The following is a previously published article by Hilary Goldstein from 2006, included here to better understand the projection of differing world views and philosophical systems onto “fictional” characters. Goldstein’s article has been modified to include notes (in bold) and is followed by commentary – both by R.S. Frederick. The notes and commentary are intended to preserve the original article while supplementing it with later developments. No part of the original has been erased, modified or deleted.
Xavier vs. Magneto: A Philosophical Debate
One seeks peace, the other looks to pacify the human race. We examine the ideologies of Marvel’s greatest rivals.
by Hilary Goldstein
May 4, 2006 – At the very heart of the X-Men books and films is the philosophical battle between Professor X and Magneto. Without this fundamental difference of opinion, the X-Men may never have thrived over the past 40 years. With the final X-Men film debuting at the end of May, we thought it high time IGN gave a closer look at the motives and methodologies of Marvel’s greatest rivals.
The Core Belief
Professor X and Magneto, created in the ’60s, were modeled after Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, respectively. Both want the same thing — a world where mutants are accepted members of society who can live without fear. Granted, from time to time (and writer to writer), Magneto’s aspirations are a bit more selfish and grandiose or, alternatively, redeeming. But fundamentally they want the same thing. The two just have very different ideas of how to achieve this end.
Xavier strongly believes that the only way to live peacefully with Homo Sapien is to show that while mutants may sometimes look different, they are still human beings. Aggression only serves to escalate confrontations with humans and further alienate mutants from the vast populace. Though the X-Men often use their powers in combat, they do so almost solely against other powered beings or as a last resort against humans. Xavier’s beliefs do not allow for force majure or “might makes right.”
Magneto has no desire to go quietly to camps and be exterminated by humans. To him, the only way to fight human aggressors is with a show of escalated power. If someone throws a bottle at a mutant, that mutant should throw a car at the human. Magneto’s beliefs allow for what is commonly referred to as “redemptive violence.” It isn’t that (most of the time) Magneto wants to subjugate the human race, but he sees no reason to suffer a single abuse when his power and those of his brethren can put an immediate (if temporary) stop to an act of hatred against mutants.
The split in philosophies can be traced back to early adulthood for both men. Xavier was raised in a nurturing household. His stepfather directed his anger at Xavier’s half-brother, Cain Marko, and not at Charles who was able to read his stepfather’s mind, meet his expectations, and by virtue of his gift, better understand him. Thanks in part to his hidden power, Xavier excelled scholastically. He received an excellent education later studying Genetics at Oxford University, and while he had difficult times as any person does, he enjoyed a privileged life thanks, in part, to his family’s fortune, the trust fund left to him by his deceased father, and the ability to “read” the minds of financiers and invest accordingly. There are no dark incidents in Xavier’s life that informed him about the duplicitous nature of man. He could afford to believe in pacifism.
Magneto grew up in a concentration camp. A Jew (or Gypsy, depending on who’s writing the book), Erik Magnus Lehnsherr was meant to die the moment he stepped into Auschwitz. He stood with his parents watching as they and many others were shot and killed. He should have died, but the Nazi’s did not want to waste a bullet on such a weak boy. They threw him into the pit of the dead. Erik climbed out of the pit, crawling up the bodies of the dead. It bought him life in the camp, but little solace for the loss of his family.
Magneto’s experience in World War II, and the persecution he experienced after first using his powers (his wife, his love, left him in disgust), shaped him into the man he is today. He swore never again to stand by idly as those who were “different” were murdered. While it is easy to condemn Magneto for his extreme actions, it is impossible to deny the emotional underpinnings of his harsh stance. He continues to suffer from what many would call Post-tramatic Stress Disorder.
Nurture vs. Neutralize
In, the ’60s, in Haifa, Israel, Xavier and Magneto were friends. Both would soon set out on their destined paths, but it was at this moment that each could have been swayed. The two debated daily, though neither knew the other had powers. Though they disagreed often, they also found common ground in the development of their philosophies. But a union to one side or the other was not to be. The Holocaust was still too close to Erik’s heart and the tumultuous civil rights movement in the states did not put his mind at ease. Erik’s philosophy was very practical, very real, and not the expression of privilege like Charles.
Xavier chose to become a nurturer, building a “school for gifted youngsters,” which was in truth a training ground for mutants. The institute held secret its true role for years, as Xavier feared humans were not yet ready to accept mutants with open arms whereas Erik lived openly, unapologetic of what he was, expressing a reluctance to accept others until they had first proven themselves. As a respected geneticist, Xavier spoke in favor of mutants in public, but his own mutation was not revealed to the public for a number of years. Rather than fight bigotry head on, Xavier used the school to teach young mutants how to integrate themselves into society, to accept themselves for what they are and to prepare themselves for a war he feared may be inevitable and which Erik sought to provoke.
It would be wrong to suggest Xavier was adverse to violence. If the events seen in the “Days of Future Past” storyline were to come true and mutants were lead into camps, Xavier would embrace a war against the government, with Magneto at his side. But so long as there was hope that mutants could be shown as worthwhile members of human society, Professor X would do his best to avoid public conflicts. Magneto, however, believed the worst was inevitable unless we proactively sought to obliterate the possibility of it.
If you examine the history of the X-Men, you’ll find an excessive amount of combat. However, the vast majority is done in an effort to stop mutants from hurting humans. Many of the conflicts are internal, with groups seeking to destroy the X-Men. Though Xavier wanted to teach his children to live side-by-side with humans in peace, he kept them sheltered. Perhaps Xavier was afraid that should his impressionable students be exposed to the true nature of humanity, to the abuse and scorn, that they might turn from his philosophy. While Xavier preached communion, he practiced exclusion.
Magneto took the extreme opposite. He assembled what he referred to as the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, a group of young adults who were in no way seeking reform. While Xavier took a passive role, Magneto was aggressive in his pursuit of mutant equality. He taught his Brotherhood to use their powers whenever necessary and to never hide their gifts. Over the years, Magneto’s actions became more extreme and unacceptable even to the most ardent supporter of his philosophy.
Abused children often become abusive parents. So too can be said of Magneto, a man so consumed by the evils of persecution, that he became genocidal. Whatever his intentions, Magneto became so focused on the threat of humanity, that he could no longer see a world in which mutants and humans co-existed. He made sure to take first, before anyone took from him. He would strike hard, with hundreds of thousands of casualties to get the world’s attention. Rather than fighting for mutant rights and prosperity, he became a man lashing out in anger at a past he could never escape against Charles’ vision of the future. And in doing so, he began to replicate the atrocities forced upon him in youth.
Derailed by Ego
Neither Xavier nor Magneto stayed true to their initial philosophies. What caused the divergence for both? A belief, no matter how correct, is never immune to man’s own hubris.
Though Xavier plays as an honest and upright man, he has, on numerous occasions, abused his powers at the expense of others. The first time you alter someone’s mind to make them agree with your argument or forget an incident, is probably difficult. But with each mental invasion, it becomes easier to give into the temptation to use such incredible power. Yet Xavier preaches as though he is infallible. Not only does he pretend that he is an unblemished man, but he treats his philosophy as an absolute. Sure, its tenets can be bent when it has to, but he could never admit that his way might not be the right way. He’s shown a willingness to adapt, but not an ability to sustain a true change in his methods.
Magneto is less subversive. It’s easy to see how his ego has driven him far off his original path. At times, however, humility has caught hold of the Master of Magnetism. At one point he surrendered himself to human authorities and allowed himself to be tried before an international tribunal. Found not guilty, he then took charge of Xavier’s school, briefly playing the role of honorable father figure. But it did not last, because there is no glory in being the quiet teacher and there is no power for a mutant hiding in a mansion. Why else would Magneto need to build a fortress above the world, atop all of mankind? Those who were once dominated revel in the dark fantasy of being the dominator.
Magneto needs absolute control, because he grew up a victim. Imagine giving a bullied child power enough to destroy his enemies. Now imagine that bullied child once crawled out of a pit of the dead to survive. It would certainly give anyone a lifelong hard-on to punish those responsible. And when there are no more left who were responsible for the initial act, Magneto projects the image of Nazism on another threatening target.
Both MLK Jr. and Malcolm X began to see merit in their rival’s ideology. That doesn’t mean that Malcom X suddenly stopped believing it was right to fight back, but he knew the cause was bigger than himself (note: there is evidence that Malcolm X changed his views shortly before his assassination). These were two men with immense egos — you have to be to speak with such clarity and strength of reason, but, ultimately, they did not put themselves above their cause. That cannot be said of either Magneto or Xavier.
Where Do We Go From Here?
What does the future hold? A great deal relies on storytelling conventions. The X-Men will always need a moral opposite. Apocalypse, Sinister, even humans do not offer a direct philosophical counter-point. While it is certain that at some point Magneto will once again be on the side of angels, it can only be temporary. It is Xavier who will change in the coming years. In part because the realities of today’s world are certain to encroach on the comic-book universe. Xavier’s base belief could be considered naive to a sophisticated world.
Either Xavier will change or the X-Men will outgrow him. At some point, his beliefs will clash with reality. Already we see the veil of Xavier’s deception being revealed in X-Men: Deadly Genesis. He must either come to terms with his own immorality or see the dream outgrow its creator.
Since the publication of this article, readers have seen both eventualities. Charles has seen the error of his views and has been humbled in the process. He has chosen self-exile and though his rhetoric is significantly reduced, the X-men (particularly protege Scott Summers) correct him and dismiss his ideal now as naive.
One incident of note was when Magneto was installed as president of a small island of mutants off the coast of Africa. The leaders of the world unilaterally decided to grant Magneto this power as a way to protect mutants (or, alternatively, isolate them). His presidency was cut short however, when he was targeted for execution. It was later revealed that Magneto staged his “execution” to become a martyr for the advancement of mutant rights. He was very much alive and Charles participated in the cover-up, hiding his friend and complicit in global deception for the “good” of the people. There are hints of this same movement in the latest Batman film, The Dark Knight.
Which brings us to the second eventuality: the X-men have outgrown Charles’ vision. In Xavier’s absence, Scott Summers (together with the breakup of his marriage to and death of Jean Grey)re-examined his devotion to Xavier, finding it dramatically wanting. Other members of the team, over the years, have walked away from the vision (notably Colossus, Gambit, Beast, and Wolverine who become the enemy of their former friends). The strength of Scott Summers/ Cyclops was previously enough to bind the team together, and as his views shifted and became increasingly more radical, few of the X-men have disagreed. It seems they have finally come to terms with the belief that peace seems archaic to the modern world. In other words, Cyclops stopped believing peace was an option, and the team – while initially reluctant to accept this, have followed him into a new era.
Cyclops has since taken the X-men into a new, more realistic, philosophy. He oversaw the formation of a “black ops” division of the team – whose express purpose was to kill enemies, not talk to them, not try to convince them to see the moral choice, but to eradicate them entirely. Further, Magneto has returned after his supposed “death.” Acknowledging Charles’ assistance in covering up his “death” served only to support Scott’s new leadership – after all, if Charles was helping Magneto, wasn’t this evidence that Charles’ views were changing to acknowledge the “rightness” of Erik’s cause? The direction of the X-men under Scott Summers’ leadership made allowances for Magneto to not only join their ranks, but celebrate Magneto’s admission. After all, even the most violent criminal deserves a second chance. Further, Magneto has acknowledged that Scott has “eclipsed” him and made his vision – not that of Charles – into reality. This new reality has caused the team to abandon their home, the Xavier Mansion, for Alcatraz Island off the coast of San Francisco – tellingly renamed Utopia.
The vision of Charles is all but dead. The sole exception until the last six months was Hank “The Beast” McCoy who left the X-men in protest against Scott’s adoption of Magneto’s vision. Wolverine and Shadowcat recently followed suit, taking a younger generation of mutants with them back to the Xavier home on the East Coast and re-establishing a school intended to promote peace and unity in contrast to the elitism and isolation of Cyclops.
Xavier remains in exile. His whereabouts are unknown.
Magneto remains “second in command” to Cyclops on Utopia.
In discussing Magneto and Charles through a religious lens, the easiest move would be to locate Charles as “Christian” (optimistic, looking forward to the future when all things will be at peace) or humanist (belief in the inherent goodness and rationality of mortals) and to cast Erik as “Jewish” (his family was Jewish and there have been moments when Erik wears a Star of David necklace, notably in the Legionquest Saga storyline), adopting the progressive tenants of Hillel (“if not now, when?”). I think this is too simple for a number of reasons, not the least of which how present-thought is “Jewish” and forward-thought is “Christian.” Many religions are torn between the stages of time – past (Greek Orthodox), present (Buddhism), and future (Zoroastrianism). Instead, I see this as an argument between science and faith. Charles represents an idealistic yet scholarly geneticist set against Erik, the untrained yet practical devotee to religion.
Robert Crapps in his Introduction to Psychology of Religion notes that remembering, as Erik does, serves the conservative character of religion. Values, world views, ideas, movements are of primary importance to a cause because the movement forward depends on remembering where one started from (ex: in Magneto’s case, the death pit of a concentration camp). The challenge to such structures, however, is that the disposition to remember risks bondage to the past [even while] it also
enables religion to survive as a social institution. If remembering helps one deal cognitively with the past, imagination allows for anticipation of the future. Thinking about the past selects experience that have a proven significance and filters them through concerns and values of the moment. Imagination adds another dimension; it enables thinking persons to move beyond the present and anticipate a future unlike the past… To describe imagination as future thinking is not meant to separate it from the past. The human experience of time, as has already been suggested, does not fall into easy and separable categories of past, present, and future. Rather, in experience these merge into inseparable configurations. The word imagination itself suggests close links with the past – images preserved from past perceptions provide content for imagination. But imagination involves a peculiar use of these images… Imagination represents the attempt to envision new combinations of past experience and, this introduces spontaneity, creativity, and responsibility into the thinking process. It enables persons to envision change and is necessary for the work of the scientist who envisions new possibilities for experiment, the artist who allows imagination to play with old forms, and to the philosopher who experiments with a wide range of conceptual possibilities. (216-17)
I have openly confessed my admiration for Magneto since I was a small child. He has proven to be one of the most complex villains in comic books because his devotion to help others is misunderstood as “pride.” What he has always wanted is peace and equality. At times this has gone to an extreme – the quest for peace necessitating war or a “cleansing” of his enemies, but Erik’s pursuit for equality has been consistent over time.