Matrix's insight into the crucial importance of Epicurus’ theory of the declination of atoms is quintessentially revealed in the final chapter of the dissertation, which deals with Epicurus’ ideas about meteors. It is in this celestial dimension that the full range and depth of Epicurus’ critique of religion become evident.
The difference between Democritus and Epicurus in the field of atomistic philosophy is reproduced in the macro-dimension. Whatever may be said in favour of Democritus’ astronomical views in the context of his own time, they are of no philosophical interest. They do not go beyond empirical reflection; nor are they in any definite way related to the doctrine of atoms.
Epicurus’ theory of the meteors—a term which includes both the heavenly bodies and the processes connected with them—stands in contrast to Democritus’ opinion. After all we have learnt in the earlier chapters of the dissertation about the differences between these two philosophers, this may neither surprise us nor appear to deserve any special attention.
But the difference proves to be still more crucial at this point, where what is at issue is Greek philosophy in toto. It is only in this closing chapter, therefore, that the full impact of their disagreement in the field of atomistic philosophy becomes obvious. Epicurus’ total disagreement with Democritus is essentially rooted in his dissent from the opinion of Greek philosophy in general. This contrast is revealed in that dimension where the ultimate religious background of the whole of Greek philosophy is to be found, namely, in the celestial dimension.
The adoration of the heavenly bodies is a cult which all Greek philosophers celebrate. The system of the heavenly bodies is the first kind of naïve and naturally determined existence of true reason. Greek self-consciousness occupies the same position in the realm of the mind. It is the intellectual solar system. Thus Greek philosophers worshipped their own mind in the heavenly bodies.
Marx illustrates his bold thesis with reference to a number of Greek philosophers. Anaxagoras, who was the first to give a physical explanation to the heavens and thus drew them down to earth, when asked why he had been born answered in this way: eis theorian heliou kai selènès kai ouranou, which means: “for the observation and contemplation of sun, moon and heaven.” Xenophanes, however, looked at the heavens and said: “The one is God.” The religious association accorded to the heavenly bodies in the Pythagoreans, Plato and Aristotle, is well known.
Aristotle refers to the fact that all men have an idea of gods and assign the highest place to the divine Being, the barbarians as well as the Hellenes. The ancients assigned the heavens and the highest place to the gods because they alone are immortal. As many as believe in the existence of the gods obviously connect the immortal with the immortal, because the contrary is impossible. Thus Aristotle concludes that, if a divine Being exists—as indeed it does—then our common statement about the substance of the heavenly bodies must also be correct. There is one heaven, indestructible, uncreated, totally removed from every mortal ill. Thus the divinely given concept of the divine encompassing all of nature bears testimony to the phenomenon of the one heaven, just as, conversely, that phenomenon bears testimony to the concept.
Of course, Aristotle makes a distinction between the mythological form in which the ancestral traditions were cast and their philosophical essence. But basically Aristotle's views are in line with the whole tradition of Greek philosophy. Epicurus, on the other hand, opposed the view of the whole Greek people. Whereas, for instance, Aristotle merely rejects the belief that the heavens require the support of Atlas, Epicurus takes a radically new step. He attacks the belief that man needs the heavens; and Atlas himself, upon whose back the heavens are supported, he sees as incarnating human stupidity and superstition. Stupidity and superstition are also Titans.
The theory of the meteors is a matter of conscience for Epicurus. What he denies is the pre-eminence which the theory of the meteors is supposed to enjoy over the other sciences. He puts this theory on a level with the rest of natural science. He does not believe that from knowledge of the meteors, whether they be considered in general or in detail, any other goal can be reached than ataraxis, that is mental tranquillity, and solid assurance, as is the case with the other sciences. Our life does not need ideologies and empty hypotheses, but requires that we live without confusion.
But this having been said, the radical contrast between the theory of the meteors and the rest of natural sciences, is stated by Epicurus with considerable emphasis. Aristotle, in agreement with the other Greek philosophers, makes the heavenly bodies eternal and immortal because they always behave in the same way, while he ascribes to them their own, higher element, not subjected to the force of gravity. Epicurus claims that it is exactly the other way round. His theory of the meteors is specifically different from all other physical theory, in that everything happens in the meteors in multifarious and unregulated fashion, everything in them is to be explained by a variety of reasons. Indeed he rejects, angrily and with some vehemence, the opposite opinion which holds to one method of explanation to the exclusion of all others, which assumes something unified and therefore eternal and divine in the meteors, which falls into vain explanation and is led astray by the servile tricks of the astrologers. Those who think thus overstep the bounds of natural science and throw themselves into the arms of myth.
In Epicurus’ view, any explanation which respects the limits of natural science is satisfactory. Only let myth be avoided. It will be avoided if, attending strictly to the phenomena, one draws conclusions from them concerning what is invisible. One must hold fast to the appearance of things, to what is perceived by the senses. The analogy is applicable, therefore. One can thus explain away fear and free one's self from it, giving reasons concerning the meteors and the other things which dismay the rest of mankind. There is only one absolute norm: that nothing can be ascribed to an indestructible and eternal nature that destroys ataraxy, that gives rise to alarm.
Thus Epicurus concludes: Because the eternity of the heavenly bodies would disturb the ataraxy of self-consciousness, the absolute tranquillity of mind, it is a necessary, stringent conclusion that the heavenly bodies are not eternal.
It is this strange conclusion which puzzles Marx. He is not satisfied with any explanation given thus far by authors writing on Epicurean philosophy. They present this theory of the meteors as something incongruous with the rest of his physics, with his atomistic theory. The battle against the Stoics, superstition and astrology are the three factors cited by these authors as sufficient explanation for it.
In Marx's analysis, however, Epicurus’ opposition to the Stoics explains nothing. Their superstition and indeed their whole view had already been refuted by Democritus’ thesis that the celestial bodies were accidental complexes of atoms and their processes the accidental motion of these atoms. The supposed eternal nature of these bodies was annihilated by this—a conclusion which Democritus was satisfied to draw from that premise. Indeed, their very existence had been nullified.
Consequently, atomistics needed no new method. Epicurus does nonetheless differentiate the method applied in his theory of meteors from the method employed in the rest of his physics. Where does he get this idea from?
Marx finds the solution of this problem in the relationship between Epicurus’ specific atomistic theory and his special theory of the meteors. For Epicurus, the heavenly bodies are atoms become real. The atom is matter in the form of autonomy, of individuality, as it were, the representation of weight. But the heavenly bodies are the highest reality of weight. In them, all antinomies between form and matter, between concept and existence, which formed the development of the atom are solved; in them, all determinations which were demanded are realized. The celestial bodies are eternal and unchanging; they have their centre of gravity in themselves, not outside themselves. Their only action is motion; and separated by empty space, they deviate from the straight line, form a system of repulsion and attraction in which they maintain all their autonomy and finally engender time out of themselves as the form of their appearance. Thus in the heavenly bodies matter has become endowed with individuality.
Epicurus must have seen in this the highest existence of his principal element, the peak and finale of his system. But at this very culmination a puzzling antinomy arises. Epicurus declared that he had postulated the atoms so that immortal foundations would lie at the basis of nature. He alleged himself concerned about the substantial individuality of matter. But where he finds the reality of his nature—because he knows only the mechanical—in autonomous, indestructible matter, in the heavenly bodies, whose eternal existence and immutability are proven by the belief of the people, the judgment of philosophy and the evidence of the senses—there it is his single aim to draw them back down into earthly transitoriness. It is at this juncture that he turns jealously against the worshippers of autonomous nature, which contains the point of individuality in itself. This is his greatest contradiction.
Therefore Epicurus feels that his earlier categories go to pieces here, that the method of his theory becomes a different one. And this is the deepest wisdom of his system, the most thorough consistency, that he feels this and expresses it consciously.
The whole Epicurean philosophy of nature is steeped in the contradiction between essence and existence, between form and matter. But in the heavenly bodies this contradiction is resolved, the conflicting elements are reconciled. In the celestial system matter has received form within itself, has taken into itself individuality and has thus achieved autonomy. But at this point matter stops being an affirmation of the abstract self-consciousness. In the world of atoms as in the world of appearance, form battled with matter; one determination destroyed the other, and precisely in this contradiction the abstract, individual self-consciousness sensed its nature to have been objectified. The abstract form which battled with abstract matter under the form of matter was individual self-consciousness itself. But now, where matter has reconciled itself with form and is objectified, the individual self-consciousness emerges from its husk, announces itself as the true principal element and contends against nature, which has become autonomous.
From another point of view it can be expressed in this way: matter, by receiving individuality within itself, that is by receiving form, has ceased to be an abstract individual. This is the case with celestial bodies, in which matter has become concrete individuality. But at this point the analogy between the atoms and the celestial bodies turns into its opposite. We have learned that the declination of the atom from the straight line is for Epicurus the decisive principle whereby the atom breaks through the law of blind necessity and maintains its absolute autonomy. Indeed, the concept of declination from the straight line was derived by Epicurus from the motion of the celestial bodies and was applied to the movement of the atoms. His sole purpose was to guarantee the pure freedom of the atoms. But he does not recognize this freedom in the actual motions of the celestial bodies. On the contrary, though their movement declines from the straight line, it does not mirror their autonomy but, since their movement is eternally recurrent and unchanging, is the expression of blind necessity, of mere passivity under the immutable law of nature. The abstract individuality of the atom, the moment it becomes concrete in the celestial bodies, turns into generality.
Thus in the meteors the abstract, individual self-consciousness is confronted with its objective refutation—the general attains existence and nature. Therefore, it recognizes in them its mortal enemy. Thus it attributes to them, as Epicurus does, all the fear and confusion of human beings, because the fear and dissolution of the abstract individual is the general. So here the true principal element of Epicurus, the abstract, individual self-consciousness, is concealed no longer. It steps out from its hiding-place and, freed from material disguise, it seeks to destroy the reality of autonomous nature in terms of abstract possibility—what is possible can also be different; the opposite of the possible is also possible. From this comes the polemic against those who explain the heavenly bodies haplos, that is, simply, absolutely, only in one way, instead of pollachos, that is, in many ways. For the One is necessary and autonomous in itself; and this is precisely what Epicurus, in defence of the abstract, individual self-consciousness, denies and attacks in the concrete manifestations of heaven.
Thus as long as nature, as atom and appearance, expresses the individual self-consciousness and its contradiction, the subjectivity of the latter appears only in the form of matter itself; where, on the other hand, this subjectivity becomes autonomous, the individual self-consciousness is reflected in itself, and opposes nature in its own shape as autonomous form.
It could have been predicted from the beginning that when Epicurus’ principal element is realized, it will stop having any reality for him. If the individual self-consciousness had been placed in reality under the determination of nature or nature under its determination, then its determination, that is, its existence, would have ceased, because only the general in free differentiation from itself can at the same time know its affirmation.
In the theory of the meteors, therefore, Marx discovers the heart of the Epicurean philosophy of nature. Its absolute principle is the ataraxy, the mental tranquillity of the individual self-consciousness; and therefore nothing is eternal which annihilates this principle. The heavenly bodies disturb the ataraxy of the individual self-consciousness, its identity with itself, because they are existing generality, because nature has become autonomous in them. The absolute character and freedom of self-consciousness is the principal element of Epicurean philosophy, even if self-consciousness is only conceived in the form of individuality.
This analysis brings Marx to a twofold conclusion of first importance. If the abstract, individual self-consciousness is posited as an absolute principal element, then the effect is double-edged—it cuts both ways!
On the one hand, this principle undermines all true science, in so far as individuality is not paramount in the nature of things themselves. Since Marx does not elaborate this aspect, his statement concerning this negative side of Epicurus’ philosophy of nature might easily be overlooked. Indeed, when in the closing sentences of the dissertation Marx proclaims Epicurus the greatest Greek representative of enlightenment, what he has in mind is the other side of Epicurus’ philosophy, its radical opposition to Greek religion. But Marx's clear and explicit recognition of the basic impotence of this philosophy as regards the creation of true science, means, in fact, that we are to stress the adjective “Greek”. Epicurus’ opposition to Greek philosophy as a whole and his pioneering role in anticipating the modern European Enlightenment remain imprisoned in the magic circle of Greek civilization; they have no direct and intrinsic relationship to the birth of modern science.
In this respect Democritus and Epicurus stand on the same ground. One must see their differences as contrasts within one and the same circle. In Epicurus the atomistic theory with all its contradictions is carried through as the natural science of self-consciousness. The absolute principle of self-consciousness in the form of abstract individuality is raised to its highest conclusion, that is, its dissolution and conscious opposition to the universal. For Democritus, on the other hand, the atom is only the general, objective expression of the empirical investigation of nature in general. The atom remains for him a pure and abstract category, a hypothesis, which is the outcome of experience, not its energizing principal element. The atom remains unrealized, just as the real investigation of nature is no further affected by it.
The fact that neither Democritus’ nor Epicurus’ atomistic philosophy—albeit for opposite reasons—has affected the real investigation of nature, is one side of the question. It was not this aspect, however, which formed the main theme of Marx's dissertation. What fascinated him was the other edge to Epicurus’ sword, his opposition to all forms of transcendence. If the abstract, individual consciousness is posited as an absolute principal element, then everything collapses which behaves transcendentally over and against human consciousness, that is, which belongs to the imaginative intellect. Full stress has to be laid on the adjective “individual”, in radical contrast with “general”. For if self-consciousness, which knows itself only under the form of abstract generality, is made to become an absolute principal element, then the door is opened wide to superstitious mysticism. The historical proof of this Marx finds in Stoic philosophy. The abstract, general self-consciousness has an urge to affirm itself in things in which it is only affirmed by denying them. As the radical enemy of mystical and superstitious self-consciousness, Epicurus, in Marx's eyes, is the great forerunner of the modern Enlightenment. He has cast down religion, as Lucretius’ eulogistic poem says of him, whilst we are exalted high as heaven by the victory.
In the inner contradiction which impelled Epicurus to deny in the heavenly realm the consequences of his own atomistic principle, Marx has tried to lay bare the inner contradiction of the whole of Greek philosophy. It would be a grave misunderstanding, therefore, to regard Marx's dissertation as simply a polemical treatise against religion. On the contrary, his analysis is an attempt to reveal the inner dialectics of the human self-consciousness which needs and produces religious objects and at the same time denies and rejects them.
Marx therefore unleashes his bitter criticism against that total lack of understanding which describes Epicurus’ philosophy as “gastrology”, that is, a belly-doctrine. Plutarch, who took this false idea from the Stoic philosophers, is the typical representative of religious apologetics, and so becomes a special target for Marx's attacks. For Epicurus, the highest happiness is freedom from pain, is total indifference. His supreme good, where the world is concerned, is to be freed from the world. The heart of all evil is that the individual is imprisoned in his own empirical nature and excludes his eternal nature, that is, conceives his own eternal nature as an empirical god outside of himself. What is deified by Epicurus is the free individuality, liberated from its familiar shackles. The centre of his adoration is the non-existence of God as God, God's existence as the supreme happiness of the individual, God as ataraxy, as perfect peace of mind. The makariotès, the pure bliss, the perfect satisfaction of nothingness, the being totally void of any determination, that is God. Epicurus’ God is a deus otiosus, a completely inactive God who dwells not inside but outside the world.
Therefore, Plutarch's allegation that Epicurus destroys all belief in immortality, and so deprives the masses of their sweetest and greatest hope, is false. Far from destroying this notion, Epicurus explains it and elevates it to the level of real understanding. His doctrine of immortality consists in the doctrine of the eternity of atoms. That is the hope and consolation for every individual. The personal import of this doctrine is stressed by Marx with reference to a poem of the seventeenth-century mystic, Jacob Böhme: “Whoever conceives eternity as time and time as eternity, is freed from all discord.”
People have indeed poked fun at the gods of Epicurus, who live a life of bliss in the intermundia, the empty spaces between the worlds. These gods have no body but a quasi-body, no blood but quasi-blood; and subsisting in blissful peace, they hear no supplication. They are unconcerned about men and the world, are venerated for their beauty, their majesty and their superior nature, not for any gain. But they are entirely consonant with Epicurus’ doctrine. Much as the atom frees itself from its relative existence, the straight line, by evading it, so the goal of action is the avoidance of pain and confusion, ataraxy, and so likewise the gods avoid the world and do not concern themselves with it. In this respect, too, Epicurus’ philosophy is the culmination of the Greek tradition. For these gods are not a fiction created by Epicurus; they do exist. They are the plastic gods of Greek art. Plutarch is blamed by Marx for having forgotten every Greek concept when he opines that this theory of the gods destroys fear and superstition, without providing joy and gratitude for favour of the gods, but rather it gives man the relationship to them that we have to Hyrkanian fishes, from which we expect neither harm nor advantage. Plutarch has apparently forgotten that 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.”
This total inactivity and indifference which for the Greek mind have always been the supreme image of pure theory, of perfect contemplation, in the closing period of Greek philosophy found their adequate expression in the philosophy of Epicurus. His greatness is that he has applied his principal element of ataraxy both in his theoretical considerations—his atomistic theory and his theory of the meteors and of the gods—and in his practical philosophy, his ethics of mental tranquillity as the supreme good.
There is also a second thread connecting Epicurus with the whole tradition of Greek thinking. The ideal of the sage is a key issue in all the post-Aristotelian systems; but in Epicurus’ atomistic philosophy this theme has received its most consistent treatment. Marx fastens upon it as a telling illustration of the way classical Greek philosophy issued in the complete objectivization of Epicurus’ thinking.
As the nous, the cosmic material spirit, of Anaxagoras begins to move in the reflection of the Sophists (in whose philosophy the nous becomes, in fact, the non-being of the world), and this motion receives an objective form in the daimonion of Socrates, so in its turn the practical motion of Socrates’ reflection becomes a general and ideal motion in Plato's philosophy, so that the nous widens into a realm of ideas. In Aristotle, this process is once more comprehended in its particularity, which has now become a real and conceptual one.
Thus there is one and the same spirit linking up the tradition of Greek thought from the beginning to the end, from Anaxagoras to Epicurus. The figure which we see finally emerging from the workshop of the Greek philosophical consciousness, from the darkness of abstraction and wrapped in its dark folds, is the same figure in which Greek philosophy has trodden the stage of the world, the same which saw gods even in the fire upon the hearth, the same which drank the poison cup, the same which, as the god of Aristotle, enjoys the supreme bliss, the bliss of theory, pure contemplation.
That figure has been given a classical embodiment in the ideal of the sage. The sage, sophos, is to be understood under two aspects, one theoretical and one practical, which have one and the same root. The notion of the sage is the practical expression of an idea theoretically manifested in philosophical thinking about the material world. Greek philosophy begins with seven sages, one of whom is the Ionian philosopher of nature, Thales; and it ends with an attempt to portray the stage in a clear-cut concept. This history of the Greek sage is, as a whole, dominated by one sophos, namely, Socrates. Of course, this is not to be taken as an exoteric fact, any more than Greece was politically ruined when Alexander the Great lost his wisdom in Babylon.
The Greek philosopher is a demiurgos, he creates a world of his own, a different world from that which flourishes in the natural sunlight of substantial reality. This ideal substance is embodied in the very philosophers who testify to it. These sages are no more popular, therefore, than the statues of the Olympic gods. Their way of life is a self-sufficient calm, their attitude towards the people is the same objective stance they assume towards substantial reality. This dualism becomes acute when, in the Sophists, the ideal world created by the philosopher, the sage, appears in its direct form, that is, in the subjective spirit which opposes substantial reality. The nucleus of this development appears in the person of Socrates, who is called by the delphic oracle, sophotatos, sagest of all.
The paramount importance of Socrates consists in his having represented the relationship between Greek philosophy and the Greek spirit, between consciousness of the ideal world and substantial reality. In Socrates the intrinsic limitations of Greek philosophy become obvious; and this is true in three respects.
First, the fact that the ideal aspect of substantial reality has acquired autonomy in the form of the subjective spirit means a leap, a decisive break with substantial reality. This leap, this apostasy, is represented in the daimonion, the enigmatic and irrepressible conscience which Socrates finds in the inner recesses of his own mind. Socrates is a no less substantial individual than the earlier philosophers, but in a subjective way, not in the form of a complete substance, not an image of the gods, but a human image; not mysterious, but clear and light; not a seer, but a “cheerful companion”.
Secondly, this subject which stands in opposition to substantial reality, has become a judge; it sets a purpose for the world, which is at the same time its own purpose. The sage presents the purpose, the supreme good, in his own life as well as in his teachings. He is the subjective spirit which has begun to pass into practice.
Finally, while enacting the judgment of subjective understanding over against the world, the individuality of the sage is inwardly divided and becomes the object of its own judgment. On the one hand, his individuality is itself rooted in substantial reality, it has its right of existence only in the right of its state, its religion, in a word, in all substantial conditions which are manifest in its nature. On the other hand, the sage contains in himself the purpose which is the judge of all these substantial conditions. Thus his own substantial nature is judged inside himself. He is bound, therefore, to perish, for the very reason that his point of origin is the substantial spirit, and not the free spirit which endures all contradictions and overcomes them, because it owes nothing to any natural condition.
In the life and praxis of Socrates, the subjective spirit presents itself in its exponent, as an education whereby he leads each individual out of his substantial bonds into an autonomous existence. Setting aside this practical activity, his philosophy as a merely abstract definition of the supreme good becomes pointless. His philosophy is the act of emigrating out of the substantial images, differences, and so on, and of immigrating into the autonomy; but it has no other content than the very act of dissolving the reflection of which it is the vehicle. The philosophy of Socrates is therefore essentially his own wisdom; his own goodness in relation to the world is the sole fulfilment of his philosophy of the supreme good. In other words, the subjectivity of Socrates is something quite different from the presuppositions of Kant's categorical imperative. In Kant's philosophy, the attitude of the empirical subject towards the categorical imperative is of no importance.
From Socrates, Marx finally proceeds to Plato, in whose thinking the movement of Greek philosophy becomes ideal. As Socrates is the image and teacher of the world, so are Plato's ideas, his philosophical abstractions, the archetypes of the world.
In Plato, this abstract definition of the supreme good expands into an extensive, world-embracing philosophy. Whereas Socrates merely discovered the name of the ideal world which had moved from substantial reality into the subject, and while he was still himself this conscious movement, it is in Plato's consciousness that substantial reality becomes really and truly idealized. But the effect of this process is to render this ideal world itself no less pluriform than the really substantial world to which it stands in opposition. For the philosopher, the differentiation and pluriformity of the real world have moved to the ideal sphere beyond. The ideal world which, in Socrates’ consciousness, had moved into the subject, had now abandoned this world.
Thus the philosopher as sage has become the truth beyond the substantial world over against him. This relationship is aptly exhibited in Plato's thesis that for the state to arrive at its destination, either the philosophers must become kings or the kings philosophers.
Plato contemplates his relationship to reality in such a manner that an independent realm of ideas hovers beyond reality, in which it is darkly mirrored; this beyond is the philosopher's own subjectivity. It is Plato's intention to transplant into the ideal realm not only things but the very sphere of being in its totality. This ideal realm is a closed, specifically distinguished realm within the philosopher's consciousness itself; it therefore lacks movement. This contradiction within the philosopher's consciousness is bound to be objectified and projected into the ideal realm itself. Ideas are paradigms not only of sensible objects but of the ideas themselves, so that the ideas are at once paradigms and images.
Marx's thoughts on the development of Greek philosophy up to Socrates and Plato, recorded in one of his preparatory studies, find a fascinating complement and conclusion in another part of the same studies—that part containing his comments on a book of Ferdinand Christian Baur, entitled “The Christian Element in Platonism, or: Socrates and Christ” (Das Christliche des Platonismus oder Sokrates und Christus). Baur, a theologian and church historian who had won fame as a leading scholar of the Túbingen school of historio-critical biblical research, had published his book in 1837.
Marx begins by reacting critically to Baur's thesis that Socratic philosophy and Christianity are related to each other as are self-knowledge and knowledge of sin. In Marx's view, the conclusion to be drawn from Baur's own exposition is the very opposite of an alleged analogy between Socrates and Christ. If self-knowledge and knowledge of sin are related to each other as are the general and the specific, then the so-called analogy between the Socratic irony—that is, the obstetrical method of that philosopher—on one hand, and grace on the other, is in fact a glaring contradiction. The Socratic irony, as conceived by Baur who follows in the footsteps of Hegel, is the dialectical trap whereby the common human understanding is liberated from its arterio-sclerosis and is precipitated into its own immanent truth. This irony is the subjective relationship of philosophy to the common understanding. The fact that this philosophy has assumed in Socrates the form of an ironic man, of a sage, follows from the basic character of Greek philosophy and its relationship to reality. But so far as the objective content of Greek philosophy is concerned, any philosopher, be it Heraclitus, Thales or Johann Gottlieb Fichte—whoever maintains the truth of immanence over against the empirical person—is an ironic man.
Conversely, in the case of grace and the knowledge of sin, not only the subject who receives grace and is brought to knowledge of sin, but even the subject who bestows grace and the subject who rises from the knowledge of sin are empirical persons.
The only point of analogy between Socrates and Christ might be that Socrates is philosophy personified, as Christ is religion personified. But what matters is not the question of a general relationship between philosophy and religion, but the relationship between philosophy institutionalized and religion institutionalized. The general relationship between a philosopher, Socrates, and a teacher of religion, Christ, is no more relevant than the relationship between Plato's state as a general ethical expression of the Socratic idea and the general expression of the idea. Likewise, it is no more relevant than the relationship between Christ as a historical individual and the Church. Moreover, the important fact is neglected that Plato's Republic is a product of Plato's own mind, whereas the Church is, on the other hand, totally distinct from Christ.
If Hegel was right in saying that in his Republic Plato maintained Greek substantiality over against the invading principle of subjectivity, then Plato is the radical opposite of Christ. For Christ maintained this element of subjectivity over against the existing state, which he characterized as merely worldly and profane. That the Platonic Republic remained an ideal, whereas the Christian Church became a reality, was not in itself the true difference. The true difference lies in the fact that the Platonic idea followed reality, while the Christian idea preceded it.
Therefore it would be much more reasonable to find Platonic elements in Christianity than Christian elements in Plato, the more so since the early church fathers, historically speaking, originated in part from Platonic philosophy. From the philosophical point of view it is important that in the Platonic Republic the highest order is that of the sages. A similar relationship exists between the Platonic ideas and the Christian Logos, between the Platonic recollection and the Christian restoration of man to his original image, between the Platonic descent of souls and the Christian fall of man, the myth of the pre-existence of the soul.
Marx then goes on to comment on Baur's thesis that more than any other philosophy in ancient times Platonism has the character of a religion. Baur points to Plato's definition of the task of philosophy as salvation, liberation, separation of the soul from the body, as a dying and a mortification.
Baur's thesis, which in itself is not wrong, is really pointing to the fact that no philosopher has brought more religious enthusiasm to his task than has Plato, whose philosophical commitment indeed had for him the meaning and character of a religious cult. But how should this religious dedication on his part be evaluated? Marx compares Plato's attitude with that of other great philosophers whose relationship to philosophy had a more general form, less imbued with empirical sentiment. Yet their enthusiasm was no less intense: Aristotle's enthusiasm, when he extols theoria, theoretical knowledge, contemplation, as the supreme good and happiness, or when he admires the Reason of Nature; Spinoza's, when he describes the experience of contemplation sub specie aeternitatis, the love of God or the freedom of the human mind; Hegel's, when he develops the eternal realization of the Idea, the magnificent organism of the Universe. The enthusiasm of these three philosophers is well founded, thorough, gratifying to the general educated mind. In contrast with Plato's religious devotion, which has functioned only as a kind of hot-water-bottle for individual minds, the enthusiasm of Aristotle, Spinoza and Hegel has become the animating Spirit of historical developments on a world scale. Whereas Plato's enthusiasm was totally consumed in the flames of ecstasy, the enthusiasm of these other great philosophers became the pure, ideal flame of science.
On the one hand, it is true that the Christian religion, as the apex of religious development, must have a closer relationship to the subjective form of Platonic philosophy than it has to the subjective form of other ancient philosophical systems. But conversely, it is equally true that no philosophy has revealed more distinctly the contradiction between religion and philosophy than Plato's has done. For whereas with Plato philosophy appears in the guise of religion, it is, conversely, in Christianity that religion appears in the guise of philosophy.
Why is it that Plato felt the desire to undergird his philosophical insights with a positively mythical foundation? In the development of those questions of ethics, religion and even natural philosophy, concerning which his negative explanation of the Absolute turns out to be unsatisfactory, Plato is forced to resort to a positive account of the Absolute. The appropriate form of such a positive explanation is myth and allegory. When the Absolute and the limited, positive reality are set in opposition to each other, and when the latter has to be supported at all costs, then positive reality turns into a transparent medium whereby the absolute light is refracted into a fantastic spectrum of colours, so that the positive and limited is made to refer to something else, to serve as a miraculous chrysalis for the hidden soul. The whole world has then turned into a world of myths. Every shape is an enigma.
Marx adds to this description a reference to a return of these mythological and allegorical tendencies in recent times, apparently engendered by not dissimilar reasons. This personal note is significant for the intimate relationship of Marx's own development to his confrontation with Plato's religious philosophy. He is still in intense discussion with the romanticist ideas which only a few years before had caught his mind and heart.
Marx continues his discussion of Plato's mythology by expounding its relationship to Christianity. The positive explanation of the Absolute and its mythical-allegorical garb is the source, the heart-beat, of the philosophy of transcendence, i.e. of a transcendence that is essentially related to and intersects the sphere of immanence. At this point Marx sees congeniality between Platonic philosophy and any positive religion, notably the Christian religion, which is the perfect philosophy of transcendence. From this point of view it is possible to show a profound connection of historical Christianity with the history of ancient philosophy. If one individual par excellence has been in Plato's view the mirror, indeed, the myth of wisdom, if he calls that man, Socrates, the philosopher of death and love, then this view is anchored in his positive account of the Absolute. This did not imply that Plato had to dispense with the historical Socrates; for a positive account of the Absolute is connected with the subjective character of Greek philosophy, as expressed in the figure of the sage. Death and love are the myths of a negative dialectic; for the dialectic is the inner, simple light, the penetrating eye of love, the inner soul which is not subdued by the body of material fragmentation, the inmost recesses of the mind. Thus its myth is love. At the same time, the dialectic is the sweeping torrent which breaks through the multiple and its limits, which destroys all distinct shapes, absorbing all things in the one ocean of eternity. Its myth is death.
Indeed, the dialectic is death; but it is at the same time the vehicle of creative life, blossoming in the garden of the spirit; it is the foaming potion, sparkling with seeds out of which buds the fiery flower of the one spirit. Plotinus calls the dialectic, the path to haplosis, simplification of the soul, direct union with God. In this term Aristotle's theoria is united with Plato's dialectic. Their absorption in the empirical, individual consciousness appears in Plotinus as the state of ecstasy.
The dialectic of death and love, leading up to the mystical union with God, to the point where Aristotle's contemplation is united with Plato's dialectic, to the highest religious experience, to the state of ecstasy! It is as if Marx's preparatory studies allow us to snatch a glimpse behind the curtain which, in the dissertation proper, prevents our gaze from penetrating beyond the margin of the visible heaven. While in that official treatise the view of the whole Greek people, as opposed by Epicurus, was described as Greek philosophy worshipping its own mind in the heavenly bodies, these preparatory reflections which were not destined for publication guide us beyond that visible boundary into the supreme sphere of the spirit, the sphere of the invisible heaven.
Marx leaves off at this point; and he leaves it to his readers to guess at his intentions. His defence of Epicurus, against the charge of irreligiosity, with reference to the concept of the immortality of the atom as the mirror of individual self-consciousness; his quoting a verse of the mystic, Jakob Böhme; his abstruse reflections on the contrast and parallel between Platonism and Christianity, leading up to the prospect of mystical ecstasy; these allusions and hints are ambiguous enough to remind us of the strange ambiguity of mind which we discovered in Marx's earlier stage of development. This ambiguity seems to have continued; so that we may well begin to wonder whether it is an essential aspect of Marx's life and thought.