Wednesday, July 6, 2011


Marx and the Greek classics

Ancient Greek culture had a profound influence on late 18th and early 19th century Germany, especially Prussia, from the architecture of public buildings [1] to the educational curriculum, and was seen by a section of the intellectual elite as setting the standard for aesthetics, politics and society. Enlightenment humanists such as Hegel, Winckelmann, Lessing, Schiller and Goethe would have agreed with the Prussian educator Wilhelm von Humboldt’s view that “the Greek people were in a way the most exemplary expression of the idea of man”. The Greeks represented universality, self-realisation, the free, independent human being, and the love of beauty.

This version of Greek antiquity owed more to the conditions of Germany than to the reality of life in the ancient world. What the neo-classicists wanted from classical antiquity was a model for criticising the alienation, fragmentation and decadence of modernity. As Lukács put it, the ‘ideal’ age of Greece became part of a “humanist struggle against the degradation of man by the capitalist division of labour” [2]. This struggle tended to be fought on aesthetic and cultural rather than political ground.

Young MarxKarl Marx inherited the ‘grecomania’ of the liberal bourgeoisie but would find his own uses for the classical legacy. At school in Trier and at university in Bonn and Berlin, he received the classical education that was de rigueur for a young German from a bourgeois family. A very early text, Cleanthes, or the Starting Point and Necessary Continuation of Philosophy [3], which has not survived, took the form of a Platonic dialogue. More significantly, for his doctoral thesis in 1841 Marx tackled the world of post-Aristotelian physics with a comparison of Democritus (Demokritos) and Epicurus (Epikouros) [4], which is worth looking at briefly.

Both these Greek philosophers believed that the basic division of matter was the atom: all things that happen result from atoms in constant motion as they collide and interact in the void. But the young Marx argues a distinction between the deterministic materiality of Democritus, in which atoms move in straight lines according to physical laws and do not allow for new combinations, and the Epicurean view that atoms sometimes deviate from the norm or ‘swerve’ and thus allow for free will. For Epicurus the atom is self-sufficient, containing its individuality and potential within itself – nature and material objects derive not from the laws of objective reality but from the possibilities of subjective imagination. We cannot know causes, only possibilities, because being is determined by consciousness.

At that time Marx was a radical critic of Hegel, and we can see him using this study of Greek philosophy to orient himself towards topics and debates within German idealism: what is the relationship between thought and being, between subject and object, and what is the nature of scientific inquiry? The position of Democritus and Epicurus following the death of Aristotle parallels Marx’s own position following the death of Hegel.

Hegel was critical of Epicurus’s atomism for encouraging individual action against the unity of society and saw his system as sensuous and unphilosophical. Marx, armed with Hegel’s dialectics but suspicious of his idealism, goes further. For him, Epicurus differs from Democritus in allowing for individual freedom within a materialist framework, but his freedom and individuality exist in the abstract and seek, like the swerving atoms, to avoid real life. The Epicureans actually set a real-life example, preferring to avoid involvement in politics and live in modest obscurity: the goal of philosophy was a particular state of mind: ataraxia, or tranquility, freedom from care. In Marx’s view, by contrast, “abstract individuality is freedom from existence, not freedom in existence.”

Of course, Marx is ultimately interested, not in a point of Greek philosophy, but in forming his own worldview and working out how it relates to the Hegel-dominated ideas of his time. And the issues raised in the dissertation drew him onto a collision course with idealism.

Marx claims to have solved “a heretofore unsolved problem in the history of Greek philosophy”, namely the existence of profound differences between Democritus and Epicurus, and exposes long-standing misconceptions about Epicurus, characteristically sweeping away cobwebs and rubbish to get to what he considers the true heart of the matter. He praises Epicurus as “the greatest representative of Greek Enlightenment” because of his objections to superstition. It is clear from his foreword to the dissertation that Marx was already forming a view of the role of philosophy and literature in facing down shopworn ideas, which he declaims in florid language:

As long as a single drop of blood pulses in her world-conquering, absolutely free heart, philosophy will continually cry out to her opponents, with Epicurus: ‘The truly impious man is not he who destroys the gods worshipped by the multitude, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believes about them.’

Philosophy makes no secret of this. The confession of Prometheus: ‘In a word, I detest all the gods’ is her own confession, her own watchword against all the gods of heaven and earth who do not recognise man’s self-consciousness as the highest divinity. It will have none other besides.

But to the pitiful March hares who rejoice at the apparently worsened civil position of philosophy, she repeats what Prometheus said to Hermes, the servant of the gods:

Be sure of this, I would not change my evil plight for your servility. It is better to be slave to the rock than to serve Father Zeus as his faithful messenger.

Prometheus is the foremost saint and martyr in the philosopher’s calendar.[5]

For Marx, the mythical Greek figure of Prometheus – the Titan who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to humankind – becomes a symbol of radical inquiry, with Zeus standing in for Hegel in particular and received opinion in general. The quotations of Prometheus are from Aeschylus’ tragedy Prometheus Bound, but as S.S. Prawer points out, the idea that human self-consciousness was higher than the gods could hardly be what Aeschylus intended in his tragedy. Through the filter of 19th century German philosophy, Marx is recasting, like so many before and after him, a Greek myth to suit a contemporary purpose.

Early though the dissertation is – Marx was only 23 when he wrote it, and had yet to formulate his revolutionary theory – it prefigures some of the later themes of his materialism, such as his dialectics, criticism of religion and materialist epistemology. In Mikhail Lifschitz’s words, it reveals “the abyss between the last representative of classical bourgeois philosophy and the founder-to-be of scientific socialism” [6] – an abyss given form through ancient Greek philosophy.

Marx would continue to read and admire classical authors throughout his life, though he never descended into the boring, sanitised neo-classicism of academia. Evidence for the breadth of Marx’s reading of ancient authors is scattered through his letters. The historian and Marxist G.E.M. de Ste. Croix gives us a flavour:

On 8 March 1855 we find him saying in a latter to Engels, ‘A little time ago I went through Roman history again up to the Augustan era’; on 27 February 1861 he writes again to Engels, ‘As a relaxation in the evenings I have been reading Appian on the Roman civil wars, in the original Greek’; and some weeks later, on 29 May 1861, he tells Lassalle that in order to dispel the serious ill-humour arising from what he describes, in a mixture of German and English, as ‘mein in every respect unsettled situation’, he is reading Thucydides, and he adds (in German) ‘These ancient writers at least remain ever new.’[7]

Marx had a prodigious memory: Marx’s daughter Eleanor Marx commented to Wilhelm Liebknecht that he ‘could recite whole cantos of Homer from beginning to end.’ [8] Evidence of this proliferates in his writings. De Ste. Croix observes:

Scattered through the writings of Marx are a remarkable number of allusions to Greek and Roman history, literature and philosophy... he frequently quotes Greek authors (more often in the original than in translation), as well as Latin authors, in all sorts of contexts: Aeschylus, Appian, Aristotle, Athenaeus, Democritus, Diodorus, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Epicurus, Herodotus, Hesiod, Homer, Isocrates, Lucian, Pindar, Plutarch, Sextus Empiricus, Sophocles, Strabo, Thucydides, Xenophon and others… After his doctoral dissertation Marx never had occasion to write at length about the ancient world, but again and again he will make some penetrating remark that brings out something of value.

In 1842, through his contact with the Left Hegelians, Marx planned a treatise that would compare ancient Greek and Christian art, and trace a path to the modern Romantics. No copy of this has come down to us, but its probable line of argument has been reconstructed by Lifschitz based upon the views of the Left Hegelians and Marx’s notes on his reading. According to Lifschitz, Marx would have argued that whereas ancient art was realistic and plastic, with an intense interest in artistic form growing organically out of the human imagination, the Christian religious outlook was based upon a paralysing fear of God and on submission. Christian art either lost its sense of artistic form through excessive zeal, or sought simple symbolism and abstraction.

In studying the nature of religion Marx introduces fetishism, a concept that in reworked form would later take on great importance in his economic studies. A fetish object becomes identified with its god – it is not a mere symbol but the god actually lives in the image. “The fundamental thesis of the treatise on Christian art,” Lifschitz concludes, “was thus the antithesis between the ancient principle of form and the fetishistic worship of materiality.”

Marx is thinking in this treatise, not only of Christian art of the post-classical period, but of contemporary capitalism. He has still to develop his mature theory of commodity fetishism, i.e. the mistaking of human social relationships for relationships between things. But he is almost certainly thinking back to his reading from 1841-2 when he writes in Capital that “we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world” [9] in order to understand fetishism.

In the treatise on religion and art, it seems that Marx sought to criticise Christian culture as a step backwards from the artistic standards set by ancient Greek culture.

There are many subsequent examples of Marx’s engagement with classical antiquity, and we can’t look at them all here. The most significant influence by far was Aristotle, whom Marx considered ‘the greatest thinker of antiquity’ [10]. Aristotle is referenced in the doctoral thesis, in the Grundrisse, multiple times in Capital, etc, and helped Marx create his own framework for understanding class, politics, ethics, materialism and citizenship.[11]

Marx was confronted by the 19th-century realities of an alienated urban landscape – utilitarianism, individualism and exploitation – and like many of his contemporaries he looked to ancient Greece for an alternative society of self-realisation, sensuous art and active citizenship. The ‘grecomania’ of the bourgeoisie bore only a passing resemblance to the historical reality of the squabbling city-states built on slave labour. But unlike many of his intellectual peers, Marx did not relate to Greece as a utopian, idealist or reactionary. Rather, he used it to throw light both upon the experiences and relationships of his own times and upon how human society might advance to something better in the future.

In the next post I will focus upon a famous passage on Greek mythology and art that has been particularly hotly debated.

[1] This was particularly visible in Berlin, where the work of the neo-classical architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel – including the Brandenburg Gate, which is a copy of the Propylaea of the Acropolis – helped earn the city the name ‘Athens on the Spree’.
[2] Lukács, Goethe and his Age (1968).
[3] Referred to in a letter to his father in November 1837.
[4] Marx, ‘The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature’ (1841). We have this thesis, which earned Marx his PhD, only in an incomplete form. Marx also planned a longer work on Epicurean, Stoic and Sceptic philosophy which was never written.
[5] Marx, op. cit. Translation from S.S. Prawer, Karl Marx and World Literature (1978).
[6] Mikhail Lifschitz, The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx (1933).
[7] G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (1981).
[8] Cited in S.S. Prawer, op. cit.
[9] Marx, Chapter 1 of Capital, vol. 1, (1867).
[10] Marx, op. cit., Chapter 15.
[11] I refer readers interested in Marx’s debt to Aristotle to George E. McCarthy, Marx and Aristotle: Nineteenth-Century German Social Theory and Classical Antiquity (1992). G.E.M. de Ste. Croix discusses the resemblance between Aristotle and Marx’s methods in The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, pp.74-80.

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