tried to penetrate them and failed … have read Gutman’s book and accepted his opinions as facts.”[15] The long-time Jewish music critic for the New York Times, Harold Schonberg, was one of them, describing Wagner in his Lives of the Great Composers as “amoral, hedonistic, selfish, virulently racist, arrogant, filled with the gospels of the superman … and the superiority of the German race…; he stands for all that is unpleasant in human character.”[16]  

Gutman’s characterization was obsessively reinforced by Marc A. Wiener in his 1995 polemic Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination. Putting Wagner on the psychoanalyst’s couch, Wiener insisted that “Wagner’s vehement hatred of Jews was based on a model or projection involving a deep-seated fear of precisely those features of the Self (diminutive stature, nervous demeanor and avarice, as well as lascivious nature) that are projected upon and then recognized and stigmatized in the hated Other.”[17] Modern audiences have been encouraged by the likes of Gutman and Wiener to read into Wagner’s operas latent signs of “anti-Semitism,” where, for instance, the gold-loving Nibelung lord Alberich in Siegfried is a symbol of Jewish materialism.


For Jewish music writer Larry Solomon, Alberich is clearly “the greedy merchant Jew, who becomes the power-crazed goblin-demon lusting after Aryan maidens, attempting to contaminate their blood, and who sacrifices his lust in order to acquire the gold.” Declaring that virulent racism “permeates all aspects of his music dramas through metaphorical suggestion,” Solomon insists that Wagner is always “just a step away from actually calling his evil characters ‘Jews,’ even though it was obvious to his contemporaries.” According to this analysis, Wagner’s operas are unquestionably “tools of racist, proto-Nazi hate propaganda, written for the purpose of redeeming the German race from Jewish contamination, and for expelling the Jews from Germany.” Moreover, Wagner’s malign influence continues insofar as “the subtext of racist metaphors has not diminished in Wagner’s operas, so they will continue to exert a subliminal influence.”[18]

Scruton notes how such interpretations have strongly influenced the discussion of Wagner’s works, where “revenge on Wagner” has for some time been “an almost obligatory part of the intellectual’s apprenticeship.”[19] Books like Jean-Jacques Nattiez’s Wagner Androgyne and Joachim Kohler’s Richard Wagner: Last of the Titans continue a now venerable tradition in regarding “anti-Semitism as the meaning and Oedipal confusion as the cause of just about everything the master composed.” Even the respected British musicologist Barry Millington frequently writes “as though anti-Semitism is somewhere near the top of Wagner’s musical and intellectual agenda.”[20]

The invidious construction of Wagner as “anti-Semitic” moral pariah, and the psychoanalytical interpretation of his works to confirm this tendentious preconception, continues despite the discredited status of Freudian psychoanalysis, and despite Wagner scholars Michael Tanner and Brian Magee having offered powerful rebuttals of this approach. Wagner explicitly stated in Judaism in Music that what makes Jews such unsatisfactory characters in real life also makes them unsuitable for representation in art, including dramatic art.

In ordinary life the Jew, who as we know possesses a God of his own, strikes us first by his outward appearance which, whatever European nationality we belong to, has something unpleasantly foreign to that nationality. We instinctively feel we have nothing in common with a man who looks like that. … Ignoring the moral aspect of this unpleasant freak of nature, and considering only the aesthetic, we will merely point out that to us this exterior could never be acceptable as a subject for a painting; if a portrait painter has to portray a Jew, he usually takes his model from his imagination, and wisely transforms or else completely omits everything that in real life characterizes the Jew’s appearance. One never sees a Jew on the stage: the exceptions are so rare that they serve to confirm this rule. We can conceive of no character, historical or modern, hero or lover, being played by a Jew, without instinctively feeling the absurdity of such an idea. This is very important: a race whose general appearance we cannot consider suitable for aesthetic purposes is by the same token incapable of any artistic presentation of its nature.[21]         

In this passage (first published in 1850 and then again unchanged in 1869), Wagner totally rejects the idea of Jews playing characters and characters playing Jews on stage, stating categorically that the Jewish race is “incapable of any artistic presentation of his nature,” and leading in to this statement with the words: “This is very important.” Magee observes that here “Wagner positively and actively repudiates the idea of trying to present Jews on the stage; and if we seek an explanation of why he never did so, here we have it.”[22] Wagner would not, contrary to the wishes of many of his friends (and his own professional and pecuniary interests) have gone out of his way to publish this again in 1869, if, as widely alleged, he had just done the opposite and made Beckmesser a Jewish character in his Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg which had premiered the previous year.

Richard Wagner

Wagner produced thousands of pages of written material analyzing every aspect of himself, his operas, and his opinions on Jews (and innumerable other topics); and yet the purported Jewish characterizations identified by Gutman, Wiener and others are never mentioned; nor are there any references to them in Cosima Wagner’s copious diaries. It can hardly be argued that Wagner was hiding his true feelings for he took great pride in speaking out vociferously on the Jews, and did not care whom he offended — famously labelling them “the plastic demon of decomposition.” Moreover, none of Wagner’s supposedly obvious characterizations were ever used in the propaganda of the Third Reich. Accordingly, to identify such characters as Beckmesser, Alberich, Mime, Klingsor and Kundry as Jewish caricatures is entirely speculative.

Even Nietzsche, who attacked Wagner on numerous occasions for his personal hostility to Jews, never alleged there was “anti-Semitism” in the operas. Furthermore, the audiences that flocked to Wagner’s works all over the world did not perceive their supposedly obvious anti-Jewish subtexts for, as Magee points out, “in the huge literature we have on the subject, unpublished as well as published, the question arises rarely until the middle of the twentieth century.”[23] Magee observes that many critics (especially the Jewish ones) are “simply swept forward by the momentum of their own anger” into alleging the omnipresence of anti-Semitism in Wagner’s operas. He notes that “to a number of them it comes easily anyway, for they are adept at finding anti-Semitism in places where no one had detected it before. … At the root of it all is an unforgiving rage at the mega-outrage of anti-Semitism — and at the root of that in the modern world is the Holocaust.”[24]

Wagner was the first artistic giant who was an avowed German (and later White) nationalist. After reading Gobineau’s bestselling An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, he declared that “we should have no History of Man at all, had there been no movements, creations, and achievements of the White man.”[25]  As a man genuinely committed to prioritizing the interests of his own people, it was inevitable Wagner would confront the Jewish Question. In 1878 he confessed that “it is distressing for me always to come back to theme of the Jews, but one cannot escape it as one looks to the future.”[26] For the hyperbolic Larry Solomon, no other composer had a greater impact on history than Richard Wagner, and “his devastating political legacy is second only to Hitler.”[27] Despite the paucity of evidence for Wagner having exercised the high level of intellectual influence on Hitler that is often alleged, for the Jewish music critic David Goldman, Wagner is eminently worthy of execration on the basis that he “mixed the compost heap in which the flowers of the 20th-century’s greatest evil took root.” For Goldman, “The Jewish people have had no enemy more dedicated and more dangerous, precisely because of his enormous talent.”[28]

The Jewish obsession with Wagner shows no signs of abating almost two decades into the twenty-first century. A new play by the Jewish playwright Victor Gordon entitled You Will Not Play Wagnerrevolves around the fact that “since the Holocaust, performing works by the composer Richard Wagner has been taboo in Israel.” This play, soon to be premiered in Sydney, is set in contemporary Tel Aviv, where a young Israeli conductor “causes a storm” by performing Wagner, “whose anti-Semitism and the use of his music by the Nazis are well known,” in the finals of an international competition for conductors. His decision brings him “into conflict with Esther, Holocaust survivor and competition patron who has her own tragic connection with Wagner’s music.”

Promotional banner for You Will Not Play Wagner

While keen to move beyond this Jewish construction of Wagner as proto-Nazi embodiment of evil, Scruton does single out the famous forging scene from Siegfried as one that is “uncomfortably near the bone for those sensitive to the ‘blond beast’ interpretation of Wagner.”[29] Here the fearless Siegfried files, smelts, casts and hardens the steel of his father Siegmund’s shattered sword while the malevolent Mime, the hateful, sycophantic dwarf who has raised Siegfried (and is ultimately killed by him), exults in the background over his prospective future as lord of the Ring. For Solomon, Mime is here depicted by Wagner “as a stinking ghetto Jew,” while “Siegfried represents the conscience-free, fearless Teuton, he feels no remorse. … He is glorified as the warrior hero of the Ring, the archetype proto-Nazi.”[30] Scruton calls the scene “a musical and dramatic triumph” and notes that whether Wagner used stereotypically Jewish elements in his characterization of Mime is unknowable and ultimately irrelevant because the composer’s artistry transcends the elements of which it is made.

In offering politically incorrect assessments like these, and for being insufficiently deferential to the orthodox conception of Wagner as proto-Nazi anti-Semitic monster, Scruton incurred the disapproval of one reviewer of The Ring of Truth who protested that:

Sir Roger is not always so attuned to historical and philosophical context. Take his discussion of anti-Semitism, which looms large in the popular understanding of Wagner. Scholars enjoy mining the operas for evidence of how anti-Jewish Wagner “really” was (Alberich, the money-grabbing dwarf, is a particularly controversial character). But in Sir Roger’s view, these critics’ single-minded focus on Wagner’s anti-Semitism means that they fail to understand the many other ideas explored in the operas. While this has some truth, in his own analysis he overcompensates, choosing to ignore the anti-Semitism theme almost entirely. It is a bizarre choice, which leaves the discussion incomplete.

The Jewish dominated cultural-Marxist establishment’s success in pathologizing Wagner is reflected in how Wagner and his works are discussed in university courses, in popular culture and in the media. It is also reflected in productions of the operas. The result, according to Scruton: “The antagonism has made it almost impossible now to experience these works as their creator intended, since they are regularly produced in such a way as to satirize or deny their inner meaning.” No work of Wagner’s has suffered more from this type of creative censorship that The Ring of the Nibelung, which tells the story of civilization from beginning to end.

Part 2.

“Sarcasm and satire run riot on the stage”

Productions of The Ring in the modern era have invariably sought to satirize the drama to subvert the message Wagner attempts to convey. Scruton observes that, notwithstanding the increasingly tiresome preoccupation with dissecting the tetralogy for anti-Jewish and proto-fascistic themes and images (and counteracting them), The Ring is also, on a more basic level, problematic for opera producers because its “world of sacred passions and heroic actions offends against the sceptical and cynical temper of our times. The fault, however, lies not in Wagner’s tetralogy, but in the closed imagination of those who are so often invited to produce it.”[1]

The template for modern productions was set with the Bayreuth production of 1976, when Pierre Boulez sanitized the music, and Patrice Chereau satirized the text. Scruton notes that:

Since that ground-breaking venture, The Ring has been regarded as an opportunity to deconstruct not only Wagner but the whole conception of the human condition that glows so warmly in his music. The Ring is deliberately stripped of its legendary atmosphere and primordial setting, and everything is brought down to the quotidian level, jettisoning the mythical aspect of the story, so as to give us only half of what it means. The symbols of cosmic agency — spear, sword, ring — when wielded by scruffy humans on abandoned city lots, appear like toys in the hands of lunatics. The opera-goer will therefore very seldom be granted the full experience of Wagner’s masterpiece.[2]

This certainly describes the Ring I attended in Melbourne in 2016. While the soloists and the orchestra were excellent, Neil Armfield’s postmodernist, Eurotrash-inspired production detracted from the power of the music and drama. Following established precedent, Armfield set much of the action in a space akin to an industrial wasteland. He lampooned the heroic forging scene by setting it in a tawdry apartment replete with fluorescent lighting, microwave, bar fridge and bunk beds. Fafner (meant to have transformed himself into a dragon) was depicted as a transvestite-like figure smearing make-up on his face and later appearing naked on the stage (see the lead photograph).

Productions like these deliberately sabotage Wagner’s attempt to engage his audiences at the emotional level of religion. They let “sarcasm and satire run riot on the stage, not because they have anything to prove or say in the shadow of this unsurpassably noble music, but because nobility has become intolerable. The producer strives to distract the audience from Wagner’s message, and to mock every heroic gesture, lest the point of the drama should finally come home.”[3]

The philosophy and meaning of The Ring

Schopenhauer is often singled out as the most important intellectual influence on Wagner, since it was his reading and rereading of Schopenhauer that helped to crystallise the pessimistic vision of Wagner’s later years. Prior to his encounter with Schopenhauer, however, it was Fichte, Hegel and Feuerbach who most shaped Wagner’s worldview, and Scruton observes how Fichte’s notion of the self, the Young Hegelian critique of capitalism, Feuerbach’s repudiation of religion, and Schopenhauer’s theory of the will all left traces in his musical dramas.

The Ring was first conceived when Hegel and the Young Hegelians were setting the agenda for German philosophy. During the 1849 revolution in Dresden, as he kept watch from the Frauenkirche on behalf of the revolutionaries, Wagner was discovered deeply immersed in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. In Scruton’s assessment, The Ring is predominately a post-Hegelian, rather than a Schopenhauerian, work — with Wagner having fully absorbed the Hegelian idea of Selbstbestimmung, where the free, morally responsible individual emerges from the condition of nature.

G.W.F. Hegel

A famous passage in The Phenomenology of Spirit describes the transition from a “life-and-death struggle” in the state of nature to the acceptance of universal moral law. Through his enslavement the slave acquires a consciousness of himself as an agent (inner freedom), while his enslaver gradually loses that consciousness and with it his sense of agency. The slave eventually rises up and binds his oppressor and the roles are repeatedly reversed until the moment when each party sees the other as an end instead of a means, recognizing that freedom is their shared condition and thus accepting the governance of a universal moral law. This process, where freedom and mutual respect emerge from the condition of slavery, exemplifies the Hegelian “dialectic”: the emergence from opposition of a new condition that transcends and resolves the conflict. Scruton observes how:

The Ring tells the story of Siegfried’s quest for freedom and individuality through contests with a dwarf, a dragon, a god and the woman who teaches him fear. … The reverberations of Hegel’s argument can be felt not only in that central story but throughout the Ring cycle: in the self-torment of Alberich, who has forsworn love for the sake of power; in the dark underworld of Nibelheim, whose subjugated people are instruments of a will that they cannot influence; in the tragedy of Die Walküre, in which two human beings win through to freedom only to find that the god who planned this can no longer permit it. And Hegel’s account of law and its indispensable presence in the life of the free being is embodied in the character of Wotan, king of the gods.[4]

Hegel, who was an admirer of Napoleon, had a strong belief in the historical importance of heroes. In his Philosophy of History, published posthumously in 1834, he argued that it was largely through the intervention of heroes like Julius Caesar and Napoleon that history changed and new worlds came into being. Scruton notes that Wagner was reading this very work when he began the poem of The Ring, and “at first conceived the work as the story of just such a hero, Siegfried, who was to usher in the new world of human freedom after the downfall of the gods.”[5]

An “attempt to salvage the kernel of religion”

Scruton’s central thesis in The Ring of Truth is that Wagner conceived the tetralogy as a quasi-religious parable to provide modern people, who had lost their faith in the divine order, with “a vision of the ideal, achieved with no help from the gods, a vision in which art takes the place of religion in expressing and fulfilling our deepest spiritual longings.”[6] Scruton bases this on the statements of Wagner himself who, for example, once famously declared the goal of art should be “the presentation of religion in a lively form.” Wagner endeavoured to offer his audiences a post-Christian folk metaphysics that recaptures what religion means in a world without religion.

While Wagner was not in a conventional sense a religious believer, Scruton claims that “he took a profoundly religious view of the human condition” and aimed in all his mature works to “give credibility to the thought that we are rescued by our ideals, despite their purely human origin, and also because of it.”[7] In his essay “Art and Religion” from 1880, Wagner argued that: “It is reserved to art to salvage the kernel of religion, inasmuch as the mythical images which religion would wish to be believed as true are apprehended in art for their symbolic value, and through ideal representation of those symbols art reveals the concealed deep truth within them.”[8]

In his post-religious conception of the role of art, Wagner was influenced by the German post-Hegelian philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach’s critique of religion as laid out in his 1843 book Principles for the Philosophy of the Future. Borrowing the concept of the “fetish” from Kant, Feuerbach argued that religion is a form of fetishism in which people attribute their virtue, freedom and happiness to an unreal spiritual realm. Through religion we make our virtue into an object and then worship it as our master. The consequence, he insisted, is that we are alienated from ourselves and separated from our fulfilment. Religion deprives us of our powers by investing them in unreal objects, and gives us an excuse to be morally inferior to our own fictions. The result is to alienate believers from the moral qualities they need to live fully and freely in society. Religion was, in Feuerbach’s assessment, a manifestation of man’s self-enslavement.

Ludwig Feuerbach

While never fully embracing Feuerbach’s prescriptions for the ideal society, Scruton notes that Wagner “half accepted Feuerbach’s vision of a new political order, in which human beings would be liberated by scientific knowledge from the enslavement imposed by the old religion and the old forms of political authority.”[9] While accepting that religion alienated people from their true nature, Wagner differed from Feuerbach in regarding “the sacred, the spiritual and the sacrificial as fundamental aspects of the human condition, and necessary to our fulfilment.”[10] Wagner saw his art as expressing and completing these “religious” emotions in a post-Christian West.

Central to Wagner’s “sacred” view of the human condition is his vision of the importance of love in the life of the individual and how it is emphasized in moments of sacrifice. Sacrifice pervades The Ring with Siegfried prepared as a sacrifice from the beginning and killed at the most “religious” moment of the drama. In the final immolation, the gods themselves are burned on the altars raised to them. For Wagner, it is “in the unity of love and death, in the willing acceptance of death for love’s sake, and in the renunciation of self for the other that we glimpse the meaning of human life. We understand that life lived in a spirit of sacrifice is worthwhile despite the enormous cost of it.”[11]

The Ring is Wagner’s affirmative answer to the question of whether the tragic experience, first consecrated by the ancient Greeks, can still speak to us in a world without religion. For Scruton, Wagner showed a deep philosophical awareness of what is at stake for modern people living beyond the death of their gods, and what it means to live with an enhanced awareness of our own contingency — of being thrown down in the world without an explanation and to hunger for meaning.

Wagner as psychological anthropologist    

When Wagner composed the libretto for what would eventually become The Ring, “he was a Feuerbachian”; the religion within it is the work of “an anthropologist rather than a priest.” Wagner created the supernatural beings of The Ring on Feuerbach’s model as personified features of human psychology, both good and bad, and symbols of our spiritual need. In responding to them, we respond to what is deep in ourselves. The gods, goblins, giants, demi-gods and primeval forces are symbols that owe their nature and meaning to the feelings that we discover in ourselves. They correspond to “potencies” in human nature. In The Ring Wagner offers us believable and gripping characters that crystallize and immortalize “the hopes and fears that govern us.”[12] Scruton observes how Wagner was among the very few in whose “remarkable mind the scientific and poetic outlooks converged.” He prefigured evolutionary psychology in recognizing that “our minds are shaped by adaptations that belong to an era of which we retain no consciousness.”[13]

While strongly influenced by Feuerbach, The Ring is also a culmination of the secularizing tendencies of the Enlightenment in general and its new scientific approach to the gods of Greece and Rome which “explored religion as a natural phenomenon, a pre-scientific residue in the human psyche, to be understood for what it says about us, rather than for the truth or otherwise of its doctrines.” Scruton notes how, paradoxically, the Enlightenment, which scorned “rational theology” as a feeble refuge from science, fostered new respect for myth, as a genuine alternative to science — “a pre-scientific vision of the world that revealed its own truths in its own way, touching on things that lie deep in the human psyche and which science has yet to explore.” Scruton observes:

Writers and philosophers of the Enlightenment were largely agreed that myths are not merely fictions. They represent another way of conceiving the world, and one that is directly connected with the religious way of life. Myths are not literally true; but they are not false either. They symbolize human passions and states of character, elevated to a sphere beyond the reach of chance events. By seeing their own nature symbolized and purified in mythic form, ordinary people were able the better to understand their fate. Hence, myths formed a kind of spiritual bequest, a language of symbols through which the adherents of the ancient religions could both understand the permanent features of the human condition and also rehearse their membership of the tribe, the community, the Volk that included them. That, roughly, was the view of the myth propagated by Herder, and in one way or another it was to influence anthropologists throughout the nineteenth century.[14]

The German intellectual Johann Gottfried Herder had proposed medieval Germany as a cultural icon to replace the hitherto adopted classical Greek ideal. He believed that in myth we find an older, purer, less conscious expression of man’s religious need or, as Scruton puts it, “magical-realist summaries of the actual world, in which the moral possibilities are personified and made flesh.”[15]

Wagner also owed a huge debt to the brothers Grimm who collected the fairy tales of the German-speaking lands, and explored the history of their language. In the work of Jacob Grimm “philology, etymology, and the study of myth were combined with the search for pagan residues interred beneath the soil of German literature.” Grimm influenced the whole course of German thought during Wagner’s youth, and famously inspired new and scholarly editions of medieval literature — including the stories of Tristan, Tannhauser, Lohengrin and Parsifal, along with that of Siegfried as recounted in the medieval Nibelungenlied. These stories, which Wagner used as primary material for his opera librettos, “persuaded him that he could rise free of the present moment and explore what is permanent and universal in the German experience.”[16]

Scruton notes that, like Grimm, Wagner thought he was discovering an older form of knowledge, one “implanted in the unconscious memory of the Germans and preserved in their language and in the stories of dimly remembered heroes.” For Wagner, therefore, the gods and goblins of the Ring cycle were not simply representatives of religion and its place in the human psyche, they were also “ancestral voices, speaking of values and aspirations that the German people had to repossess as their own, if they were to emerge as a unified nation.”[17]

The birth of aesthetics and the cult of Beethoven         

Scruton charts the emergence in Europe of aesthetics as an intellectual discipline and how this impacted on Wagner. Kant’s Critique of Judgement made the aesthetic experience central to the life of the mind — a conception of art that was to exert, through Schiller and Schelling, a far-reaching influence over philosophers, poets, painters and composers during the early decades of the nineteenth century. It was posited that there is a unique form of knowledge contained in, and obtainable from, art which cannot be expressed in words. Art offered a portal through “the empirical veil to the transcendent core of things, so as to present, in sensory form, the wholeness and unity that cannot be grasped by the intellect.”[18]

On the basis of this new aesthetics, Romantic thinkers of the early nineteenth century assigned a redemptive role to the arts, where “the sense of wholeness and harmony that had disappeared with the loss of the religious” could be retrieved through art. The idealist philosophers connected aesthetic experience “with the secret meaning of things, with the infinite, the absolute, the transcendental, the ineffable.” For Schopenhauer, aesthetic experience offered the only respite from pain that accompanied the ceaseless striving of the human will, a “Sabbath of the penal servitude of willing.” Schopenhauer ascribed the highest place to music in the aesthetic pantheon since it offers us non-conceptual knowledge and “attains its ends entirely from its own resources.”

Arthur Schopenhauer

It is only through music that the inner essence of the world, which he conceived as “will” (conceived more broadly than just human will) is made directly present to the mind. Music acts on the will directly, raising and altering the passions without the intermediary of conceptual thought, and presents subjective awareness in objective form.[19]  Scruton:

Schopenhauer’s importance for Wagner did not only derive from his intriguing metaphysics and his ethic of renunciation. Schopenhauer was the only post-Kantian who regarded music as a test case for his philosophy, and his theories confirmed Wagner’s conception of a drama that would unfold entirely through the inner feelings of the characters. These feelings, hinted at in words, would acquire their full reality and elaboration in music. Developing under its own intrinsic momentum, the music would guide the listener through subjective regions that were otherwise inaccessible to the outside observer, creating a drama of inner emotion framed by only the sparsest gestures on the stage — gestures which, for this very reason, would become so saturated with meaning as to reach the limits of their expressive power.[20]  

Scruton notes how the diffusion of these ideas through European culture occurred at a time “when music was coming newly into the cultural foreground with the Beethoven cult, with rise in Germany of academic musicology and with the theory, which was later to dominate musical thinking, that “absolute music” — music without a text or an explicit subject matter — is the true paradigm of the art.” Wagner assimilated and built upon the “Beethoven cult” which regarded purely instrumental music as offering a special pathway to human self-understanding. In his 1860 essay “Music of the Future” he contended that: “Beethoven matured the symphonic artwork to so engrossing a breadth of form, and filled that form with so manifold and enthralling a melodic content, that we stand today before the Beethovenian symphony as before the landmark of an entirely new period in the history of universal Art; for through it there came into the world a phenomenon not even remotely approached by anything the art of any age or any people has to show us.”[21]

Beethoven, Wagner observed, had taken purely instrumental music to its expressive limits and had consequently returned to human voice in his ninth symphony. The only path forward was the Gesamtkunstwerk in which all the resources of the arts — poetry, music, architecture and drama — were combined in the presentation of a single idea. This would revolutionize opera which had hitherto been a muddied concoction of “music, drama and verse in which the action is constantly interrupted for the sake of some aria or ballet which forms no organic part of the whole.”

Within Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, the words were to be subordinate to the music and would “emerge at the end of it, erupting in a new way from demands that originate in the music itself.” As Scruton evocatively summarizes it, “The poem, brilliant though it is as a piece of storytelling, is conceived in another way from traditional opera libretti. The words are not set to music: they are foam on the musical surface, the bursting into light of the dark movements beneath them.”[22] Wagner’s operatic dialogue and versification “would permit the music to convey the deep subjective truths that are being symbolized in the drama.”[23] Wagner’s works are therefore “more than mere dramas: they are revelations, attempts to penetrate to the mysterious core of human existence.”[24]


Scruton has done an admirable job in The Ring of Truth of clearing a path through the accumulated intellectual detritus of the last half-century which impedes a full understanding and appreciation of Wagner’s great masterpiece. He analyses the drama, music, symbolism and philosophy of The Ring on the basis of the actual evidence and eschews the usual preoccupation with speculating about what the tetralogy reveals about its “anti-Semitic” creator’s supposed moral failings. In doing so, he enters a plea on behalf of a work that is more travestied than any other in the operatic repertoire, but whose vision is nevertheless as important to the times in which we live as it was to those of its creator.

The post-Christian West has, in recent decades, undergone a disastrous realignment of its public morality to accord with the Jewish intellectual movements Kevin MacDonald examined in The Culture of Critique. Richard Wagner would be absolutely disgusted with the state of contemporary Germany, Europe, and of the West in general. He pessimistically anticipated our current plight and its Jewish ethno-political foundations when, in a late essay, he pessimistically forecast that "we Germans will go under before them, and perhaps I am the last German who knows how to stand up as an art-loving man against the Judaism that is already gaining control of everything."[25] In Judaism in Music he had declared himself "unable to decide" whether "the downfall of our culture can be arrested by a violent ejection of the destructive foreign [Jewish] element" since "that would require forces with whose existence I am unacquainted."

Wagner"s injunction in The Ring to abjure materialism and find meaning through sacrifice is a message that should resonate with today's Alt-Right. Wagner insisted in The Ring that a life lived in a spirit of sacrifice is worthwhile despite the enormous cost of it. Nothing is worthier of greater sacrifice than safeguarding the biological survival of one's own race. In his own life Wagner had the fortitude (in defiance of his pecuniary self-interest) to identify and publicly oppose those forces that were contrary to his own ethnic interests. In his intellectual integrity alone Richard Wagner is one of the most inspiring figures our race has produced.
Part 1
[1] Quoted in Martin Kitchen, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Germany (London: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 195.

[2] Matthew Boyden, The Rough Guide to Opera (London: Penguin, 2002), 269.

[3] Roger Scruton, The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung (London: Allen Lane, 2016), 28.

[4] Ibid., 6.

[5] Ibid., 9-10.

[6] Ibid., 1.

[7] Ibid., 2.

[8] Ibid., 3.

[9] Bryan Magee, Wagner and Philosophy (London: Penguin, 2000), 352.

[10] Quoted in Martin Kitchen, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Germany, Ibid.

[11] Christopher Nicholson, Richard and Adolf: Did Richard Wagner Incite Adolf Hitler to Commit the Holocaust (Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing House, 2007), 131.

[12] Scruton, The Ring of Truth, 2.

[13] Ibid., 300.

[14] Elisabeth Whitcombe, "Adorno as Critic: Celebrating the Socially Destructive Force of Music," The Occidental Observer, August 28, 2009.

[15] Monsalvat website, "Parsifal and Race: Wagner's Last Card," Undated. http://www.monsalvat.no/racism.htm

[16][16] Harold Schonberg, Lives of the Great Composers (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), 268.

[17] Marc A. Weiner, Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 6.

[18] Larry Solomon, Wagner and Hitler, (Online article: 2002) http://solomonsmusic.net/WagHit.htm

[19] Scruton, The Ring of Truth, 3.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Richard Wagner, "Judaism in Music," trans. By Bryan Magee, In: Wagner and Philosophy (London: Penguin, 2000), 375.

[22] Magee, Wagner and Philosophy, Ibid., 375-76.

[23] Ibid., 374.

[24] Ibid., 373; 380.

[25] Richard Wagner, "Hero-dom and Christianity," trans. by William Ashton Ellis, In: Richard Wagner's Prose Works Vol. 6 (London: 1897; repr. 1966), 275-84.

[26] Richard Wagner, "Religion and Art," trans. by William Ashton Ellis, In: Richard Wagner's Prose Works, Vol. 6 (London: 1897; repr. 1966), 211-52.

[27] Solomon, Wagner and Hitler, Ibid.

[28] David P. Goldman, "Muted: Performances of Wagner's music are effectively banned in Israel. Should they be?" Tablet, August 17, 2011.

[29] Scruton, The Ring of Truth, 102.

[30] Solomon, Wagner and Hitler, Ibid.

Part 2
[1] Roger Scruton, The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung (London: Allen Lane, 2016), 5.

[2] Ibid., 6

[3] Roger Scruton, Modern Culture (London: Continuum, 2000), 69.

[4] Scruton, The Ring of Truth, Ibid., 21;22.

[5] Ibid., 20.

[6] Ibid., 8.

[7] Ibid., 7.

[8] Ibid., 40.

[9] Ibid., 45.

[10] Ibid., 41.

[11] Ibid., 40.

[12] Ibid., 71.

[13] Ibid., 36.

[14] Ibid., 31.

[15] Ibid., 33.

[16] Ibid., 26.

[17] Ibid., 32.

[18] Ibid., 49.

[19] Ibid., 51.

[20] Ibid., 50.

[21] Ibid., 52.

[22] Ibid., 53.

[23] Ibid., 52.

[24] Ibid., 34.

[25] Richard Wagner, "Religion and Art," trans. By William Ashton Ellis, In: Richard Wagner's Prose Works, Vol. 6 (London: 1897; repr. 1966), 211-52.