Evola, Magical Idealism, & Western Metaphysics, Part ThreeCollin Cleary
Part 3 of 4 (Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 4 here)
5. Critique of Magical Idealism
In this concluding section, I will discuss three major difficulties with magical idealism:
- Evola consistently exaggerates the differences between his position and that of previous idealists, chiefly Fichte and Novalis. In fact, most of the tenets of magical idealism are not original to Evola. Since this topic is mainly of scholarly interest, I will spend less time on it.
- The epistemological arguments Evola presents in support of idealism (i.e., for seeing the world as a projection of the personal ego) are untenable. Since he derives much of this position from earlier idealists, including Fichte and Berkeley, the criticisms I will raise will apply, by extension, to some of the other idealist philosophers as well. As already noted, Evola seems to offer magical idealism as a “pragmatic” position — i.e., he asks us to live as if the world is a projection of the ego, as a personal path to the realization of the absolute individual. But just as in Fichte, there is a tension here: At times Evola seems to advance magical idealism as a metaphysical position, as a claim about what really exists, or what is really true. It is when we take him to be doing this that serious problems arise.
- Evola offers magical idealism as compatible with traditionalism — indeed, as a philosophical expression of traditional teachings. In response to this, I will argue that some of magical idealism’s explicit tenets straightforwardly contradict traditionalism, as conceived by Guénon and Evola. Magical idealism is also founded upon certain assumptions about subjectivity and the human condition that are unique to modernity. This alone should cast doubt on whether magical idealism is compatible with traditionalism. But matters are actually more serious than this. These assumptions are precisely those which Heidegger and other thinkers have identified as leading to modern nihilism and decadence. If this is correct, then we can no longer consider the theory of the absolute individual as a revolt against the modern world. Indeed, to follow that path would be to swallow more of the poison that is killing us. This is obviously the most controversial of my claims.
(a) How original is magical idealism?
Evola presents the choice between the path of the other and the path of the absolute individual as necessarily resting on non-rational grounds, since both positions are rationally defensible. Evola claims that this move is “bold” and “original.” It is certainly bold, but it is not original. In the celebrated 1797 “First Introduction” to the Wissenschaftslehre, Fichte juxtaposes two positions which I briefly described in an earlier installment: “dogmatism,” which explains experience as caused by an external world acting upon the subject; and “idealism,” which explains the external world as the creation of subjectivity. These are obviously identical to Evola’s “path of the other” and “path of the absolute individual,” respectively. Furthermore, Fichte argues that dogmatism and idealism can both be supported by rational argument. The choice between them must therefore be made on non-rational grounds. He concludes as follows, in a famous passage:
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.
As the last sentence of the quote indicates, Fichte does not regard the two positions as equal in all respects. They are equal, in fact, only in that equally strong arguments can be marshalled in support of both. But the two positions are not morally equal, because dogmatism is an affront to human dignity. Now, Evola essentially takes the same position, though without using the language of moralism. For him, the path of the other (Fichte’s “dogmatism”) is, in effect, an affront to his personal dignity. In Evola’s view, quite simply, the superior man would never consent to believe in a philosophy that asserted that he is “determined” by external forces. Instead, the superior man must believe that he is cause of himself — or, more to the point, must strive to become the sole, exclusive cause of himself, of his experience, and of all else.
In the cases of both Fichte and Evola, the choice of philosophies is made on the basis of will. We have seen that Evola asserts “the primacy of will over ‘truth,’” and makes will central to his entire philosophy. In fact, his treatment of will differs little at all from Fichte’s. In section two of this essay, I discussed how Fichte makes will central to his system. Even knowledge, for Fichte, is understood in “voluntarist” terms: The striving to know is the striving to manipulate. Ultimately, I can only truly know that which I have created, and thus it is the human vocation to re-create the world (to transform it according to will), and therefore to erase (asymptotically) the subject-object distinction. The world becomes fully known, in other words, by being “absorbed” into the subject. Evola’s claims that the “I” is “truth, action, and will,” that “existence, truth, and certainty are not to be found in the past but in the future: they are tasks,” and that “true action . . . nullifies things by possessing them,” all read like they could have come straight out of Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre.
Further, Evola presents “the immanent self-transcendence of philosophy as a whole” as a radically new position — a response to all previous philosophy. Once again, however, there is really no departure here from Fichte’s views. Fichte avoids using the term “philosophy” to describe his ideas, since “philosophy” connotes an ongoing search. He believes that with him the search ends, and philosophy becomes completed science (a position that is erroneously thought to have been original with Hegel). Thus, Fichte prefers to use the terms Wissenschaftslehre (doctrine of science), or simply Wissenschaft (science). It might be objected that unlike Evola’s position, this suggests that philosophy gives way not to action but to yet another theoretical standpoint: science. But this would be a superficial reading of Fichte. As we have already seen, he takes the position that idealism is a path of action in the world whereby we transform reality into an image of our own ideals and aspirations, thus re-making the world into a projection of the ego. Save for the fact that Evola replaces the Absolute Ego with the personal ego, his position is virtually the same as Fichte’s. Philosophy, mere theory, must overcome itself and issue in will-full action.
In fact, there seem to be only three notable ways in which Evola differs significantly from Fichte. The first is the use of the term “magical.” Evola’s broad understanding of magic is one that Fichte could have endorsed, but they would have parted company over the sort of magic advocated by Evola and the Ur Group. Second, as noted earlier, Evola has dropped the conception of an impersonal Absolute Ego in favor of a titanic, quasi-Nietzschean egoism in which the world is to be made over into a projection of the personal ego of the superior man. This is indeed a significant departure from Fichte, for we saw earlier that Fichte argues for the literal eradication of the personal ego (though this was put forward as a regulative ideal). In fact, that is the reason for Evola’s adoption of the term “absolute individual” (as opposed to such earlier, impersonal idealist coinages as “Absolute Ego,” “Absolute Spirit,” “Absolute Idea,” etc.). Third, solipsism is also a significant departure from Fichte, who would never have accepted Evola’s advocacy of solipsism as an infinite task. For Fichte, such a conception would have been literally incoherent, for he held that it is only through an encounter with other selves that my own self is developed, and self-awareness achieved (arguably, in fact, this one of the most profound and interesting aspects of Fichte’s philosophy).
If we ask why it is that Evola seems consistently to miss how close his own position is to Fichte’s, it probably has to do with the fact that, like so many others, he incorrectly reads Fichte as offering a metaphysical idealism. I alluded to this common misreading in the second section of this essay. In brief, it consists in believing that the purpose of Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre was to prove that reality already is the creation of the Absolute Ego. In fact, as I have discussed, Fichte adopts a “pragmatic” idealism: It is our task to re-make the world into what is, in effect, a projection of the ego, thus bringing ego face to face with itself. Idealism, for Fichte, is thus a project (a never-ending one) and not a metaphysical theory. Idealism is action, not theory. Thus, much of what Evola takes to be innovative in his own position is actually already in Fichte — but it is easily missed if one reads Fichte the wrong way.
Fichte is not the only idealist to whom Evola is heavily indebted. In just a moment I will say something about his relation to Novalis — and we may also note that Evola even owes a good deal to Schelling and Hegel. Recall that the “eschatological” dimension to Evola’s philosophy maintains that the coming into being of the absolute individual may be understood to be the purpose of all of reality. This position is obviously inspired by Hegel’s claim that the purpose of the universe is its coming to consciousness of itself through the philosopher (i.e., through self-aware humanity, principally the philosopher). Critics of Hegel had charged him with “making man into God” (an interpretation eagerly embraced by Feuerbach). Evola goes a step beyond this. He does not make man into God; he makes me into God.
Finally, we must now at last say something, if only briefly, about Novalis and his own “magical idealism.” Novalis was the penname of Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg (1772-1801). Better known as a poet than as a philosopher, he was nonetheless a major contributor to the development of German idealism — a fact which only came to be appreciated for the first time in the middle of the last century. Like so many others who were part of the Romantic-idealist milieu, Novalis studied at Jena (under the eminent Kantian philosopher K. L. Reinhold). Over the course of his extremely brief career, he made the acquaintance of Fichte, Hölderlin, the Schlegel brothers, Tieck, and other luminaries.
In the fall of 1795, while serving as secretary to a government official in Tennstedt, Novalis began making notes on the philosophy of Fichte. In the end, he filled six notebooks full of remarks, ending the exercise late in the summer of 1796. Scholars have given these notebooks the title Fichte Studien (Fichte Studies), and they have been translated into English. Contrary to what this title may imply, Novalis’ notes constitute a critical engagement with Fichte, and seek to address what Novalis believed to be shortcomings in his thinking. The specifics of Novalis’ criticisms of Fichte cannot, of course, occupy us here. Like Schelling, Novalis had also been strongly influenced by Spinoza, who identified God with nature, and he sought to effect a synthesis of Fichte and Spinoza. In essential terms, this would consist in an idealism which affirmed nature as a value and as a source of meaning in its own right, as opposed to Fichte’s view of nature as nothing more than raw material waiting to be transformed by human beings. Another influence on Novalis’ ideas was Plotinus, who spoke of the emanation of nature from the One, and of the “return” to the One in the experience of the philosopher-mystic.
Unlike many others in his own time (and since), Novalis recognized the “pragmatic” nature of Fichte’s idealism. He understood that Fichte was not saying that the world is the creation of the Absolute Ego, but that it ought to be, and that we must work for the realization of the Absolute Ego as a regulative principle. Thus, the “magical idealism” he advocates has at least one strong parallel to Evola’s. Are there other such parallels? Just how close is Evola’s position to that of Novalis? I will offer a very brief sketch of Novalis’ magical idealism, and let the reader decide for himself.
The term “magical idealism” occurs in Novalis’ writings after the composition of the Fichte Studien, in the 1798 Allgemeine Brouillon (literally “General Rough Draft”), another set of posthumously published notes. The basic ideas of magical idealism occur earlier, however, in still another set of notes, the “Logologische Fragmente,” this time from 1797. Frederick Beiser explains Novalis’ choice of a name for his philosophy as follows: “Novalis gave his doctrine this name because magic is for him the art of making nature conform to our will . . . , and because idealism is the doctrine that what we perceive depends on our own creative activity.” I submit that this understanding of both “magic” and “idealism” is identical to that of Evola.
Novalis accepts the Kantian doctrine that we only know something insofar as we create it. This has always suggested to thoughtful readers that the world is mere illusion (and Kant — unintentionally, it must be said — encourages this by sometimes speaking as if things in themselves are things as they really are). Novalis embraces this suggestion — in a manner very much in the spirit of Evola. He claims that “all thinking is the art of illusion,” that “illusion” (Schein) is the nature of experience, and that it is “the original form of all truth.” Further, Novalis adopts the Fichtean principle that knowledge is driven by the will. Thus, if the world we experience is the creation of the structural activity of consciousness (if, indeed, it is “illusion”), and if consciousness is driven by the will, then we must conclude that the will itself is, as Novalis put it, “the basis of all creation.”
The implication Novalis draws from this seems strikingly Evolian: If will is the basis of all creation, then it should be possible for us to use our will to achieve complete control over ourselves and over nature. This means that we can, in principle, control our senses (experiencing whatever we wish), and, like an Indian yogi, control even our internal organs. Beiser writes that Novalis “imagines that one day we will be able to control the inner organs of our body just as we are now able to control our thoughts, actions, and speech.” “Everything involuntary is transformed into something voluntary,” Novalis writes. As a result, the entire world is to be transformed into a creation of the will-full “I.” The subject “should have the power to make not only his thoughts into things but also his things into thoughts.” This must remind us of Evola’s dictum that ideas are “potential realities” and realities are “actual ideas.”
The end result of magical idealism is that we will live in a world entirely of our own making, though Novalis insists that this must be carried out according to aesthetic standards of beauty. Thus, as Beiser puts it, “According to Novalis’ own definition, magical idealism is the romantic doctrine because romanticism is making the world into a work of art, so that it regains its magic, mystery, and beauty.” If it seems like Novalis is making man into God, he is. And Novalis is explicit about this. However, it must be noted that, true to Fichte (and much as Evola would hold more than a century later), the human project of achieving total control over nature is offered as a regulative ideal.
We have seen that Novalis’ use of “magic” is very similar to that of Evola — and Crowley, and Francis Bacon. But does “magic,” for Novalis, subsume the “occult” sort of magic (e.g., the magic of the Ur Group or the Golden Dawn), as it does for Evola and Crowley, but not for Bacon? The answer is that it may. Beiser writes that “There can be no doubt that Novalis had some sympathy with the hermetic and cabalist traditions, and that some of its ideas play a crucial role in his magical idealism.” For example, we know that Novalis was an avid reader of Jacob Boehme.
Having now offered a very brief summary of Novalis’ philosophy, we must turn to the topic of Evola’s relation to him. In a 1971 interview, Evola was asked whether Novalis was an influence on him. His answer is somewhat evasive: “Partly. In part because at that time I was intoxicated by the academic methods and in Novalis I perceived a deep intuition. But what actually attracted me was his poetical aspect and his intuitive one — which were all but systematic.” In fact, as he reveals in his notes, Novalis did nurture ambitions to create a systematic philosophy — though it is not clear whether all of that material was available to Evola. In The Path of Cinnabar, Evola is more definite: “while Novalis certainly remained one of my favorite authors, and while some of his intuitions had proven crucial to me, my own system was heading in a very different direction.”
This last assertion, however, is certainly debatable, for the account I have given of Novalis’ magical idealism shows it to be quite close to Evola’s own position. Missing in Novalis is the problematic framing of idealism in terms of solipsism, as well as the amoral, “egoistic” cast of Evola’s idealism, which promises the personal ego a path to absolutization. These differences are not insignificant.
To be continued . . .
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 Fichte, The Science of Knowledge, trans. Peter Heath and John Lachs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 16.
 For a typical example of such a metaphysical misreading, see the otherwise admirably clear chapters on Fichte in Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Vol. VII: Fichte to Nietzsche (New York: Image Books, 1985).
 Frederick Beiser, German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism 1781-1801 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), 423.
 Quoted in Beiser, 415. See Beiser’s discussion on this page.
 Quoted in Beiser, 423. For a discussion of these ideas, see Beiser 423-424.
 Beiser, 422.
 Quoted in Beiser, 423.
 Beiser, 427. See the citations in Beiser to Novalis’ text.
 Beiser, 424.
 See Beiser 423 for citations to Novalis’ texts.
 Beiser, 425. See the citations to Novalis’ texts on this page. As he indicates on this same page, however, Beiser does not think that Novalis believed in “supernatural” magic.
 Julius Evola, The Path of Cinnabar, trans. Sergio Knipe (Aarhus, Denmark: Integral Tradition Publishing, 2009), 28-29. Henceforth POC.
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It’s always a pleasure to read Mr Cleary’s essays, and this one sent me to my bookshelf and to The Path of Cinnabar, to reread the chapter on Magical Idealism.
What struck me immediately was how young Evola was when he began to write about the Absolute Individual. He states that his “philosophical phase” lasted from 1921 – 1927, that is, between the ages 23 to 29.
Earlier in Cinnabar, Evola writes that the kshatriya, or warrior, trait of his character “manifested itself in a rough manner, leading [him] towards an unbalanced affirmation of the ‘I’, something which [he] theoretically expressed through [his] doctrine of power and autarchy.”
And in other passages early in Cinnabar, Evola acknowledges that his apprentice works were often flawed by youth exuberance and impetuosity, as well as by ignorance of subjects which he later came to see as central to his worldview.
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