‘Being, life, and intellect coincide in the same.’ — Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, ‘Nine Hundred Theses’, Judgements on Plotinus, I.20.6
Italian thinker Julius Evola (1898–1974) is well-known to the Arktos Journal audience as one of the leading thinkers of the Traditionalist school alongside René Guénon, Frithjof Schuon, and Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy. Many of his works, both political and strictly traditionalist in nature, have long been translated into English and have undergone multiple reissues in recent years.
Evola the philosopher is, however, completely unfamiliar to English-speaking readers. This is understandable – his philosophical works of the 1920s were hardly translated into foreign languages, and in terms of radical opposition to the destructive phenomena of the modern world, they naturally fall short of his later works, which have drawn the attention of the interested public. At the same time, Evola himself considered the philosophical period of his work an important milestone in his own intellectual and spiritual evolution, as he wrote in his intellectual autobiography The Path of Cinnabar (1963). Despite the fact that Evola subsequently moved away from ‘speculative philosophy’ (as he called his main passion of his youth), his traditionalist, mature, and late texts, as well as his spiritual preferences, bear the imprint of his youthful philosophy, which obviously left a deep mark on the soul of the Italian thinker. Bearing in mind the fact that Essays on Magical Idealism are only an introduction to the early idealistic philosophy of Julius Evola, let us try to understand the basic theoretical positions of his philosophical system using this text as an example.
Magical Idealism in the Intellectual Palette of the Early Twentieth Century
Essays on Magical Idealism, first published in 1925 by the Roman publishing house Atanor, begin a series of philosophical writings by Evola, in which this intellectual, unsatisfied with rethinking classical idealism popular at that time in Italy, attempted to create and develop his own philosophical system.
Evola’s philosophical creativity has several important origins, which, for the sake of correct perception, it is important to briefly mention. The Italian thinker cites some in the Essays themselves, others he mentions in passing.
In Italy during the first decades of the twentieth century, which was experiencing tumultuous political events, neo-Hegelian idealism developed by philosophers Giovanni Gentile and Benedetto Croce gained huge popularity. Neo-idealism virtually ousted the previous intellectual hegemons – positivism and pragmatism, which rapidly lost their charm in the minds of thinking Italians. This intellectual tradition, which the young Evola followed and polemicised with, was not to his satisfaction. It seemed to him that Gentile’s rational idealistic philosophy was too ‘dry’, too ‘devoid of life’, and the subject he postulated, realising itself in acts, was an abstraction. At that time, Evola was much more interested in other thinkers: Carlo Michelstaedter, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Otto Weininger.
In the Essays on Magical Idealism, the influence of Michelstaedter (1887–1910) is most noticeable. This ‘eternally young’ brilliant researcher of ancient rhetoric, who shot himself at the age of 23, left only one major work – the dissertation Persuasion and Rhetoric, which had a huge influence on Evola. The ‘path of persuasion’, about which Michelstaedter wrote, boils down to the aspiration of creating the absolute from one’s own individuality. The ‘convinced’ person, in whom we can see the prototype of Evola’s Absolute Individual, is his own measure and limit; maintaining internal balance in himself, he ‘sees light in the darkness’, and his life is of a completely different quality than that of most people. Feeling himself internally a hermit in the void, he is able to ‘transform himself into a flame’, existentially overcoming the surrounding ‘world of rhetoric’ – a universe of hypocrisy and empty words.
Other authors to whom Evola refers in the Essays are undoubtedly better known to the domestic reader – these are the already mentioned Giovanni Gentile, Hermann Keyserling, Octave Hamelin, and Otto Braun. By arguing with them in absentia, Evola substantiates not only the novelty of Magical Idealism, but also its usefulness – both as a development of the best tendencies of the idealistic philosophy contemporary to him, and as a practical path for a person thirsting for limits and accomplishments on the path of his own becoming in spirit. According to Evola, ‘the Magical Idealist will assert that what he absolutely wants cannot be a dream or fantasy. Others, on the other hand, will say that the path is long, difficult, and barren, and that they will not know how to adapt their powers to it. To this, the Magical Idealist repeats what Fichte said about his morality: ‘There is no worse for you. Because beyond the value of conviction there is only the horror and curse of non-existence.’
So, what is the path of the Magical Idealist?
Introduction to the Concept of Power
Briefly referencing the elements of gnoseology (theory of knowledge) from Kant, Schelling, Fichte, and Vico, Evola asserts that ‘the theory of absolute knowledge, at a subsequent pivotal point, must transition into magic, because otherwise it will not be able to hold onto any of its positions’. He labels the transcendental ‘I’ as an abstract subject of knowledge, ‘an empty form, partitioning the concrete world into ideal entities’. Thus, humans and all human things ‘end up in the mind of a rationalist’. This is an entirely passive, helpless position, ‘an illusion and rhetoric’.
Turning to ideas from Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, Evola proposes understanding categories as ‘modes of activity and freedom’. The concrete power of ‘I’ should dominate ‘from the height of unconditional arbitrary freedom over the array of all those states and energies, in which the entirety of his experience forms’. Evola poses the question, ‘In what can I be absolutely certain?’ and answers it, ‘I can be absolutely certain only in that I have principles and beginnings within me; unconditional freedom, the secondary function of possession; and in others, I am certain only in that which satisfies this condition.’ From this premise, the main task organically follows – ‘the elevation of the individual to the universal Lord’, which Evola calls ‘the process of absolute self-realisation’.
Evola notes that such a formulation of the problem may irritate the European reader, but he merely reproduces some positions of Eastern wisdom. The Western intellectual tradition is implicitly criticised by the Italian thinker for hidden egalitarianism, claiming that anyone, through training, can come to such realisations. According to Evola, only ‘distorted shadows’ will open up to ‘anyone’, while genuine knowledge is not accessible to everyone. Meanwhile, the one who goes to the absolute ‘reunites with the one who does not give in to the world and does not flee from it, but confronts it face to face, completely dominating over it, and who in each of his decisions recognises himself as a powerful subject, thereby demonstrating the non-existence of the world itself as the “Other”, and also, at the same point, its absolute reality in the infinity of its forms, as simply a manifestation of the unconditional self-transformation of the Absolute Individual, the Unique (unico)’. Only for the Absolute Individual does the world become real and ‘open up’.
True power manifests when the ‘I’ ceases to act ‘in accordance with necessity’; when it becomes an author, discovers principle within itself, and does not submit to external principles. The perfect will, the will of the Individual, gaining the power of the Lord, in its action ‘has nothing of desire or inner compulsion: he [the Individual-Lord – note D.M.] must manifest a will, which in its determination has nothing before it; neither of its own nature, nor the light of pleasure, nor the attraction of motive or ideal, which therefore generate themselves absolutely or positively, aiming only at the cold and solitary love of its sufficient affirmation’. Power, thus, negates the ‘illusion of the Other’ and appears as the naked will, manifesting itself in the ‘central affirmation’. The most important condition for the revelation of such power is unlimited freedom, cleansed from laws, norms, and ethical-moral settings; freedom, stemming from a completely arbitrary affirmation, generates genuine individuality.
Everything is subject to the ‘I’. Evola asks two more questions, through which he reveals the central concept of Magical Idealism: ‘If nothing exists beyond the power of the “I”, what can be the object of power, if not the ‘I’ itself? And what, according to the situation described above, should be rejected, what else could it be, if not the ‘I’ itself, its own substance?’ The correct answer to these questions, from the standpoint of Evola’s concept, is as follows: ‘Unlike simple nature, personality or spirit is defined not as what a person is, but as what they possess. Possession is a negation, be it of simple existence or position, negating itself and precisely because of this negative act, which surpasses every being in the non-existence of infinite freedom, dominating over its own substance and every substance in its own substance, enjoying the eternal principle irreducible to any form or law’. Hence comes the following statement from the Baron regarding the spirit: ‘The spirit is nothing other than the infinite energy, which is confirmed in all those forms in which it merges and determines its power; it is nothing other than the Heraclitean creative and dissolving flame, which each reality dissolves in the absolute; the indescribable splendour of the centre, the one who is the essence of power, who fully possesses himself.’ Thus, the Absolute Individual, the ‘Convinced’ (in Michelstaedter’s terms), is defined through unshakeable self-possession, through becoming ‘its own centre’ and self-manifestation through ‘absolute possession’ and ‘power’.
The absolutely real possibilities of the ‘I’ are hidden for most people. Here, Evola introduces into his argument the concept of ‘possible experience’ (mögliche Erfahrung), which affirms the ‘supremacy of freedom’, the dominance of the ‘unconditionally possible over the necessary’, and anticipates the opposition of spirit and matter. Through ‘possible experience’, the ‘I’ breaks free from the dark realm of necessity, and through the spirit transforms itself into an absolute and concrete power. The ‘I’ appears as an unconditional affirmation, independently being the criterion of its own veracity. From this it follows that the ‘I’ itself is ‘supernatural’ and surpasses any materialistic notions, which, according to Evola, have already lived their day.
On the Question of Immortality
From the discussion of the genuine ‘I’ as power, Evola comes to one of the most captivating ‘eternal’ questions – the question of immortality, which is the subject of the fourth essay, ‘Constructing Immortality’.
The Baron begins to consider this problem with a statement about what the ‘I’ is: ‘The “I” is what I can call a living reality and experience, and what is not a concept, a metaphysical abstraction, or a hypothesis; that which actually “has no plural” and which is neither universal nor particular, but unique – in such an “I” there is individual, mine.’ For such an ‘I’ as a living reality, the question of immortality really arises, ‘the recognition that the spirit or “I as a whole” is immortal as opposed to individuality’. Such immortality, as the young Evola asserts contrary to Christian tradition, is not guaranteed to anyone ‘by nature’. Immortality is something to be conquered and built. According to the Italian thinker, who here follows the Egyptian, Vedic, and Buddhist traditions, immortality is the privilege of the few who were able to rise to it thanks to their own greatness. Those who failed to do so, await ‘dissolution in universal forces’.
The path to immortality lies through the self-creation of the ‘I’, the gaining of full power over the body, the overcoming of a passive attitude to life; through ‘a new statement of life’, in which the body is a ‘subservient and plastic instrument of the spirit and the individual’ – through the individual becoming a genuine Lord. Immortality is the victory over the mortal within himself and the attainment of the total self-sufficiency of the ‘I’, surpassing everything passive. Evola illustrates these theses with examples from alchemy, Taoist and Vedic traditions, as well as resorting to the philosophy of Fichte, which, it seems, he was largely inspired by in the course of constructing this argument.
‘The nature of immortality truly belongs not to the body, but to another function in which it is fully permissible – the function of freedom. Hence it is understandable why in various esoteric teachings such a body is called the “body of activity”, “body of freedom”, “seminary of countless bodies”: essentially, the infinite, unconditional possibility of creating one’s own body, the pure force of the unimaginable man, collected in himself and confident, in which the life of accidental human consciousness takes place – this is what constitutes its possibility’, asserts the Italian thinker. The question of freedom, key to any idealism, is thus placed by Evola at the foundation of the belief in the possibility of immortality. The unconditional will of the free ‘I’, overcoming the passivity of the living and non-living world and capable of creating, can transform infinity itself. From this, the Baron comes to the most important assertion of Magical Idealism: ‘Thus, the immortal body is the body of the magical “I”.’
‘Magical Growth’ as an Existential Task
The process of ‘constructing immortality’ according to Evola is, at the same time, the process of acquiring absolute knowledge. Speaking about this, the Baron again turns to Eastern traditions – in particular, to Tantra, in which the idea of genuine, ‘concrete’ creative power, potentially inherent in a person, is revealed. Tantric yogic practices, to which Evola refers and which he will later analyse in detail in the work Yoga of Power (1949), in the Essays on Magical Idealism appear as an excellent and accessible illustration for the reader of the Italian thinker’s theses.
Indeed, ‘self-building to the Absolute Individual’ – what could be a more captivating task? According to Evola, this is not a theoretical but a practical question, and Magical Idealism as a concept has, primarily, a practical character. Structuring one’s body in accordance with the structure of the cosmos, as the Baron writes, is certainly not a physical exercise but a synthesis of physical and spiritual efforts, which we know not only from Tantric practices but also from alchemical texts.
Thus, Magical Idealism aims to ‘create a new “dimension” and a new depth of life’ in the individual. This is undeniably a task of existential character – the task of creating a different quality of being, at the centre of which is the active, creative, free ‘I’. Evola approaches its solution with the utmost care, reconstructing the sequence of phases of magical growth. Key in his reasoning remains the premise of the absolute non-predetermination of the truly free ‘I’, capable of creating: ‘The fundamental principle of magic is that the way in which the world appears to us is not the ultimate case, that it is not irreversible in itself, but is a phenomenon corresponding to the pure power of the ‘I’: then by acting in the transcendental plane of samskâra, we are given to remove the conditions under which reality appears, and therefore the concrete experience of the universe.’ In other words, through internal transformation we gain the power to change reality – the very pure power of the ‘I’ capable of transforming the cosmos itself. Therefore, Evola uses the term ‘magical’ as a name for his own idealistic concept – the magician, unlike the mystic, cannot only ‘merge with the cosmos’ but affect it, command it, and influence it.
To reach this goal, the individual ‘I’ must undergo a certain preparation, which begins with ‘cleansing’ – the elimination of the peripheral, the development of principles of autonomous action and the finding of one’s own ‘centre’. The ‘I’ must become ‘autonomous as a pure essence’, then – ‘autonomous also as the action itself’. The ‘I’ must experience love, which is ‘the way of the strong and the lords’, while violence is ‘the way of the weak and the powerless’. The ‘I’ must learn to ‘give in order to possess’. In this are the properties of the true Lord. Evola extols the value of principles of submission, self-denial, and detachment. Without passing through such states and not recognising their value, it is impossible to come to the ‘state of the dominant’, the ‘state of the Lord’. The ‘I’ must also overcome the ‘violence of sensual impressions’ – primarily through strict self-discipline. At the end of this path, the ‘I’ comes to ‘perfect unity’, which is the ‘final point of magical development’, reaching which, ‘it is possible to live as the “I”, that is, to act in accordance with the central principle of one’s being’.
The acquisition of such a possibility by the individuum leads to a situation where there is no difference between the personality and the ‘universal subject’, but there is continuity and progressiveness: the personality is the universal subject in potential, and the universal subject is the act of the personality. Thus, the ‘I’ and the ‘One’ become ‘One’, which is the highest point of magical potency – the abolition of any ‘Other’ not emanating from the free ‘I’. This ‘I’ forms the transcendental personality; a spiritual world becomes possible – as the world of the free individual. The final phase of magical realisation arrives – ‘the realisation of the principle that allows being, in a concrete and mediated body’. The world is ‘redeemed’.
Evola asserts that ‘the body of the Absolute Individual is the universe, gradually transforming into a system of vegetation, animal world and personality, and its development is universal development’. This immortal body is essentially a cosmic state – the ‘conductor of the higher forces of the cosmos’, the ‘body of the Creator’: ‘As a mortal man draws life from the intake of food, so does the immortal man, άντρωπος άρρητος, draw life from the unconditional creation of beings from nothing. Power is his matter. The extremities of his ultimate perfection are the reflection of his absoluteness in infinite spiritual individualities (since every cosmic function now remains elevated to the level of spirit), over which the magical “I”, as their creator, dominates from the height of the principle; they are internally superior, since the entelechy of the real body understands its corpuscles and dominates over them – circulating, transmuting in them and, at the same time, surpassing them in infinite sudden mental enlightenment.’
This is the vision of the existential task of the ‘superior man’ according to the early, ‘philosophical’ Evola. The Italian thinker gave a more complete and detailed exposition of Magical Idealism in his works Theory of the Absolute Individual (1927) and Phenomenology of the Absolute Individual (1930), which, one hopes, will soon be available for English-speaking readers.
Magical Idealism and Tradition
It is necessary to further elaborate on the thesis about the significance of the ‘philosophical’ (1920s) stage of the Italian thinker’s creativity in light of his intellectual and spiritual development. In The Path of Cinnabar, the Baron defines the boundaries of his ‘philosophical’ period as being between 1921 and 1927 and chronologically denotes it as a transition from a phase of fascination with abstract art to a position of Traditionalism. He mentions that Decio Calvari, the leader of the Roman Theosophists, at that time introduced him to Tantra and John George Woodroffe’s (‘Arthur Avalon’) translations of the sacred texts of this system of practices. In his texts of this period, as Evola writes, he tried to apply a Western-rationalist approach, foreign to the Eastern esoteric doctrines he studied, and to express their essence in philosophical terms. The very notion of the Absolute Individual, as acknowledged by the Italian thinker, was inspired by Novalis. At the same time, much greater influence, as Evola admits, was exerted on him during this period by Lao Tzu and his treatise Dao De Jing, in which he was utterly fascinated by the ‘metaphysics of the transcendent, which could be considered as a vivid model for a superior and self-sufficient individual, avoiding mysticism and faith in favour of magical and clear impassiveness’. Such a view, for understandable reasons, seemed extraordinarily fresh to a young aristocrat, who grew up in the suffocating atmosphere of Catholicism and the unprecedented popularity of ‘dry’ Hegelian idealism in Italy.
Magical Idealism must be understood simultaneously as a response to the harsh rigour of German classical idealism, which Evola criticises together with the work of Italian followers of Hegel (primarily, Giovanni Gentile), and to the superficiality of popular mysticism and Theosophy at the beginning of the twentieth century, which the young thinker never took too seriously. Evola’s gaze was directed simultaneously ‘upwards’ and ‘inwards’ – to the ‘absolute’, which Eastern sages urged to seek within oneself. This belief, which the Baron clearly took from the Tantric corpus, contains the solution to the original vector of Magical Idealism, which is directed into the depths of the individual’s consciousness, towards the ‘I’ and the self-disclosure of this ‘I’.
Within the scope of this article, we will not delve into how the young Baron Evola further developed the theses of his philosophical concept – this is the subject of his subsequent works, which will be appropriate to examine somewhat later. However, it is worth dispelling one popular myth now that bears no relation to reality – the notion that Evola was supposedly absolutely disillusioned with philosophy, and his works of this period do not deserve special attention, as he later abandoned such a model of thought and explored esoteric matters. Undoubtedly, in Evola’s evolution, there was a shift of focus towards René Guénon’s thought and deeper immersion into Western and Eastern esotericism. At the same time, the ideas that Evola in his youth explored, using the conceptual and theoretical apparatus of Western philosophy, remained almost unchanged in his mature years. This explains the attention that the Baron paid to the ‘period of speculative philosophy’ in The Path of Cinnabar, where he detailed the basic principles of his philosophical system and gave a very high assessment of his early philosophical works.
Furthermore, aspects of Magical Idealism are quite clearly manifested in Evola’s opus magnum, the work Revolt against the Modern World (1934). In particular, in this text, the Italian thinker, speaking about genuine transcendence, draws attention to the concept of ‘magical impassiveness’ as opposed to religious worship (the ‘influence of the Absolute Individual on reality’ as opposed to the ‘mystic’s dissolution in reality’ in terms of Magical Idealism), and speaking about immortality in the world of Tradition, he writes about the ‘two paths in the afterlife’, the ‘higher path’ (the solar, personal immortality of the hero) and the ‘lower path’ (dissolution in chthonic forces), which corresponds to the ‘establishment of immortality’ and ‘dissolution in universal forces’ in terms of Magical Idealism. In Revolt against the Modern World, Evola glorifies the figure of the ascetic, who is ‘above castes’ and is aimed at ‘realising transcendence’, which, in general, corresponds to the very ‘path of the Absolute Individual’ in terms of Magical Idealism, which the Italian thinker relied upon when describing Eastern texts of an ascetic nature in the 1920s. Finally, Evola’s assertion that the world of Tradition was a world of ‘two natures’, in which the ‘heavenly’ and ‘earthly’, metaphysical and physical, constantly coexisted in a tangible connection, is identical to the concept of ‘immanentisation of the transcendent’ of Magical Idealism, which the Baron reveals in philosophical works following Essays on Magical Idealism.
I believe it should now be clear to the reader that, when interested in the work of Julius Evola, one should not ignore Magical Idealism. This period of the Baron’s creativity still awaits enthusiastic researchers who, following the Italian author, will be ready to explore deep deliberations about the nature of the ‘I’ and, possibly, extract from them meanings useful for life beyond intellectual pleasure. After all, both Traditionalism and Magical Idealism are systems of thought that are utterly dead without the corresponding practice, and demand active actions from their followers and sympathisers on the path of spiritual self-improvement, adaptation to the grim, depressive, often hopeless conditions of the modern world and, finally, changes to the very character of the ‘game’, the result of which should be the self-revelation of the creative, free ‘I’ and the transformation of reality in accordance with this.