As a matter of fact, the main themes of Marx's letter to his father of November 1837 are the very issues basic to his dissertation. This points to the intimate connection between, on the one hand, the personal problems which emotionally disrupted his inner life and, on the other hand, his philosophical thinking. His first scholarly work, although apparently a dry, historical comparison between two ancient Greek philosophers, could be read as a philosophical elaboration of his conversion story. This close relationship seems to confirm the identity of his personal conversion experiences with his reflections about a historical turning-point, marking the contemporary situation of his society and civilization.
This insight may serve to guide us through the labyrinth of the seven exercise-books that contain Marx's preparatory studies for the dissertation. The dissertation proper is a relatively short document which, though marked to some extent by clarity of exposition and simplicity of structure, deals with a difficult subject in a special terminology. It cannot be adequately understood except in close connection with the studies preparatory to it; for they contain a wealth of insights and arguments calculated to enrich and illuminate the line of thought developed in the dissertation. Although in some respects the dissertation itself may reveal a slight development in Marx's thinking, as over against the preparatory studies, it is quite feasible to deal with the study process as an indivisible whole. In the following discussion we shall not make any distinction between the stages of the study process, so that the term “dissertation” is normally intended to include the preparatory studies.
The opening sentence of Marx's letter of November 1837, addressed to his father, refers to the turning-point which his life has undergone. Looking back on the past years of his personal life, he draws a parallel with the retrospection which world history itself sometimes seems to love. It was the discovery of Hegel's philosophy—a philosophy to which he felt irresistibly drawn as by the fatal power of a magical attraction—which allowed him consciously to participate in the turning-point of his own period of history.
Marx's struggle with the overwhelming power of Hegel's philosophical system has left its mark on the dissertation and is indeed its driving force. But the speed of his mental evolution had within three years propelled him to a further stage. The main question which now challenged his penetrating mind was the post-Hegelian situation of philosophy, the vacuum which the death of that philosophical giant had left behind. The pivot around which the dissertation revolves is the parallel between Marx's situation as a philosopher after Hegel and the situation of Epicurus as a philosopher in the wake of Aristotle. Just as Aristotle had gathered the ripe fruits of a rich tradition of classical Greek philosophy, so Hegel had reaped the harvest of western philosophical thinking throughout successive periods. At the same time, Hegel could not simply be treated as an Aristotle redivivus. There is a qualitative difference between modern western and classical Greek philosophy which accounts for the chasm dividing Aristotle from Hegel. This dialectical relationship between close analogy and essential difference also determines Marx's approach to Epicurus. The Greek philosopher is a strange kind of mirror, enabling him to discover and define his own historical identity.
What does it mean to live after the heyday of a “total philosophy”, i.e., after the reign of a philosopher like Aristotle or Hegel? A total philosophy represents junction or conjunction in the history of philosophy. Such junctions have the effect of concentering several abstract principles which during the preceding period had been developed separately, along parallel lines. Abstractions are tied together into one concrete knot.
Such a focus is, however, not only an end but a beginning. The convergent lines subsequently diverge outwards again and radiate. A philosophy which has passed such a focal point begins to turn its gaze towards the outer world. It has passed the stage of comprehension and begins to plot, as it were, to intrigue with the world.
It is a psychological law that the theoretical spirit, having become free within itself, is transformed into practical energy and will. Appearing from Amenthes’ shadowy realm, it challenges the earthly reality existing apart from it. Philosophy throws itself into the bosom of the worldly Siren. That is the “Shrove Tuesday” (Fastnachtzeit) of philosophy, the time for philosophy to put on a mask. In the post-Aristotelian period philosophy takes on a canine appearance as the Cynics, dons the sacerdotal cloak as the Alexandrinian, or fresh spring apparel as the Epicurean.
Such a turning-point in the history of philosophy is a metamorphosis comparable to the creation of the world. What it means is only to be conveyed in mythical terms. We have been told that the Greek mythical hero Deucalion, a son of Prometheus, after the flood produced by the supreme god Zeus, founded a new mankind by throwing backwards a number of stones which changed into human beings. In the same way, when in her heart the desire has emerged to create a world, philosophy throws her eyes backwards. Her shining eyes are the bones of her mother.
Marx tries to express in the language of Greek mythology the enigmatic situation in which he finds himself, grappling with the riddle of his own philosophical identity. Hegel had, in his Phenomenology of Mind, described the course of self-conscious mind, arriving at the key-point of totality; his very philosophy as a whole was conceived as a representation of that key-point. Marx describes the ambiguous character of Hegel's philosophy as analogous with the paradoxical way Deucalion created a new mankind, as it were by a retrospective act. It was Hegel's intention to embrace the world, but it was a thought-world, not yet the real world. Since his reflection had a retrospective character, the prospective meaning of his philosophy merely existed in his reflection. The totality of his mind was an end in itself, but it did not create a real future.
Marx appears to be continually wrestling with this terrific ambiguity of Hegel's thought. In the letter to his father of a few years before, he had described his encounter with Hegel's philosophy as the moment of descent of the gods who had been living beyond the earth and were going now to be living in the very centre of the earth. Meditating on the problem of a post-Hegelian situation, he begins now to be aware that the descent of the gods is not yet the creation of a new world. He is, as it were, living between the time of descent of the gods and the moment of a new creation. The world is now waiting for a new Prometheus whose fire, stolen from heaven, will become the source of light and energy for mankind. In an analogous twilight-period, after the sun of Greek philosophy had set and before the dawning of a new day, the post-Aristotelian schools of philosophy had played their historical role.
A total philosophy is a complete world in itself. Having reached like a fruit the stage of maturity, it has grown into a closed system leading an independent inner life. Subsequently the moment arrives when the skin can no longer bear the pressure from within; the process which had been prepared secretly now turns into open manifestation. The inner self-sufficiency is broken; that which was an inner light becomes a consuming flame, turned outward. The theoretical system turns into practice, reflection changes into will. Of course, the practice pursued by philosophy continues to be of a theoretical nature. It is the critique which measures specific existence according to the general idea. This immediate realization of philosophy, however, is essentially burdened with contradictions, contradictions which inevitably become manifest and impress their stamp on the world of phenomena.
When a total philosophy turns itself as will against the world of phenomena, it can no longer maintain its totality. It comes to grips with external reality and, in that confrontation, it displays its one-sided, merely abstract comprehensiveness. Its relationship to the outside world is a reflective relationship, full of paradoxes. Its ambition of self-realization creates tensions with the reality it desires to master. Consequently, in the degree to which the world becomes philosophical, philosophy becomes worldly; its realization is simultaneously its loss; that which it attacks on the outside is its own inner deficiency. While fighting, it falls a victim to the very failures it wants to combat; only by becoming sick is it able to cure the diseases of its opponent. Its counterpart in the duel is its second self—but in an inverted image.
As a consequence of this paradoxical partnership of combat between an externalized philosophy and the outside world, the totality of the world is rent asunder. The impact of a great philosophy tears the world to pieces by its own contradictions; its aftermath is a storm. The force of this storm is commensurate with the heroic greatness of the preceding philosophy. Common harps can be plucked easily enough by common hands; but the harp of the god Aeolus only begins to sound when the force of the storm beats upon it.
Unless a man learns to understand this historical necessity, he is not likely to admit the right of anyone to live on, to survive the reign of a total philosophy. Without this historical necessity philosophers like Zeno, Epicurus and even Sextus Empiricus could hardly have made their appearance after Aristotle; no more could the for the most part miserable products of present-day philosophers have appeared after Hegel.
The problem which a post-Hegelian and a post-Aristotelian period bring with them resembles the dilemma of a people confronted with an impending catastrophe. The half-hearted commanders see reduction or dispersion of the army as possible solutions; whereas Themistocles, when Athens was threatened with destruction, persuaded the Athenians to abandon their city and to found a new Athens on a different element, on the sea.
Such catastrophes are, as a matter of fact, succeeded by an iron age, which will be deplorable if it is anything like the centuries of epigones that follow on periods of great achievement in the arts. The iron age will be a welcome one, however, if it is marked by titanic struggles. The times following upon the reign of a total philosophy and its successive, subjective forms of development have indeed a titanic appearance, since the unity of a total philosophy conceals a gigantic schism. The post-Aristotelian systems of Stoic, Sceptic and Epicurean philosophy, for example, are succeeded by the Roman period.
The iron age is an unhappy one, in so far as, its gods having died, the new goddess retains, for the time being, the dark shape of Fate, that is to say, the appearance of pure light or of pure darkness. She has not so far assumed the colours of the day. The soul of such an epoch, like a spiritual Monad saturated and self-sufficient in its universal ideality, cannot recognize any reality but its own concept. This impotence is precisely what makes the epoch an unhappy one. On the other hand, the happiness concealed within this unhappiness is the subjective form of philosophy, its relationship to reality in the form of subjective consciousness. In this respect Epicurean and Stoic philosophy, for example, were the happiness of their time; when the general sun has set, the night moth seeks the lamp light of privacy.
This is one side of the question. However, the historian of philosophy is more interested in the other side. He is inclined to turn the medal over and read the drama in reverse, starting from the end. The turning-point in the evolution of a total philosophy, its “transubstantiation” into flesh and blood, will vary with its initial destination. In the final stage of its development the curriculum vitae of a total philosophy is focused in one subjective point, just as the whole career of a hero is manifested in his death.
That is why a study of Epicurean philosophy is, at one and the same time, a treatise on the whole history of Greek philosophy. Rather than begin with a description of those elements in the preceding philosophical systems which have shaped the thinking of Epicurus, Marx's dissertation prefers the reverse order: it allows his favourite philosopher to speak for himself, so as to demonstrate his precise position in relationship to his predecessors.
Following this critical method, Marx's analysis reaches a result at radical variance with that familiar approach to the history of Greek philosophy which considers the objective history of philosophy in Greece as ending with Aristotle. What should not occur in a good tragedy seems to happen here: a weak ending. Epicureans, Stoics and Sceptics are generally regarded as an almost improper postscript to Aristotelianism, being out of all proportion to its powerful premises, Epicurean philosophy is regarded as a syncretistic combination of Democritean physics and Cyrenaic morality; Stoicism as a compendium of Heraclitic nature-speculation, the ethical world-view of the Cynics and perhaps also Aristotelian logic; and Scepticism as the necessary evil which opposes these dogmatisms. One unconsciously links these philosophies to Alexandrinian philosophy in making of them a narrow and tendentious eclecticism. Finally, Alexandrinian philosophy is itself regarded as a form of complete fanaticism, of collapse, of a confusion in which, at most, a universality of intention is still just recognizable.
Now it is a truism, to be sure, that origin, fluorescence and decay constitute the cycle in which everything human is caught up; so that it is not surprising if Greek philosophy, after reaching its zenith in Aristotle, should then have withered away. But whereas the death of a hero is like a glorious sunset, the demise of Greek philosophy, according to commonly held opinion, more closely resembles the final rupture of an over-inflated frog!
Then again, origin, fluorescence and decay are very general, very vague, ideas, in which everything may be included, of course, but through which nothing is to be comprehended. Death itself is prefigured in the living thing; its form is therefore to be grasped equally in its specific individual character, just as is the form of life.
Finally, if we take a glance at history, are Epicureanism, Stoicism and Scepticism isolated phenomena? Are they not rather prototypes of the Roman mind, the form in which Greece can be said to have “emigrated” to Rome? Are they not such intense and eternal entities, so full of character, that even the modern world has to allow to them their full spiritual citizenship?
With these preliminary questions Marx opposes himself, from the very outset, to the familiar view of the history of Greek philosophy. Against the background of his reflections on the crucial significance of turning-points in the history of philosophy (reflections which we have derived from his preparatory studies) his position is clear. His methodology is different from the familiar historical approach in three respects. Instead of explaining the later stage as the outcome of those that came before it, he begins with the outcome and attempts, from this final point of view, to explain the character of the earlier development. Secondly, he is not content with a general explanation of historical evolution by means of a hypothetical analogy with the organic cycle of life and death, since that analogy fails to point the specific character of a historical succession. Marx's protest against this organicist model is indeed not only directed against its tendency to fallacious generalization; it is also a corollary of his reversed approach to history. His argument that death itself is prefigured in the living thing, therefore, implies the reverse argument that the process of life is to be understood from its culmination, i.e. death.
However, this reverse argument is deployed in such a strange fashion that it renders the organicist model absurd. The thesis concerning the death of the hero as the mirror in which his preceding career is reflected and revealed receives a surprising application, in that the death of the hero is compared with the final rupture of an over-inflated frog. The comparison reminds one of Köppen's approach to the three post-Aristotelian systems of philosophy as representations of the nerves, muscles and intestinal system of the organism of Antiquity, which were falling to pieces when the latter expired. The historical stage of these philosophical schools parallels the post mortem disintegration of what had once been an organic unity. Having, in this way, weakened the organicist model, Marx reverses the argument once more; what, from the viewpoint of preceding history, resembled a post mortem stage of dissolution, is now considered the prenatal stage of subsequent history. These post-Aristotelian systems represent the transition from the Greek to the Roman epoch. Evincing as they do the character of eternal youth, they are prototypes not only of the Roman but even of the modern mind. In other words, in the mirror of this transition-period between Greek and Roman civilization, Marx sees his own situation, as a “living between the times”, reflected.
Having thus alluded to their great significance for the understanding of present history, he returns to the historical framework and mentions a number of reasons why the relationship of these systems to previous Greek philosophy should prompt further enquiry. Why is it that Greek philosophy issues in two distinct groups of eclectic systems, one of which constitutes the cycle of Epicurean, Stoic and Sceptic philosophies, the other of which goes by the name of Alexandrinian philosophy? Furthermore, is it not remarkable that after the Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies, which extend to universality, new systems appear which do not refer back to these great intellectual figures, but, looking beyond them into the past, seek contact with the simplest schools—in regard to physics, with the philosophers of nature, in regard to ethics, with the Socratic school? Furthermore, what is the basis for the fact that the systems that follow Aristotle find their foundations, as it were, laid in the past; so that Democritus is related to the Cyrenaics and Heraclitus to the Cynics? Is it an accident that with the Epicureans, Stoics and Sceptics all the elements of self-consciousness are represented as complete, except that each element is represented as a particular existence? Is it an accident that these systems, taken together, form the complete structure of self-consciousness? Finally, consider the character with which Greek philosophy begins, mythically speaking, in the seven sages, consider its centre-point embodied in Socrates—is it an accident that the very character of the sage is presented in those post-Aristotelian systems as the reality of science?
If the preceding systems are more significant and more interesting because of their content, the post-Aristotelian ones, and particularly the cycle of Epicurean, Stoic and Sceptic schools, are more important because of the subjective form, the character of Greek philosophy. It is precisely the subjective form, the mental vehicle of philosophical systems, which had almost entirely been ignored, owing to a one-sided consideration of their metaphysical pronouncements.
These arguments so greatly fascinated Marx's mind that it was his firm intention to write, at a later date, a study of the Epicurean, Stoic and Sceptical philosophies in their totality and in their total relationship to earlier and later Greek philosophy. His dissertation was intended as an illustration of this relationship with a single example, developing only one aspect of it, namely, its relation to earlier speculation. As such an example he selected the relationship of the Epicurean to the Democritean philosophy of nature.
Marx realized very well that this was not the simplest point of contact. Because, on the one hand, it was a well-established prejudice to identify the Democritean and the Epicurean physics, so that people saw in Epicurus’ modifications only arbitrary ideas. On the other hand, he was forced to go into detail concerning phenomenal atomism. But precisely because this prejudice was as old as the history of philosophy, because the differences are so concealed that they can be detected as it were only under the microscope, the result promised to be all the more important if, despite the relation between the Democritean and the Epicurean physics, an essential difference extending to the smallest detail could be demonstrated. What can be demonstrated on a small scale can be demonstrated even more easily where the relationships are understood in larger dimensions, while, conversely, completely general discussions leave doubt as to whether the result will hold good when applied to details.
The prejudice which he had to rebut had become deeply entrenched in the course of history; from Cicero to Leibniz and Bayle, Epicurus had been regarded as a mere plagiarist of Democritus, when it came to the philosophy of nature. This traditional approach could indeed point to a general identity of Democritean and Epicurean physics. The principle elements—atoms and the void—are undeniably the same. Only in specific statements does there seem to be an arbitrary, therefore unessential, difference.
But here is an insoluble riddle! Two philosophers teach exactly the same science, in exactly the same way but—how inconsistent!—they stand diametrically opposed upon every point of truth, of certainty, and as to the application of this science, where the relationship of thought and reality in general is concerned.
Democritus’ opinion concerning the truth and certainty of human knowledge seems difficult to ascertain. His aphorism may be cited: “In truth we know nothing, because the truth lies at the unfathomable bottom of the well.” His sceptical, uncertain and internally contradictory view is developed still further in the way in which the relationship of the atom and the sensible world is determined. On the one hand, the sensible appearance of things is not ascribed to the atoms. On the other hand, the sensible appearance is the only true object. To say that the phenomenal is the true is contradictory, however. Consequently, Democritus makes sensible reality subjective illusion; but the antinomy, banned from the world of objects, exists now in his own self-consciousness, where the concept of the atom and the sensory perception meet in opposition. Thus Democritus does not escape the antinomy.
On the other hand, let us listen to Epicurus. “The sage,” he says, “takes a dogmatic, not a sceptical position.” “All the senses are heralds of the true.” “Nothing can refute sensory perception.” While Democritus reduces the sensible world to subjective illusion, Epicurus reduces it to objective appearance. Cicero's conclusion is right: “The sun seems large to Democritus because he is a scientist trained in geometry; to Epicurus it seems to be about two feet in diameter because he claims it is as large as it seems.”
Second, this difference in the theoretical judgments of Democritus and Epicurus about the certainty of science and the truth of their objects manifests itself in the disparate scientific practice of these men. Democritus, for whom the principle element does not enter appearance and remains without reality and existence is on the other hand faced with the world of sensible perception as a real and concrete world. Democritus is consequently driven to empirical observation. Dissatisfied with philosophy, he throws himself into the arms of positive knowledge. So we see him travelling through half the world in order to exchange experiences, pieces of knowledge and observations. On the one hand, it is the lust for knowledge, that drives him afar. The knowledge which he considers true is contentless; the knowledge that gives it content is without truth. Democritus is supposed to have blinded himself so that the sensible light in the eye would not darken sharpness of intellect.
In Epicurus an opposite figure appears to us. He is satisfied and blissful in philosophy. For “to serve philosophy is freedom itself.” While Democritus, dissatisfied with philosophy, throws himself into the arms of empirical knowledge, Epicurus scorns the positive sciences because in his opinion they contribute nothing to true perfection. But while Democritus seeks to learn from sages and scientific observers throughout the world, Epicurus prides himself for not having had a teacher, for being self-taught, and he hardly leaves his garden in Athens. While finally Democritus, despairing of knowledge, blinds himself, Epicurus, feeling the hour of his death coming, takes a warm bath and calls for pure wine and recommends to his friends that they remain faithful to philosophy. We see as a difference in practical energy that which expresses itself, in the first instance, as a difference in the theoretical consciousness.
We consider, finally, the form of reflection, which expresses the relation of thought to being in their reciprocity. In the general relationship which the philosopher establishes between the world and thought, he merely makes objective the relation between his particular consciousness and the real world.
Now Democritus uses necessity as a form of reflection of reality. By contrast Epicurus writes: “Necessity, which some make the absolute master, does not exist. There are some fortuitous things, others depend on our free will. The ways to freedom remain open everywhere.”
The most important consequence of this difference appears in the manner of explaining individual phenomena. Democritus declares that he would rather discover a new etiology than acquire the dignity of the Persian crown. On the other hand, Epicurus proceeds with a boundless nonchalance in explaining individual physical phenomena. He is not at all interested in investigating the real causes of objects. He is merely interested in soothing the explaining subject. His manner of explanation, he admits, has in view only the ataraxy of self-consciousness, not the knowledge of nature in and of itself.
Thus, the sceptic and empiricist who holds nature to be subjective illusion, considers it from the point of view of necessity and endeavours to explain and to understand the real existence of things. On the other hand, the philosopher and dogmatist who considers the appearance real, sees only chance everywhere, and his manner of explanation tends rather to destroy all the objective reality of nature. There seems to be a certain perversity in these contrasts.
One can hardly expect that these men, contradicting each other in everything, will become disciples of one and the same teaching. And yet they seem to be firmly chained to one another.
This is the preliminary conclusion drawn by Marx from a careful analysis of the difference between the Democritean and Epicurean philosophies of nature. The difficulties with regard to their, traditionally postulated, identity have guided his research to a deeper level of apperception. The method followed by his penetrating gaze is typical of the trend of thought which can be traced as the continuous pattern of his subsequent writings. He begins by laying bare, underneath the surface of generally accepted appearance, hidden differences which stand in contrast with phenomenal evidence. Subsequently, these differences are exposed as symptoms of basic contradictions, which, in conclusion, are analysed with an eye to their reciprocal relationship and dialectical unity.
The next chapter, which was intended to deal with this relationship in general, has not been preserved; nor has the final chapter, which purported to summarize the results of the first part of the dissertation. Whereas the first part had dealt with the difference between the Democritean and Epicurean physics in general, the second part goes into greater detail.
The first point of difference, when analysed, concerns the question of the declination of atoms from a straight line. Epicurus assumes a threefold motion of the atoms in the void. One motion is that of a fall in a straight line, the second envisages the atom as deviating from a straight line, and the third is established through the repulsion of the multiplicity of atoms. The postulate of the first and last motions Democritus shares with Epicurus; the point of difference between them lies in the declination of the atom from the straight line. At this juncture, therefore, Marx turns to consider that declination. Just as the point is absorbed in the line, so every falling body is absorbed in the straight line which it describes. The consequence of this for atoms would be, since they are in constant motion, that the atom does not exist, but rather disappears into the straight line. For the solidity of the atom does not exist as long as it is understood as falling in a straight line. How then can Epicurus give reality to the purely formal determination of the atom, the concept of pure individuality, which excludes any mode of being determined by another thing?
The relative existence which is opposed to the atom, the mode of being which it should negate, is the straight line. The direct negation of this motion is another motion, thus, as conceived in spatial terms, the declination from the straight line.
Atoms are purely autonomous bodies, or, rather, are bodies conceived in an absolute autonomy, like the heavenly bodies. Therefore, like the latter, they also move, not in straight but in oblique lines. The motion of falling is the motion of non-autonomy.
If therefore Epicurus represents the materiality of the atom in its motion in a straight line, he has realized its formal determination in the declination from the straight line. And these opposed determinations are represented as directly opposed motions.
Lucretius, the only one of the ancients to understand the Epicurean physics, therefore maintains correctly that the declination breaks through the fati foedera, i.e. the decrees of fate, and, as he applies this directly to consciousness, it can be said of the atom that declination is that within it which can fight back and resist.
Epicurus feels with special force the contradiction implicit in his theory. He therefore endeavours to give to declination a representation as little sensory in character as possible. It is neither in a certain place nor at a fixed time; it comes into being in the smallest possible space.
Pierre Bayle, supported by the authority of Augustine, according to whom Democritus ascribed to the atoms a spiritual principle, reproaches Epicurus for having thought in terms of declination instead of this spiritual principle. Marx rebuts this opinion with the contrary viewpoint that to speak of the soul of the atom would be mere verbiage; while in declination the real soul of the atom, the concept of abstract individuality, is represented.
The declination of the atom from the straight line is in fact not a particular determination appearing accidentally in Epicurean physics. The law which it expresses runs through the whole of Epicurean philosophy.
As a matter of fact, the abstract individuality can affirm its pure being-for-itself only by making an abstraction of the being that comes into opposition to it. Thus as the atom frees itself from its relative existence, the straight line, by making an abstraction of it, by evading it, so the whole Epicurean philosophy evades the restrictive mode of being whenever the concept of abstract individuality, the autonomy and negation of all relation to other things, has to be represented in its existence.
Thus the goal of action is abstraction, the avoidance of pain and confusion, ataraxy. The good consists, therefore, in avoiding the bad; and happiness is avoidance of pain. Finally, where abstract individuality appears at the highest point of its freedom and autonomy, in its totality, then logically the mode of being that is evaded is all existence. Thus the gods evade the world and do not concern themselves with it and dwell outside it.
These gods, says Marx, are not a fiction of Epicurus. They have existed. They are the plastic gods of Greek art. Theoretical calm is a chief element in the character of Greek divinities. As Aristotle says: “What is best requires no action, for it itself is its own end.”
Having demonstrated the key function of the concept of declination within the framework of Epicurean philosophy as a whole, Marx turns to discussing the consequence arising directly out of the declination of the atom. Its negation of all relation to something else can only be made real, positively established, if the being to which it refers is none other than itself, thus equally an atom, and, since it itself is directly determined, many atoms. Thus the repulsion of the many atoms is a necessary realization of the lex atomi, as Lucretius calls the declination, i.e. of the law of the atom. Lucretius says correctly that if the atoms were not accustomed to decline, neither repulsion nor encounter would have arisen, and the world would never have been created.
Thus it is that man ceases to be a product of nature only if the other thing, to which he is related, is not a different existence but rather itself an individual human being, although it is not yet the spirit. But in order for man to become his only true object, he must have crushed within himself his relative mode of being, the force of passion and of mere nature. Repulsion is the first form of self-consciousness; it corresponds therefore to the self-consciousness which comprehends itself as an immediately existing entity, an abstractly individual thing.
Hence in repulsion that concept of the atom is realized according to which it is abstract form, but the contrary is also realized, according to which it is abstract matter; for that to which it refers is indeed atoms, but other atoms. Now if I relate to myself as to something directly other, then my relating is a material one. This is the highest degree of externality that can be conceived. In the repulsion of the atoms, therefore, their materiality which was established as the downward fall in a straight line and their formal determination which was established in declination, they are synthetically united.
Democritus transforms into an act of blind necessity, a forcible movement, that which for Epicurus is a realization of the concept of the atom. The Epicurean declination of the atom thus changed the whole inner construction of the realm of the atoms, by making valid the determination of form and by realizing the contradiction which lies in the concept of the atom. Consequently, Epicurus was the first, even if only in sensible form, to have grasped the essence of repulsion, while Democritus only understood its material existence.
Therefore we also find more concrete forms of repulsion applied by Epicurus; in the political sphere it is the contract, in the social sphere friendship, which is praised as the highest.
With this very casual allusion to the consequences of the principle of repulsion in other realms than the atomic one, Marx concludes his chapter on the declination of the atom. Since in the course of these lectures the implications of this allusion will be discussed, I will content myself, at this point, by calling particular attention to its importance. This is the only passage in Marx's dissertation where we glimpse a wider intention to draw consequences from Epicurean physics, as applied to the social and political realm. The preparatory studies contain reflections about the close affinity between the religious and the political foundations of Greek life in general; but even those reflections have no direct bearing on Epicurus’ atomistic philosophy.
Conversely, although the implications of Marx's approach to Epicurean physics in relation to the social and political realm can be traced in Marx's later writings, we look in vain for any explicit reference, in these later writings, to Epicurean philosophy. One of the reasons for this surprising silence could perhaps lie in the political consequences the Epicureans themselves drew from their principle of isolated individuality, in that they adopted an attitude of passivity towards the authorities. We shall not at this moment, however, pursue this question further.
The apparently casual nature of the reference to Epicurus’ political and social ideas should not make us overlook its importance. Marx stresses the fact that the Epicurean principle of declination has changed the whole inner construction of the realm of the atom. Just as the real soul of the atom is represented in this principle, so the repulsion of the multiplicity of atoms, being the realization of this principle, is the first form of self-consciousness. Repulsion, says Marx, is in the social and political realm the reciprocal relationship between one individual human being and his second self, another individual being. Thus he has implicitly formulated the principle of a civil society, which is based on the concept of abstract individuality.
We have to think of these implicit consequences also in relation to Marx's account of the qualities of the atom, which forms the subject of the second chapter of the second part of the dissertation. Marx sees his understanding of the peculiar character of Epicurus’ atomic theory confirmed in the consideration of the qualities of the atom. The very concept of the atom in fact rules out the attribution of qualities, because, as Epicurus says, every quality is changeable but the atoms do not change. Even so, it is a necessary consequence of his approach to attribute qualities to atoms. For the plurality of atoms in repulsion, separated by sensible space, must necessarily be directly different one from another and be different from the pure essence of the atom, i.e. must possess qualities.
Through those qualities the atom acquires an existence which contradicts its concept; it is presented in a mode of alienated being differentiated from its essence. It is this contradiction which constitutes the main interest of Epicurus. Therefore, as soon as he postulates a quality and thus has drawn the consequence of the material nature of the atom, he counter-postulates at the same time determinations which again destroy this quality in its own sphere and, on the other hand, validate the concept of the atom. He determines, therefore, all qualities—size, form and weight—in such a way that they contradict themselves. Democritus, on the other hand, nowhere considers the qualities in relation to the atom itself, nor does he objectify the internal contradiction between concept and existence.
The consideration of the qualities of the atom provides us therefore with the same result as the consideration of declination, namely, that Epicurus objectifies the contradiction in the concept of the atom between essence and existence and thus creates the science of atomism, while in Democritus no realization of the principle element itself takes place, but only the material side is maintained and only hypotheses are offered in support of empirical investigation.
In Epicurus’ view, the world of appearance can only proceed from the perfected atom, i.e. from the qualified atom, which has been alienated from its concept. Epicurus expresses this by saying that only the qualified atom becomes stoicheion or that only the atomon stoicheion is endowed with qualities. This distinction between the atom as arche and stoicheion, as principle element and basis, belongs to Epicurus. For Democritus, on the other hand, the atom has only the meaning of stoicheion, of material substratum. The importance of this difference will become clear from what now follows.
The contradiction between existence and essence, between matter and form, which lies in the concept of the atom is attributed to the individual atom by endowing it with qualities. Through its quality the atom is alienated from its concept, but at the same time perfected in its construction. Out of repulsion and the consequent conglomerations of the qualified atoms there now emerges the world of appearance.
In this passage from the world of essence into the world of appearance the contradiction in the concept of the atom reaches its most vivid realization. For according to its concept, the atom is the absolute, essential form of nature. This absolute form is now degraded to absolute matter, to the formless substratum of the world of appearance.
Atoms are, to be sure, the substance of nature out of which everything arises, into which everything dissolves; but the constant annihilation of the world of appearance yields no final result. New appearances are formed; the atom itself remains always at the bottom, like a sediment. Thus in so far as the atom is envisaged in terms of its pure concept, its existence is empty space, annihilated nature; in so far as it comes into reality it is degraded to a material basis which, as the bearer of a world of multitudinous relations, never exists except in its external forms that are indifferent to that material basis. This is a necessary consequence because the atom, conceived as an abstract and complete particular, cannot affirm itself as an idealizing and dominating power over that multiplicity.
Abstract particularity is freedom from being, not freedom in being. It cannot shine in the light of being. There it is an element, and so loses its character and becomes material. Therefore, the atom does not manifest itself in the light of appearance, or it sinks down to a material basis when it does enter it. The atom as such exists only in the void. Thus the death of nature has become its immortal subsistence, and Lucretius correctly asserts: “It is as if we had never been born, when immortal death has taken away our mortal life.” It could be said that in Epicurean philosophy it is death itself which is immortal.
Epicurus grasps this contradiction at this its highest point and objectifies it. He distinguishes the atom where it becomes a basis of appearance as stoicheion from the atom as it exists in the void as arche. This is what constitutes his philosophical difference from Democritus, who only objectifies the one element, the atom as stoicheion, material substratum.
Since in the atom matter, as pure relationship to itself, is removed from all mutability and relativity, it immediately follows that time is to be excluded from the concept of the atom, from the world of essence. For matter is only external and autonomous in so far as one makes an abstraction of the temporal element within it. Here Democritus and Epicurus agree. But they differ as to the manner in which time, removed from the world of atoms, is determined, whither it is transferred.
For Democritus time is not important; nor is it necessary to the system. He explains it in order to dispose of it. Time, excluded from the world of essence, is transferred to the self-consciousness of the philosophizing subject, but does not make contact with the world itself.
Epicurus treats it differently. Excluded from the world of essence, time for him becomes the absolute form of appearance. Time is to the world of appearance what the concept of the atom is to the world of essence, namely the abstraction, annihilation and reduction of all determined being into being-for-itself.
From this consideration Marx draws the following conclusions. First, Epicurus makes the contradiction between matter and form the character of phenomenal nature, which thus becomes the counterpart of essential nature, the atom. This happens in that time is opposed to space, the active form of appearance is opposed to the passive.
Second, only in Epicurus is appearance apprehended as appearance, that is, as an alienation of the essence which asserts itself as alienation in its reality. On the other hand, in Democritus time is the fire of essence which eternally consumes appearance and stamps it with the character of dependence and non-being.
Finally, time is, according to Epicurus, change as change, reflection of appearance in itself. Consequently, phenomenal nature is correctly posited as objective; sensory perception is correctly made the real criterion of concrete nature, although the atom, its basis, is only grasped through reason. The mutability of the sensible world as mutability, its change as change, this reflection of appearance in itself which forms the concept of time, has its particular existence in conscious sensibility. The sensibility of man is therefore embodied time, the existing reflection of the world of sense in itself.
By means of this connection between time and sensibility the eidōla, images, which are also found in Democritus, acquire a more consistent status. The eidōla are the forms of natural bodies which peel off from them, as it were, as skins and cause them to enter into appearance. These forms of things constantly flow from them and press against the senses and in this way allow objects to appear. Therefore, in hearing nature hears itself, in smelling smells itself, in seeing sees itself. Human sensibility is thus the medium in which, as in a focal glass, natural processes reflect themselves and ignite to become the light of appearance.
In Democritus this is an inconsistency, since appearance is only subjective; in Epicurus it is a necessary conclusion, since sensibility is the reflection of the phenomenal world in itself, its embodied time. The relation of sensibility and time exhibits itself in such a way that the temporality of things and their appearance to the senses are posited as intrinsically one. It is precisely because bodies appear to the senses that they pass away. Indeed, the eidōla, by perpetually separating themselves from the bodies and flowing into the senses, by having their sensibility outside themselves as another nature, not in themselves, i.e. by not returning out of the diremption—for these reasons they dissolve and perish.
Thus as the atom is nothing but the natural form of the abstract, individual self-consciousness, so sensible nature is only the objectivity of the empirical, individual self-consciousness; and this is what constitutes sensibility. The senses are therefore the only criteria in concrete nature, as abstract reason is the only criterion in the world of atoms.
This important conclusion with which Marx completes his exposition of Epicurus’ concept of time, serves at the same time as the indispensable starting-point for the final chapter of the dissertation, which will apply these notions to the realm of religion. In that realm Marx's exposition will reach its climax. In a sense, his preceding argument about the specific character of Epicurus’ philosophy of nature provided the preliminary stages leading to this apex. It will be my task in my next lecture to discuss this concluding chapter.