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On Marx and Epicurus

Originally published: International Communist Current on February 17, 2018 by ICConline (more by International Communist Current) (Posted Jun 25, 2018)

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Some notes on elements of Marx’s 1841 doctoral thesis on The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature and the profundity of the Epicurean “swerve”

Given the fragments, literally, of the works of Epicurus available to Marx at the time, the materialist analysis that he manages to develop from them is pretty amazing. After Marx’s demise much more evidence of Epicurus’ philosophy has been found: on charcoal remains of papyri in Philodemus’ library in Herculeum, on the wall of Diogenes of Oenoanda and writings kept in the Vatican for whom Epicurus was strictly taboo. The mere mention of Epicurus (or Lucretius) led to torture or imprisonment by the Inquisition in Naples and all of their followers were consigned to the Sixth Circle of Hell. Marx was also assisted in this work on Epicurus by the poem On the Nature of Things and works of the aforementioned Roman poet Lucretius.

Titus Lucretius Carus was a great influence on the Enlightenment Italian materialist Giambattista Vico, and an even bigger influence on the workers’ movement. He developed the idea of descent with modification, and understood that energy could neither be created nor destroyed. His poem was the basis for Lewis Henry Morgan’s great work, Ancient Society… and thus Engel’s work The Origin of the Family Private Property and the State.  He laid out the tenets and philosophy of Epicurus in his poem. The renowned Epicurean scholar, Cyril Bailey who translated his work into English, said in 1928: “Looking back on his (Marx’s) work now it is almost astonishing to see how far he got considering the materials then available and he was probably the first person to see the true distinction between the Democritean and Epicurean systems“. And to a large part he did this by focusing on the meaning of the Epicurean swerve.

Epicurus’ study of the atom allowed him to delve into “the nature of human sensation and existence”. Benjamin Farrington, noted scholar of Greek philosophy, wrote: “Oddly enough it was Karl Marx in his doctoral thesis… who first took the measure of the problem and provided the solution… making Epicurus the deeper of the two (in comparison to Democritus) inasmuch as he laboured to find room in his system both for animate and inanimate being, both for nature and society, both for the phenomena of the external world and the demands of moral consciousness” (From Marx’s Ecology, materialism and nature by John Bellamy Foster).

Epicurus’ work removes the gods (almost entirely) and the fear and terror that they inspire in mortal man, opening the way for chance, possibilities and freedom: “That which is abstractly possible, which can be conceived constitutes no obstacle to the thinking subject, no limit, no stumbling-block”.  Continuing from this, only Marx could say from the fragments that he knew of: (that) “Epicurus therefore proceeds with boundless nonchalance in the explanation of separate physical phenomena” and this from the possibilities that brought them about. In contrast to Democritus, who also contributed to a materialist analysis, Epicurus posed the question of a tiny “swerve” in the atom against the straight, deterministic lines of the former. Cicero ridiculed this idea calling it “disgraceful” and said it was “entirely impossible” that the universe came about by “complexities, combinations and adhesions of the atoms one with another”. Hegel suggested that he had nothing useful to say; similar criticisms were levelled against Epicurus by the 17th century French philosopher Pierre Bayle, but the strange reality of the quantum nature of the atom is now beyond doubt. Lucretius understood this: “… if the atoms never swerve so as to originate some new movement that will snap the bonds of fate” nothing would change, but this process does take place “in time unfixt, imperceptible to the senses and in the smallest possible space“. The further relevance to quantum mechanics is evident. For Marx the swerve represents “the soul of the atom, the concept of abstract individuality”.

Epicurus suggests qualities to the atom, size, shape and weight whose declination (swerve) opposes any determinism: (the atoms) “are therefore opposed to one another as immediate realities”. Marx agrees with Lucretius, saying that “the declination breaks the fati doedra (bonds of fate)”, and applied to consciousness “the declination is that something in its breast that can fight back and resist”. The declination lifts the atom out of the domain of determinism. If atoms didn’t swerve they could neither repel nor attract, and it’s from this repulsion and attraction that, according to Epicurus with Marx: “the world of appearance emerges“, appearance that is transformed by consciousness from essence. Repulsion and attraction go beyond Democritus’ determinism, just as the swerve of the atom goes beyond the relative existence of atoms falling in fixed lines. Democritus assumes an infinite number of shapes of the atom up to infinite size. But according to Lucretius, “it is rather by a definite and finite number of shapes that the atoms are differentiated from one another”, which is also another way of expressing the modern theory of the conservation of energy.

As for weight, in the view of Epicurus it exists only as a different weight and the atoms themselves are substantial “centres of gravity” with weight existing in respect of repulsion and attraction. In this way Epicurus anticipates the fact that all bodies, whatever their weight and mass, have the same velocity when they fall through space. Time is discussed by these Greeks in some ways similar to that of modern-day physicist Carlo Rovelli, and both Democritus and Epicurus agree that time is excluded from the atom. For the latter, infinite time exists within infinite space comprising infinite worlds, giving rise to free-will against superstition and fear of the gods. Following Epicurus, Lucretius writes: “… time by itself does not exist… It must not be claimed that anyone can sense time by itself apart from the movement of things or their restful immobility… accidents of matter, or of the place in which things happen”. Marx calls this “the ‘accidens’ of accidens”. Time is in opposition to space, time is change as change, and further for Marx, it is the “fire of essence” which can only be seen through reason: “… this reflection of appearance in itself which constitutes the concept of time, has its separate existence in the conscious sensuous. Human sensuousness is therefore embodied time, the existing reflection of the sensuous world itself”. 

There’s a chapter called “The Meteors”, by which Epicurus means all celestial bodies; and this is doubly important for the Greeks because their “philosophers worshipped their own minds in the celestial bodies” (like a “cult” according to Marx) and this was another factor in the elevation of the gods that Epicurus flatly rejected. Once the myth is removed from the heavens everything is possible, every explanation is sufficient. For example, there’s not one explanation to a lightning strike but a number of interacting properties and reactions, and the task for Epicurus is to “trace their cause and banish the source of disturbance and dread”. He takes comfort in the fact that everything is impermanent and unstable, not eternal and immortal. Marx says that Epicurus “in wrath and passionate violence” rejects those that propose one method of explanation of the Unique, Eternal and Divine in the heavenly bodies. The irregularity of orbits, the number of multiple possibilities involved in heavenly phenomena, the multitude of explanations is for Epicurus the road to calm, understanding and freedom. For Marx the contingency and freedom espoused by Epicurus, which before him was mechanical determinism, brought out the “active side”.

Marx’s materialism has strong roots in the swerve of Epicurus, showing that it could be an element in human emancipation from the material conditions of a world characterised by the development of human relations to its basic needs, from which consciousness develops. Chance and contingency play a part in this along with human ethical considerations. Marx wasn’t uncritical of Epicurus since he was only interpreting the world, but his interpretation gave the world a direction and in the thesis Marx builds on some of his contradictions. He criticised his ideas of too many possibilities and his individualism but, again, these were part and parcel of the outcome. Engels, up to his death, was, enthusiastically with Marx all the way on the materialism of Epicurus. Engel’s himself rejected much of bourgeois materialism in favour of the Greek “enlightenment”, particularly Epicurus and Lucretius. He continued Marx’s work on Epicurus and praised what he called the latter’s “immanent dialectics”. Epicurus recognised the estrangement of human beings from the human world in the shape of religion, now reinforced by the alienation of the labour-capital relationship, and had profound concerns about the well-being of the earth and the relationship of nature to man, points which Engels picked up and expanded on along with Marx.

A final quote from Marx in the thesis on Epicurus: When human life lay grovelling in all men’s sight, crushed to the earth under the deadweight of religion whose grim features loured menacingly upon mortals from the four quarters of the sky, a man of Greece was first to raise mortal eyes in defiance, first to stand erect and brave the challenge. Fables of the gods did not crush him, nor the lightning flash and growling menace of the sky…. Therefore religion in its turn lies crushed beneath his feet, and we by his triumph are lifted level with the skies.

The difference between Democritean and Epicurean philosophy of nature which we established at the end of the general section has been elaborated and confirmed in all domains of nature. In Epicurus therefore, atomistics with all its contradictions has been carried through and completed as the natural science of self-consciousness. This self-consciousness under the form of abstract individuality is an absolute principle.

Epicurus has thus carried atomistics to its final conclusion, which is its dissolution and conscious opposition to the universal. For

Democritus, on the other hand, the atom is only the general objective expression of the empirical investigation of nature as a whole.

Hence the atom remains for him a pure and abstract category, a hypothesis, the result of experience, not its active [energisches] principle. This hypothesis remains therefore without realisation, just as it plays no further part in determining the real investigation.”

We are conscious now that far from being crushed, religion, particularly its fundamentalist versions in both east and west, has been fed and invigorated by decomposing capitalism. The task is to overcome this along with all the divisions that emanate from the breakdown of ruling class ideology and to this effect we have to salute the groundbreaking work of Marx on Epicurus.

Marx’s appendix on Plutarch

At the end of Marx’s dissertation is an appendix called: Critique of Plutarch’s Polemic against the Theology of Epicurus, of which, like much of the latter’s work, only fragments survive. Nevertheless, even here, Marx makes some significant points and looks at some new areas in these fragments that we can return to in the context of the whole. It’s also worth remembering that this work of Marx developing on Epicurus showed his gradual independence from Hegel and demonstrated to him in the process the importance of religion and the unfolding necessity to try to develop a profound understanding of what religion meant for humanity and its emancipation, while contending that “No good for man lies outside himself”.

For Plutarch, God was on the side of good against the wicked – the powerful nature of this aspect of religious ideology shouldn’t be underestimated even to this day. Against Epicurus, Plutarch argued that if there was no God there was no joy or happiness. According to him, belief in God, as well as bringing relief from pain, fear and worry “indulges in a playful and merry inebriation, even in amatory matters!” Marx responds on the proof of God that gods are like imagined money – in the end there will be a price to pay. And anyway, proof of ‘your’ God is a disavowal of others and vice-versa. Plutarch divides society into the good, decent, intelligent and the bad and uncivilised whereas, according to Marx, Epicurus deals with the “essential relationship of the human soul in general“. For Marx, Plutarch’s objection to Epicurus’ ungodly atomism poses the question of the eternal, unchangeable characteristics of man against those of change, free-will and self-consciousness. Plutarch’s view of religion is based on the reform of the wicked by, first of all an animal-like fear and secondly, sentimentality: “There is no qualitative difference between this and the previous category. What in the first place appeared in the shape of an animal fear appears here in the shape of human fear, the form of sentiment. The content is the same” (Marx). After talking about sentiment Marx goes on to briefly talk about the “… naked, empirical ego, the love of self, the oldest love…”.

Marx certainly has plenty of criticisms of Epicurus on the questions of mechanistics and “accidents” but wholly supports his view that events of human history are neither mere accidents nor merely arise out of necessity. Epicurus recognises and never denies necessity or subsistence but always insists that the bounds of both must be broken and this by the means of human reason and human consciousness.

In the dissertation Marx argues that Epicurus goes beyond the sceptical world of the Democratean atom and its “subjective semblance” by positing its “objective appearance”. “Implicit in Epicurus’ philosophy was the notion that knowledge both of the world of the atom (imperceptible to the senses) and of sensuous reality arose from the inner necessity of human reason embodied in abstract individuality and freedom (self-determination).” Marx’s Ecology materialism and nature, John Bellamy Foster.

In his appendix on Plutarch Marx also takes aim at the German idealist philosopher Friedrich Schelling, whose positions degenerated into a defence of religion and from this a cock-eyed vision of nature. Schelling’s appointment as Rector at the University of Berlin indicated the closing off of universities to the Young Hegelians and a definite turn by Marx into further profound applications of his work.

Marx took what was best about the enlightenment of Ancient Greece and defended and refined the analyses of Epicurus against the determinism of Democritus; and then he defended the materialism of the modern Enlightenment against the reactionary views of Schelling. Marx went beyond Epicurus while underlining his importance for a materialist analysis. He reined in some of his “exaggerations” and sharpened up his innate dialectics.

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