The Religion of Reason: On Mozart’s "The Magic Flute"

Synopsis of “The Magic Flute:”

Tamino, a prince of an unknown realm, is saved by the minions of the Queen of the Night from a monster. She tells him to go save her daughter Pamina from Sarastro, who has abducted her. She tells him his reward will be Pamina’s hand in marriage.

Tamino is accompanied by a man who catches birds, Papageno, and is equipped with a Magic Flute that brings joy to men’s hearts by the Queen. Papageno is given magic silver bells that also play music and enchant. Both are told that there are three spirits that will guide them where they need to go.

In Sarastro’s palace Tamino discovers that Sarastro, ruler of the Day, is a benevolent ruler, and worships Reason, Nature & Virtue. Sarastro wanted the Daughter of Night in order to reconcile the empires of Night & Day and bring peace. He is more than willing to marry Tamino off to the daughter in order to achieve this, as long as Tamino can prove himself worthy of the Empire of Day. Tamino and Pamina fall in love at first sight, and there would be no troubles if there weren’t trials Tamino had to endure to become worthy of marrying Pamina, and if the Queen of the Night didn’t only want to destroy utterly the kingdom of the Day.

Tamino endures the trials of celibacy, silence, and the ordeal of fire & water successfully and wins Pamina. An attempt by the Queen of the Night to invade fails. Papageno fails the second trial, although he technically failed the first one, and yet finds true love because of the kingdom of the day.

So What Is This Nonsensical Story About?

Night & Day both involve light, but one is brighter than the other. Still, Night holds the promise of a greater light.

If we take “light” to be a symbol for “enlightenment,” then it is curious how the religious elements are subordinate to the rational elements.

Papageno seems to represent human spiritedness. He collects birds – free flying spirits – for the Queen of the Night at the beginning. He is lazy and moved only by erotic passion and prone to disobedience. But his desires are simple, and he is easy to empathize with because he can empathize with others easily. Papageno seems to be Mozart’s take on the “Holy Spirit” – there is no such thing, only human spiritedness, and it can serve an Ignorance empowered by some Reason (the Queen of the Night), or drive us towards that greater Light (Sarastro). Papageno is responsible for Tamino meeting Pamina directly; he cannot be dismissed as an irrelevant character because he failed the ordeals.

The flute itself is most interesting. Pythagoras held that the the mathematics underlying harmony also underlay the universe. That the Queen of the Night gives this to Tamino, and that it has tremendous power, is no small thing.

The Queen of the Night, who is ultimately ignorant, understands Reason in terms of its emergence from passion. Ignorance is really Reason clouded by Passion, not a darkness that is an absence of Reason.

Our goal as humans is to breakthrough to Day. This is achieved somehow through love. Tamino’s love, which comes through “trials” that look very religious, differs greatly from Papageno’s erotic love, although stemming from it.

In fact, the order of the trials is curious: usually a Christian goes through baptism (water) & confirmation (fire). Then he might take extra vows to become clergy, like celibacy or silence.

Here, Reason dictates that the hardest trial for man be endured first, thus trumping any claim Religion has to stengthening us on Religion’s own grounds: only after the endurance of celibacy and the achievement of the ability to remain silent can one endure the tests of fire and water. A critical event separates the fire/water test from the others: Tamino & Pamina, separated for the other trials, are reunited as lovers for the last one.

The union of Reason & Love takes on Religious elements as it constitutes the creation of the True Religion. This Masonic opera, as weird as it is, has a pretty Nietzschean point at its foundation: those who are greater, who discover greater things in life for the rest of us like the possibility of the truest love, dictate what religion is. But that doesn’t mean religion is some made-up nonsense coming out of nowhere: as a Union best for all men is formed, the parts of us that Religion speaks best to lead us all to worship Reason.

1 Comment

  1. Wow, I will have to give this a thorough read later.

    All ready for tonight? I was like a little child the night before his first day of school last night. Any way, I can’t wait to say “pardon my french” and have it actually mean that and not a uphamism.


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