My first post about the X-Men was about discovering and accepting your uniqueness and then looking within that uniqueness to find and cultivate your talents. This post addresses the question of what to then do with those talents once you’ve found them, and it involves one of the thematic anchors of the entire X-Men mythos: the ongoing philosophical clash between Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) and Charles Xavier (Professor X).
The tense friendship and intermittent conflict between Professor X and Magneto is usually interpreted at the political and historical level. Their radically differing viewpoints on how the mutant race should uphold its struggle for liberty and equal rights has often been compared to the divergent philosophies of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, during the American Civil Rights Movement.
This is all very accurate and provides a rich foundation for discussion and analysis as well as an effective way to get young audiences to become more interested in history. The only problem with this approach is that for many fans of the X-Men it feels like an abstract, historically removed problem that isn’t directly connected to their own everyday lives.
In this article, I’m going to approach the Professor X/Magneto relationship in a different, more personal way. Whether you realize it or not, the philosophical dilemma of Xavier and Magneto is not just about larger social and political issues. It also applies to you, no matter what your background, as an individual person in your daily life in the way you relate to other people.
Common Desires, Different Methods
Magneto: I want you by my side. We’re brothers, you and I. All of us together, protecting each other. We want the same thing.
Xavier: My friend… I’m sorry. But we do not.
In this exchange of words in X-Men: First Class, Magneto and Xavier are both right. They do want the same thing. But they disagree on how to achieve it and, in that sense, they don’t want the same thing.
Let’s start with what they both want. They both want mutants to be free and to live without persecution and fear in a world that seems to desire their extinction. And they both want mutants to not only survive but to grow and thrive by nurturing their innate talents and to someday live up to their highest potential.
Now let’s look at the different ways they want to achieve this.
Xavier wants to achieve it by having mutants peacefully co-exist with humans. He intends to achieve that, in turn, by gradually transforming society’s fear into respect by teaching mutants to use their powers to serve and protect humans.
Magneto doesn’t see it that way. To him, using one’s talents and gifts to serve the very ones who fear or hate you is not only pathetic, it is downright dangerous. His foremost priority is only to protect his own people so that they alone will thrive, and to do it, as he says to Xavier at the end of the first X-Men film, “by any means necessary.” This is, of course, a very intentional allusion to Malcolm X’s famous remark.
It may very well be that, in an ideal world, Magneto would be more than happy to peacefully coexist with humans as well. But his radicalism comes from having seen the worst of what humanity is capable of.
In First Class (**spoiler alert**), when the CIA implements an initiative to locate other mutants, using a prototype of Cerebro, and to possibly recruit them, Magneto sees the potential beginnings of something that he has already seen once elsewhere.
Magneto: Identification. That’s how it starts. It ends with being rounded up. Experimented on. Eliminated.
He is, in a way, right. Once the mutant supervillain Shaw has been defeated and imminent war with the Russians prevented, the naval fleets of both countries turn their guns on the island where the mutant teams of Shaw versus Magneto and Xavier had been battling but a moment earlier. The “common enemy” has been disposed of and so the humans, out of fear, have now united against the mutants.
When he uses his magnetic powers to stop the missiles and turn them against the naval fleets, Xavier pleads with him: “Erik, you said yourself, we’re the better men. This is the time to prove it. There are thousands of men on those ships! Good, honest, innocent men! They’re just following orders.”
Magneto responds, icily, “I’ve been at the mercy of men just following orders.”
Whatever Xavier says to try to change his mind, Magneto refutes it with a bleak brand of wisdom that comes from having lived through horrors. And whether you agree with anything he says or not, it’s hard not to admit that they are compelling arguments.
Magneto and Xavier as Your Personal Teachers
Now, let’s put aside the historical, political issues related to the Magneto/Xavier dichotomy and bring it down to a more personal, psychological level.
While both characters believe in self-empowerment, what it comes down to is that Xavier represents using one’s talents to serve, and Magneto represents using one’s talents for self-preservation, power and supremacy (be it moral supremacy, political supremacy or whatever else).
Xavier represents the viewpoint that everyone is fundamentally equal and that having certain talents and gifts is a privilege that comes with the responsibility to use them to help and serve others (echoing Spider-Man’s epiphany). Even though your society, culture or various social groups may not accept you for who you are, you do not use this as a pretext to hate them or to get even with them. Instead, you use your talents to try to serve them in some way, thus transmuting hate and violence into love and peace.
Albert Einstein once said, “The high destiny of the individual is to serve rather than to rule.” This sums up Xavier’s philosophy pretty well. (The word “rule,” moreover, can and should be interpreted loosely for Einstein wasn’t really referring to political leadership).
Magneto, on the other hand, represents the viewpoint that there are great, talented individuals and then there is the herd. The great individuals are inherently superior in certain ways and the herd hates and fears them for this. Great individuals should thus ignore the petty interests of the herd and use their talents to enhance their own lives and achieve as much as possible. They do not seek to dominate the herd for its own sake, but if the latter should try to bring them down in any way then they will use their talents to aggressively protect themselves and, if necessary, to exact vengeance.
It doesn’t matter who you are or what your background is, if you look closely at your own life, you may start to see how you have struggled, at times, with these opposing viewpoints in some way or other – without even realizing it, perhaps.
Do you see your talents and abilities as gifts that come with the responsibility to use them to help others? Or do you see your talents as vindication of your inherent superiority and as an entitlement to focus purely on self-achievement, even at the expense of others if necessary?
I’m not here to claim either of these as the universal truth or that you must go one way and not the other. That is for each person to decide alone. I will, however, offer an option that does not require an absolute choice but rather reconciles the two different philosophies.
Between Rage and Serenity
In one of First Class’s finest moments, Xavier teaches Magneto how to tap into a hitherto unrealized part of his potential.
“True focus,” he says, “lies somewhere between rage and serenity… There’s so much more to you than you know, not just pain and anger. There’s good too, I felt it. When you can access all of that, you’ll possess a power no one can match. Not even me.”
There’s great wisdom in these lines, but in order to apply them in our own lives we need to stop looking at Xavier and Magneto as characters for a moment and see them as mythical archetypes that represent feelings and tendencies within ourselves.
If Magneto represents the desire to use our talents to help ourselves, and Xavier represents the desire to use them to help others, do we really have to choose just one? Do we really have to vanquish the other? I believe we don’t.
The fact that these two characters, even despite their irreconcilable disagreements, are good friends is highly symbolic and suggests another alternative. Both of these two archetypes can coexist within ourselves.
Over the course of the X-Men comics’ run, Magneto and Xavier, while they have surely had opportunities to kill each other once and for all, never have. Sure, from the publisher’s standpoint, this might simply have been a way to keep the series running and to have a reliable plot device to fall back on. But there’s a deeper, mythical undercurrent as well.
These two archetypes need each other like all adversaries need each other. Xavier is there to prevent Magneto from doing anything too extreme and destructive; Magneto is there to keep Xavier on his toes and to balance the latter’s idealism with some unblinking realism.
The friendship between these two and their refusal to ever kill each other also reflects the perennial push-and-pull within ourselves. For most people, so long as we are alive, we will never truly get rid of all selfish feelings and tendencies nor the desire to use our talents primarily to serve ourselves. I, for one, have certainly not been able to permanently subjugate the Magneto-like tendencies within myself. I would not be human otherwise.
This is why, even though you may not be able to vanquish either archetype, it’s important to make a conscious choice as to which one to prioritize in your life. Otherwise, you’ll be at the mercy of fickle emotions. You won’t be able to make clear decisions, to consciously guide your behavior and actions.
Periodically, there may be occurrences in your life that will spur one archetype to struggle for dominance. Most likely, with all the things that can go wrong in life, it will be Magneto’s misanthropic tendencies. At times like these, you can evoke the Xavier archetype to reign in your Magneto-like feelings.
How? You simply think about the Xavier archetype and mentally invoke him (or any other figure from history, your own life or fiction that inspires you in the same way and who represents love and service to one’s fellow humans). As you invoke Xavier, remind yourself of the kind of person you want to be, and use reason, principle and conscious choice to override the negative emotions of having been wronged in some way and the desire to avenge yourself.
On the other hand, the Magneto archetype is far more realistic when it comes to human flaws. The Xavier archetype wants to believe in an ideal version of man, an ideal that often falls short. Don’t be so naïve as to make yourself vulnerable to people taking advantage of you or cheating you. Hope for the best from people and treat them as you want to be treated while half-expecting the worst from them and taking precautions to protect yourself at the same time. This is how Magneto and Xavier can both live within you.
Magneto’s rage is also a far more galvanizing source of energy than Xavier’s cerebral logic. When you need that extra push to do something, to achieve—especially in response to all the injustice in life—then go ahead and evoke the Magneto archetype. Just make sure Xavier is close by to direct the anger in more beneficial, productive ways. Otherwise, there is a very real danger that you could take on the qualities of the very things you hate, the very injustice that you’re fighting, just as Magneto does when he puts on Shaw’s helmet and essentially becomes the same thing that Shaw was.
And so Magneto is rage. Xavier is serenity. The rage screams for action and decries complacence. It feeds you the energy you need to get up and do something. But even as you do so, things will surely go wrong. Serenity, then, helps you to forgive the wrongs done to you by others, by the world, by life itself, when things go wrong. It guides the useful but dangerous energy of anger into non-destructive channels and, even as you fight, it reminds you not to become that which you fight.
Somewhere between these two archetypes is the key to unlocking your potential. And balancing them just may be the key to reconciling your conflicting feelings and contributing to the world while protecting and looking out for your own interests at the same time.