Doctoral Dissertation of Karl Marx — Chapter 1

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Karl Marx
The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature
Part One: Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature in General

The Subject of the Treatise


Greek philosophy seems to have met with something with which a good tragedy is not supposed to meet, namely, a dull ending. The objective history of philosophy in Greece seems to come to an end with Aristotle, Greek philosophy's Alexander of Macedon, and even the manly-strong Stoics did not succeed in what the Spartans did accomplish in their temples, the chaining of Athena to Heracles so that she could not flee.

Epicureans, Stoics and Sceptics are regarded as an almost improper addition bearing no relation to its powerful premises. Epicurean philosophy is taken as a syncretic combination of Democritean physics and Cyrenaic morality; Stoicism as a compound of Heraclitean speculation on nature and the Cynical-ethical view of the world, together with some Aristotelean logic; and finally Scepticism as the necessary evil confronting these dogmatisms. These philosophies are thus unconsciously linked to the Alexandrian philosophy by being made into a one-sided and tendentious eclecticism. The Alexandrian philosophy is finally regarded entirely as exaltation and derangement-a confusion in which at most the universality of the intention can be recognised.

To be sure, it is a commonplace that birth, flowering and decline constitute the iron circle in which everything human is enclosed, through which it must pass. Thus it would not have been surprising if Greek philosophy, after having reached its zenith in Aristotle, should then have withered. But the death of the hero resembles the setting of the sun, not the bursting of an inflated frog.

And then: birth, flowering and decline are very general, very vague notions under which, to be sure, everything can be arranged, but through which nothing can be understood. Decay itself is prefigured in the living; its shape should therefore be just as much grasped in its specific characteristic as the shape of life. Finally, when we glance at history, are Epicureanism, Stoicism and Scepticism particular phenomena? Are they not the prototypes of the Roman mind, the shape in which Greece wandered to Rome? Is not their essence so full of character, so intense and eternal that the modern world itself has to admit them to full spiritual citizenship?

I lay stress on this only in order to call to mind the historical importance of these systems. Here, however, we are not at all concerned with their significance for culture in general, but with their connection with the older Greek philosophy.

Should not this relationship urge us at least to an inquiry, to see Greek philosophy ending up with two different groups of eclectic systems, one of them the cycle of Epicurean, Stoic and Sceptic philosophy, the other being classified under the collective name of Alexandrian speculation? Furthermore, is it not remarkable that after the Platonic and Aristotelean philosophies, which are universal in range, there appear new systems which do not lean on these rich intellectual forms, but look farther back and have recourse to the simplest schools-to the philosophers of nature in regard to physics, to the Socratic school in regard to ethics? Moreover, what is the reason why the systems that follow after Aristotle find their foundations as it were ready made in the past, why Democritus is linked to the Cyrenaics and Heraclitus to the Cynics? Is it an accident that with the Epicureans, Stoics and Sceptics all moments of self-consciousness are represented completely, but every moment as a particular existence? Is it an accident that these systems in their totality form the complete structure of self-consciousness? And finally, the character with which Greek philosophy mythically begins in the seven wise men, and which is, so to say as its central point, embodied in Socrates as its demiurge — I mean the character of the wise man, of the sophos — is it an accident that it is asserted in those systems as the reality of true science?

It seems to me that though the earlier systems are more significant and interesting for the content, the post-Aristotelean ones, and primarily the cycle of the Epicurean, Stoic and Sceptic schools, are more significant and interesting for the subjective form, the character of Greek philosophy. But it is precisely the subjective form, the spiritual carrier of the philosophical systems, which has until now been almost entirely ignored in favour of their metaphysical characteristics.

I shall save for a more extensive discussion the presentation of the Epicurean, Stoic and Sceptic philosophies as a whole and in their total relationship to earlier and later Greek speculation.

Let it suffice here to develop this relationship as it were by an example, and only in one aspect, namely, their relationship to earlier speculation.

As such an example I select the relationship between the Epicurean and the Democritean philosophy of nature. I do not believe that it is the most convenient point of contact. Indeed, on the one hand it is an old and entrenched prejudice to identify Democritean and Epicurean physics, so that Epicurus' modifications are seen as only arbitrary vagaries. On the other hand I am forced to go into what seem to be microscopic examinations as far as details are concerned. But precisely because this prejudice is as old as the history of philosophy, because the differences are so concealed that they can be discovered as it were only with a microscope, it will be all the more important if, despite the interdependence of Democritean and Epicurean physics, an essential difference extending to the smallest details can be demonstrated. What can be demonstrated in the small can even more easily be shown where the relations are considered in larger dimensions, while conversely very general considerations leave doubt whether the result will hold when applied to details.


II: Opinions on the Relationship between Democritean and Epicurean Physics