Evola, Magical Idealism, & Western Metaphysics, Part TwoCollin Cleary
Part 2 of 4 (Part 1 here, Part 3 here)
4. The Principles of Magical Idealism
Evola’s critique of transcendental idealism, which we examined in the last installment, is insightful and interesting — though grand choruses of academic voices would be raised against every step of it, insisting that Evola has misunderstood idealism. That may be the case — indeed, there are strong reasons to think that he has misunderstood certain things. However, this will not be the focus in what follows. The reason is that to fully defend the idealists against Evola would require a great deal of textual exegesis. But this would effectively take the focus away from Evola and put it, principally, upon Fichte. My purpose in this essay, however, is to explore Evola’s ideas. Thus, criticism will be deferred until the concluding installment of this essay.
So, let us look in more detail at what magical idealism is. Much earlier, I noted that the Kantian thing-in-itself was regarded as a bulwark against subjective idealism and, most importantly, solipsism. Solipsism has always been considered the third rail of epistemology: If a position leads to it, then philosophers regard that position as having thereby been discredited. Once, after giving a public lecture, Bertrand Russell was cornered by a woman who insisted on expounding her personal philosophy to him. Russell listened patiently for a few minutes, and then exclaimed, “But madam, that would make you a solipsist.” She responded, “Well, isn’t everybody?” The story is amusing because, of course, there can be no “everybody” if solipsism is true; there is only “I.”
Unlike most philosophers, Evola has no quarrel with solipsism. Indeed, he fully embraces it. In The Path of Cinnabar he refers to his work as “proving the inevitable need of advocating so-called ‘solipsism’ (a rather inadequate term in this case) when one wishes to follow idealist epistemology.” The path of the “absolute individual” is, in fact, the path of solipsism (though, as Evola’s parenthetical remark suggests, it is a heavily qualified solipsism). The absolute individual is absolute in the sense of constituting the one true being. Magical idealism, or the theory of the absolute individual, enjoins me (for I really cannot say “enjoins us,” can I?) to live as if I am the one true being, and all else is my creation.
Based on Evola’s remarks in The Path of Cinnabar, I take him to be offering magical idealism as, in essence, a “pragmatic” position — i.e., I am only asked to live as if I am the one true being. However, Evola also presents positive arguments in favor of an extreme, subjective idealism. In The Path of Cinnabar, just after introducing the concept of solipsism, he writes, “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?” Here the influence of Vedanta is evident. We are asked to consider that 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. Couldn’t waking life also be a creation of my own mind?
The real support for Evola’s idealism, however, comes from philosophical arguments which, oddly enough, seem to owe more to Berkeley than to German idealism. Evola summarizes his philosophical case for idealism in the following passage:
It would be superfluous to present my philosophical arguments in detail. I will limit myself here to a brief overview. In a sense, the philosophy of idealism can be summed up by Berkeley’s formula esse est percipi — that is to say: 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.
Esse est percipi means “to be is to be perceived,” which was Berkeley’s way of affirming that the only things that exist are perceptions or impressions in the mind (therefore these are not perceptions or impressions “of something” in the world — though I will argue in the conclusion to this essay that this conception is incoherent). Evola is using Berkeley’s famous formulation to assert that, so far as our own experience is concerned, “existence” amounts simply to “that of which we are aware.” For all intents and purposes, anything we could never become aware of might as well be declared not to exist at all. Thus, existence is effectively “within” consciousness. A couple of pages later, Evola goes further and offers a very clear statement of his position:
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.
While it seems that Evola is straightforwardly arguing for subjective idealism, in fact his position is much more complicated than this. We have already seen that his position is what I have characterized as “pragmatic”: he argues that we should live as if solipsism is true. Then he goes on to claim that the choice of solipsism itself is a pragmatic one (though he does not use this term). Evola presents two philosophical paths that the “I” can choose from: the “path of the other” and the “path of the absolute individual.” I have already summarized the latter: It is the path that involves the “I” coming to regard the world as its own creation. The “path of the other” is simply the opposite of this: it holds that the “I” is actually the creation of the world. In other words, it holds that the individual is shaped by “the other”; by what is external to it. For example, the path of the other would hold that my perceptions or impressions are caused by external objects acting upon me.
Now, obviously, Evola rejects the path of the other and chooses the path of the absolute individual. The reason for this is that the former makes the “I” fundamentally passive and determined: a plaything of external forces over which it has no control. Evola, however, claims that both these paths are “equally valid.” In other words, they are equally supported by rational argument. Purely on the basis of evidence, one could therefore go either way. This means that the grounds for choosing between them must be non-rational. Evola describes this position as “bold” and “original” (though in fact, as I shall demonstrate in my conclusion, it comes straight out of Fichte).
Evola expresses his choice of the path of the absolute individual in quasi-Nietzschean terms — as the reflection of a non-rational “will to conquer.” In other words, the superior man chooses idealism because he wills to conquer all of reality: to experience the world as entirely his own possession. Evola writes that “in my work I emphasized the hidden meaning of idealism, and its irrational foundation, which consisted . . . in a will to be and to conquer; hence, according to my own understanding of the term, in a basically ‘magical’ impulse.” We can understand why this impulse is “magical” if we simply consider Aleister Crowley’s famous definition of “magick”: “the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will.” Evola’s conception of magic is more or less the same (though he would doubtless object to being compared to Crowley). And we will see later on that Novalis held to a remarkably similar understanding of magic — one even finds the same conception in Bacon.
It might be argued that in defining magic in these terms, all these men have cast too wide a net. After all, technology or applied science might be defined in exactly this same way. Technology is also the science and art of causing change in conformity with the human will. But this is precisely the point. Both Evola and Crowley mean to argue that anything that allows us to cause change in conformity with will is “magical,” including science, technology, and the sort of “magic” that gets dismissed as hokum. In any case, the crucial takeaway here is that Evola has made the will central to his philosophy. He has argued that the will is central to idealism, and that even the choice of idealism over some other philosophy is driven by the will.
Evola states that his entire philosophical system is based on the “the experience of a pure ‘I,’ a detached ‘I’ which is a center unto itself: a pure being and an absolute form of self-evidence, anterior to any content determined by consciousness and thought.” This “detached ‘I’” is that from which issues the “Olympian gaze” Evola sometimes refers to in his work. However, the detached “I” is far from being a disinterested spectator gazing impassively at the world. Evola argues that the “I” “cannot be defined as mere ‘thought,’ ‘representation,’ or as an ‘epistemological subject’; rather, the ‘I’ is truth, action, and will.” Elsewhere, Evola characterizes his philosophy as asserting “the primacy of will over ‘truth.’”
Note that in this latter quotation, Evola has placed “truth” in scare quotes. This is because here he is rejecting the notion of truth as existing independently of the subject, fixed and unchangeable. If we are to embrace solipsism, this really means affirming that the “I” — the willful “I” — is the one truth. Since it is the nature of this “I” to transform all else according to its will, everything other than the “I” has no fixed being and is thus “untrue.” Everything, in essence, waits upon the “I” to transform it and thereby give it its truth. Evola writes that “existence, truth, and certainty are not to be found in the past but in the future: they are tasks.” At one point he also states that “true action . . . nullifies things by possessing them.” In other words, true action (the willful activity of the “I”) nullifies the being of things by transforming them according to the desires of the “I.” Their being is negated and a new being is conferred upon them: “to be” is now “to be a projection of the subject.” Evola’s point here is thoroughly Fichtean: the world I experience shall be made over according to my will; in confronting this transformed world I am therefore confronting a projection of my own self.
Evola writes at one point that, in opposition to Platonism, he chose to define “ideas as potential realities, and realities as actual ideas. This was a bold and dangerous theory, for it was one that led to action.” What Evola means is that ideas or theories should be understood only with reference to their potential realization. Further, actually existing objects or states of affairs are to be understood as ideas already come to realization. This would refer to the “I” imposing its ideas upon nature, in the Baconian sense of “mastery,” as well as the use of magic to alter reality. However, it also refers to the structural activity of the “I” in creating a world of experience, which had been attributed by earlier idealists to the acts of transcendental subjectivity working from behind the scenes, applying its “ideas” to the raw data of sensory experience. Since Evola rejects the Absolute Ego (or transcendental subjectivity) as an alien “other” and thus as an affront to the freedom of the “I” (see the last installment of this essay), he must attribute its structural activity to the conscious, personal ego. Evola writes,
[When] will it be possible to truly affirm the idealist principle that the “I” posits all things? It will only be possible once the individual has transformed the dark passion of the world into a kind of freedom; that is to say: once the individual experiences his action of representation no longer as a form of [passive] spontaneity and coexistence of reality and possibility, but rather as a form of unconditioned, willed causation and power.
In other words: the idealist principle that the “I” posits all things may only be truly affirmed when the very givenness of objects to awareness is seen as a function of my conscious will. Again: “[In] order to possess itself, the ‘I’ must first be — which is to say: the ‘I’ must simply posit itself, with immediacy and spontaneity in those forms which I defined as forms of ‘passive activity.’”
But how can I possibly conceive of my conscious self as constructing the world of experience when I seem to have no conscious awareness of doing so? At least in The Path of Cinnabar, Evola does not offer a clear answer to this (one has to assume that much more detail is to be found in the untranslated works on magical idealism). In essence, he asserts that magical idealism (or the path of the absolute individual) is one in which I strive to come closer and closer to the goal of seeing myself as conscious creator of all that I experience. He writes: “[One] could here envision a gradual process whereby the power of an ‘I’ expands from being the power of thought to that of magical imagination and self-persuasion: to that of persuading others and, ultimately, of persuading and altering reality itself.” Though, admittedly, this passage raises more questions than it answers.
It certainly seems as if the objects of which I am aware have an existence independent of me, and do not depend upon me for their being. In the face of the sheer fact of this independent existence, I seem to be fundamentally powerless. Evola’s answer to this problem is very much in the spirit of Fichte: He asks us to consider this “independent existence” merely as a limit on the subject’s will, rather than an actual being in its own right. Thus, what we seem to experience as an “external world” is merely a “deficiency” or a “privation” (to use Evola’s own terms) — an experience, in other words, of an apparent absence of willful causation on the part of the “I.” It is indeed a limit on the subject’s will — but limits can shift, or be removed entirely. Evola writes:
The path of the absolute individual is based on the following imperative: not to flee from existential deficiency, “not to grant deficiency an existence of its own as a way to avoid its weight” (that is to say: not to define deficiency as a distinct reality such as nature, “the thing in itself,” or God); but rather, to acknowledge the existence of deficiency and render oneself superior to it by facing it and enduring all its weight. One needs to become that very deficiency, and to conceive of all things upon which he has no power as forms of negativity rather than as separate beings and values (i.e., rather than by identifying both what is rational and what is wished with what is real).
Key here is the statement that “one needs to become that deficiency.” It is necessary for Evola to take this position, for it is, in essence, a restatement of a basic principle of magical idealism: I must come to see “the world” as my creation. I experience that world as not me, and because of this I attribute to it substantial, independent existence. This is a pattern of thought I must unlearn, however, for the theory of the absolute individual claims precisely that I am that world, but that I do not (yet) know it. Thus, my experience of an apparent external world is a mark of my own present “deficiency.” I must come to see that I and this “other” are one.
A major question remains (indeed, many questions): Why is it that I must begin with this deficiency? Or, to put it differently: Why is a world given to me as independently existing, if in reality it is not? Why must I work to overcome this illusion? Why am I not already living in a state of enlightenment? Addressing these questions is essentially the task of what Evola terms the “eschatological background” to his philosophy. “Eschatology” literally means “account (logos) of the end of time (eschaton).” However, “end” can mean literal end (i.e., stopping point), or end in the sense of telos, “purpose” or “goal.” Thus, eschatology refers to any philosophical or theological account of the final age, or of the purpose of the world (or both). In the latter sense, it may refer to an account of the divine plan. Magical idealism contains an eschatology in the sense of an account of the ultimate purpose of existence — which is, in a certain manner of speaking, also a divine purpose. Evola refers to the absolute individual as “unfold[ing] itself as the thing by which nature itself is redeemed and transformed into an absolute being possessing beginning and end (the ‘final consummation’ or ekpyrosis) in itself.”
What Evola means is that the coming into being of the absolute individual may be understood to be the purpose of all of reality. If we ask the perennial question, “Why is there anything at all, instead of just nothing?” (which Heidegger regarded as the most profound question in philosophy), Evola’s answer is that existence exists in order to give rise to the absolute individual. This is best understood by putting things in the first person — which is, of course, true to Evola’s solipsism. If I ask myself, “Why do I have an experience of nature, of an external world existing independently of me?”, the answer is that it exists solely to be overcome. It is through the overcoming of the experience of independent existence that the absolute individual is born.
The absolute individual is born, in other words, by the spiritual conquest of all that he initially takes to be “reality.” Thus, the world exists so that I might fully realize my nature as absolute individual (the one, true being); it exists solely as the means to bring about my apotheosis; my divinization. What is crucial to understand here is that, for Evola, this divinization takes place merely through coming to see the world as existing so that I might be. Though it must be added that genuinely coming to believe this is no mean feat. The reason is that only a truly superior man would be capable of such belief (or, one might counter, only a madman).
Evola’s eschatology does indeed constitute a “divine plan” — only it is not a plan imposed upon me and upon nature by an all-powerful other. Instead, the divinity is my own potential divinity, and the “plan” is the evolutionary process by which a world comes into being so that I may come into being, as absolute individual or living god. Evola writes that, “The world of primeval spontaneity, the world of human personality and thought, and the world that transcended it all had to be assumed, I suggested, and ‘inferred’ with respect to an absolute individual who wishes his own self-fulfillment or self-expression.”
Earlier we saw Evola refer to the “final consummation” (consumazione finale) of nature in the absolute individual as the ekpyrosis, which means “conflagration.” The ancient Stoics used this term to refer to the great conflagration of the entire universe that occurs at the end of each cosmic cycle. In Evola’s magical idealism there is a similar conflagration: All of nature is “consumed” by the absolute individual in the process of transforming nature into a projection of himself. Note also that Evola tells us that in this process, nature is “redeemed.” This language has to remind us of another ancient school, that of the Gnostics. Although there are many differences between the views of the various Gnostic sects, most taught some version of the doctrine that the human soul is actually a divinity that has forgotten its divine origin through having been thrust into a physical body and into preoccupation with nature. Nature itself is usually thought to have been the creation of a jealous demiurge (Greek δημιουργός, “craftsman”) who has designed it precisely to keep divine human souls in the dark about their true identity.
There are a number of interesting parallels between Evola’s magical idealism and Gnosticism, and Evola himself draws our attention to these. He states at one point that his views “represented almost a return to Gnostic and Manichean ideas of the crucifixion of the cosmic One in the world as the ultimate meaning of the individual’s existence (albeit without the same dualism or pessimism).” In other words, magical idealism suggests, in effect, that I am a god, but that I do not know it. I have been thrown into this body and into the natural world, which presents itself as an alien other that acts upon me and limits my freedom. Through following the path of magical idealism, however, I can come to see that world as a projection of my own being (as the “self-definition” of the “I”) and thus realize my true nature as absolute individual. In Evola’s scheme, the place of the demiurge is occupied by the self-limitation of the fearful, worldly, finite ego which would rather hold onto its finitude and all its suffering and pain than give way to the realized, infinite ego that is the absolute individual.
I will conclude this account of magical idealism with a brief discussion of how Evola sees his ideas within the history of philosophy, and how he regards philosophy as such. At one point in The Path of Cinnabar, he claims that “transcendental idealism represented the final stage reached by human reason with regard to the issues of certainty and knowledge (that is to say: with regard to the problem of epistemology).” However, a few pages later he asserts that transcendental idealism “inevitably culminates in magical idealism.” This is not a contradiction, however, for Evola regards magical idealism as a step beyond philosophy itself. Transcendental idealism is merely the final stage reached by human reason (“. . . with regard to the issues of certainty and knowledge . . .”). Evola’s claim is that once “the original impulse which had given birth to [transcendental idealism]” is recognized, and pushed to its ultimate conclusion, what results is the “immanent self-transcendence of philosophy as a whole.”
The original impulse that gives birth to idealism is the aforementioned “will to conquer.” Once this is recognized, Evola believes that idealism is transformed from a mere theory about reality into a path of action in the world. Remember that the “I” “cannot be defined as mere ‘thought,’ ‘representation,’ or as an ‘epistemological subject.’” Rather, “the ‘I’ is truth, action, and will.” In realizing that a fully-developed idealism transcends theory (and thus “philosophy”) and becomes action, Evola says that he discovered “that the philosophical works I had written were essentially a preparation for my future exploration of a field which was no longer that of discursive thought and speculation, but the field of inner, self-fulfilling action: the very field aimed at transcending human limits which I had encountered in some of the works I had read at that time.” Further, he quotes Jules Lagneau stating that “Philosophy is the kind of reflection which ultimately recognizes its own insufficiency, and the need for an absolute action arising from within.”
The foregoing covers most of the major points Evola discusses in Chapter Four of The Path of Cinnabar. There is more that could be said, but this account will have to suffice. In the next and final installment, we will consider objections to Evola’s ideas.
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 Julius Evola, The Path of Cinnabar, trans. Sergio Knipe (Aarhus, Denmark: Integral Tradition Publishing, 2009), 40. Henceforth POC.
 It will seem odd to use the word “pragmatic” in discussing Julius Evola. I am not asserting, however, that he is a “pragmatist.” A position can be characterized as “pragmatic,” in the loose sense, if we are enjoined to believe something because of the positive or desirable results of belief, rather than because the belief is true (although it may also be true).
 POC, 40.
 POC, 39.
 POC, 40.
 These ideas are expounded in POC, 47-48.
 POC, 48.
 POC, 48.
 POC, 38.
 In De Augmentis, Bacon defines “magic” in its “honourable meaning” as “the knowledge of the universal consents of things. . . . I . . . understand [magic] as the science which applies the knowledge of hidden forms to the production of wonderful operations; and by uniting (as they say) actives with passives, displays the wonderful works of nature” (De Augmentis III.5). Bacon understands “magic” as applied science, while for him “science” refers to pure science. To be clear, he rejects the sort of magic that is described as “occult” or “supernatural.”
 POC, 44-45.
 POC, 41.
 POC, 58.
 POC, 51-52.
 POC, 53.
 POC, 59. This quotation actually contains part of another quotation (from Evola; i.e., Evola is quoting himself). To avoid confusion, I have eliminated the closing quotation mark.
 POC, 53.
 POC, 49. Evola seems to be quoting himself in this passage.
 POC, 49.
 POC, 57-58.
 POC, 50.
 POC, 60.
 POC, 33.
 POC, 61.
 POC, 33.
 POC, 33.
 POC, 33.
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