Musical Morality: Nietzsche and Wagner

March 13, 2015

Aesthetics is not a popular subject in a culture that bows to the high throne of individual desire. The question of whether art could reflect, much less motivate, a philosophical or moral position is anathema, and therefore not often asked. But the answer to this question created modern artistic ethics. If the Church is serious about transforming culture and morals, then she will have to come to a conclusion on this subject. The ethics of Nietzsche (and his postmodern successors) rest upon two fundamental insights: first, that it is impossible to fit the moral universe into the neat systems of Enlightenment philosophers, and second, that without a deity to provide a universal ethical norm, this view leads directly to moral anarchy. Both of these insights are true, and in their truth lies both the value and the tragedy of postmodernism. Nietzsche clearly demonstrated the first by his writings, and the second by his life. In Beyond Good and Evil, the most well known of his ethical writings, Nietzsche flatly and provocatively rejects the existence of a “measure of things.” “To recognize untruth,” he says, “as a condition of life: that is certainly to impugn the traditional ideas of value in a dangerous manner, and a philosophy which ventures to do so, has thereby alone placed itself beyond good and evil.”[1] The irony of the work, of course, is that the “good and evil” which Nietzsche claims to go beyond is itself subject to his moral evaluation. He substitutes for a universal measure of things a subjective, individual measure of things; he has created a measure which excludes measures. This is the paradox which has driven some postmodernists to nihilism. Nietzsche therefore condemns the “Tartuffery of old Kant,”[2] and wryly comments that all philosophy consists basically in the personal confessions of the philosopher. Every philosophy is pregnant with a moral system, patterned after the life and desires of the philosopher. Thus Nietzsche leans back, with devilish good cheer, to poke his needle into every point of ethical philosophy, fully aware that every prick draws the blood, not only of the philosophy he criticizes, but of his own system also. Beyond Good and Evil, therefore, is less of a philosophical system and more of an ethical statement of apathy. Nietzsche is the cynic who will engage in any number of calculated obscenities merely to embarrass and dismantle the fragile and artificial structure around him. A man who deliberately infects himself with syphilis could hardly be anything else. In the fall of 1861, a friend named Gustav Krug gave the seventeen-year-old Nietzsche a piano score of Wagner’s innovative work, Tristian und Isolde. As Nietzsche described it in his book Ecce Homo, “From the moment that Tristan was arranged for the piano, I was a Wagnerite.”[3] For the music of Wagner was itself an ethical statement, of a remarkably similar kind to Nietzsche’s. Wagner was a passionate man, in both his morals and aesthetics. He was enthralled by nationalism, individual libertinism, and the romantic fascination with personal feeling and longing. In the rejection of moral form, Wagner also rejected the harmonic forms of music. In Tristan, perhaps Wagner’s most exemplary and innovative work, he consciously flaunts the conventions of western harmony, foiling the expectations of his listeners with wandering chromaticism. There seems be no order to his progressions as he bounces from one key to another, all characterized by the unsatisfied yearning of his pinching, chromatic melodies. He uses the unsatisfied yearning of chromaticism to symbolize the sexual desire he celebrated in his art and life. But most fascinating about Wagner’s work is its philosophical and aesthetic consequences. Tristan has rightly been called the first work of atonal music, because of its abandonment of any clear harmonic order. But it is also an expression of musical nihilism: without any governing order, without any objective principle to determine the expectations, tensions, and resolutions necessary to music, harmony can have no meaning. Notes can only have meaning in relationship to one another, and when that relationship is destroyed, they become meaningless points in auditory space, stagnant water, flowing nowhere. From this general and brief statement of Wagner’s aesthetics and their effect upon Nietzsche, we can derive two related conclusions. Firstly, the lack of an overarching moral system directly reflects itself by the lack of an overarching aesthetic system. Secondly, this relationship means that aesthetic statements have direct implications for moral behavior. The modern world alternates between love and hate for these conclusions, since, on the one hand, they are the reason for nearly every modern aesthetic movement, and yet on the other, firmly denied by all. The rock music of the sixties gladly identified itself as moral and religious expression in which the moral apathy of Nietzsche was celebrated with Dionysian frenzies. As E. Michael Jones said in his work Dionysius Rising, “As Nietzsche could have told them [rock musicians], music is the characteristic Dionysian art, and intoxication its primary effect.”[4] Yet very few modern people (and especially Christians, ironically enough) are willing to admit to the moral consequences of artistic expression, since such an admission would imply that morality is subject to the same relativism as aesthetic taste, and shatter the convenient fiction that one can be both moral and thoroughly secular. The effect of Wagner’s music on the young Nietzsche was the result of a strictly logical argument. Firstly, ethics, at the most fundamental level, studies the relationship between human actions and a moral code. Secondly, music is universally acknowledged to produce emotions in the human soul: some music is “sad,” some music is “happy,” and so on. Finally, emotion, taken at its literal meaning, is a motion of the soul out of one state and into another, and therefore emotion, when taken in conjunction with a decision between two courses of action, is capable of providing a motivation. The logical conclusion of these three points is that since music through its emotive power is capable of producing motivation to a course of action, and since a course of action is, by definition, the subject of ethical analysis, music necessarily has ethical consequences. This was the insight of Nietzsche and Wagner that was so influential in creating modern ethics, and yet at the same time the insight consistently rejected by modern Christianity in its apathy towards the arts. Of course the conclusion, hackneyed as it is, to be drawn from this thesis is that Christians must be more discriminating in their artistic consumption and production. But we must move forward from this platitude to a more radical application. A Church which is lazy or compromised in its artistic expression is at best inconsistent, and at worst guilty of surrender to secularism at the most fundamental level. We Christians love to complain about the world. The world has abandoned morality, and common sense with it, we cry. But a word of caution: the world has not abandoned morality—that is impossible—but it has substituted its own system in place of it. And, moreover, the most potent expression of this secular morality is not found in the abortion clinic, or in the corrupt political machine, but in art. Yet, for all this, the Church remains apathetic to art. God is a God of harmony, of color, of form, of story. Until we can carry on the great canon of western literature, until we can bear forward the standard of the Christian artists and musicians of the past, why should we be surprised that we lack the moral potency to overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil? So once again create buildings that dance and soar in the joyful air, stories that probe and poke at the heart of humanity, music that reflects in its form and harmony the order of the world, and art that motivates our souls and bodies to righteousness. And then, as St. John wrote, and as it is so famously sung in Handel’s Messiah, “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.”[5]


Notes: [1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Philosophy of Nietzsche (New York: Modern Library, 1954), 384. [2] Ibid., 385. [3] Ibid., 845. [4] E. Michael Jones, Dionysius Rising: The Birth of Cultural Revolution Out of the Spirit of Music (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 175. [5] Revelation 11:15, KJV.

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Michael Helvey

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