Sunday, February 21, 1999

What Avails This Knowledge?

A Supplement to Religion and Art
by Richard Wagner

Translated by William Ashton Ellis
Published in 1897

Original Title "Was nützt diese Erkenntniss?"
Published in 1880
Sämtliche Schriften und Dichtungen : Volume X Pages 253-263

Reading Information

This title contains approximately 4048 words.
Estimated reading time between 12 and 20 minutes.


"What Avails This Knowledge?"

A Supplement to "Religion and Art."


SHOULD ye ask, "Of what use is the
knowledge of man's historic fall, since it is just through his
historic evolution that we all have become what we are?" one first might
waive your question somewhat thus: "Ask those who
from all time have made that knowledge wholly theirs, and learn
from them to inwardly digest it. 'Tis no new thing, for all great
spirits have been led by it alone. Ask the real great poets of
every age; ask the founders of true religions." Willingly would we
refer you also to the mighty chiefs of States, if among the very
greatest of them we could presuppose a full acquaintance with it;
that is impossible, however, because their trade has ever pointed
them to mere experiments with given historic conditions, but never
allowed a free glance past those conditions to their primal state.
It therefore is the helmsman of the State himself, by whose
miscarriages we may the plainest prove the ill results of
non-obtainal of that knowledge. Even a Marcus Aurelius could only
attain to knowledge of the world's nullity, but never to the idea
of an actual downfall of a world that might have been so
different,—to say nothing of the cause of this fall. That
worthlessness has ever been the base of absolute Pessimism; by
which despotic statesmen, and rulers in general, have but too
gladly let themselves be led, were it only for convenience. On the
contrary, a more thorough-going knowledge of the cause of our
decline leads forthwith to the possibility of a just as radical
regeneration; again without all reference to
Statesmen, since such a knowledge passes far beyond the - sphere of
their violent, but always fruitless action.

Accordingly, to discover of whom we need not ask for
vital knowledge of the world, we have only to take a general survey
of the present so-called "political situation." This latter
characterises itself, if we pick up the nearest newspaper and read
it in the sense that nothing there concerns us personally: at once
we light upon Shalt without Have, Will without Notion, and all with
such a boundless greed of Might that even the mightiest thinks he
owns none, until he has still more. What he dreams of doing with
this Might, one seeks in vain to fathom. Everywhere we see the
image of Robespierre,
who, when the guillotine had brushed away
each hindrance to the revelation of his nostrums, had nothing left
to recommend but Virtuousness in general,—a doctrine far more
simply gained before him in Masonic lodges. As far as looks go, all
our Statesmen now are striving after Robespierre's prize. Even last
century this look was less affected; then men fought frankly for
dynastic interests—carefully supervised, to be sure, by the
interest of the Jesuits, who recently again alas! misled the last
brute-force ruler of France. He deemed needful for insurance of his
dynasty, and in the interest of civilisation, to deal Prussia a
slap in the face; and as Prussia had no mind to calmly take it,
things came to a war for German Unity. That Unity was won in
course, and duly fixed by contract; but what it after all might
mean, again was hard to answer. They tell us we shall hear some
day, when much more Might has been procured: German Unity must
first be primed to shew her teeth in every quarter, even if it
leaves her with nothing to chew. One thinks one sees Robespierre
presiding over his Committee of Salut Public, when one
conjures up the picture
of the strong man armed behind locked doors, in ceaseless search
for means of increase to his garnered Might What there was to do
and tell to the world with the Might once proved, might have dawned
on that strong man armed in the nick of time, had this
knowledge but enlightened him. We gladly believe in his love
of peace; though 'tis a sorry proof, to be forced into war, and
though we sincerely hope that true Peace will some day be won on a
peaceful path, it should have occurred to the beater-down of
peace's last disturber that the wantonly-provoked and fearful war
would be fitly crowned by an other peace than this treaty of
Frankfort-on-Main, which points direct to constant readiness for
further war. Here a knowledge of the need and possibility of true
regeneration of the human race, now crushed by an embattled
Civilisation, could well have inspired a pact conducting to peace
of the world itself:
then would have been no forts to seize, but to demolish, no
warrants of surer war to take, but pledges of sound peace to give;
whereas historic rights alone were weighed against historic claims,
and settled by the one established right of Conquest. With the best
will in the world, it would seem that the pilot-of-State can see no
farther. They all must prate of universal peace; even Napoleon III.
had his mind on it,—but a peace of profit to his dynasty and
France: for in no other way can these strong men armed conceive of
peace, than under the wide-respected guardianship of countless

At any rate we may conclude that, if our knowledge is to be
treated as useless, the world-knowledge of our great Statesmen
works us positive and serious harm.—

In the past I have found
that my exposures of the downfall of our Public Art met little
contradiction, but my ideas on its regeneration were violently
opposed. If we leave out of count the flat Optimists proper, the
hopeful babes of Abraham's bosom, we may take it that the sight of
a degenerate world, of the perversion and badness of men in
general, does not especially repel: what all think in secret of
each other, they know right well; but Science
herself does not confess it, for she has learnt to find her
reckoning in " constant progress." And Religion? Luther's main
revolt was against the Roman Church's shameless Absolution, which
went so far as to accept deliberate prepayment for sins not yet
committed: his anger came too late; the world soon managed to
abolish Sin entirely, and believers now look for redemption from
evil to Physics and Chemistry.

We will admit that it is no easy task, to persuade the world of
the use of this our knowledge, even though it leave the uselessness
of its mean knowledge ungainsaid. But let us not therefore refrain
from a closer search into that use. For this we must turn, not to
the dull-brained throng, but to those better minds whose own
prevailing cloudiness as yet prevents the freedom-bearing rays of
rightful knowledge from piercing to that multitude. This cloud is
still so dense, that it is truly astounding to see the highest
minds of every age since the rise of the Bible enveloped in it, and
thereby led to shallowness of judgment. Take Goethe, who held
Christ for problematical, but the good God for wholly proven,
albeit retaining the liberty to discover the latter in Nature after
his own fashion; which led to all manner of physical assays and
experiments, whose continued pursuit was bound, in turn, to lead
the present reigning human intellect to the result that there's no
God whatever, but only " Force and Matter." It was reserved for a
master-mind—how late alas!—to light this more than
thousand-years' confusion in which the Jewish God-idea had plunged
the whole of Christendom:
that the unsatisfied thinker at last can set firm foot again on
a soil of genuine Ethics, we owe to Kant's continuator,
large-hearted Arthur Schopenhauer.

Who would gain an idea of the confusion of modern thought, the
maiming of the intellect of to-day, let him consider the untold
difficulty that impedes a proper understanding of the most lucid
of all philosophical systems—that of Schopenhauer. The
reason is simple enough,. when we recognise that the perfect
understanding of this.
philosophy would effect as radical a revolution in our hitherto
established modes of thought, as that demanded of the heathen by
their conversion to Christianity. Nevertheless it is quite
appalling to find this philosophy, based as it is on the most
perfect of ethics, described as shorn of hope; from which it
follows, that we wish to be of good hope without the consciousness
of true morality. That upon this very depravation of men's hearts
rests Schopenhauer's relentless condemnation of the world—in
its only aspect shewn to us by history,—affrights all those
who take no pains to track the paths so plainly traced by
Schopenhauer for turning the misguided Will. Yet these paths, which
well may lead to hope, are clearly and distinctly pointed out by
our philosopher, and it is not his fault if he was so fully
occupied with the correct portrayal of the only world that lay
before him, that he was compelled to leave their actual exploration
to our own selves; for they brook no journeying save on foot.

In this sense, and as guide to an independent treading of the
path of surest hope, nothing better can be recommended in our
present state than to make Schopenhauer's philosophy, in its every
bearing, the basis. of all further mental and moral culture; and at
nothing else have we to labour, than to get the necessity of this
acknowledged in every walk of life. Should that succeed, the
beneficial, the truly regenerative result were then immeasurable;
for on the contrary we see to what mental and moral unfitness the
lack of a right, all-permeating knowledge of the world's
root-essence has now debased us.

The Popes knew well what they were doing, when they withdrew the
Bible from the Folk; for the Old Testament in particular, so bound
up with the New, might distort the pure idea of Christ to such a
point that any nonsense and every deed of violence could claim its
sanction; and such a use they deemed more prudent to reserve for
the Church herself. Wellnigh we must view it as a grave misfortune,
that Luther had no other weapon of authority against the degenerate
Roman Church, than just this Bible; from
whose full text he durst drop nothing, without disarming. It
even had to serve him for the drafting of a catechism for the poor
neglected Folk; and with what despair he clutched at it, we may see
from the heart-rending preface to that little book. If we hear
aright the true deep note of pity for his people, that lent the
soulful Reformer the sublime precipitance of the rescuer of a
drowning man
that haste wherewith he brought the
people in extremis the only spiritual food and covering that came
to hand,— if we follow this, we may take example by himself
for the provisional repairing of that food and clothing, now found
no longer adequate, to last for stouter service. To denote the
starting-point of such an undertaking, let us cite a fine passage
from one of Schiller's letters to Goethe:—

"If one would lay hand on the characteristic mark of
Christianity, distinguishing it from all mono-theistic
religions, it lies in nothing less than the upheaval of Law,
of Kant's 'Imperative,' in whose place it sets free Inclination. In
its own pure form it therefore is the presentation of a beautiful
morality, or of the humanising of the Holy; and in this sense it is
the only æsthetic religion."—

From this fair picture let us cast one glance upon the
Ten Commandments of the Mosaic tables of the Law—which
even Luther found needful to take as first instruction to a people
both mentally and morally brutalised under rule of the Roman Church
and Germanic fist-right—and we there shall discover no
faintest trace of a truly Christian thought; taken strictly, they
are mere forbiddals, to most of which the character of
commands was first assigned by Luther's running commentary.
We have no idea of entering upon a criticism of those Commandments,
for we should only encounter our police and criminal legislation,
to which their supervision has been committed in the interest of
civic order, even to the point of punishment for
Atheism—wherefrom, perchance, the "other gods" alone would
pass scot-free.


If we leave these edicts on one side, as fairly well
safeguarded, we come at once to the Christian command— if so
we may term it—in the setting-up of the three so-called
Theologic Virtues. These are commonly arranged in an order that
appears to us not quite the right one for development of the
Christian spirit; we should like to see "Faith, Hope, and Charity"
transposed into "Love, Faith, and Hope." It may seem a
contradiction to uphold this sole redeeming and engladdening
trinity as the essence of all virtue, and its exercise as a
commandment, seeing that its units, on the other hand, are
claimed as grants of Grace. What a merit lies in their attainment,
however, we soon shall see if first we weigh the almost exorbitant
demand on the natural man conveyed by the injunction of" Love," in
its exalted Christian sense. Through what is it, that our whole
civilisation is going to ground, if not through lack of Love? The
heart of youth, to which the world of nowadays unveils itself with
waxing plainness, how can it love this world when it is recommended
naught save caution and suspicion in its dealings with it? Surely
there can be but one right way of guidance for that heart, the path
whereon the world's great lovelessness should be accounted as its
suffering: then would the young man s roused compassion
incite him to withdraw himself from the causes of that Suffering of
the world's, to flee with knowledge from the greed of passions, to
lessen and avert the woes of others. But how to wake this needful
knowledge in the natural man, since the first and most
un-understandable to him is his fellow-man himself? Impossible,
that commandments here should bring about a knowledge only to be
woken in the natural man by proper guidance to an understanding of
the natural descent of all that lives.—The surest, nay, in
our opinion almost the only thing to lead to this, would be a wise
employment of the Schopenhauerian philosophy, whose outcome, to the
shame of every earlier philosophic system, is the recognition of a
moral meaning of the world; which crown of all Knowledge
might then be practically realised
through Schopenhauer's Ethics. Only the love that springs from
pity, and carries its compassion to the utmost breaking of
self-will, is the redeeming Christian Love, in which Faith and Hope
are both included of a—Faith as the unwavering
consciousness of that moral meaning of the world, confirmed by the
most divine exemplar; Hope as the blessed sense of the
impossibility of any cheating of this consciousness.

And whence could we derive a clearer guidance for the heart
afflicted by the cheat of this world's material semblance, than
from our philosopher, if only we could bring that understanding
within the natural powers of unlearned men? In such a sense we fain
would see an attempt to draft a popular version of his matchless
treatise "On apparent Design in the Fate of the Individual": how
surely were the term "eternal Providence—so frequently employed
for very sake of its equivocation—then justified in its true
sense; whereas the contradiction thus expressed now drives
despairing souls to flattest atheism. To people harassed by the
arrogance of our chemists and physicists, and who begin to hold
themselves for weak of brain if they shrink from accepting a
resolution of the world into "force and matter,"—to
them it were no less an act of charity, could we shew
them from the works of our philosopher what clumsy things are those
same "molecules and atoms." But what an untold boon could we bring
to men affrighted on the one hand by the thunders of the Church,
and driven to desperation by our physicists on the other, could we
fit into the lofty edifice of" Love, Faith, and ,a a vivid
knowledge of the ideality of that world our only present
mode of apperception maps out by laws of Time and Space; then would
each question of the troubled spirit after the "when" and "where"
of the "other world" be recognised as answerable by nothing but a
blissful smile. For if there be an answer to these so infinitely
weighty-seeming questions, our philosopher has given it with
insurpassable beauty and precision in that phrase which
he merely meant, in a measure, to define the ideality of Space
and Time: "Peace, rest and happiness dwell there alone where is
no When, no Where."

Yet the Folk—from whom we stand so lamentably far, alas
I—demands a realistic notion of divine eternity in the
affirmative sense, such as Theology herself can only give it in the
negative "world without end.a' Religion, too, could ease this
craving by naught but allegoric myths and images, from which the
Church then built that storeyed dogma whose collapse has become
notorious. How these crumbling blocks were turned to the foundation
of an art unknown to the ancient world, I have endeavoured to shew
in my preceding article on "Religion and Art"; of what import to
the "Folk" itself this art might become through its full
emancipation from unseemly service, and upon the soil of a new
moral order, we should set ourselves in earnest to discover. Here
again our philosopher would lead us to a boundless outlook on the
realm of possibilities, if we sought out all the wealth contained
in the following pregnant sentences:—"Complete
contentment, the truly acceptable state, never present themselves
to us but in an image, in the Artwork, the Poem, in Music.
From which one surely might derive the confidence that somewhere
they exist in sooth." What here was hardly utterable without an
almost sceptic smile, through its intrusion on a strictly
philosophic system, for us might well become the starting-point of
very serious inferences. The perfect "hikeness'a of the noblest
artwork would so transport our heart that we should plainly find
the archetype, whose "somewhere" must perforce reside within our
inner self,
filled full with time-less, space-less Love and Faith and Hope.

But not even the highest art can gain the force for such a
revelation while it lacks the support of a religious symbol of the
most perfect moral ordering of the world, through which alone can
it be truly understanded of the people:
only by borrowing from life's exercise itself the likeness of
the Divine, can the artwork hold this up to life, and holding, lead
us out beyond this life to pure contentment and redemption.

A great, nay, an immeasurable field of search were thus defined
in outlines sharp enough, perhaps, yet not so easily discernible
through their remoteness from the common life; and its closer
survey might well repay the trouble. That the Politician cannot
guide us here, we have felt necessary to state quite plainly; and
it further seems to us of weight to pursue our searches quite apart
from the unfruitful field of Politics. On the other hand we must
follow with the utmost diligence, and to its farthest bifurcation,
each path whereon man's mental culture may lead to the
establishment of true morality. Our heart's desire must be no less,
than to win comrades and helpers on every one of these domains.
Already we have gained some; our sympathy with the movement against
Vivisection, for instance, has made us acquainted with kindred
spirits in the realm of Physiology, who, armed with special
scientific knowledge, have stood by our side against the impudent
assertions of legalised defilers of Science,—though
unresultfully alas!, as at present is unavoidable. Those peaceable
associations to whom the practical fulfilment of our thoughts seems
allotted by their very nature, we have mentioned elsewhere; we now
have only to express the hope that their useful workers will turn
to us, and combine their separate interests in that one great
interest which might be expressed somewhat as follows:—

We recognise the cause of the fall of Historic Man, and the necessity of his regeneration; we believe in the possibility of such Regeneration, and devote ourselves to its carrying-through in every sense.

It may be open to question, whether the work of such a
fellowship would not by far transcend the immediate scope of
addresses to a Patronate of Stage-festivals. We
will hope, however, that the honoured members of this Verein
have hitherto lent a not unwilling ear to kindred subjects. As far
as the author of the present lines is concerned, he must in any
case declare that henceforth nothing but advices from the aforesaid
field may be expected of him.



"Was nützt diese Erkenntniss?" Ein Nachtrag zu: Religion und Kunst originally appeared in the Bayreuther Blätter for
December, 1880.—Tr.


A striking repetition of the thought expressed (to some extent
in the selfsame words) in Wagner's letter to August Roeckel of
January 25, 1854. The parallelism is easily accounted for, however,
as these Letters to Roeckel only returned to their author
after the death of their recipient (June 18, 1876), and apparently
but a little while before the present article was written.—Tr.


Cf. Nietzsche's perversion of the idea of Pity: "One springs
to the rescue of a man, who has fallen into the water, just twice
as fast when witnesses are present who do not
dare."—Menschliches, Aph. 325.—Tr.


Cf. Luke, xvii. 21: "Neither shall they say, Lo here!
or, lo there! for behold, the kingdom of God is within you."—Tr.


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