My ‘artistic’ period was followed by a ‘philosophical’ one, which lasted roughly from 1923 to 1927(even though some of the books I wrote during this period were not published until 1930). In the same way that, for me, art emerged from a non-artistic background, so philosophy emerged from a non-philosophical one.
I have mentioned that my interest in philosophy went back to my early teens. However, as time went by, this interest merged increasingly with one in teachings regarding the supernatural and transcendent. I had been vividly impressed, as a young boy, by some of the novels of Merezhkovsky, such as The Death of the Gods and The Resurrection of the Gods, with their background of gnostic ideas and heathen wisdom. (Dmitry Sergeyevich Merezhkovsky (1865-1941) was a founder of the modernist movement in Russian literature. Volume 1 of his trilogy Christ and Anti-Christ, The Death of the Gods : Julian the Apostate, appeared in 1896, followed by The Resurrection of the Gods : Leonardo da Vinci in 1901, and Anti-Christ : Peter and Alexisin 1905 – ed.) Immediately following the war, my attention turned directly to sapiental doctrines, particularly Eastern ones, but largely only in terms of what had been published about them by spurious contemporary theosophical and ‘occultist’ currents, which purported to present the ancient wisdom as an antidote not only to modern materialism, but also to merely dogmatic or devotional religion. These were extremely bastardised texts, in which what prevailed was preconceptions, ramblings, and the poor material provided by supposed ‘revelations’ and ‘clairvoyance’. Nevertheless, in circles of that kind, I also gained the opportunity of meeting some personalities of actual value, quite distinct from the theories they supported. I will recall here Decio Calvari, president of the Independent Theosophical League of Rome ; Giovanni Colazza, who ran an Anthroposophical (that is, Rudolf Steiner) centre, also in Rome ; the poet Arturo Onofri, who was a former member of the avant-garde art movement and who, after a spiritual crisis, also joined the Anthroposophists ; the Dutch Orientalist Bernard Jasink ; and the painter and ‘occultist’ Raul dal Molin Ferenzona.
Owing to my insufficient preparation, there was no shortage of references in my first philosophical works, especially in ‘Saggi sull’idealismo magico’, to the above-mentioned dubious sources, and these references should be treated with caution and separated from the main body of my work. However, on the whole, I remained independent, and my attitude to these currents of modern ‘occultism’ was in fact quite often distinctly critical and negative. For me at that time these sources assumed the only function which they can have in general in the current world : the useful but humble one of mere points of departure. It is the interior qualification, possessed by the student who is attracted to the teachings interpreted by these currents, which determines whether he continues to rely upon this extremely mixed and diversionary material, or whether he finds his way back by one route or another to the genuine sources of traditional wisdom, acknowledging all the cases in which ‘occult’, anthroposophical, theosophical, etc., speculations have served to discredit rather than to enhance this wisdom.
I chose without any doubt the second alternative. For example, I owe to Decio Calvari the first pieces of information I received on Tantrism. But, after strenuous successive efforts, I contacted Sir John Woodroffe (Arthur Avalon), the main serious expert on that current, directly, and, from his works and from original Hindu texts published by him, I drew the material which became the basis for my L’Uomo come potenza (1925, renamed Lo Yoga della Potenza in 1949).
Objectively considered, therefore, the first writings of my philosophical period (as well as my essays and lectures from that time) show the effects of the mixture of philosophy with the aforementioned doctrines – a mixture which sometimes seemed to contaminate, not the former, but the latter, which, as I was to acknowledge clearly later, were subjected to a forced, extrinsic, rationalisation. Apart from that, however, the contribution of this approach to the resolution of some incipient speculative problems peculiar to contemporary thought, and to an essential broadening of horizons, became clear.
Thus, the system which I called ‘Magical Idealism’, and also ‘The Theory of the Absolute Individual’, took shape. As is well known, the first title had already been used by Novalis. But, even though Novalis was one of my favorite authors, and some of his intuitions had had essential value for me, the orientation of my system was very different.
The anteriority, or rather the priority, of the extra-philosophical background over the speculative is well illustrated by the fact that my first book, published just after the artistic period, was a presentation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. It is with references to this ancient master of far eastern Taoism – some perhaps rather questionable – that I prefigured some essential ideas of my system, and the book constituted a sort of hyphen between the two phases, since some anti-rationalistic and paradoxical aspects of Lao-tzu are not devoid of a certain affinity with the positions of Dadaism, though obviously of an absolutely different background. This booklet was published in 1923 by the publisher Carabba as Il libro della Via e della Virtu. This version depended mainly on the text provided by A. Ular, and left much to be desired. What is to be noted here is the ‘valency’ given by me to the text, although my claim to evaluate it ‘critically’ in terms of ‘modern thought’, by using certain stereotypes of Western idealist philosophy, must be set aside as frivolous. In the Chinese master I liked the « calm, the transparency, of a thought which does not know the contaminations of feeling » ; I felt that he had managed to outline a metaphysic of the divine, a model for a superior, self-realised being, in a magical and bright impassibility, beyond any mysticism, any faith. I presented the essence of this metaphysic in the conception of the Path, the Tao, as the process of a ‘being’ which realises itself in realising ‘non-being’. The world, the creation, is seen as an eternal flowing and producing, brought about by an extra-temporal act in which the Principle distances itself from itself, ’empties’ itself, thus fulfilling itself in a supra-substantiality (the symbol of ’emptiness’), which is the sub-stratum, basis and sense of all existence, in the same way that the emptiness of a wheel’s hub is its essence, the centre of gravitation.
Naturally, the temptation was strong to draw these concepts, belonging to a sapiental pattern, nearer to modern absolute idealism. However, even if it was not clearly formulated yet, the fundamental tendency by means of which the system which I built later distinguished itself from idealistic philosophy emerged, mediated by Lao Tzu. As a matter of fact, Lao Tzu’s ‘non-acting’ definitely opposed the immanent identification of the subject with the act, of the act with the fact, an identification which I was to fight harshly, both as such, and in its historical applications. The basically aristocratic principle of detachment and impassibility was on the contrary uppermost here. In imitation of the divine model of Perfection, the Taoist ‘realised man’ or ‘transcendent man’ does not identify himself with what is external, nor intervene directly, which would make his ‘I’ external by self-affirmation, but practices on the contrary the active renunciation of ‘being’ and ‘acting’ in the direct and conditioned sense. In this way he realises the essential element, enters the Path, makes himself ungraspable, inexhaustible, invulnerable, no longer susceptible to deflection or disempowerment ; but capable of exerting a subtle, invisible, magical action (the wei-wu-wei, the ‘acting-without-acting’, the sovereign and irresistible spontaneity), which is the action or quality – te – of the Path, of the Tao.
All these themes I was able however to deal with again, with greater accuracy, purity, and conformity to the sources, in a second presentation of the same text, written about thirty years later, in 1959, at the request of a friend of mine, which was published by the publishing house Ceschina with a different title : Il Libro del Principio e della sua azione. It is preceded by a long essay on Taoism in general. The text is itself much modified, and closer to scientific requirements. But, above all, my idealistic philosophical ideas and interpretations, and all other references to modern Western thought, are completely removed, and instead the text is placed back in the context of far eastern spirituality to which it belongs, and is clarified and interpreted in ‘traditional’ terms, according to the tendency peculiar to my third period, the post-philosophical one.
As for the reading of 1923, at that time it had not yet been given to me to have any direct and genuine experience of the spiritual climate of this wisdom. It is true that I had avoided the glaring stereotypes of those who had talked about the ‘passivity’ and the ‘quietism’ of Taoism, and that I had essentially grasped its higher, metaphysical dimension. However, there was no shortage of discrepancies – for instance, I had talked more than once of an exclusion of transcendence, having obviously in view the hypostatic transcendence of some Western philosophies or theologies. It is only in the second reading that it is properly explained that Taoism is rather about an « immanent transcendence », about the direct presence within being of non-being (in its positive meaning, as supra-ontological essentiality), of the infinitely distant (the ‘sky’) in what is close, of what is beyond nature in nature. This conception is as far removed from pantheistic immanence as it is from transcendence as a merely speculative concept, and it is so because of a direct experience, due to the specific existential structure of the man of the origins.
In all of this youthful work, the opposition between the common ‘I’ and the ‘Absolute Individual’ was already set. However, in spite of some references, and an appendix, on Matgioi (Count Albert-Eugene Puyou de Pouvourville, 1861-1940 – ed.), interpreted in the esoteric terms of far eastern doctrines, I did not highlight sufficiently the essentially initiatory nature of Taoism and of its ideal of the ‘realised man’, the ‘transcendent man’. I wrote at that time : « Once the mass of the opaque clouds of anxiety, doubt, and passion, of our external humanity, has been torn away, he (Lao Tzu) sets forth, in a cold and calm atmosphere with few individual features, the anatomy, the inner logic, of the Divine, reveals it as the very rationality of the Real, and thus reveals its spiritual truth, in the sense of identifying it with the very nature of Man as Absolute Individual, as the Perfect. Any subsequent religion or philosophy, far from going beyond his positions, has seldom managed even to reach the clear and pure bareness in which these lived in the mind of the great Chinaman. Beyond these, in history, only scattered and uncertain fires of various mysticisms remain. » The one-sidedness of the last sentence is obvious ; leaving aside the « various mysticisms », a rather ambiguous reference, other traditions of an equally metaphysical character, which I was to address one by one later, were not taken into account. The idea of offering this transcendent wisdom, almost as a medicine for the modern consciousness in crisis, was thus naïve. I wrote : « Most religions and morals have only managed to insult man, because they have considered him as what he is not, as a creature… However, all this has become inadequate for modern consciousness, which has begun to realise the sense of absolute reality, and of the solitude of the person. However, the price of this conquest has been the loss of everything which previously made up man’s life and his faith : his illusion. Thus, man appears today like a shipwrecked person, clinging to that ‘I’ which he is still unable to understand without staining it, but which he nevertheless holds to be his only certainty ; without religion, faith, or enthusiasm ; between a science which is itself disintegrative, and a philosophy reduced to a formal, empty sufficiency ; thirsty for liberty, and yet automatised by his perpetual clash with a nature, a society, and a culture in which he can no longer recognise himself. » It is in this context that I attempted to show the topicality of Lao Tzu’s doctrines (and I developed a similar basic theme also in lectures, and in the beginning of Saggi sull’idealismo magico). « Modern man must gain knowledge of that ‘I’, of which he is as yet only able to produce such deformed images as the Unique Man of Steiner, the Social-Ideological Man of Marx and Lenin, the ‘I’ of Absolute Idealism, or the lyrical subject of avant-garde aesthetics » (in this list, the even worse Nietzsche had been forgotten).
I presented the path of Lao Tzu as a positive point of reference, interpreting it as that of the Absolute Individual. Although the basic theme of the crisis of modern man was correct (and I developed all of these early hints much further in my subsequent books), the ambiguity inherent in including an initiatory ideal in a historical ‘situation’, and in reducing it almost to a general formula, was nevertheless obvious, this ideal being essentially a-temporal, and having nothing to do with any given society or culture – and, as far as realisability is concerned, being further from the ‘modern man’ than from the man of any other time. These things I could not yet see with enough clarity. I had not yet overcome the elements in myself affected by the modern culture and mentality. But this encounter with Lao Tzu awoke in me elective affinities. The ideal of Olympian superiority, as opposed to any Western activism and vitalism, was already sensed.
I must next turn to the systematic works of philosophy which were written by me after these prefigurations. The impulse to express, in a systematic manner, with all the appropriate scholarly apparatus, and in the conventional technical academic jargon, my vision of the world, and of the values which had already taken shape in me, was due, partly, to a desire to engage in controversy. In my philosophical studies, my interest had turned to the current of post-Kantian transcendental idealism. Contrary to most disciples of this school, however, I saw clearly the non-philosophical, pre-rational, background to this current. To me, this background was the will to power. An author of that time, Grünbaum, had already recognised this rather clearly in his essay Amore e dominio quali temi fondamentali delle visioni filosofiche del mondo (later, the existential analysis of philosophical systems, as prefigured by Nietzsche, or even their psycho-analytical study, would come into vogue), while professional idealist philosophers, who thought they followed a pure ‘objective’ line of speculation in elaborating this philosophy, did not realise this. Thus, the influence of one of the two components of my ‘personal equation’ of which I spoke at the beginning, manifested in my aforesaid preference (for the view based on the will to power – ed.). At the same time, I was convinced that the current of transcendental idealism represented the highest form reached by critical reflection in regard to the problem of certainty and knowledge (the gnoseological problem). I felt it almost as a mission to recapitulate the positions which had been reached along these lines, and then to go beyond them, getting to the essence of the matter in strict adherence to the original need which had given birth to this philosophy. I would subsequently discover that this was also the way to the immanent auto-transcendence of philosophy in general, and subsequently the philosophical works written by me now appeared as a sort of propaedeutics towards possible access to a domain which was no longer that of discursive thought or speculation, but rather that of inner realisatory action, intended to go beyond the human limit, a matter discussed in the teachings which I had got to know in the meantime. It is not by chance that I chose as the opening motto of Saggi the following words by J. Lagneu : « Philosophy is the thinking which ends up acknowledging its own insufficiency, and the need for an absolute action from within. »
It was so important to me, on a quite impersonal level, to take this further step, that when the main work written by me, with no little labour if for no other reason than the extremely vast specialised preparation required, Teoria e Fenomenologia dell’Individuo Assoluto, encountered some initial problems in getting published, owing to its size and difficulty, I suggested that a well-off friend of mine publish it at his own expense and under his own name. The offer was not followed up, since the person in question proposed making various additions and changes, something I naturally could not permit. What mattered to me was that these limits of modern thought be set, rather than my own person as author.
As for the spur of controversy, which I mentioned previously, it arose from the fact that, at that time, Italy was dominated by Crocean, and subsequently more or less Gentilean, neo-Hegelianism. I had been in contact with representatives of this current and I detested their unprecedented pretentiousness : despite in reality being mere intellectuals, they posed as pontiffs of critical thought, and as heralds of the advent of Absolute Spirit, and they looked down upon, and accused of dilettantism, thinkers dear to me, who had disdained to give their profoundly experienced and utterly distinctive intuitions and visions the systematic character required by what Schopenhauer called « pedagogical philosophy for philosophy teachers ». It was really a world of overblown rhetoric. Besides, it was repellent to me to contrast the petit bourgeois type of the salaried, married, conformist teacher, with the theory espoused by him, of the Absolute Individual, free creator of the world and of history. I need hardly say that, to these persons, the sapiental doctrines with which I had begun to deepen my acquaintance were only ‘superstitions’, remnants, which had been long ago overtaken by the deployment of ‘critical consciousness’ : this view of course was natural to them, since secular ‘illuminism’ was, despite subsequent appearances, their true mental background.
Therefore, I wanted to settle accounts, and, to this end, I began to systematically study the original texts of the classics of idealist thought, from Kant to Hegel and the latter Schelling. I had to learn German, part of their work not having been translated at that time. After these studies, the incomparable poverty and emptiness of the Italian epigones of this philosophy, which they had reduced to absurdity by treating it as a sort of dice game involving a couple of picayune categories, became clear to me. In addition to this, in Gentile, there was a woolly prosopopeia, and an unbearable, paternalistic pedagoguery. Whatever their intrinsic solidity, what a difference with respect to the classical works of idealism, such as Schelling’s philosophy of nature and mythology, Hegel’s ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ and his ‘Encyclopedia’, or the various doctrines of science of Fichte, if only from the point of view of genius, of cleverness, of a creative impulse, of the powerful effort to span in a well-structured manner the many varieties of reality and of the matter of experience! Croce, in a letter, honoured me by describing a subsequent book of mine as « well presented and reasoned with accuracy. » For my own part, although I saw in Croce (whom I knew personally) a greater refinement and clarity than I perceived in Gentile, I could not help but note the low, purely discursive level of his thought, which in the end abandoned the plane of great speculative problems and wasted itself upon essay writing, literary criticism, and secularly, liberally oriented historiography.
In any case, thanks to these studies I was now able to throw my hat into the ring against them on their own ground. I had learned their jargon, which to them was a guarantee of seriousness, up-to-dateness and ‘scientific’ thought.
As regarded the contents of my work, I did not limit myself to the basic idealist theme of strict observance. Apart from what was inspired by non-discursive knowledge, as I have said, the contributors to the basic tendency which shaped my speculative constructions were primarily Nietzsche and Michelstaedter ; in addition, a certain part was played by my knowledge of the French ‘personalists’, such as Lachelier, Sécretan, Boutroux, Lagneau, Renouvier, Hamelin, and Blondel himself, and their treatments of the concept of true liberty ; these thinkers were all ignored or hardly touched upon by Italian idealists, whose culture, in this and other respects, was usually extremely narrow and provincial, being limited to the immediate forerunners of their own solitary Hegelian current, these being often not known in the original texts, either.
I Saggi sull’idealismo magico, published in 1925 by ‘Atanor’, constituted a prefiguration of the content of Teoria e Fenomenologia dell’Individuo Assoluto – a prefiguration for the public, at least, since this latter work had already been almost brought to completion, but I could not see how I was going to publish it. Because of this, I need not give an account of this book separately. Leaving aside its critical and constructive core, only two aspects are worth mentioning. The first pertains to the extensive references to sapiental and initiatory doctrines, which, to the common reader – especially to the lover of common philosophy – could not but give an impression of weirdness and eccentricity. In a certain limited sense, this was a prefiguration of what I would expound, ex professo, in a more appropriate form, and having eliminated all of the dross and the dubious and indirect sources, in the works of my subsequent, post-philosophical, period. At this earlier time, however, I made an extreme effort to systematise, and to present according to their own immanent logic, experiences, disciplines and realisations appropriate to high asceticism, yoga, magic, and initiation. This discussion made up most of the content of the long chapter ‘L’essenza dello sviluppo magico’, and was resumed and developed in the last part of Fenomenologia dell’Individuo Assoluto. Other essays published separately, such as ‘La purità come valore metafisico’ (ed. Bilychnis), showed the same rationalising and systematising tendency, and, taken as a whole, they represent an almost unique attempt : no one else was ever interested in applying speculative and dialectical thought to the unusual and, for many, discredited field of the supra-normal, except for Marcuse, von Baader, Haman, and Schopenhauer in some of his essays.
Finally, in the last chapter of the book, which was called ‘ The moderns’ need for magical idealism’, I considered a group of significant modern thinkers with a view to « identifying the deep motive which shapes their conceptions », and « showing how, if this motive was given free rein in their system … it would lead to the positions of magical idealism, » as outlined in other parts of the book. These thinkers were C. Michelstaedter, O. Braun (in his case, we have only the scanty traces of a lived experience, preserved in the diary of this teenager who fell in the First World War), G. Gentile, H. Hamelin, and H. Keyserling. I conducted a sort of immanent critique, intended to demonstrate the need for the shift to the conceptions I had proposed, and also to facilitate the separation and collection of elements from these authors’ works which could be useful from my own point of view. Naturally, in these authors (whose series could have been extended), there was more to be discussed than simple critical idealism. The only one who did not merit in fact the attention which I gave him was H. Keyserling. Knowing him personally made me realise clearly that I was dealing with a mere ‘armchair philosopher’, vain, narcissistic, and presumptuous beyond words. What had attracted me in his books was the conception of the « creative knowledge, » which involved a shift in the plane of consciousness, so as to activate the function of the ‘sense’ or meaning which invests things and facts, animates them, and uses them as material for its own free expression, within a frame which is not solely subjective (as are, for instance, lyricism and art) since the substratum of reality could be and should be regarded in this way as well, so as to remove its necessity and its opacity. Not without reference to Eastern doctrines, Keyserling created a ‘School of Wisdom’ in Darmstadt, which, after a very short and ephemeral life, vanished without leaving any trace whatsoever. As a matter of fact, its creator was, as a person, the least qualified for the dignity of a Master. Everything came to him in sporadic intuitions, devoid of any strong basis, such as are frequently encountered in Slavs (Keyserling was a Balt).
As for my own system, it proceeded from an immanent criticism of transcendental idealism, and of its claim or presumption to constitute the ultimate limit of ‘critical’ thought – I would say, more accurately, the thought of the crisis of modernity. I applied to all this Hegel’s dictum that « any philosophy is idealism and, if it appears as a non-idealism, it is only an idealism not fully aware of itself. » Gradually, I brought to light the inner meaning and irrational root of idealism, which consists, as I have said, in the will to be and to dominate, which, according to the special sense given by me to this term (I will go back over this later), is an essentially ‘magical’ impulse. I indicated as a manifestation of this tendency the fact that « the need for immanent and absolute certainty » had been the basis of and stimulus for all the developments of transcendental critical philosophy. « In the negation of any ‘other,’ as the result of logical research into the possibility of knowledge, and as equally essential condition for a system of absolute certainty, there is the apparition, reflected into the world of ideas, of a profound effort at self-affirmation and dominion. » This was a sort of existential analysis of idealism, or rather of the root of the gnoseological problem. I concluded by saying that « Nietzsche, Weininger and Michelstaedter explain Descartes, Berkeley, Kant, and Fichte. »
But the impulse in question had undergone a syncope, or rather a reversal, in idealism. Here I could have spoken of a process of dissociation and ‘self-alienation’ ; the ideal cherished by such philosophers had projected itself and ‘realised’ itself (I mean this term in the sense that psychiatry uses it, to refer to the act of hallucination) on the abstract, speculative, plane, dissociating itself from the real individual, from the living wholeness of the person, which was itself increasingly excluded and debased. I showed that, to the extent that idealism had been able to proceed from phase to phase towards the solution of its speculative problem, by seeking knowledge in pure immanence and in the elimination of transcendence, it had proceeded further and further into this ‘alienation’.
There is no need to reproduce my arguments here. I will limit myself to a brief discussion. In a way, the ‘positing’ of idealism is summarised in Berkeley’s formula : esse est percipi, that is to say, that the only being of which I can can speak in concrete terms and sensibly is that which corresponds to my perception, to my thought or to my representation. Of any other being I do not know anything, and thus it is as if it did not exist. This position has been expanded (something to which I contributed myself) by regarding it not only as applicable to perception, but as the common background of any faculty which is constituted by an elementary act of consciousness. Absolute idealists have given to this ‘act’ the character of a ‘positing’. If Schopenhauer had said, following Kant, « The world is my representation, » those who followed in Fichte’s footsteps said, « The world is my positing », while the epigones even spoke of « creation ».
Anyone of ability will be able to understand that the ‘I’ knows only indirectly, by means of objects, life lived in association with others, culture, history, etc. However, the fundamental, basically trivial fact remains, that if you take away from all this its character of being the content of my consciousness, of my thought, of my experience, or whatever else you want to call the function of ‘through me’, it vanishes into thin air. The circle is closed.
One issue that hardly any idealists managed to get the bottom of, for reasons which were less theoretical than moral, was the negation of any reality of their own to other subjects, other ‘I’s. Various speculative devices had been used to turn this knotty point, and to avoid the chilling perspective of the cosmic solitude of the Unique in the middle of a world of Maya comprising not only nature, objects and skies, but also other human beings. However, I refused to be deterred by this, and showed the inevitability of so-called ‘solipsism’ (a somewhat inadequate term) if one holds tight to idealist gnoseology. Besides, apart from speculative arguments, does dream not show us the example of other beings, which seem real, which accomplish unpredictable things, and which can even terrify us, all the while being only projections of our imagination? The matter becomes more disturbing still, if the coherence and logic which we claim to find in the ‘real world’, as opposed to that of dream, is considered, for all this orderliness, as opposed to the disordered oneirical experience, presupposes in fact the conditioning use of categories of reason which, as we have known since Kant, exist only in us, in the transcendental subject : without this, everything would remain in the same incoherent state of madness and dream. On the purely gnoseological, that is, critical-cognitive plane, once again, the circle is closed.
The world can only be ‘my’ world. Even if there was something more, something ‘objective’, I could never know it : upon my coming to know it – just as things turned into gold as soon as touched by Midas – it would turn into MY thought, my experience, my representation : it would be subjected, that is, one way or another, to my conditionality. On this basis, all doubt seemed removed, the door of mystery was shut, and the ‘I’ was provided with a solid and unassailable rock, where it could feel free, secure and dominant.
However, it was easy for any sufficiently rigorous and honest thought to discover the deep fissure within this system. It is one thing to affirm that the ‘world is my representation’, my experience, my ‘thought’, but it is another thing to say, « The world is my ‘positing’ or ‘creation’. » The ‘I’ of idealists is one thing, but the ‘I’ to which everyone else can refer in concrete terms, not in theory or in philosophy, but in practice, is something quite different. Once the world, not only the world of the true ideas, or the world of feelings, but also the world of things and beings in space and time, has been considered real and certain only as thought and function of thought, one may still enquire about the situation of the ‘I’, in the end, in this ‘immanentised’ world, in front of the function which ‘posits’ it. If the ‘I’ consisted of nothing but the abstract faculty of thinking, the difficulty would still be surmountable. The ‘I’ could be conceived of as a sort of impersonal transcendental machine which generates and possesses within itself all that it sees and experiences as parading in front of it, more or less as occurs in dream, in which however we are rarely aware of being not just the spectator but also the creator of what the automatism of our imagination makes us see and experience. But to reduce the ‘I’ to this alone is just not possible, even with respect to the psyche of the most dazed and stupefied of human beings. What had happened was that, like another Atlas unloading his cosmic burden, the idealist had deserted the burdens of the real ‘I’, and taken his rest in the so-called ‘transcendental I’ or ‘Absolute Spirit’, also called Logos, Idea or Pure Act, crediting it with cosmogonic powers, and not hesitating to state that, in front of this ‘I’, the concrete personality of the individual is only an illusion and a fiction – a ‘puppet of imagination’, Gentile once even called it. Thus, one would partake of truth, certainty, reality, ethicalness, spirituality and historicity only insofar as one identified with this entity.
It is here that my criticism attacked. The ‘I’, I said, is not defined so much in terms of mere ‘thought’, ‘representation’ or ‘gnoseological subject’, as in terms of liberty, action, and will, and to put these values at the centre is enough to create a crisis in the whole system of abstract idealism. As a matter of fact, if the ‘transcendental I’ of the idealists was not to become merely another name for the same Creator God in the sky who was considered by these philosophers to be a superstitious and uncritical hypostasis and a mere ‘positing’ of our own thought, if it was to be referred in any manner to our real being, the consequence was a paradoxical, regressive collapse.
In the first place, a great part of thought, in the ‘transcendental’ sense, (that which corresponds to the world of objective ‘appearances’) I can attribute to me (to the point of considering this world as ‘posited’ by me) only if I consider this ‘positing’ itself to be an unconscious function. E. von Hartmann had already brought this point to the fore in a piece of serious realist criticism, which the idealists naturally ignored as completely as if it did not exist. The characteristics of non-intentionality, non-predictability, and contingency must then be added to that of unconsciousness, since no idealist will ever be able to say beforehand, for instance, what ‘his’ thought will ‘posit’ in specific relation to the man he will meet at the street corner or to the words his interlocutor will speak. A further characteristic is passivity. Here I inserted my criticism of the famous Hegelian formula of the identity of the real and of the rational, « Everything real is rational and everything rational is real », the analogous post-Kantian formula of the identity of the real and the intended, of the fact and of the act, and the consequent theory of the so-called ‘concrete will’. Looking at these formulas, indeed, one had to wonder whether what was said to be real was said to be so because it was rational, or whether what was said to be rational was said to be so because it was real ; and, similarly, whether what happened was said to be real because it was intended (and thus real only insofar as it can really be said to have been intended, since otherwise it retains the unreality appropriate to a privation of the will) or whether it was said to have been intended (as ‘fact of the act’, as ‘posited’, etc.), only because it was already real, that is to say, because of the simple and irrational fact of its being or occurring.
It was clear that, for the vast majority of the ‘positing’ or ‘creating’ activity of the transcendental ‘I’, only the second alternative was possible ; among absolute idealists, it is reality which determines what they assume to be rational and intended, which amounts practically to their acknowledging the fundamental passivity of the true ‘I’, which allows things, history, contingencies, etcetera, to determine what one ‘freely’ intended all along. To reduce the aforementioned formulas to the absurd, I added a drastic argument : an idealist put to torture would have to consider his situation ‘rational’ and ‘intended by him’ (by the true ‘I’), simply because of its ‘reality’, or alternatively he would have to consider his own horror and suffering to be a mere hobby or irrational velleity on the part of the empirical subject, the ‘puppet of imagination’ of the true ‘I’. This situation repeats itself throughout the vast majority of human theoretical and practical experience. In a chapter of a book published much later, ‘Men among the Ruins’, I was to expose the immorality of this doctrine in its historical and political applications in some detail.
Generalising, I laid down a fundamental and basic distinction between the really free act and the ‘passive’ act, which I also referred to as mere ‘spontaneity’. In the free act, there is a gap between the possible and the real, and an excess of the former with respect to the latter, in the sense that a power precedes and dominates the act, as the ultimate reason for its taking place or not, for its being this and not another act. In the passive or spontaneous act, this gap is lacking : there is a direct and imperative movement towards action (or perception, representation, etc.), as in an automatism, and the possible is exhausted without residue in the real, in what happens, what one feels, sees, etc. That is why, with respect to such a ‘spontaneity’, as in the case of emotions and passions, it is possible to speak of something which is indeed ‘mine’, but which is not ‘me’, since I cannot say that I cause it directly, and I am not in a relationship of unconditional causality or possession with respect to its determinations. I thus arrive at this conclusion : it is one thing not to be determined by the other (by what is exterior), but it is another thing to be really, positively, free. In Teoria dell’Individuo Assoluto, I devoted a long chapter to criticism of all the various false concepts of liberty – criticism which, I believe, has not been conducted by anyone else in so radical a manner.