You are here

Lecture 4: Human self-consciousness as the highest divinity

Marx's personal crisis, his conversion and his subsequent reception into the so-called “Doctors’ Club” of Young Hegelian academics present several features which are only too familiar to the phenomenology and psychology of religion. While from that viewpoint a comparison with Paul's conversion is quite justifiable, the differences are no less significant. Although in the letter to his father Marx confesses how, in the encounter with Hegel's philosophy, the light of truth was suddenly revealed to him, the way he describes his relationship remains, right up to the last sentence, extremely ambiguous. What he encounters in the “Doctors’ Club” is the very opposite of a religious community of people devoted to a unifying faith; rather is it an atmosphere of highly intellectual discussion between contradictory views. But this very climate of spiritual reflection and competition is for him the indelible mark of truth. Instead of raising his doubts, it corroborates his conviction that here the pearls of truth are being discovered and brought to light. A conviction, however, unenlivened by any expression of jubilation or gratitude such as often characterize the religious pilgrim who, having accomplished his perilous journey through lonely deserts of doubt and despair, at last beholds the promised land, the city of salvation. Marx's account of this reads like the story of a neurotic bachelor, who, trapped by the fatal devices of a woman stronger and older than himself, has finally succumbed to the inescapable snare of marriage. His wedding-day is the day of his defeat, doomlike and arousing the victim's mind to a fury of powerless indignation.

Such a state of mind would appear neither to mirror a state of happy love nor to provide the foundation for a stable marriage. As a matter of fact, a negative indication is to be found in the absence from Marx's writings of any unambiguously positive evaluation of Hegel's philosophy. Those rather scanty parts of his writings which contain a direct discussion of Hegel are intensely critical. His relationship to Hegel has from the very outset been of a dialectical nature. A number of factors serve to shed light on this.

One obvious reason is of a psychological nature. Marx's restless mind was continually engaged in the struggle to grasp unique truth and reality. He could not concede that the fullness of life which he perceived as the expression of a spiritual activity could be imprisoned within a fixed system. It is normal enough to find the younger generation inwardly resisting the maturity and established position of the older one. In Marx's case it drove his passionate mind, at one and the same time, to the extremes of unqualified respect for and aversion from the master-philosopher's authority.

One might wonder whether this ambivalent adherence was not, in fact, much more in conformity with Hegel's thinking than the blind adoration of his epigones. Even in his later works Hegel's philosophical system bears the marks of a long ripening process. Its evolution, traceable throughout the course of his writings, gives evidence of a continual wrestling with the thoughts he was burning to formulate in an intelligible language. What is yet more essential, the dialectical nature of Hegel's thinking is rooted in the process of reflection-in-actu, a living process which dies the very moment it allows itself to become imprisoned in fixed forms. The essentially historical character of this philosophy militates against its coagulating into a system. Since it claims not only to think about history but to be the self-fulfilment of the history of philosophy and the self-expression of history in the language of philosophy, it follows that the pulse and heartbeat of this philosophy is that very dialectical process of history which it claims to incorporate. Of course, the older Hegel had already tried to halt the dialectic of ongoing history and to enshrine his philosophical system, safeguarded against critical negation. His epigones could only be expected to build a mausoleum for the master's spirit. On the other hand, the character of Hegel's philosophy as comprehensive reflection upon the whole range of socio-political and cultural phenomena made it necessary for his school to remain in close touch with the social and political situation in Germany. In the peculiar structure of German society, one's philosophical position was bound up with the position one had, or desired to have, within the political order. The increasing political conservatism manifest in Hegel's development could be explained partly as an outcome of the socio-political situation. Whereas in France the principles of the Enlightenment had been incarnated in the Revolution of 1789, in Germany their only foothold was in the intellectual aspirations of a thinking elite. Germany's political encounter was not with the victorious French bourgeoisie but with Napoleon's enlightened despotism. The ambiguity of Hegel's political philosophy reflected the ambiguity of developments in France after the Revolution and the double ambiguity of their repercussions in a backward Germany.

The dissolution of the Hegelian school in several distinct currents was therefore both inevitable and justified. There was sufficient ambiguity in the master's philosophy to account for the subsequent, mutually contradictory interpretations presented by the Hegelian Right, Left and Centre. This process of disintegration was inevitable, since it merely reflected the increasing tensions which external and internal pressures alike inflicted upon German society. The French July Revolution of 1830, however slight its influence upon Germany may have been at the time, nevertheless had the effect of enhancing the critical forces already at work. It became the historical calling of the Hegelian Left to embody this criticism in philosophical reflection. The fact that this occurred within the setting of the Hegelian system increased its significance. Hegel's dialectics were, so to speak, congenial with the inner disruption from which the German intelligentsia was suffering as a consequence of the growing contradictions between progressive thinking and backward society. The philosophy of the French Enlightenment did not provide anything to match the depth of Hegel's thinking and the relevance of his methodology to these manifest contradictions. The tools adequate to cope with his system had been forged by the master himself.

As a matter of fact, Hegel's philosophy had absorbed the thinking of the Enlightenment about social and political questions to such an extent that the criticism developed by his left-wing pupils became the most effective means of opposition to the political status quo. Hegel's philosophical sanctification of the Christian religion was closely linked with his philosophical justification of the German Christian monarchy. Since the Hegelian Left attempted to transform the master's philosophy into a philosophy of pure human self-consciousness, the political consequences of their attack upon the established position of the Christian religion were bound to become evident. It was not until ten years or so after Hegel's death that a clear stand had been made and the collision with the State began.

It was during this critical period around the year 1840 that Marx was busy writing his doctoral dissertation. This work is essential to any understanding of the philosophical foundations of Marx's thinking, its methodology and its structure. Some of the reasons that have induced me to pay special attention to this work have already been expounded in my opening lecture. I have already mentioned that Marx completed his dissertation in March 1841 and that in the following month he was awarded his doctorate by the University of Jena. The dissertation is entitled The difference between the Democritean and Epicurean philosophies of nature, supplemented with an Appendix, entitled Critique of the Plutarchean polemic against Epicurus’ theology. Though at the end of 1841 Marx was still considering the desirability of publication, and with that in mind had even conceived a new preface, the dissertation has never been printed. Unfortunately, only a part of the manuscript has been preserved. Of the first part which deals with the difference between both Greek philosophies in general, the two concluding paragraphs, summarizing the results of his analysis, have been lost. Of the Appendix only the first paragraph of the first part has been preserved.

This loss is partly made good by the preservation of Marx's preparatory studies which he began during the winter semester of 1838–39. Seven exercise-books filled with excerpts, translations and a wealth of comments and remarks have been preserved. Their size far exceeds that of the dissertation; and their significance for the development of Marx's thinking during those years is, in fact, greater in some respects than that of the dissertation itself. The importance of the preparatory studies is also indicated by the title given them by Rjazanow (in the historical-critical edition of Marx's and Engels’ collected writings), namely: Preparatory studies on the history of the Epicurean, Stoic and Sceptic philosophies. This title, which indeed describes the content of these exercises, suggests a wider and partly different theme, as compared with the theme of the dissertation proper. On the covers of five exercise-books Marx has written: “Epicurean philosophy”. Democritus is hardly mentioned. The comparison between Democritean and Epicurean philosophy, which is the theme of the actual dissertation, is likely to have been a minor aspect of Marx's preparatory reflections.

As a matter of fact, in the Foreword to his dissertation Marx has explicitly stated his wider and more extensive plan to write a larger study on the cycle of Epicurean, Stoic and Sceptical philosophy in relation to Greek speculation as a whole. He regards his dissertation as only a preliminary to the proposed larger essay which, he promises, will correct the failings of the existing treatise. In the opening paragraph of the first part of the dissertation, which sets out its theme in general terms, this promise is repeated and explained in more detail.

The idea of this larger essay, which in point of fact Marx was never able to write, probably emerged from the discussions in the Young Hegelian Doctors’ Club, which fostered a general interest in the post-Aristotelian period of Greek philosophy. This interest is particularly obvious in the writings of the two friends, Carl Köppen and Bruno Bauer, who together with Marx formed the so-called “philosophical Montagne” (a name invented by Ruge). In the foreword to his dissertation, Marx refers to Köppen's essay Friedrich der Grosse und seine Widersacher (“Frederick the Great and his Adversaries”) as containing a more profound suggestion regarding the connection of post-Aristotelian philosophy with Greek life. The essay, dedicated by Köppen “to my friend Karl Heinrich Marx of Trier”, was published in 1840 on the centenary of the accession of Frederick the Great of Prussia. It showed how this famous king-philosopher of the Enlightenment had assimilated the ideas of later Greek philosophy into his life. Köppen described Epicureanism, Stoicism and Scepticism as “the nerve, muscle and intestinal system of the antique organism. Their direct and natural unity determined the beauty and morality of classical antiquity which collapsed when the latter died out.” Drawing a parallel and trying to demonstrate the connection between classical philosophy and eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Köppen launched a vehement attack on the alliance of Romanticism and political reaction in his own days, which he compared with the decay of classical civilization and society.

While Köppen's polemical pamphlet had a clearly political purpose, Bruno Bauer's study of the three philosophical systems of late antiquity arose primarily out of his interest in the origins of Christianity. The audacity of Bauer's criticism of the Gospels went well beyond the attack which had been launched in 1835 by David Strauss's Leben Jesu (“Life of Jesus”). Bauer contended that the Gospels were devoid of any historical truth, that everything in them was the literary product of the Gospel writers’ own fantasy; consequently, Christianity as a world-religion was merely the product of the classical Graeco-Roman world.

This proposition had far-reaching implications for the relationship of Young Hegelian philosophy to the dominant tradition of Christianity. The term “philosophy of self-consciousness”, which the Young Hegelian school had adopted, was derived from the title which had formerly been given to the cycle of Sceptic, Epicurean and Stoic schools. It was the great merit of these philosophical systems, which could not match the speculative depth and universality of knowledge of Plato and Aristotle, to have salvaged the inner happiness of individual man from the ruins of Greek civilization. The immortal principle of individual self-consciousness had, as Bauer contended, been absorbed by the Christian religion, which had thus received the strength to outlive a dying antiquity. But Christianity had absorbed it in an alienated form, in that the individual spirit became deified into a divine, almighty Sovereign and Judge, the heavenly counterpart to the world ruler in Rome. Nevertheless, under the slavery of the Christian religion, humanity had been prepared for the attainment of the final goal of liberty. Now the time had come for the philosophy of self-consciousness, that is to say, for the Hegelian Left, to liberate mankind from the alienated products of the Christian religion, much as formerly the spirit of primitive Christianity had been able to defeat a decaying Graeco-Roman civilization.

The parallel also applied to the political and social field. The national limitations of Hellenism and the social limitations of slavery-limitations which neither Plato nor Aristotle had dreamed of overstepping—had once before been broken down by the “philosophy of self-consciousness”. It had greatly fructified primitive Christianity, which was the world-religion of the suffering and the oppressed and which did not go over to Plato and Aristotle until it had become the religion of an oppressive and exploiting power. Now it was likewise the task of the modern philosophy of self-consciousness to liberate man from the oppression of a tyrannical Church and religion. Thus it was in reality picking up again the threads of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Bruno Bauer was filled with an almost apocalyptic consciousness. “The impending catastrophe will be great,” he wrote in a letter to Marx, “greater and more vehement than the catastrophe of the past, when Christianity made its appearance.”

Viewed in this context, it is obvious that Marx's dissertation is much more than a scholarly historical study of a detail of classical philosophy. In the mirror of a stage of the Greek past he finds the burning questions of his own existence focused and reflected. Before plunging into the political arena of his own day, he turns to pre-Christian history. On this seemingly secure field of study the vehemence of his emotions and the force of his critical intellect are to be trained for the coming battle.

Since the preparatory studies provide such a wealth of insights in addition to the text of the dissertation, it would be inept of me to deal with that text in isolation. I shall therefore continue to treat these two kinds of writings as being the successive stages of an indivisible process of thinking on this philosophical subject. In the Foreword to the dissertation, Marx has summed up the significance of his theme against the background of far-reaching perspectives. A discussion of this text may serve as an excellent introduction to Marx's thinking at this stage of his development.

The purpose of the dissertation, which is to demonstrate that the Epicurean philosophy of nature is basically different from the Democritean philosophy, enshrines an explicitly polemical point. It is Epicurus’ originality in relation to his predecessor Democritus that has to be demonstrated. Since, as we shall see, Marx's interest in Epicurus is rooted in his personal struggle for the adequate philosophy and for the invincible truth, his defence of Epicurus’ philosophical importance springs from an intimate inspiration. In a sense, Epicurus acts as Marx's double. Every time the name of Epicurus is mentioned, we are to think of Marx reflecting his own problems in the mirror of Greek philosophy. When he begins his preface by presenting a claim to have solved a heretofore unsolved problem in the history of Greek philosophy, he leads his readers straight to the heart of the matter. This conviction of having made a revolutionary discovery in turning upside down the whole history of philosophy and in revealing its hidden truth is the backbone of Marx's reflections; and from it they derive their peculiar vigour. The unsolved problem on which the dissertation focuses is not the kind of specialized subject calculated to serve the average student of the history of philosophy as preparation for his academic career. It is Marx's belief that he has found the key to the inner sanctum of Greek philosophy and, probably, of all philosophy whatever.

He begins by stressing the fact that no even remotely applicable preliminary studies exist for the subject of his treatise. Epicurus’ philosophy of nature has always remained open to the gravest misunderstanding. An unbroken tradition of misapprehension runs from the Graeco-Roman philosophers of the centuries immediately before and after Christ, throughout the Middle Ages up to modern times. Even the philosophers of the Enlightenment were not able to liberate their judgment from this spell.

The basis of this bad tradition was laid by Cicero and Plutarch. The kind of thing they said has been repeated and repeated up to the present day. In the first part of the dissertation one paragraph is given over to a summary of the main judgments formulated during past centuries. According to Cicero and his contemporaries, Epicurus had copied his philosophy from Democritus; where Epicurus had deviated from his master and had tried to improve his philosophy, he had succeeded only in spoiling it. Plutarch, living in the first and the beginning of the second century A.D., went even farther, endeavouring to show that Epicurus had appropriated from Greek philosophy only what was false, and lacked any understanding of the true.

This unfavourable opinion voiced by older writers turns up again in the Church fathers. Modern writers, in line with tradition, represent Epicurus as a mere plagiarist of Democritus, where the philosophy of nature is concerned. Leibniz denies him even the capacity to excerpt competently from Democritus, while Leibniz's contemporary, Pierre Bayle, merely copies the opinions about Epicurus derived from Cicero and St. Augustine.

Three authorities in particular are mentioned in the Preface to the dissertation as representing this false tradition. Plutarch's influence is held to be so detrimental that a critique of Plutarch's polemic against Epicurus’ theology has been added as an Appendix. This polemic is not an isolated product, but is representative of a species; it strikingly presents the relation of the theologizing intellect to philosophy. Typical of Plutarch's standpoint is his endeavour to bring philosophy before the bar of religion.

A more ambivalent position is adopted by the seventeenth-century philosopher, Pierre Gassendi. His merit consists in the attempt to free Epicurus from the interdict which the Church fathers and the whole Middle Ages (which Marx calls “the period of consummate unreason”) had placed upon him. Gassendi seeks to accommodate his Catholic conscience to his pagan knowledge and Epicurus to the Church, which was certainly so much wasted effort. It is like trying to throw the habit of a Christian nun over the splendid body of a pagan Greek beauty. It would be more correct to say that Gassendi learns philosophy from Epicurus than that he in any way enlightens us about Epicurus’ philosophy.

In the second exercise-book of the preparatory studies, Marx even accuses Gassendi of having misunderstood Epicurus completely. Gassendi tried the impossible, namely, to be an Epicurean and, at the same time, to conserve the doctrines of the Church regarding divine inspiration, eternal life, and so on. He is a worthy teacher of Epicurean philosophy; but as soon as his religious presuppositions are threatened, Gassendi tries to meddle with the rigid consistency of Epicurus’ opinions.

Marx's judgment about Gassendi is important, because this philosopher of Enlightenment had pioneered the renewal of Epicurean philosophy in the modern era. The first two exercise-books of Marx's preparatory studies contain excerpts from the work of the Greek author, Diogenes Laertius, about the life and opinions of famous philosophers, including a wealth of quotations from, and opinions about, his older contemporary, Epicurus. In the middle of the seventeenth century, Gassendi wrote a commentary on Diogenes Laertius’ work, from which Marx derives valuable knowledge for his dissertation. He also makes use of the discussion of Gassendi's philosophy contained in Feuerbach's Geschichte der neueren Philosophie (“History of Modern Philosophy”). Thus there runs a line from Epicurus via Gassendi and Feuerbach to Marx.

What Marx definitely rejects in Gassendi's thinking is the latter's attempt to compromise between pagan philosophy and Christian faith. Historically speaking, this harsh judgment is scarcely justified. What from the vantage-point of a nineteenth-century critique might appear as deliberate accommodation, in the first half of the seventeenth century was on the contrary a struggle to draw a clear distinction between philosophy and theology. Gassendi, a catholic canon and a member of the secular clergy, was in regular contact with scholars like Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes. His work contains a typical combination of elements of sceptic philosophy and rationalist thinking with religious convictions. The pioneering study he wrote on the life and doctrine of Epicurus was inspired by his zeal for modern science and the philosophy of nature. It prompted the renewal of atomism and aimed a sharp attack on Aristotelian philosophy and the medieval tradition of Scholastic theology.

Like Bacon, Gassendi made a sharp distinction between the knowledge belonging to the sphere of “natural light” and the super-sensual truths which are only to be known by means of revelation, under the authority of the doctrines of the Church. His sceptical sensualism, which was to become a dominant feature in the spiritual atmosphere of the French Enlightenment, enabled him to keep separate his faith and his scientific insights. This brought him in vehement opposition to his contemporary, Descartes; he combated Descartes’ attempt to extend the method of rational thinking to the knowledge of the Godhead and of the essence of the human soul. Like Hobbes, Gassendi defended the sensualist position, contending that man as an object of scientific knowledge has a merely sensual nature, determined by corporeal impressions and affections. The atheistic consequences of this stand-point, evident in Hobbes’ writings, met with opposition not only from orthodox Christian theology but from Neoplatonic philosophers, who defended the divine essence of man and world. Thus the renewal of Epicurean philosophy, as promoted by Gassendi, became an important element in the breakthrough of the scientific method and its confrontation with theology and religion.

The third thinker, mentioned by Marx in the Preface as being responsible for having distorted the significance of Epicurus, is Hegel. To be sure, Hegel had correctly defined the general aspects of the cycle of Epicurean, Stoic and Sceptic philosophies. But this tremendous thinker was hindered by his view of what he called the speculative idea par excellence from recognizing in these systems the great importance that they have for the history of Greek philosophy and for the Greek mind in general. He did not recognize them as the key to the true history of Greek philosophy.

Plutarch, Gassendi, Hegel: by contrasting his approach to Epicurus with the opinions of these three thinkers, Marx is in discussion with three stages of the history of philosophy and theology. In Plutarch, a representative of religious Platonism during the early part of the Christian era, he attacks the religious metaphysics which have set an almost indelible mark upon the tradition of Christian theology up to modern times. Gassendi is the Christian theologian who, seeing the true light of natural science and philosophy, has allowed it to get hopelessly blurred with theological ideas. Finally, while Hegel succeeded in incorporating and defeating the Christian theological tradition by the power of his philosophy, his speculative tendency confused his insight and prevented him from recognizing the point where the liberating function of Greek philosophy is to be discovered.

Polemicizing thus against the whole European tradition up to the present time, Marx sets himself to clear a way for the true Epicurus. It is interesting to see how Epicurus had already begun to exercise his mind in his adolescent years. The closing sentence of the religious treatise written for his final examination contains a sharp attack upon this pagan philosopher. Union with Christ yields a happiness which the Epicurean with his superficial philosophy seeks in vain. On the other hand, this spiritual happiness is also beyond the grasp of the deeper thinker who vainly pursues it in the hidden depths of knowledge. It is known only to the childlike simplicity of the heart united with God in Christ.

Between the radical denunciation of Epicurus which concludes this paper and the no less radical defence which is the core of the dissertation lies a period of five years, years during which Marx passed through several stages of personal evolution and through a decisive crisis and conversion. Apparently, Epicurus represents the climax of that evolution and becomes the turning-point of Marx's thinking. From two kinds of indictment Epicurus has to be exonerated: the accusation of superficiality and the accusation of paganism. The first can be refuted by an analysis of the religious and philosophical idealism from which it emerges: such an analysis has to demonstrate that the truth of Epicurus’ philosophy consists in those very elements which are rejected for their superficiality. The second accusation, aimed at Epicurus’ paganism, seems to be rooted in the primitive tradition of Christian theology. Its misjudgment of Epicurus’ apostasy from Greek religion could have suspect motives, in that Christian theology has not been able to resist the spell of antique religious tradition.

The importance of the inner revolution which Marx passed through consists in the discovery of a basic connection between the two kinds of accusation. Both of them, the Platonic and the Christian-theological rejection of Epicurus’ philosophy, have a common source in their religio-metaphysical premises. In the first chapter of the dissertation, a straight line is drawn from the Platonic Greek thinker Plutarch to the Christian Church fathers who have simply conserved his viewpoint. As a significant example, Marx cites a passage from Clement of Alexandria, a Church father who with regard to Epicurus deserves prominent mention, because he re-interprets St. Paul's general warning against philosophy as a specific warning against Epicurean philosophy. The passage refers to St. Paul's letter to the Colossians, chapter 2, verse 8: “See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.” Clement bases his interpretation that Epicurean philosophy in particular is denounced by St. Paul upon the account in Acts 7:18 of the debate between some Epicurean (and Stoic) philosophers and St. Paul during his stay in Athens.

Epicurean philosophy is regarded by Clement as the prototype of all philosophies which idolize the “elements” instead of submitting them to the creative primeval cause, i.e. all philosophies which do not recognize the Creator. The term “elements” (Greek: stoicheia) is a reference to the passage from Colossians.

Marx (in the fifth exercise-book of the preparatory studies) provides Clement's interpretation with the sarcastic comment: “It is a good thing that those philosophers who did not indulge in fancies about God are rejected!” And he adds the remark that modern interpretation of the letter to the Colossians recognizes that St. Paul had in mind all philosophy. This comment is only understandable with reference to the Greek text, quoted by Marx. In the phrase “which do not recognize the Creator”, the Greek term for “recognize” makes use of the verb phantazomai, from which the English word “fantasy” is derived. Recognition of the Creator is thus ridiculed by Marx as producing fantasies, fantastic ideas about God.

Viewed in this light, Marx's remark that in reality all philosophies are rejected by St. Paul is the more significant. For in this way Marx refutes the tendency to make a contradistinction between philosophies which recognize a Creator and those which deny His existence. According to this distinction, the first category is acceptable to Christian theology, whereas any positive relationship with the second category is rejected. The passage quoted from Clement of Alexandria is typical of the presuppositions which from the second century A.D. onwards have throughout the course of Church history dominated a good deal of Christian theological approach to philosophy. The Greek term for “Creator”, namely, Demiurgos, has simply been adopted from the terminology of Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. Marx, however, enlightened by the criticism of secular philosophers since the seventeenth century, has broken with the age-long theological tradition. On the one hand, the idea of a divine Creator, an idea which has simply been transplanted in unbroken continuity from pagan Greek religion and philosophy to the Christian era, is unmasked as a product of man's fantasy, man's capacity for spinning ideas and images out of his own mind. On the other hand, Marx remains peculiarly loyal to the insight expressed in the closing sentence of his final examination-treatise on Union with Christ, namely, that the Christian faith is not only opposed to Epicurean and other so-called materialist or atheist philosophies, but no less radically to spiritualist and idealist philosophies, which seek a union with God in the inner recesses of the human mind. The dividing-line does not run between atheistic and theistic philosophies, but between philosophy and theology.

Such, as a matter of fact, is Marx's interpretation of St. Paul's denunciation of philosophy. The situation is, however, a little more complicated. Marx's use of the terms “philosophy” and “theology” is anything but distinct. The Appendix to the dissertation, entitled Critique of the Plutarchean polemic against Epicurus’ theology, uses the term theology with reference to the Epicurean ideas about man's relationship to God, about individual immortality, and so on. Strictly speaking, these so-called theological ideas are part of Epicurean philosophy. As a matter of fact, this Plutarchean polemic is described in the Preface as being a typical example of the approach of the theologizing intellect (theologisierendes Verstandes) to philosophy. In other words, Plutarch is the prototype of the theologian in opposition to philosophy, of which Epicurus is the representative par excellence. Since this is Marx's opinion, his explicit and deliberate use of the term “theology” with reference to Epicurus has striking implications. Obviously, he not only opposes philosophy to theology, but wants to oppose true theology, contained in philosophy, with false theology. His dissertation, considered from this viewpoint, in part bears a theological character.

What he has in mind is the idea of a philosophy or, as part of that, of a theology free from religious admixtures. Philosophy should not, as with Plutarch, be brought before the bar of religion. A passage from David Hume is quoted, claiming for philosophy a sovereign authority which ought to be acknowledged on all sides; it is a kind of insult to philosophy, if one forces it to defend itself on every occasion because of its conclusions and to justify itself against every art and science that takes offence at it. “One thinks of a king accused of high treason against his own subjects.”

Philosophy has taken the royal seat which during the Middle Ages had been claimed by theology. The next sentence reveals, indeed, Marx's essentially theological pretensions. Philosophy, he writes, as long as one drop of blood still beats in its heart, being absolutely free and master of the universe, will never grow tired of throwing in the teeth of its adversaries the cry of Epicurus: “The blasphemous is not he who scorns the gods of the masses, but he who imputes to the gods the ideas of the masses.”

On the last page of the dissertation, Epicurus is called the greatest Greek representative of Enlightenment and, in his honour, the eulogy of Lucretius is quoted: “When man's life lay for all to see foully grovelling upon the ground, crushed beneath the weight of Religion, which displayed her head in the regions of heaven, threatening mortals from on high with horrible aspect, a man of Greece was the first that dared to uplift mortals against her, the first to make stand against her; for neither babbles of the gods could quell him, nor thunderbolts, nor heaven with menacing roar.… Wherefore Religion is now in her turn cast down and trampled underfoot, whilst we by that victory are exalted high as heaven.”

Lucretius praises Epicurus as the true Prometheus. So does Marx when, almost imperceptibly, the Preface passes on to the Greek mythological hero. The Promethean profession: “In simple words, I hate the pack of gods” (quoted from Aeschylus’ tragedy), is the peculiar profession of philosophy, its own aphorism against all divine and earthly gods who do not acknowledge human self-consciousness as the highest divinity. It allows no rivals.

But to the knights of the rueful countenance, who rejoice over the apparently weakened social position of philosophy, it responds again, as Prometheus replied to Hermes, the servant of the gods:

Be sure of this, I would not change my state

of evil fortune for your servitude.

Better to be the servant of this rock

than to be faithful boy to Father Zeus.

Prometheus—thus the proud profession which concludes the Preface—is the most eminent “saint and martyr in the philosophic kalendar”.

Thus the Preface issues in a confession of faith. The real hero of the dissertation seems to be Prometheus in the guise of Epicurus. The hitherto unsolved problem in the history of Greek philosophy which Marx set himself to solve, appears to have more than intellectual dimensions. It is the problem of Prometheus. As a matter of fact, this Greek mythological hero had served as prototype and ideal for several anti-religious currents of the modern Enlightenment, as well as for the circle of Young Hegelian philosophers. Marx's mind was evidently deeply fascinated and intrigued by the enigmatic figure of Prometheus. His biographer, Franz Mehring, noticed that his confession to this “saint and martyr of the philosophic kalendar” anticipates the struggle and sufferings of Marx's own career. Marx appears to have been captivated in particular by Aeschylus’ tragedy Prometheus Bound. His sensitivity to the tragic features of Prometheus’ revolution against the gods adds to his approach a dimension lacking in the general notion of Prometheus as the heroic champion of Enlightenment and saviour from idolatry and stupidity.

The phrase “saint and martyr” should be understood as an interpretation of the verses from Aeschylus’ tragedy that are quoted in the Greek text. The answer of Prometheus to Hermes contains a subtle ambiguity, embedded in the double use of the Greek terms for “service” and “to serve”, namely latreia and latreuein. These terms are preserved in the English word “idolatry”, but they are in general related to worship, veneration, service of the gods. The gist of Prometheus’ argument consists in their polemical use. In preference to Hermes’ subservience as faithful to Father Zeus, he would rather “serve this rock” to which he is bound by way of punishment. Prometheus’ profession is the service of man over against Hermes’ service of the gods. The latter enjoys an apparent freedom, whereas the liberator of man is subjected to eternal sufferings and bondage. But in these sufferings and bondage he is free, because it is his own conscious and deliberate choice. His martyrdom for the sake of man makes him the real saint.

We may remember how the fragment of the tragedy Oulanem, one of the literary products of Marx's early academic years, contains a Promethean verse which speaks of being “fixed, for ever, fearful, shivered, empty, fixed to the marmorblock of Being, fixed, bound forever, forever!” This verse sounds like a reference to the verse quoted from Aeschylus’ tragedy which concludes the Preface of the dissertation. In the preface to a somewhat later work, the Introduction to a critique of Hegel's philosophy of law, we find yet another reference to the tragic aspects of Prometheus’ act. The gods of Greece are said to have already been “tragically wounded to death in Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound”. In other words, the real victim in the tragedy is not the human saint and martyr Prometheus, but rather the gods whose dominance has been fatally undermined by man's disbelief.

However, the martyr is a saint and a saviour. His sufferings do not outweigh the glory of the freedom he has acquired. In the last paragraph of the Dissertation, another verse from Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound is quoted, describing Atlas standing in the distant West and supporting on his shoulders the pillars of heaven and earth. The quotation functions within the context of a comparison between Aristotle's views and those of Epicurus. If Aristotle reproaches the ancients for believing that the heavens require the support of Atlas, Epicurus on the other hand criticizes those who believe that man needs heaven; and Atlas himself, upon whose back the heavens are supported, he sees as in the grip of human stupidity and superstition. Stupidity and superstition are also Titans.

Prometheus’ act is the true task of philosophy. In the sixth exercise-book of the preparatory studies, Marx discusses the turning-points in the history of philosophy. He compares the practical realization of Hegelian philosophy with the act of Prometheus. Just as Prometheus, having stolen fire from heaven, begins to build houses and to establish himself on earth, so philosophy, having embraced the whole world, rebels against the world of phenomena.

If Prometheus was the real philosopher, then philosophy cannot be different from activity, encroaching upon human and worldly reality. In the Economic-philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx discusses the appalling circumstances the proletariat is doomed to live in. Their houses have become abodes of death. The dwelling full of light which Prometheus, in Aeschylus, indicates as one of the great gifts by which he has changed savages into men ceases to exist for the worker. The implications are evident: what we need is a new Prometheus.

Having thus recognized the saviour-role assigned to Prometheus in Marx's early writings, we would do well to return, in conclusion, to the closing sentences of the Preface to the dissertation. Prometheus’ challenging answer to Hermes, the servant of the gods, is applied to the actual political situation at the time of writing, March 1841. During that and the preceding year the Young Hegelian academics’ prospects of making a career at one of the German universities had all but vanished. Through the death of the Minister of Public Worship, Altenstein, in May 1840, their circle had lost the semiofficial support so far accorded it by the government. One of the measures taken by Altenstein's successor, Eichhorn, in order to put paid to the Hegelian radicals, was the appointment to the University of Berlin of the philosopher Schelling, who in his old age had developed a mystical philosophy with politically conservative implications. Another result of the changed governmental policy was to encourage the theological faculty in Bonn to reject the appointment of Marx's friend Bruno Bauer as professor. These measures were not only a death blow to Marx's prospects of an academic career in Bonn, but also made him decide to break off his studies in Berlin and take his doctor's degree at one of the smaller universities. As a matter of fact, in April 1841 the University of Jena awarded him the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in absentia, on the strength of the dissertation which he proposed shortly to publish. Marx had written the Preface in the preceding month, that is, in March of the same year. Its aggressive style and content represent his immediate reaction to the political situation.

By the “knights of the rueful countenance, who rejoice over the apparently weakened social position of philosophy” are meant all those in the Universities who collaborated with the government, and so helped to stifle the academic freedom of the Young Hegelian philosophers. The official government policy aimed at maintaining the familiar union of throne and altar, in a word, the settled ties between a semi-feudal political order and a conservative Christian church. The political subservience of the theological faculties is compared by Marx to Hermes’ servile obedience to Father Zeus. The gods of the state and of the established religion had their trustworthy messengers throughout the country.

Against the background of this current political reality, the verses quoted from Aeschylus’ tragedy acquired a surplus value over and above their original meaning in the pre-Christian era. Christianity, firmly established in the course of the age-long history of the Corpus Christianum, had been transformed into a Cult over which a Ministry of Public Worship presided, into an institution required to serve as the religious sanction of the State. In other words, it had returned to that very position which religion had formerly possessed in the Greek polls during the classical period. The quotation from Aeschylus should therefore be read as an indirect assault on the analogous position of the Christian religion in nineteenth-century Germany. The word latreia is the terminus technicus for “Cult”. Over against the dominating Christian “Cult”, what Marx champions is the Promethean freedom of the martyr and the saint. There is another tacit implication of Marx's polemic that cuts deeper still into the flesh of the established Christian religion. The Church had its long list of saints and martyrs whom it had turned into harmless objects of the Cult, administered by faithful servants of the State. Its truth had migrated, so to speak, to philosophy, which in the current struggle for freedom was developing its own kalendar of saints, with the name of Prometheus heading the list.

If such an interpretation fits the prevailing state of affairs, hardly concealed in Marx's polemic, then it seems tempting to make a comparison with the situation of the primitive Church, although such a parallel is likely to go beyond Marx's conscious intentions. In the Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 14, a vivid account has been preserved of the visit paid by Barnabas and Paul to the town of Lystra in Asia Minor. Under the impact made by Paul's ministry in curing a paralysed inhabitant, the multitude was convinced that “the gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, because he was the chief speaker, they called Hermes.

In other words, the pagan multitude tends to turn the Christian message into a pagan cult. But that is the very thing which is radically rejected by the apostles, because it would corrupt their message the moment it began striking root in such virgin soil. When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out among the multitude, crying: “Men, why are you doing this? We are also men, of like nature with you, and bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.”

The story ends with the report that, with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them. The reaction of the apostles signified an unprecedented and radical encroachment upon all that a pagan multitude had ever envisaged as the essence of religion.

Nineteen centuries later, Marx returns to a pre-Christian polemic against the Greek gods, Zeus and his messenger Hermes, in order to express his radical opposition to a Christian religion that had been transformed into a pseudo-pagan Cult.

From the book: