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Marx’s Notebooks on Epicurean Philosohy

[Sixth Notebook]

[Lucretrius On the Nature of Things]
Book IV

"... images of things">


Marx’s Notebooks on Epicurean Philosohy

[Sixth Notebook]

[Lucretrius On the Nature of Things]
Book IV

"... images of things, a sort of outer skin perpetually peeled off the surface of objects and flying about this way and that through the air." II.34 ff.

“Because each particular floating image wears the aspect and form of the object from whose body it has emanated." II.49 f.

“Similarly the films must he able to traverse an incalculable space in an instant of time, and that for two reasons. First, a very slight initial impetus far away to their rear sufficed to launch them and they continue on their course. Secondly, they are thrown off with such a loose-knit texture that they can readily penetrate any object and filter through the interspace of air." II.192 ff.

“... it must be acknowledged that objects en-tit particles that strike upon the eyes and provoke sight. From certain objects there also flows a perpetual stream, as coolness flows from rivers, heat from the sun, and from the ocean waves a spray that cats away walls round the sea-shore. Sounds of every sort are surging incessantly through the air. When we walk by the seaside, a salty tang of brine enters our mouth; when we watch a draught of wormwood being mixed in our presence, a bitter effluence touches it. So from every object flows a stream of matter, spreading out in all directions. The stream flows without rest or intermission, since our senses are perpetually alert and everything is always liable to be seen or smelt or to provoke sensation by sound." B.217 ff.

“Again, when some shape or other is handled in the dark, it is recognised as the same shape that in a clear and shining light is plain to see. It follows that touch and sight are provoked by the same stimulus." II.231 ff.

This shows that the cause of seeing lies in these films and without these nothing can be seen." II.238 f.

“That is how we perceive the distance of each object; the more air is driven in front of the film and the longer the draught that brushes through our eyes, the more remote the object is seen to be. Of course this all happens so quickly that we perceive the nature of the object and its stance simultaneously." II.251 ff.

“A similar thing happens when a mirrored image projects itself upon our sight. On its way to us the film shoves and drives before it all the air that intervenes between itself and the eyes, so that we feel all this before perceiving the mirror. When we have perceived the mirror itself, then the film that travels from us to it and is reflected comes back to our eyes, pushing another lot of air in front of it, so that we perceive this before the image, which thus appears to lie at some distance from the mirror." II. 280 ff.

Book V

"The whole substance and structure of the world, upheld through many years, will crash." II. 96 f.

“May reason rather than the event itself convince you that the whole world can collapse with one ear-splitting crack!" II. 109 f.

“For naturally a whole whose members and parts we see to consist of created matter in mortal forms is by the same rule discerned to be likewise created and mortal. So ... it is a fair inference that sky and earth too had their birthday and will have their day of doom." II. 241 ff.

“... you will see ... temples and images of the gods defaced, their destined span not lengthened by any sanctity that avails against the laws of nature." II. 307 ff.

“Again, there can only be three kinds of everlasting objects. The first, owing to the absolute solidity of their substance, can repel blows and let nothing penetrate them so as to unknit their close texture from within. Such are the atoms of matter, whose nature I have already demonstrated. The second kind can last for ever because it is immune from blows. Such is empty space, which remains untouched and not subject to any impact. Last is that which has no available place surrounding it into which its matter can disperse and disintegrate. It is for this reason that the sum total of the universe is everlasting, having no space outside it into which the matter can escape and no matter that can enter and disintegrate it by the force of impact." II. 352 ff.

“It follows that the doorway of death is not barred to sky and sun and earth and the sea’s unfathomed floods. It lies tremendously open and confronts them with a yawning chasm." II. 374 ff.

“Already in those early days men had visions when their minds were awake, and more clearly in sleep, of divine figures, dignified in rnien and impressive in stature. To these figures they attributed sentience, because they were seen to move their limbs and give voice to lordly utterances appropriate to their stately features and stalwart frames. They further credited them with eternal life, because their shape was perpetually renewed and their appearance unchanging and in general because they thought that beings of such strength could not lightly be subdued by any force. They pictured their lot as far superior to that of mortals, because none of them was tormented by the fear of death, and also because in dreams they saw them perform all sorts of miracles without the slightest effort." II. 1168 If.

Book VI

As the nous of Anaxagoras comes into motion in the Sophists (here the nous becomes realiter the not-being of the world) and this immediate daemonic motion as such becomes objective in the daemon of Socrates, so also the practical motion in Socrates becomes a general and ideal one in Plato, and the nous expands itself into a realm of ideas. In Aristotle this process is apprehended again in individuality, but this is now true conceptual individuality.

As in the history of philosophy there are nodal points which raise philosophy in itself to concretion, apprehend abstract principles in a totality, and thus break off the rectilinear process, so also there are moments when philosophy turns its eyes to the external world, and no longer apprehends it, but, as a practical person, weaves, as it were, intrigues with the world, emerges from the transparent kingdom of Amenthes and throws itself on the breast of the worldly Siren. That is the carnival of philosophy, whether it disguises itself as a dog like the Cynic, in priestly vestments like the Alexandrian, or in fragrant spring array like the Epicurean. It is essential that philosophy should then wear character masks. As Deucalion, according to the legend, cast stones behind him in creating human beings, so philosophy casts its regard behind it (the bones of its mother are luminous eyes) when its heart is set on creating a world; but as Prometheus, having stolen fire from heaven, begins to build houses and to settle upon the earth, so philosophy, expanded to be the whole world, turns against the world of appearance. The same now with the philosophy of Hegel.

While philosophy has sealed itself off to form a consummate, total world, the determination of this totality is conditioned by the general development of philosophy, just as that development is the condition of the form in which philosophy turns into a practical relationship towards reality; thus the totality of the world in general is divided within itself, and this division is carried to the extreme, for spiritual existence has been freed, has been enriched to universality, the heart-beat has become in itself the differentiation in the concrete form which is the whole organism. The division of the world is total only when its aspects are totalities. The world confronting a philosophy total in itself is therefore a world torn apart. This philosophy’s activity therefore also appears torn apart and contradictory; its objective universality is turned back into the subjective forms of individual consciousness in which it has life. But one must not let oneself be misled by this storm which follows a great philosophy, a world philosophy. Ordinary harps play under any fingers, Aeolian harps only when struck by the storm.

He who does not acknowledge this historical necessity must be consistent and deny that men can live at all after a total philosophy, or he must hold that the dialectic of measure as such is the highest category of the self-knowing spirit and assert, with some of the Hegelians who understand our master wrongly, that mediocrity is the normal manifestation of the absolute spirit; but a mediocrity which passes itself off as the regular manifestation of the Absolute has itself fallen into the measureless, namely, into measureless pretension. Without this necessity it is impossible to grasp how after Aristotle a Zeno, an Epicurus, even a Sextus Empiricus could appear, and how after Hegel attempts, most of them abysmally indigent, could be made by more recent philosophers<"art">.

At such times half-hearted minds have opposite views to those of whole-minded generals. They believe that they can compensate losses by cutting the armed forces, by splitting them up, by a peace treaty with the real needs, whereas Themistocles, when Athens was threatened with destruction, tried to persuade the Athenians to abandon the city entirely and found a new Athens at sea, in another element.

Neither must we forget that the time following such catastrophes is an iron time, happy when characterised by titanic struggles, lamentable when it resembles centuries limping in the wake of great periods in art. These centuries set about moulding in wax, plaster and copper what sprang from Carrara marble like Pallas Athena out of the head of Zeus, the father of the gods. But titanic are the times which follow in the wake of a philosophy total in itself and of its subjective developmental forms, for gigantic is the discord that forms their unity. Thus Rome followed the Stoic, Sceptic and Epicurean philosophy. They are unhappy and iron epochs, for their gods have died and the new goddess still reveals the dark aspect of fate, of pure light or of pure darkness. She still lacks the colours of day.

The kernel of the misfortune, however, is that the spirit of the time, the spiritual monad, sated in itself, ideally formed in all aspects in itself, is not allowed to recognise any reality which has come to being without it. The fortunate thing in such misfortune is therefore the subjective form, the modality of the relation of philosophy, as subjective consciousness, towards reality.

Thus, for example, the Epicurean, [and the] Stoic philosophy was the boon of its time; thus, when the universal sun has gone down, the moth seeks the lamplight of the private individual.

The other aspect, which is the more important for the historian of philosophy, is that this turn-about of philosophy, its transubstantiation into flesh and blood, varies according to the determination which a philosophy total and concrete in itself bears as its birthmark. At the same time it is an objection to those who now conclude in their abstract one-sidedness that, because Hegel considered Socrates’ condemnation just, i.e., necessary, because Giordano Bruno had to atone for his fiery spirit in the smoky flame at the stake, therefore the philosophy of Hegel, for example, has pronounced sentence upon itself. But from the philosophical point of view it is important to bring out this aspect, because, reasoning back from the determinate character of this turnabout, we can form a conclusion concerning the immanent determination and the world-historical character of the process of development of a philosophy. What formerly appeared as growth is now determination, what was negativity existing in itself has now become negation. Here we see, as it were, the curriculum vitae of a philosophy in its most concentrated expression, epitomised in its subjective point, just as from the death of a hero one can infer his life’s history.

Since I hold that the attitude of the Epicurean philosophy is such a form of Greek philosophy, may this also be my justification if, instead of presenting moments out of the preceding Greek philosophies as conditions of the life of the Epicurean philosophy, I reason back from the latter to draw conclusions about the former and thus let it itself formulate its own particular position.

To define the subjective form of Platonic philosophy still further in a few features, I shall examine more closely some views set forth by Professor Baur in his work Das Christliche im Platonismus. Thus we shall arrive at a result by simultaneously clarifying opposing views more precisely.

Das Christliche des Platonismuus oder Sokrates und Christus, by D. F. C. Baur, Tübingen, 1837.

Baur says on page 24:

"According to this, Socratic philosophy and Christianity, considered at their starting point, are related to each other as consciousness of self and consciousness of sin."

It seems to us that the comparison between Socrates and Christ, presented in this way, proves precisely the opposite of what is to be proved, namely, the opposite of an analogy between Socrates and Christ. Consciousness of self and consciousness of sin are, of course, related to each other as the general and the particular, that is to say, as philosophy and religion. This position is adopted by every philosopher, whether ancient or modern. This would be the eternal separation of the two fields rather than their unity, admittedly also a relationship, for every separation is separation of a unity. This means nothing more than that the philosopher Socrates is related to Christ as a philosopher to a teacher of religion. If now a similarity, an analogy is established between grace and Socrates’ midwifery, irony, this means carrying only the contradiction, not the analogy, to the extreme. Socratic irony, as understood by Baur and as it must be understood with Hegel, namely as the dialectic trap through which human common sense is precipitated out of its motley ossification, not into self-complacent knowing-better, but into the truth immanent in human common sense itself, this irony is nothing but the form of philosophy in its subjective attitude to common consciousness. The fact that in Socrates it has the form of an ironical, wise man follows from the basic character of Greek philosophy and its attitude to reality. With us irony as a general immanent form, so to speak, as philosophy was taught by Fr. v. Schlegel. But objectively, so far as content is concerned, Heraclitus, who also not only despised, but hated human common sense, is just as much an ironist, so is even Thales, who taught that everything is water, though every Greek knew that no one could live on water, so is Fichte with his world-creating ego, despite which even Nicolai realised that he could not create any world, and so is any philosopher who asserts immanence in opposition to the empirical person.

In grace, on the other hand, in consciousness of sin, not only the subject which receives grace, which is brought to consciousness of sin, but even that which bestows grace and that which arises out of the consciousness of sin are empirical persons.

If therefore there is any analogy here between Socrates and Christ, it must consist in the fact that Socrates is philosophy personified and Christ is religion personified. But here it is not a question of a general relation between philosophy and religion; the question is rather in what relation personified philosophy stands to personified religion. That they have some relation to each other is a very vague truth or rather the general condition of the question, not the particular basis of the answer. In this striving to prove the existence of a Christian element in Socrates, the relation between the two persons, namely Christ and Socrates, is defined no further than as the relation in general of a philosopher to a teacher of religion; the same vacuity is revealed when the general moral division of Socrates’ Idea, Plato’s Republic, is placed in relationship to the general division of the Idea, and Christ as a historical personality in relationship mainly to the church.

If Hegel’s pronouncement, which Baur accepts, is correct, [§552 Philosophy of Mind] that in his Republic Plato asserted Greek substantiality against the irrupting principle of subjectivity, then Plato is diametrically opposed to Christ, since Christ asserted this element of subjectivity against the existing state, which he characterised as only worldly, and therefore unholy. The fact that Plato’s Republic remained an ideal, whereas the Christian church achieved reality, was not the real difference but was expressed reversed in Plato’s Idea following reality, whereas that of Christ preceded it.

In general it is far more correct to say that there are Platonic elements in Christianity rather than Christian elements in Plato, particularly as the earliest Fathers of the Church proceeded historically in part from Platonic philosophy, e.g., Origen, Irenaeus. From the philosophical point of view it is important that in Plato’s Republic the first estate is that of the learned or the wise. It is the same with the relationship of Platonic ideas to the Christian logos (p. 38), the relationship of the Platonic recollection to the Christian restoration of man to his original image (p. 40), and with Plato’s fall of souls and the Christian falling into sin (p. 43), myth of the pre-existence of the soul.

Relation of the myth to Platonic consciousness.

Platonic transmigration of souls. Connection with the constellations.

Baur says on page 83:

"There is no other philosophy of antiquity in which philosophy bears so much of a religious character as in Platonism."

This must also follow from the fact that Plato defines the "task of philosophy" (p. 86) as a lusis, apallagh, cwrimos [saving, freeing, separation] of the soul from the body, as a dying and a meletan apoqnhaskein.

"That this saving force in the final resort is ascribed to philosophy is, to be sure, the one-sidedness of Platonism p. 89.

On the one hand, one could accept Baur’s pronouncement that no philosophy of antiquity bears so much the character of religion as the Platonic. But it would only mean that no philosopher had taught philosophy with more religious inspiration, that to no one philosophy had to a greater extent the determination and the form, as it were, of a religious cult. With the more intensive philosophers, such as Aristotle, Spinoza, Hegel, their attitude itself had a more general form, less steeped in empirical feeling; but for that reason Aristotle’s inspiration, when he extols qewria [theory] as the best thing, to hdiston kai ariston [the most pleasant and best], or when he admires the rationality of nature in his treatise peri thς fusewς xwikhς [On the nature of animals], and Spinoza’s inspiration when he speaks of contemplation sub specie aeternitatis, [from the point of view of eternity] of the love of God or of the libertas mentis humanae, [freedom of the human mind] and Hegel’s inspiration when he expounds the eternal realisation of the Idea, the magnificent organism of the universe of spirits, is more genuine, warmer, more beneficial to a mind with a more general education, for that reason the inspiration of Plato culminates in ecstasy while that of the others bums on as the pure ideal flame of science; that is why the former was only a hot-water bottle for individual minds, while the latter is the animating spirit of world-historical developments.

Hence even if it may be admitted, on the one hand, that in the Christian religion, as the peak of religious development, there must be more points of contact with the subjective form of Platonic philosophy than with that of other early philosophies, it must equally be asserted on the same grounds that in no philosophy the opposition between the religious and the philosophical could be expressed more clearly, for here philosophy appears in the character of religion, while there religion appears in the character of philosophy.

Further, Plato’s pronouncements on the salvation of the soul, etc., prove nothing at all, for every philosopher desires to free the soul from its empirical limitation; to draw an analogy with religion only shows a lack of philosophy, namely, to consider this as the task of philosophy, whereas it is only the condition for fulfilling that task, only the beginning of the beginning.

Finally, it is no defect of Plato, no one-sidedness, that he ascribes this saving force in the last resort to philosophy; it is the one-sidedness which makes of him a philosopher and not the teacher of a faith. It is not the one-sidedness of Plato’s philosophy, but that by which alone it is philosophy. It is that by which he negates again the formula-which has just been denounced-[namely, the formula] of a task of philosophy which would not be philosophy itself.

"In this, therefore, in the striving to provide what has been cognised through philosophy with a basis independent of the subjectivity of the individual [i.e., an objective basis], lies the reason why Plato, precisely when he expounds truths which are of the greatest moral and religious interest, at the same time presents them in a mythical form." p. 94.

Is anything at all explained in this way? Does not this answer include as its kernel the question of the reason for this reason? The question that arises is: why is it that Plato felt the desire to provide a positive, above all mythical, basis for what is cognised by philosophy? Such a desire is the most astonishing thing that can be attributed to a philosopher, for it means that he does not find the objective force in his system itself, in the eternal power of the Idea. That is why Aristotle calls mythologising kenologising.

On the surface of it, the answer to this can be found in the subjective, namely dialogic, form of the Platonic system and in irony. What is the pronouncement of an individual and is asserted as such in opposition to opinions or individuals, needs some support through which the subjective certainty becomes objective truth.

But then a further question arises: why is this mythologising to be found in those dialogues which mainly expound moral and religious truths, whereas the purely metaphysical Parmenides is free from it? The question is: why is the positive basis a mythical one and a reliance on myths?

And here we have the answer to this riddle. In expounding definite questions of morality, religion, or even natural philosophy, as in Timaeus, Plato sees that his negative interpretation of the Absolute is not sufficient; here it is not enough to sink everything in the one dark night in which, according to Hegel, all cows are black; at this point Plato has recourse to the positive interpretation of the Absolute, and its essential form, which has its basis in itself, is myth and allegory. Where the Absolute stands on one side, and limited positive reality on the other, and the positive must all the same be preserved, there this positive becomes the medium through which absolute light shines, the absolute light breaks up into a fabulous play of colours, and the finite, the positive, points to something other than itself, has in it a soul, to which this husk is an object of wonder; the whole world has become a world of myths. Every shape is a riddle. This has recurred in recent times, due to the operation of a similar law.

This positive interpretation of the Absolute and its mythical-allegorical attire is the fountain-head, the heartbeat of the philosophy of transcendence, a transcendence which at the same time has an essential relation to immanence, just as it essentially breaks through the latter. Here we have, of course. a kinship of Platonic philosophy with every positive religion, and primarily with the Christian religion, which is the consummate philosophy of transcendence. Here we have therefore also one of the viewpoints from which a more profound relationship can be established between historical Christianity and the history of ardent philosophy. It is in connection with this positive interpretation of the Absolute that Plato saw in an individual as such, Socrates, the mirror, so to speak, the mythical expression of wisdom, and called him the philosopher of death and of love. That does not mean that Plato negated the historical Socrates; the positive interpretation of the Absolute is connected with the subjective character of Greek philosophy, with the definition of the wise man.

Death and love are the myth of negative dialectic, for dialectic is the inner, simple light, the piercing eye of love, the inner soul which is not crushed by the body of material division, the inner abode of the spirit. Thus the myth of it is love, but dialectic is also the torrent which smashes the many and their bounds, which tears down the independent. forms, sinking everything in the one sea of eternity. The myth of it is therefore death.

Thus dialectic is death, but at the same time the vehicle of vitality, the efflorescence in the gardens of the spirit, the foaming in the bubbling goblet of the tiny seeds out of which the flower of the single flame of the spirit bursts forth. Plotinus therefore calls it the means of the soul’s aplwsis. [simplification] of its direct union with God, an expression in which death and love and at the same time Aristotle’s qewria, [theory] are united with Plato’s dialectic. But as these determinations in Plato and Aristotle are, as it were, presupposed, not developed out of immanent necessity, their submergence in the empirical individual consciousness in Plotinus appears as a condition, the condition of ecstasy.

Ritter (in his Geschichte der Philosophie alter Zeit, Part 1, Hamburg, 1829) speaks with a certain repulsive moralising superiority about Democritus and Leucippus, in general about the atomistic doctrine (later also about Protagoras, Gorgias, etc.). There is nothing easier than to rejoice in one’s own moral perfection on every occasion, easiest of all when dealing with the dead. Even Democritus’ learning is made a subject of reproach (p. 563); mention is made of

"how sharply the higher flight of speech, simulating inspiration, must have contrasted with the base attitude which underlies his outlook on life and the world." p. 564.

Surely that is not supposed to be a historical remark! Why must precisely the attitude underlie the outlook and not rather the other way round, the definite outlook and discernment underlie his attitude? The latter principle is not only more historical, it is also the only one according to which a philosopher’s attitude may be considered in the history of philosophy. We see in the shape of the spiritual personality what is expounded to us as a system, we see, as it were, the demiurge standing alive at the centre of his world.

"Of the same content is also the proposition of Democritus that something primary, which did not come into existence, must be assumed, for time and infinity did not come into existence, so that to inquire after their origin would mean to seek the beginning of the infinite. One can see in this only a sophistical denial of the question of the origin of all phenomena." p. 567.

I can see in that assertion of Ritter’s only a moral denial of the question concerning the basis of this Democritean determination; the infinite is posited in the atom as a principle, it is contained in the definition of the atom. To inquire after the basis of the definition would, of course, be to negate his definition of the concept.

"Democritus ascribes to the atom only one physical property, weight... One can again recognise here the mathematical interest which seeks to save the applicability of mathematics to the calculation of weight." p. 568.

“Hence the atomists deduced motion also from necessity, conceiving the latter as the causelessness of motion receding into the indeterminate." p. 570.

[IX, 19] "Democritus, however, holds that certain images approach (meet) men; some of these have a beneficial effect, others a harmful one; for this reason also he prays that only images endowed with reason should meet him. But these are big and gigantic and indeed very hard to destroy, but not indestructible; he says they foretell men the future, are visible and emit sound. Proceeding from the notion of these images, the ancients conjectured that there is a god Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors, p. 311.

[20-21] "Now Aristotle said that the notion of god arose in men from two factors, from the processes in the soul and from the heavenly phenomena. From the processes in the soul because of the divine inspiration of the soul in sleep and because of the prophecies. For, he says, when the soul in sleep becomes independent, it discards its own nature, has premonitions and foretells the future.... For this reason, he says, men have surmised that god is something which in itself resembles the soul and the most intelligent of all. But also from the heavenly phenomena." op. cit., pp. 311 f.

[25] "Epicurus believes that men derived the notion of god from the visions of fantasy which appear during sleep. For, he says, since in sleep big images resembling human beings appear, they assume that in reality also there are some such gods resembling human beings." op. cit., p. 312.

[58] "[... ] Epicurus, some say, admits the existence of God as far as the multitude is concerned, but not as far as the nature of things goes." op. cit., p. 319.

a) Soul p. 321. Against the Professors [Book IX].

[218] "[... ] Aristotle asserted that God is incorporeal and the limit of heaven, the Stoics that he is a breath which permeates even through things foul, Epicurus that he is anthropomorphic, Xenophanes that he is an impassive sphere.... [219] Epicurus declares that ‘what is blessed and incorruptible neither feels trouble itself nor causes it to others’.” Outlines of Pyhonism, Book III, p. 155.

[219-221] "But to Epicurus, who wishes to define time as the accidental of acddentals (sumppwma snmppwatwn), can be objected, besides many other things, that everything which behaves as substance belongs to the substrates, to the underlying subjects; but what is called accidental possesses no consistency, since it is not separate from the substances. For there is no resistance (antitnpia) except the bodies which resist, no making way (eixis) (yielding) except that which yields and the void, etc." [Against the Professors, Book IX, p. 417.]

[240-241] "Hence Epicurus, who says that a body must be thought of as a composition of size, and shape, resistance and weight, forces us to think of an existing body as consisting of non-existing bodies.... Hence, in order that there may be time, there must be accidentals; but in order that there may be accidentals, there must be an underlying condition; and if there is no underlying condition, neither can there be time."

[244] "So if this is time,-and Epicurus says its accidentals are time"

(by this abantwn one must understand hmera, nux, wra, kinhsis, mouh, paqos, apaqeia, etc.),

" - then according to Epicurus, time will be its own accidental." Against the Professors [Book IX], pp. 420 and 421.

If, according to Hegel, the Epicurean philosophy of nature deserves no great praise when judged by the criterion of objective gain, from the other point of view, according to which historical phenomena do not stand in need of such praise, the frank, truly philosophical consistency with which the whole range of the inconsistencies of his principle in itself is expounded, is admirable. The Greeks will for ever remain our teachers by virtue of this magnificent objective naïveté, which makes everything shine, as it were, naked, in the pure light of its nature, however dim that light may be.

Our time in particular has given rise even in philosophy to evil phenomena, guilty of the greatest sin, the sin against the spirit and against truth, inasmuch as a hidden intention lurks behind the judgement and a hidden judgment behind the intention.