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Evola, Magical Idealism, & Western Metaphysics, Part Four

[1]6,502 words

Part 4 of 4 (Part 1 here [2], Part 3 here [3])

5. Critique of Magical Idealism (Continued)

(b) How strong is Evola’s case for idealism?

I noted earlier that Evola sums up his idealism using Berkeley’s famous expression esse est percipi (to be is to be perceived). Berkeley took the position that the only things that exist are ideas or impressions in the mind, and that there is no reason to believe that these are “ideas of” or “impressions of” things in an external world. Berkeley arrives at this position through his commitment to empiricism: He insists that we only have warrant for believing in that of which we are directly aware. Since, so he claims, we are not directly aware of external, material objects but only of “internal” ideas or impressions, we have no basis for believing in material objects existing outside the mind. This position is possible, however, only because Berkeley accepts the “representationalist” model of knowledge from earlier empiricists, chiefly Locke.

I have discussed and critiqued representationalism at length in my essay “The Cartesian Destruction of Being [4]” (part four in my series “Heidegger’s History of Metaphysics”). Representationalism presupposes a fundamental dichotomy between a world “in here,” in the mind, and a world “out there” (the so-called “external world”). We are confined to the world “in here” and thus do not know objects “out there” directly. Instead, what we know directly are internal “copies” (“images”) of external objects (these are usually referred to by empiricists as “ideas” or “impressions”). The human being dwells in a kind of internal theater, viewing (or otherwise experiencing) these copies, which allow us to be indirectly aware of external objects themselves. Berkeley accepts this model of knowledge, taking “ideas” to be “internal objects” – but then he severs their connection to a world “out there” by denying its very existence.

It is extremely important to note that none of these ideas appears in ancient or medieval philosophy. The representationalist paradigm seems to get going chiefly with Descartes, who entertained the possibility that all of our experience of “objects” might be an illusion, an idea that only makes sense if one already accepts the possibility of a rigid divide between a world “out there” and that which I experience “in here.” Skeptical questions such as “how do we know that there is an external world?” and “Could my experience be a dream or a systematic illusion?” simply do not occur in philosophy prior to the modern period, because pre-modern philosophy does not entertain this “two worlds” dichotomy.[1] [5]

Plato’s allegory of the cave presents us with a scenario in which a group of people, chained in a cave, see only shadows but think that they are the only true beings, since they are unaware of the existence of the objects which cast the shadows. In the allegory, the shadows represent sensible objects, whereas the “originals” which cast the shadows represent the “ideas” or “forms.” For Platonism, sensible objects are “copies” of the ideas, which exist in another realm, independent both of the sensible world and of the mind of the knower. In modern representationalism, this relationship has been reversed. “Ideas” are now “subjective” (i.e., they have no existence independent of minds) and it is the ideas that are now “copies” of material things. Plato’s cave has, furthermore, become the model of the mind’s “interior”: We are all trapped in a kind of cave, viewing mere “copies” of what “really” exists.

By contrast, Plato himself seemed to believe that human knowers have an unmediated access to sensible objects and a mediated access to ideas (via reflection on sensible objects). When he intimated that sensible objects are “illusory” he did not mean to suggest that they “might not really be (out) there”; he meant that they possess a lesser sort of being than the forms or ideas. There is no “problem of the external world” for Plato or any of the ancients, because they never entertained the idea that we are locked in an “interior,” cut off from the world “out there.” Thus, the first thing that must be noted about Evola’s Berkeleyan-inspired arguments is that they are based on suppositions unique to modernity. Furthermore, these suppositions do not represent an advance on ancient philosophy, but a disastrous wrong turn. The irony of Berkeley’s position is that, in proclaiming that subjective ideas are all that exist, he thought he was being true to empiricism. In other words, he thought he was being true to what we actually experience. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

[6]

You can buy Julius Evola’s East & West here [7].

In front of me there is a window, and through the window I can see a tree, which sits close enough to the house that it takes up most of the view. Right now, I am seeing that tree. “No, no!” Berkeley would counter. “Actually, you are seeing an internal idea and have no basis at all for thinking that it has some relationship to a material object.” The trouble with this position is that it is untrue to my experience. In fact, I am experiencing a tree; not an image of a tree. I know what it is to experience a mere image of a tree, because I have seen trees in paintings, photographs, and films. In every such instance, the image of the tree clearly presented itself as an image, because of the presence of certain “markers” (e.g., the edges of a photograph or a painting or a movie screen, or the two-dimensionality of the same).

However, there is nothing in my experience that would indicate that, when I look out the window (or think I am looking out the window) I am seeing an image. Thus, the claim that in truth all we ever experience is images is not based upon experience, but on a theory we bring to the interpretation of experience: The theory that says “though it may seem like you are experiencing material objects directly, actually you are only seeing internal ideas.” And, again, this theory is possible only if one first constructs the idea that knowers are confined to an interior and must therefore establish (if they can) a connection between interior and exterior.

But why accept this idea of an interior, especially if it is not based upon experience?[2] [8] My experience teaches me that I am always in the world, never cut off or removed from it, and that I experience objects, not “images.” Needless to say, representationalism challenges this as naïve and “illusory.” But, again, let us leave theories about awareness aside for the moment and focus solely on our experience of it. If I do, then I will have to admit that I experience myself as within what I call “the world,” interacting with things and existing alongside them. I am always out here, with the things that I am experiencing, acting upon them and being acted upon by them.

Further, what I call my awareness is nothing but a directedness towards the world. Awareness, Husserl taught us, is always intentional, meaning that no matter what sort of conscious act we are talking about (perceiving, emoting, abstracting, counting, etc.), it is always of or about something other than itself.[3] [9] When I perceive, for example, I perceive things like this here tree. Berkeley fails to understand the intentionality of consciousness when he claims that “ideas” are all that we are aware of, and also the only things that exist. Ideas are always ideas of something; an idea that is not an idea of something is an incoherent concept — like saying that you can have a mountain without a valley.[4] [10] (For a more in-depth critique of modern representationalist theories of consciousness, again see here [4].)

Now, when Evola claims that in knowing, we are always knowing our own “thoughts,” he seems to completely buy into the representationalist paradigm that underlies subjective idealism. When he introduces Berkeley’s formula esse est percipi, he glosses it using a formulation which might, at first glance, seem quite reasonable: “The only being which a person can concretely and reasonably talk about is the one which meets his own perception, thought or fantasy. As for all other beings, in no way can they be known: it is as if they did not exist.”[5] [11] Again, this seems reasonable: after all, I can only know the things that I know, right? But that is not exactly what Evola means. This is clear from the way he sums up his idealism in The Path of Cinnabar:

The world, then, can only be “my world.” Were there to exist anything apart from oneself, something “objective,” one would still know nothing about it: for in the same way that objects touched by King Midas would turn to gold, the very moment such objective things were to be known, they would turn into one’s own thoughts, experiences, and representations. In other words, in one way or the other, even such objective things would submit to one’s own conditionality. In this regard, I felt that all doubts were dispelled; I felt that the door of mystery had thus been shut, and that the “I” had been provided with a solid and inaccessible fortress in which to feel safe, free, and sovereign.[6] [12]

Here Evola seems clearly to imply that the objects of which we are directly aware are “thoughts, experiences, and representations,” and that these are not “objective” things at all, but objects in the mind (i.e., they are subjective). Thus, he commits the same error as Berkeley, for thoughts, experiences, and representations are always of something. In other words, they point beyond themselves to a world that transcends consciousness. Evola seems to want to claim that whatever we are aware of is ex hypothesi “within consciousness” (this appears to be the meaning of his claim that “objective things,” as soon as they are known, would “turn into” thoughts, etc.). But this understanding of consciousness is incoherent. Consciousness is precisely the means by which we contact what is not consciousness. To be conscious, once again, is to be conscious of something. “Thoughts, experiences, and representations” are not “objects” in my mind; they are tools through which I engage objects in the world around me.

Evola writes of objects submitting “to one’s own conditionality.” In a certain manner of speaking, this is true — and it is nothing other than what Kant taught us: that consciousness involves a process by which we become aware of objects. But from this claim, legions of philosophers have derived a complete non sequitur: If consciousness involves a process, then we are not “directly” aware of things in the world, but only of the “product” of the process, which must be some kind of internal image or copy. However, this position manages to overlook a simple and obvious fact. The “process” that is consciousness is the means by which I am aware of this here tree. In other words, whatever steps are involved in consciousness, the result is always the givenness of objects in the world, not the givenness of some theoretical entity that is postulated as intervening between my consciousness and objects “out there.”

The lines that conclude the quote above are also highly significant. Evola writes that, “I felt that the door of mystery had thus been shut, and that the ‘I’ had been provided with a solid and inaccessible fortress in which to feel safe, free, and sovereign.” This is clearly a tacit endorsement of the modern presupposition on which representationalism is founded, and which I have already discussed: that subjectivity is locked away in an interior (a “solid and inaccessible fortress”), closed off from anything “out there” (if, indeed, anything “out there” exists at all).

In sum, Evola’s epistemological arguments exhibit the same basic problems one can find with other versions of subjective idealism. Again, these are an issue only when magical idealism is taken to be a metaphysical position about what really exists. If it is a “pragmatic” position — if we are asked only to live as if subjective idealism is true — then such arguments are fundamentally unimportant. However, it is an open question whether it is psychologically possible for anyone to live as if subjective idealism is true; anyone outside of a madhouse, that is. And it is an open question whether this was the spiritual standpoint actually achieved by Evola.

(c) Is magical idealism compatible with traditionalism?

In certain ways, magical idealism seems to directly contradict traditionalism. At a minimum, we can say that traditionalism involves looking to the distant past to recover certain objective (indeed, absolute) truths revealed to the human race in pre-history that have been largely forgotten. What, then, are we to make of magical idealism’s insistence on the “primacy of will over ‘truth’”? As I explained earlier in this essay, Evola places “truth” in scare quotes because he is rejecting the notion of truth as existing independently of the subject, fixed and unchangeable. Evola writes that “existence, truth, and certainty are not to be found in the past but in the future: they are tasks.”[7] [13]

I submit that this assertion constitutes a rejection of traditionalism at its very core. Magical idealism rejects the past as a source of truth and looks instead to a future “truth,” which will be the literal creation of the subject. The very idea of an independently existing truth under which the subject must stand is rejected as an intolerable affront to the freedom of the “I.” And the “I,” the subject, is regarded as the one absolute. All else is merely raw material on which the “I” shall stamp its “truth,” a truth which is quite literally subjective. In essence, everything other than the subject has no fixed being, and waits upon the subject to transform it and thus give it its truth. This infinite task constitutes the progressive elimination of all restraints upon human will; in other words, it constitutes the most radical humanism possible: the absolutization of the individual, human “I.”

These ideas are not just incompatible with traditionalism; they constitute its antithesis. Indeed, they are the core ideals of modernity. All the aspects of magical idealism just now discussed are present in Fichte, and I have argued in a separate series of essays (start here [14]) that Fichte constitutes the quintessential modern philosopher. By this I mean that it is in Fichte, more than any other philosopher, that we find the spirit of modernity present in its purest and most explicit form. More than any other thinker, for example, Fichte anticipates the mindset of modern, technological civilization, referred to by Heidegger as das Gestell (usually translated as “enframing”). Essentially, this refers to the modern attitude that nature is nothing more than raw material for human exploitation. Nature literally has no being for us but waits upon us to confer some being (some purpose, some meaning) upon it. Heidegger scholar Thomas Sheehan interprets Gestell as “the world of exploitation.” He explains this as follows:

Heidegger reads the current dispensation [of Being] as one that provokes and even compels us to treat everything in terms of its exploitability-for-consumption: the being of things is now their ability to be turned into products for use and enjoyment. . . . Earth is now seen as a vast storehouse of resources, both human and natural; and the value and realness of those resources, their being, is measured exclusively by their availability for consumption.[8] [15]

[16]

You can buy Collin Cleary’s Summoning the Gods here [17].

And it would be possible to marshal many more examples of how Fichte either lays the groundwork for modern decadence, or gives explicit expression to ideas that were already “in the air.” It is thus absolutely astonishing that Evola, an avowed traditionalist, chooses to hitch his wagon to Fichte, one of the most poisonous figures in modern philosophy.

And yet Evola not only offers magical idealism as a development of Fichte’s views, he claims that magical idealism is a philosophical restatement of traditional doctrines. In The Path of Cinnabar, Evola refers to “the congruency between my own [philosophical] system and traditional non-philosophical doctrines, which are frequently expressed by means of symbols and myths.”[9] [18] And he states that “Mine was a philosophical introduction to a non-philosophical world” — by which he means the “world of tradition.”[10] [19] Elsewhere in the same work, Evola is more specific, saying that his “earlier, philosophical works” were an attempt to “systematize and present the inner logic of the experiences, practices, and achievements of yoga, magic, and initiation.”[11] [20]

Thus, Evola is quite explicit in maintaining that there is a congruency between his philosophical system and traditional teachings. To be fair, he does also say in The Path of Cinnabar that he later came to recognize that his philosophical writings “attempted to impose an alien and forcefully rationalist approach onto traditional matters.”[12] [21] But notice the language of this statement: Evola is not saying that he came to recognize that the core doctrines of his philosophy were incompatible with traditionalism. He is merely saying that he later recognized that to argue for those doctrines in the “rationalist” manner of Western philosophy constituted imposing an alien framework on traditionalist matters. Nowhere does Evola state that he came to recognize that the content (i.e., doctrine) of his philosophical system was incompatible with traditionalist teachings. Indeed, he says later in the same text that he came to realize that, as a traditionalist, “there was no need to ‘prove’ or ‘deduce’ anything, nor even to ‘discuss’ anything. Rather, it was a matter of either recognizing or not recognizing certain principles and truths on the basis of one’s inclinations, one’s inborn sensitivity and inner awakening.”[13] [22]

This latter statement is also highly problematic. Recall that earlier we discussed Evola’s Fichtean position that the choice of the path of the absolute individual over the “path of the other” must be made on non-rational grounds. The reason for this is that Evola claims both paths are rationally defensible. Therefore, the only basis for choosing between them must be personal inclination. Recall Fichte’s famous statement that “What sort of philosophy one chooses depends, therefore, on what sort of man one is.” This is yet another expression, in both Fichte and Evola, of the “primacy of the will”: faced with a choice that cannot be made rationally, the superior man wills that the path of the absolute individual (or, in Fichte, “idealism”) is true.

Now, Evola claims to have repudiated his early, philosophical approach as found in the texts on magical idealism or the theory of the absolute individual. But when he claims that his later approach to tradition was “a matter of either recognizing or not recognizing certain principles and truths on the basis of one’s inclinations, one’s inborn sensitivity and inner awakening,” how can we not see this as yet another manifestation of the “primacy of will”? Once again, matters are to be decided not on the basis of rational argument but on the basis of inclination or desire. A moment ago, I quoted Evola as saying that he later repudiated the “rationalist” approach to tradition exhibited by his philosophical works. But this effectively misses the point of those works, whose approach was not “rationalist” (a word that is constantly being misused[14] [23]) but voluntarist. This is true, indeed, of Fichte. At its core, the idealism of both Fichte and Evola depends not on philosophical arguments but upon what is willed by the superior sort of man.[15] [24] In what Evola claims was his mature, non-philosophical approach to tradition, there is really no departure from this.

And this leads us to ask whether Evola’s methodology for the recovery of tradition really was as subjective as he seems to imply in this statement. Was it really a matter of consulting “inclinations” and “sensitivities”? It appears that this is at least partly true. The traditionalism of both Evola and Guénon seems to be partly a product of scholarship and study (some of which was quite rigorous), and partly a product of pure imagination. For example, in my essay “Heidegger Against the Traditionalists,” I pointed out that both Guénon and Evola naïvely take Platonism to be “perennial”; to be preserving, in other words, elements of primordial tradition.[16] [25] In fact, however, this is pure speculation, for which there is no credible scholarly evidence. Guénon and Evola are thus in much the same position as the Renaissance “Hermeticists” who falsely believed that the Corpus Hermeticum contained an Egyptian wisdom that antedated Plato and the Greeks, and from whom those philosophers had taken their basic doctrines. In reality, as later scholarship demonstrated, the Corpus Hermeticum was no older than the first century BC, and it derived its doctrines, in large measure, from Plato and his school.

Just as Guénon and Evola read Platonism back into the supposed Primordial Tradition, so they also manage to read Indian philosophy through the lens of Western metaphysics.[17] [26] This is an important point that I would like to dwell on for a moment, for I can imagine the following objection to what I have said already: “Evola’s magical idealism is, in fact, traditional, because it is essentially offering us Vedanta, or something very close to it, cloaked in the language of German idealism.”

Now, I am not going to deny that there are certain parallels between Western idealism and Vedanta. Many authors have drawn attention to these, the most famous example being Schopenhauer. However, there are also very significant differences between Indian philosophy and Western metaphysics. To illustrate this, let us just briefly consider what we might call Evola’s “argument from the fact of dreaming,” which I discussed in an earlier installment. To remind the reader, Evola supports his idealism by using the following analogy: “After all . . . do dreams not present us with other living creatures who appear real, act in unlikely ways, and can even terrorize us, while being mere projections of our own fantasy?”[18] [27]

There is an argument implied in this question, and it goes like this: In dreams our consciousness is capable of inventing an entire world and “projecting” it before the mind’s eye, where it is (mis-)taken as real. It is therefore plausible to believe that waking life is also a creation of my own mind. The problem with this argument, however, is that it is one thing to speculate that waking life might be a creation of the mind, but quite another to prove that it actually is. Further, in dreams the mind does not, in fact, create an entire world: It rearranges material that is stored in memory after having been encountered in waking life (e.g., I can dream of a goat with the head of an eagle only because when awake I have seen goats and eagles).

When I mentioned this argument earlier, I noted that it bears the influence of Vedanta — especially, it would seem, the Katha Upanishad. However, Vedanta does not offer a Western-style subjective idealism. Some of my readers will no doubt object to this and will insist that the similarities are very great: “After all, doesn’t the Indian tradition teach us about the veil of maya, illusion, and isn’t this something very much like Kantian phenomena? Aren’t we being told that the world we experience is only images, of which the Absolute Self (Atman) is the author? Aren’t we told, just as in Evola’s idealism (or Fichte’s) that you are it (tat tvam asi)?” In fact, however, none of this is correct.

It is a mistake to interpret the doctrine of maya along the lines of Western subjective idealism — in other words, to believe it asserts that the world we experience is just images in our minds, and thus has no existence independent of minds. When Indian philosophy calls the world illusion, it does not mean that it is “not there” (or “not out there”), or that it is only “images.” In fact, Vedanta claims that the world really exists, but that it lacks true being and is fundamentally misleading; it captivates us, and therefore has the tendency to lead us away from a deeper reality. The point of the dream analogy one finds in Vedanta is therefore not to say that the world might just be images in our minds; it is to call attention to our tendency to become completely absorbed in that which is not the true, fundamental being. As Wendy Doniger puts it,

To say that the universe is an illusion (māyā) is not to say that it is unreal; it is to say, instead, that it is not what it seems to be, that it is something constantly being made. Māyā not only deceives people about the things they think they know; more basically, it limits their knowledge.[19] [28]

I would add that Western subjective idealism is possible — as I argued earlier — only because it accepts the basic premises of representationalism, and that representationalism is possible only if we postulate a radical divide between a world “in here,” in my mind, and a world “out there.” I maintained earlier that this division is not only philosophically indefensible, it also does not appear in Western philosophy before the modern period. I would argue likewise that it also does not appear in classical Indian philosophy. There are thus very fundamental disanalogies between Western-style idealism and Indian thought.

But there is more — and it is highly significant. Vedanta does indeed teach that “you are it” (tat tvam asi) — meaning that I am identical to the source of all being (Brahman). But this claim is fundamentally different from the one that Evola makes in his magical idealism. Vedanta does not claim that “I” am Brahman; it does not maintain that my finite self, sometimes called “ego,” is “it.” Instead, it claims that Atman is Brahman, and Atman is the “true self” that exists “beneath” (or “beyond”) the false ego-self. It is an impersonal and universal “absolute self,” and is therefore analogous to the Fichtean Absolute Ego, or Kantian transcendental subjectivity, which Evola sacrifices on the altar of the “absolute individual.” Evola, in other words, seeks to absolutize the finite self. Nothing could be further from the spirit of Vedanta. (See my short series of essays “Introduction to Vedanta,” starting here [29].)

Nor, I think, can one rescue Evola by insisting that his is a “Tantric” conception, and that he is following the traditional “left-hand path.” Even in “left-hand” forms of spirituality, the idea is to develop the finite self into something that it is not yet. The idea is for the finite self, in fact, to give way to, or to become identified with, an absolute self which contains none of my personal characteristics. In some texts, Evola seems perfectly aware of this. However, it is not at all clear that he sees this in the philosophical writings on the absolute individual. These do indeed seem (based, at least, on the summation in The Path of Cinnabar) to enjoin us to live as if our personal, finite egos were author of all that exists. Ironically, given his desire to eradicate the individual, Fichte is actually closer to Vedanta than Evola is (though Fichte’s aim is actually for the individual to wholly identify with society, on the principle of Du bist nichts, dein Volk ist alles.)

***

In conclusion, I find that I cannot accept magical idealism, or the theory of the absolute individual, either as a metaphysical doctrine or as a “way.” However, as I noted at the very beginning of this essay, in order to really do justice to these ideas we must await the translation of Evola’s philosophical works — a project which, hopefully, some publisher will undertake in the near future. My criticisms are not meant in any way to diminish Evola’s achievements. Though I am unconvinced by Evola’s philosophy, it is still brilliantly imaginative, and reflects a deep engagement with German idealism (a subject quite beyond most readers, even well-educated ones). As this essay has amply illustrated, Evola’s ideas are certainly thought-provoking.

[30]

You can buy Jef Costello’s Heidegger in Chicago here [31]

Nor should anything I said earlier be construed as a rejection of the idea of “tradition” and traditionalism. Nevertheless, what we need is to recover a more authentic understanding of tradition — of the pre-modern (and, I would say, pre-philosophical) wisdom of our ancestors. We need an understanding of tradition that is thoroughly grounded in scholarship (i.e., in actual evidence) — and not in the fertile imaginations of charismatic personalities. As I argued earlier (and elsewhere [32]), part of the problem with Guénon and Evola is that they uncritically appropriate the ideas of Western metaphysics, assume they are far more ancient than they are, and then read them into other, unrelated texts and traditions.

One essential prerequisite for recovering a more authentic concept of tradition should therefore be a critical attitude toward Western metaphysics — i.e., the tradition that begins with the pre-Socratic philosophers and, if we follow Heidegger, ends with Nietzsche. The entire point of my series “Heidegger’s History of Metaphysics” is to engage in a kind of intellectual archeological dig, the purpose of which is to understand how we arrived at our present standpoint — in other words, how we went wrong. This activity of self-understanding, at the deepest level, is necessary (among other things) to avoid attributing our own beliefs and presuppositions to our pre-metaphysical ancestors. We imagine that we know exactly what “modernity” consists in, and that we are actively resisting it in our own souls and, so far as we are able, in the world around us. But we are all products of our time, and it is always the case that even the most thorough critics of the present are guilty now and then of taking assumptions unique to their own age for timeless truth. What I have argued in the foregoing is that this is precisely the mistake that Evola makes in his philosophical writings.

Though this is a topic for a future essay (or essays), I believe that Heidegger can be understood as engaged in this project of attempting to recover an authentic “tradition” partly through a “destruction” of Western metaphysics — it is just that he did not conceptualize it in “traditionalist” terms. My series on “Heidegger’s History of Metaphysics” is ongoing (though I no longer use “Heidegger’s History of Metaphysics” in the titles, and I no longer number the entries). It began with Plato and most recently reached Fichte (to whom I devoted five essays). This article on Evola can be considered a sort of “aside” within that series. Heidegger believed that Western metaphysics ended with Nietzsche, and that what has passed for metaphysics since then is mostly repetition. Evola’s heavy reliance upon Fichte certainly illustrates this point: Heidegger would see nothing fundamentally new in Evola’s philosophical writings.

What would “tradition” be, according to a Heideggerean (or neo-Heideggerean) perspective? I believe that, in large measure, it would look like the antithesis of much of what Evola offers in his philosophical writings. For Heidegger, the pre-metaphysical West was characterized by what we can call “openness to Being.” He tells us that the Greek response to Being was “wonder” (θαῦμα)[20] [33] — an attitude of being struck by the sheer fact that things are, and that we are. To wonder at the sheer fact that this tree is is something fundamentally different, for example, from the attitude that wants to cut down the tree and turn it into paper or pencils. To use the language of German idealism and Evola, such an attitude wants to negate the being of the tree and impose on it a new being, one of our own design.

The attitude of wonder, by contrast, is one of openness and acceptance. It lets beings be what they are, and stands before their being and witnesses it, without any agenda. Wonder involves, at a deep level, an acceptance of real otherness, of that which transcends our understanding and control. In the ancient, pre-metaphysical West, our ancestors wondered at the fact that they lived in the midst of a world they had not created and could never fully manipulate and understand. In other words, wonder is, and must be, bound up with an acceptance of mystery.

And to affirm mystery is to affirm human finitude. Mysteries exist precisely because of the limitations on our ability to know or to understand. Thus, if wonder is bound up with an acceptance of mystery, then it must also involve the acceptance of human finitude. This is the standpoint, in fact, that Heidegger finds in Greek drama and poetry. One also finds the affirmation of mystery and human finitude in pre-philosophical Greek mythology, about which Heidegger has surprisingly little to say. There are numerous Greek myths that, in one way or another, remind us of the reality of human finitude, often through characters who are punished for their hubris, an extreme arrogance that seeks to overstep natural limits, especially the boundary between the human and the divine. (See the stories of Arachne, Cassiopeia, Icarus, Niobe, Phaethon, Salmoneus, and Tereus, among others.)

But Evola’s philosophical writings, and the metaphysical tradition they depend upon, negate “openness to Being,” otherness, and mystery. They also negate human finitude and affirm, in effect, the potential infinitude of man, the “absolute individual.” Arguably, the insistence that the human individual is not and can never be absolute is the core feature of an authentic, pre-modern and pre-metaphysical “tradition.” But, again, that is a tale for another time.

*  *  *

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Notes

[1] [36] For one of Heidegger’s early discussions of this issue, see Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh, rev. Dennis J. Schmidt (Albany, N. Y.: State University of New York Press, 2010), 60-61.

[2] [37] There is a great deal here that I am leaving out because I cannot do justice to it in an essay such as this. For example, Berkeley does argue for the claim that we only experience images by marshalling examples of perceptual relativity. For instance, the same bucket of water may seem cold to one hand (if it’s been near the fire) and simultaneously warm to the other (if it’s been in the cold). But the same water can’t be both warm and cold. Since objects are nothing but collections of sensible qualities, and those qualities vary from perceiver to perceiver, or context to context, objects themselves are subjective; i.e., they are mind dependent. However, Berkeley overlooks the obvious fact that something remains constant from one variation of perception to another and from one perceiver to another. Regardless of whether it feels warm to one hand or cold to another, what both hands are feeling is the same bucket of water, which endures through variations in perception, and exists for all perceivers, however their perspectives on it may differ. It should also be noted that Berkeley and others do try to argue for the reasonableness of the idea that knowers exist in an “interior,” largely on the basis of the possibility of illusions and hallucinations. It seems, so the theory goes, that the only explanation for why I see a pink elephant in the cafeteria (while no one else sees one) is that I am experiencing an “image” of a pink elephant which only exists “in my mind.” Perhaps, representationalism reasons, all that I experience is images, with some of them corresponding to objects in the world, and others not (e.g., illusions and hallucinations). The problem with this position, however, is that it takes an aberrant phenomenon as an indicator of what must normally be the case — sort of like thinking that the phenomenon of gender dysphoria (which affects only about .005% of males) proves that gender has no biological basis. If something messes with the brain, we can indeed see pink elephants. But normally the brain and central nervous system function to makes us aware of objects in the world — e.g., the tree outside my window. The variations in how the tree may be perceived, from one moment to the next or one perceiver to another, are not evidence that we are only “seeing an image,” but are instead evidence that human beings are capable of experiencing multiple perspectives on one object. It is very interesting that ancient philosophers did not seem to find illusions and hallucinations philosophically interesting, though they must have known about them.

[3] [38] “Intentionality” has a special, technical sense in Husserl. It has nothing to do with “intentions” in the sense of plans, as in “I intend to go to the bank today.” Intentionality simply means that every conscious act is about something other than itself.

[4] [39] Similarly, an impression is always an impression of something, a perception is a perception of something, etc.

[5] [40] POC 39.

[6] [41] POC, 40. Italics added.

[7] [42] POC, 51-52. Italics added.

[8] [43] Thomas Sheehan, Making Sense of Heidegger: A Paradigm Shift (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015), 258-259.

[9] [44] POC, 58.

[10] [45] POC, 64.

[11] [46] POC, 36.

[12] [47] POC, 28.

[13] [48] POC, 64.

[14] [49] In philosophy, “rationalism” refers to an early modern philosophical approach that claimed that fundamental truths about the world could be deduced through pure reason alone, unaided by the senses (i.e., by empirical data). The chief exemplars of this approach were Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. It is not accurate to apply this label to the German idealists, for reasons too complex to go into here.

[15] [50] Fichte too appealed to the sensibilities of the superior sort of man. To continue the quote given a moment ago, “What sort of philosophy one chooses depends, therefore, on what sort of man one is; for a philosophical system is not a dead piece of furniture that we can reject or accept as we wish; it is rather a thing animated by the soul of the person who holds it. A person indolent by nature or dulled and distorted by mental servitude, learned luxury, and vanity will never raise himself to the level of idealism.” The Science of Knowledge, 16.

[16] [51] Consider, for example, Evola’s words from the very beginning of Revolt Against the Modern World: “In order to understand both the spirit of Tradition and its antithesis, modern civilization, it is necessary to begin with the fundamental doctrine of the two natures. According to this doctrine there is a physical order of things and a metaphysical one; there is a mortal nature and an immortal one; there is the superior realm of “being” and the inferior realm of “becoming.” Generally speaking, there is a visible and tangible dimension and, prior to and beyond it, an invisible and intangible dimension that is the support, the source, and the true life of the former.” Julius Evola, Revolt Against the Modern World, trans. Guido Stucco (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 1995), 3.

[17] [52] This is especially true of Guénon, who shows no signs of recognizing that there is anything problematic about understanding the Upanishads in terms derived from Platonic and Aristotelean philosophy. For example, right at the beginning of The Reign of Quantity, Guénon discusses the duality of Purusha and Prakriti using the categories of “essence and substance” — then, a page later, he appeals to “form and matter,” then to “act and potency.” This is all Aristotelean terminology. Moreover, there is no attempt on Guénon’s part to recover the “originary” sense of these terms in Aristotle. Instead, he unhesitatingly adopts the medieval scholastic understanding of these distinctions.

[18] [53] POC, 40.

[19] [54] Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 119.

[20] [55] See, for example, Heidegger, Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event), trans. Richard Rojcewicz and Daniela Vallega-Neu (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2012), 37.