Magneto and the Philosophers

The following is a conversation that took place between myself and CandidI on the Marvel.com X-Men boards. It has been rearranged from its simultaneous multi-tangent origin to something more linear a person outside the conversation can more easily follow. Please understand this is a discussion between two laymen (for example, I know next to nothing of philosophy past Marcus Aurelius and spent a lot of time looking up CandidI's references), and if anyone has more knowledge and would like to comment on it, please feel free to contact me or come to the Marvel.com X-Men Board, find the Magneto Appreciation Thread, and jump in. ;-)

 

CandidI: Definitely the Portable Nietzsche: edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann. It’s published by the Viking Portable Library and widely available. It contains four unabridged works including his most important, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The book has both historical and Magneto related interests. It provides a great window into the world of intellectual antisemitism in Germany in the 19th century (which the philosopher finds disgusting). Plus Magneto has referenced Also sprach Zarathustra at least once. When he calls himself the Übermensch in I, Magneto (one of the best written stories in the Magneto cannon), he is clearly thinking of Nietzsche. His use of the word is, of course, ironic because of how it had been misappropriated by the Nazis, but he's definitely thinking of the philosopher.

 

KiplingKat: Thank for the recommend. Good catch on the use of the term in "I, Magneto". While I was aware of the source of the term, I hadn't put the two together. Interesting, I will have to look for that collection. I wonder how much of Magneto's personal philosophy is based on Neitzsche? He does seem to have read the Prince a few times *chuckle*, it wouldn't surprise me if he pulled inspiration from other philosophers as well.

 

CandidI: I wouldn’t be surprised if he pulled every intellectual resource available to him to define the mutant situation. The vocabulary he uses to describe mutantkind's place in the world is often reminiscent of how Nietzsche describes the Übermensch: i.e. going beyond humanity, being better than man, etc. But the concept is almost completely different. The Übermensch is a person Nietzsche sees as going beyond traditional morality while embracing life to the fullest. Unlike Magneto’s hope for mutantkind, Zarathustra’s goals are not related to evolution or natural selection. So Magneto’s vocabulary and tone might resemble Nietzsche here, but conceptually it’s very different.

Now Magneto’s belief in being shaped through agons and his understanding of power affecting all aspects of life greatly resembles the philosopher’s, providing you make the caveat that Nietzsche’s conception of power is more subtle than Mags. Also Magnus' hard realism and his insistence on not being optimistically idealistic is very Nietzschian. As is, arguably, his views on God (although Magneto doesn’t often delve into this subject).

 

Magneto and God

 

KiplingKat: *chuckle*...Someone said once "Magneto hasn't forgiven God yet." Though I doubt he is practices formal Judaism, he obviously still believes in a higher power and occasionally still prays. His views on God would be very interesting to get into. CC has kind of dropped the ball on that a couple time, like in that New Mutants issue that deals with suicide in which every character weighs in on the subject, except Magnus.

 

CandidI: That’s interesting. I’d love to know more details about what he believes spiritually, if anything. Joe Quesada keeps claiming that Mags is a practicing Jew, which cracks me up every time I read it. He’s certainly Jewish, and identifies himself as being a Jew, but he’s definitely not a practicing or religious Jew.

 

KiplingKat: *chuckle* No, Magneto is certainly not a practicing Jew, though why he abandoned of that as a cultural institution is unclear. Is it because he is rejecting human cultural norms, or are the reasons much more personal/psychological, or is he resentful of God, or has he simply fallen out of practice from years of having his attention focused elsewhere?

 

CandidI: Perhaps Magneto: Testament will deal with this issue. I suspect that Magneto lost his faith in the idea of the Jewish covenant with God because of his experience in the Shoah. That’s just my interpretation, and I don’t have any direct evidence to back this up, but it would make sense given his personal history.

 

KiplingKat: Agreed. It makes more sense for a decision that personal to be an instinctual reaction on his part.

Of course, most of his decisions are instinctual reactions rationalized after the fact.

But he still does believe in a higher power (“By the Eternal!” and "Dear God in Heaven at least let that be my legacy..." ) and I believe in X-Men #25 he uttered a silent prayer before he set off that planetary EMP. He also believes in an afterlife, as demonstrated by his addresses to Magda and Anya.

 

CandidI: Good Point.


KiplingKat: But a closer examination of his spiritual beliefs, as well as what cultural ties to his Jewish past he has retained, would be most welcome.

 

CandidI: It most certainly would be welcome. And I don’t think I’m being too unreasonable to hope that Pak’s mini will partially address this. I know it won't tell us what he thinks now, but hopefully it will provide clues about his development.

 

KiplingKat: From your fingers to the Lord and Lady's ears.

 

Magneto and Philosophy


CandidI: Keep in mind though that Magneto is not Ozymandias, or Doctor Manhattan from the Watchmen, two characters who have undeniably been influenced by Nietzsche. Anything (following) is largely extrapolation. All we know for sure is that Magneto is familiar with Nietzsche's work and has borrowed some vocabulary from the philosopher to describe an unprecedented situation.

 

KiplingKat: Agreed, it's the case of a character being influenced by the work as the character reading it, as opposed to the character being created by the writer's interpretation of the work. The latter is an obvious construct, the earlier is a three dimensional person.

What other philosopher's influence do you see in Magneto?

As I said above, I think The Republic has shown up a couple times: Magneto brand of socialism "Each people assigned a job according to one skills" temporarily applied the recovery phases of Genoshan Civil War, and that his definition, his perception of ideal governance is highly influenced by the "Philosopher King" (though by his and mutants very nature, Magnus is not "disinterested").

 

CandidI: Like you wrote, Plato’s ideal of a “Philosopher King” may be important to how he rules and what he sees as his function.

 

KiplingKat: There is also the loose interpretation of Platonic theory of personal justice, in that Magneto believes that by ascending to superiority, mutants are fulfilling their nature, their essential form at the top of the evolutionary ladder (though he may not connect that idea to Plato). But he does seem to, at a least unconsciously, reject Plato’s source of virtue: the three parts of the human soul in harmony.

 

CandidI: That’s a good observation. Though in fairness to Magneto, that kind of cognitive dissonance isn’t uncommon. Even people who have never heard of Plato, and even those who disagree with him, often use Platonic concepts and vocabulary without even noticing it. How many times have we heard anti-essentialists invoke concepts such as a “higher truth,” “natural rights,” and other such terms to argue a point? So I think Magneto doesn’t consciously connect his views to Platonism, though they certainly derive from Plato.

There’s kind of a cool moment in Claremont’s Excalibur (there were too few of these) where the Professor and Magneto discuss the possibility of Magneto’s headaches being a sign that he is overusing his powers, leading the professor to speculate that Magneto’s body wasn’t fully adapted to handling the magnitude of the energy he manipulates. I don’t remember his exact words, but Magneto rejected this out of hand, refusing to admit that nature could be so cruel.

Magneto surely understands how evolution works, but his privileging of mutants over other adaptations often seems like a nineteenth century misunderstanding of Darwin. There seems to be a part of him that thinks of evolution as a progress that goes up and down some kind of version of the great chain of being. It's another blind spot in his psyche.

 

KiplingKat: Yes, he does seem to embrace the linear view of evolution doesn't he? Not the neutral, objective theory that organisms are adapting to their environment, but that mankind is evolving towards a more perfect form.

….I was thinking about that more. It is interesting because Magneto’s beliefs seem to embody both Sophists and Plato, who firmly rejected the Sophists’ relativism. Obviously Magneto believes, as the Sophists did, that might makes right, but it seems as through he is trying to impose his version of Plato, his moral absolutism, on a Sophic world.

 

CandidI: Now that’s an interesting observation. But it sounds eerily like Nietzsche yet again or at least a misunderstanding of Nietzsche. He championed the sophists against Plato and a misunderstanding about Nietzsche’s concept of the “will to power” might easily lead to the idea that an individual could impose his will on others via a “might makes right” justification. Maybe I dismissed a serious influence affecting Magneto too readily.

...I also wouldn’t rule out the possibility of influence from Aristotle. His ideas about the effectiveness of a government of one or a government of few (royalty and aristocracy respectively) working for the common good is something that he may have picked up from the Politics. Magneto seems to have internalized the idea that a community only possesses order if it has a strong ruling element or authority. I’ve never heard Magneto refer to Aristotle, but I would not be surprised at all if he had read him.

 

KiplingKat: I love Aristotle, he wrote on everything. He’s like the first blogger.

I think if we applied the old tag of “Everyman is either born a Plato or Aristotelian” we would find Magnus leaning more towards the Aristotelian side of it. Aristotle was more concerned about practical realities of virtue and politics than Socrates and Plato's more theoretical notions of reality, virtue, and such. Aristotle tried to connect what he observed in the natural world and science to mankind, which would appeal to Magnus. And unlike Socrates and Plato, Aristotle acknowledged that “virtue is knowledge” simply does not work in practice as there are plenty of perfectly knowledgeable men who do evil. Magneto would have experienced that first hand growing up.

And while the rule of the Philosopher King may influence how he sees his role in the new world order, he would reject much of Plato’s “ideal society”, especially the breeding programs, which would smack too much of eugenics to him. By the same token, he would probably reject Aristotle’s concept of “natural slaves” due to his own experiences, though he does certainly believe that mutants are a ruling class. He also certainly believes that the virtues of a good man and a good leader are two distinct things, as Aristotle does.


CandidI: It is difficult to identify which modern philosophers influenced him (I’m using modern in the historic not literary sense, obviously). You have to assume that Magneto is well read, but that his education is largely self taught due to circumstances and probably spotty in some areas.

 

KiplingKat: Agreed, and without the guiding force of popular interpretation in his personal education, which could make for some very unique spins on the philosophers.

 

CandidI: I assume that Magneto has read Machiavelli’s The Prince, but I doubt he is familiar with the Discourses. It’s easy to say that Magneto’s conception of society is very Hobbesian, but I’ve never seen any indication that he’s read Thomas HobbesLeviathan. It would make sense if he had, but perhaps Magneto just has a very pessimistic (realistic) perception of human society

 

KiplingKat: I dunno, after looking up Leviathan, there are definitely some striking parallels, especially in Magnus' primary motivation in guarding mutants from violent death, as well his stated “social contract” of freeing the world from disease, poverty, and war.

 

CandidI: Well it most certainly would make sense if he had read Hobbes. I have to admit that they do have a lot of similarities

...Magneto doesn’t seem very interested in the idea of class struggle, so I doubt he cares for Marx. The communal ideal that Magneto advocates, in addition to resembling Plato’s Republic, also has some resemblance to Thomas More’s Utopia.

 

KiplingKat: Agreed, I think that he would view such class struggles as a human problem and one that he would leave behind in creating a mutant society.

 

CandidI: He’s not really very interested in abstract issues; his mind is very concrete and very scientific; so I doubt he cares very much for any type of metaphysics.

 

KiplingKat: Agreed, Magnus has a very practical focus in his life and intellectual pursuits and metaphysics would simply been outside his field of concern. “That’s nice, has nothing to do with what I see as important…”

 

CandidI: I have a difficult time imagining Magneto enjoying a philosopher such as Kant or Hegel.

 

KiplingKat: While he intellectually may not have been interested in the Romantics, seeing himself as a rational man, I think he was personally affected by them (perhaps in his home environment) as he himself has a romantic (and I mean this in the philosophical sense) temperament. The primacy of personal will, for example, is something that is a very core piece of Magneto’s character.


CandidI: Agreed. Though I have to comment that modern people tend to see everything through the eyes of Romanticism, even if we do not recognize this. Many of our concepts, such as the importance of individuality, are inherently Romantic.

 

KiplingKat: Hrm, interesting point and quite true. Though I think Magneto temperament, his state of being, tend to fit into the romantic mold more than the average person. There is the primacy of will in his approach to life in general, as well as what I pointed out in my essay on my site: attachment to nature, idealism, attachment to melodrama, etc.

 

CandidI: Oh, he’s definitely a romantic, there’s no doubt about that. Like you mentioned: his attachment to nature, his idealism, and his sentiment are all very romantic. Yet his understanding of science, for example, is also tinged with the flavor of romanticism. As we were mentioning earlier, his view of evolution is very linear and almost subjective. It could have come out of the late nineteenth century. He injects a great deal of his own personality into everything he observes and does. Even his leadership style, with its emphasis on his charisma, personality, and his individual will, has tinges of romanticism. The influence is so obvious that I actually doubt he is aware of it. I’m not even sure that Magneto would recognize it as such.

 

KiplingKat: Excellent observations, I agree. He probably would not call himself a romantic and would be amused by the evaluation. He always, ironically, refers to himself as a "realist", though a more Quixotic character in the M.U. would be a little difficult to find.

 

CandidI: Yes, there's definitely a discrepancy between Magneto’s self image and how he actually acts. For all his intelligence, he is not always the most self conscious individual.

 

KiplingKat: Agreed. As I think we have discussed before, for someone as smart as he is, he is shockingly un-selfaware. Not only in this dichotomy, but in his lack of acknowledgment of his emotional issues. After 80 years, and so many failures, one would think a man would be old and wise enough to start examining his reactions and choices...but as of now, he hasn't.

 

CandidI: I would not be surprised, however, if Magneto was very familiar with the many philosophers of science (Bacon to Kuhn). I imagine that Magneto’s knowledge of anything related to the natural sciences is pretty profound.

 

KiplingKat: Extremely I should think. As I put on my site, despite most of his political rabble rousing, science and research have remained a big focus of Magnus' throughout his life. I have this image of he and Reed Richards sitting in a room together and Stephen Hawking (not to mention the rest of the M.U.) running screaming. I imagine both men envy the other. Magnus envies Richards ability to theorize with such conceptual imagination, and Richards envies Magnus' personal experience with and therefore insight into Physics in a way he can never have.

CandidI: There is one more type of philosophy that I’m almost sure that he has read and been influenced by, though they are less philosophical than what’s listed above. Magneto has returned to the idea of a “mutant Israel” twice (Avalon, Genosha) and I have to believe he has been influenced by various types of Zionist utopian literature.

 

KiplingKat: That would make a lot of sense, Lord knows there was enough of it running around in his formative years.

...Well, as you observed Magneto is self taught, and his reading on this subject might be rather spotty (when compared to his readings in science, for example), as such his interpretations of philosophers may be quite different than the accepted norms.

 

CandidI: That’s true. Except that in the case of Nietzsche, the excepted norms were so convoluted by fascists, and by the scholarship of the early twentieth century, that a less traditionally educated reading might actually produce the better reading. His understanding of the philosopher seems mediated by the interpretations of the day.



KiplingKat: Thank you for all that, you have given me some interesting realms of investigation over the holidays as well as more insight into Magnus’ character. Alas, his philosophical influences we will probably never know until someone gets brave enough to write a 12 issue miniseries of just he and Xavier talking (and hopefully getting steadily drunker and drunker), which, while not exactly the usual commercially viable comic book fare, I would buy and eat up with a mixing spoon.

 

CandidI: No problem. I’ve enjoyed it as well.