In the three preceding lectures I have tried carefully to follow the main argument of Marx's dissertation and of the preparatory studies. It has not always been a simple matter to understand his intentions, sometimes because of the extreme conciseness of his style and sometimes owing to the abstruseness of his style of thought. There is, however, a more profound reason for the difficulty one has with Marx's first scholarly writing. He is wrestling with a fascinating and puzzling dilemma.
This dilemma is most explicitly formulated in two passages closely related in content.
The first passage contains an attempt to understand the ambivalent attitude of the seventeenth-century scholar, Peter Gassendi, who on the one hand admired Epicurus and presented his philosophy as an example of modern Enlightenment, but on the other hand rejected those Epicurean doctrines which he could not square with his Christian faith. Marx does more than cavil at this half-heartedness and vent his irritation at the incapacity of a modern scholar radically to free himself from obsolete Christian doctrines. He recognizes Gassendi's indecision as a characteristic symptom of the dilemma lying at the very foundations of modern philosophy.
The heart of the matter is to be found in the peculiar relationship between ancient and modern philosophy: the decay of the former has emerged from the very principles out of which the latter has been brought to birth. Modern philosophy starts with Descartes’ principle of universal doubt, whereas, conversely, the Sceptics sound the death-knell of Greek philosophy. Whilst it is the rational concept of nature that serves to deliver modern philosophy into the world, conversely, it is Epicurus who gives the coup de grâce to ancient philosophy, more thoroughly and decisively, even, than the Sceptics themselves. Antiquity was rooted in nature, in substantial reality. Its degradation, its profanation, entails a radical break with substantial, native life; the modern world is rooted in spirit, which has the required freedom to dispense with what is distinct from it, that is, nature, and to separate it from itself. But the opposite is also true; what for antiquity entailed the profanation of nature is for modern times a liberation from the shackles of servitude to the tyranny of faith; and the primeval intuition that in nature the divine, the idea, is immanent—the very intuition which inspired the birth of ancient Ionian philosophy—is still in advance of the modern rational apperception of nature.
The second passage, which is to be understood in close connection with the first one, is a comment on Epicurus’ theory of the meteors. It draws a parallel with the modern world. For the ancient philosophers were the meteors, the visible heaven, the symbol and demonstration of their substantial constraint, so that even a philosopher like Aristotle envisages the stars as gods or, at least, associates them directly with the supreme energy. Analogously, the written heaven, the sealed Word of the God who has revealed himself in the course of world history, is the battle-cry of Christian philosophy. The presupposition of the ancients is the action of nature, for the moderns it is the action of the spirit. The battle of the ancients could not be concluded until the visible heaven, the substantial bond of life, the gravitation of political and religious existence, had been pulverized; for the spirit to become united with itself, nature has to be cleft in two. The Greek broke nature to pieces with the artistic hammer of Hephaestus, beating it into statues; the Roman dipped his sword in nature's heart, and the peoples died. But modern philosophy unseals the Word, causes it to vanish, consumed in the holy fire of the spirit; and not like some individual apostate who has fallen away from the gravitational field of nature, but as a warrior of the spirit contending with the spirit, modern philosophy works universally, melting down the forms which prevent the universal from making its appearance.
These passages, read together in a common perspective, afford a synopsis of Marx's three-dimensional thinking. More clearly than any other part of the dissertation or the preparatory studies, these pages reveal that Marx's historical discussion with the tradition of classical philosophy is at the same time a continuous struggle to clarify his own situation vis-à-vis his own time and his own world. It is especially clear that throughout his confrontation with the Greek past he is invariably puzzled by the problem of his relationship to the Christian tradition which had succeeded to the Greek and had left such a dominant mark on the civilization in which he himself had been born and was destined to live.
Indeed, what Marx calls Christian philosophy occupies a key position in his notion of world history. This strategic position is essentially ambiguous, being at once positive and negative. It represents the middle factor in a tripartite scheme that is dominated by the contrasting duality of nature and spirit. As far as antiquity is concerned, its character seems simple and unambiguous: antiquity was rooted in nature, in the substantial. But what does it mean when the modern world is said to be rooted in spirit? On the one hand, it is crystal clear that Marx's idea of modern philosophy is diametrically opposed to his conception of Christian philosophy. The modern world begins with the struggle for liberation from the tyranny of the Christian faith. Modern philosophy, embodied in Descartes’ method of axiomatic doubt and in the rise of a rational approach to nature, is inspired by an urge to freedom from Christian tutelage, whether medieval or ancient. But this would seem to be only one side of the coin. The contradistinction between the ancients and the moderns, on the other hand, is identical with the contrast between ancient philosophy and Christian philosophy. The foundation of the ancients was the visible heaven, the symbol of their being imprisoned within the limits of nature. Conversely, the “written heaven”, the sealed Word, is the creed of Christian philosophy, which stands on the side of the spirit over against nature. Obviously, within the framework of the contrast between nature and spirit, Christian philosophy stands for spirit.
But there seems hardly to be room for a frank and explicit recognition of the rights of Christian philosophy. At the very moment the dual scheme of nature over against spirit is about to work in favour of the Christian spirit, it is already intersected by the tripartite scheme. The “written heaven” may, in itself, be very much a novelty as compared with the visible heaven which represented the ultimate horizon of antiquity; yet it is still a closed horizon. Visible nature has been replaced by audible Word; but this Word remains imprisoned in a written text which can be possessed, manipulated, a text which has, in fact, become an instrument of tyranny and suppression of spiritual freedom. The Word, as distinguished from nature, may bear testimony to the spirit; it still remains sealed. The true work of the spirit still lies ahead, therefore; but the intensity of its activity now appears to have assumed a new and higher quality. Whereas within the world of antiquity the struggle was directed against the ascendancy of natural bondage, now the front is directed against the powers of spiritual bondage. It is the sealed Word, the “written heaven”, which this time has become the antagonist. The arena in which the battle is to be fought is no longer the realm of nature but the realm of the spirit itself. The sealed Word has to be unsealed, the “written heaven” has to be “pulverized” the palpable, reified text of a canonized Bible, a frozen creed, a congealed tradition, has to be reduced to ashes, to be melted down and transformed in the devouring fire of the spirit.
This Utopian vision breaks through, it is true, in one or two passages where Marx's deepest inspiration shows through the husk of his philosophical analysis. It remains, however, a marginal aspect, which has not determined the main lines of his approach. To be sure, if it had become the dominant feature, Marx's dissertation might have looked like the polemical broadside of an Anabaptist prophet rather than an historical treatise. The tripartite scheme, in fact, turns out to be composed of two dual schemes which intersect one another. The battle between spirit and nature which, had Christian philosophy really lived up to its calling, would have become the indelible mark of the Christian era, has, owing to the failings of Christianity, assumed a contradictory character. The dominance of heaven has continued, albeit in a new guise. The visible heaven of antiquity has survived in the “written heaven” of the Christian era. The seals of bondage to the powers of nature have not really been broken, but have become seals of bondage to the domination of the written Word, in which the spirit remains sealed. Thus in a new form and in the realm of the spirit, the battle that started with the birth of ancient Ionian philosophy continues still.
This historical ambiguity has made its effects felt in two areas. On the one hand, the contradictions of the Christian era have certain features analogous to those which ran through the tradition of antiquity. In this respect, it is quite possible to project the problem underlying the Christian era into the period of antiquity itself. Marx's interest in the questions that dominated Greek philosophy is, in essence, a transposed version of his confrontation with Christian philosophy, because the battle of antiquity has continued through the Christian era. The end of classical philosophy is the prototype of the end of Christian philosophy. Within the tripartite scheme of history, divided into antiquity, Christendom and the modern world, the transition of the first into the second period is closely parallel to the transition of the second period into the third.
From this point of view, the reason for Marx's apparently negative approach to the beginnings of the Christian era becomes obvious. That era has failed of its purpose; the fulfilment of its task still lies ahead, it has still to be enacted by modern philosophy. The end of the Christian era is imminent—and is imminent by reason of its inner contradictions. This situation can be examined—and splendidly illustrated—by a scrutiny of the closing period of antiquity and of the philosophical systems which marked the end of classical philosophy. When we study its essential features, we see, as in a mirror, an image of ourselves.
But the contradictions which were concealed in the Christian period and are beginning to be discovered now by the spirit of modern thinking, should also be evaluated from the opposite point of view. If the bonds of nature have continued to hold sway in the tyranny of Christian logolatry, the worship of the written Word, then, conversely, the urge to freedom of the spirit was anticipated in the struggle that marked classical philosophy. The end of classical philosophy was more than a final chord of the ancient symphony. In retrospect, viewed from the bridge which leads from the Christian era towards the modern age, the death of antiquity bore the seeds of modernity. The rise of modern philosophy from its roots in Cartesian doubt and modern physics was prepared and foreshadowed in the fundamental questions raised by the school of Scepticism and, more radically, in the radical demythologization effected by Epicurean philosophy. The struggle of antiquity for the liberation of the spirit from nature's tutelage can, in retrospect, be observed in the mirror of the modern era. We are now in a better position to interpret the potentialities concealed in classical philosophy than was possible in the ancient period itself. The death of the hero can only be contemplated, and its meaning is only to be understood, by his successor on the stage of history.
Apart from these two viewpoints—one retrospective and the other prospective—which allow us to view the successive periods of history in a common perspective, it seems that lying in the background of Marx's interpretation there is yet another notion, which concerns the final destiny of nature. The battle of classical philosophy was prompted by the urge to freedom over against the pressure of nature. For spirit to become unified it is necessary to cleave nature asunder. It is this freedom which characterizes the modern world: the capacity of spirit to loose itself from nature and claim its own independent rights. Yet is it really the ultimate destiny of spirit to become totally autonomous, completely to separate itself from nature, in other words, to become natureless? Obviously, this is not Marx's deepest intention; for he seems to allude to an ultimate synthesis wherein nature and spirit will be reconciled. There is a noteworthy parallel between the way the dominance of a closed nature is terminated at the end of the classical period and the way the tyranny of the sealed Word is to be destroyed by the victory of modern philosophy, which will substitute the freedom of the spirit for the bondage of the Christian era. Of the end of the first period it is said that for spirit to be unified, nature has to be cleft into two. The end of the second era is marked by a conflict of the spirit with the spirit, that is, a fight of the free spirit against faith in a sealed Word. The spirit appears divided in itself, or, to put it more adequately, the seals of the spirit must be broken by the free spirit.
To what purpose? What is the ultimate destiny of this process? Marx realizes that the movement of modern philosophy, beginning with Descartes and with the birth of modern science, is only a first start. Modern philosophy, proclaiming rational man's independence of the powers of nature, was able to take up the thread of classical philosophy which had ended in Epicurus’ complete profanation and degradation of nature. At the cradle of Greek philosophy, however, and implicit in the half-conscious meditations of the Ionian pioneers, stands the intuition that the divine spirit, the Idea, is incorporated in nature. Could it not be the ultimate destiny of history to realize this synthesis? For spirit to become one, nature had to be cleft asunder. Yet, spirit, far from attaining its own unity, has come to be divided in itself, and has become involved in a conflict of spirit with spirit. Apparently, the inner division of nature which marked the first period has repeated itself in the second period as an internal schism of the spirit. Is there a hidden meaning in this development, in that, for nature to become unified again in its turn the spirit has to become divided? Of course, nature cannot be unified without the inclusion of all that has accrued from history; nature will not return to that primeval self-sufficiency which left no room for the spirit to lay claim to its own. The unity of nature will be realized on a higher level. Once nature has become spiritualized, the spirit in its turn will become naturalized, that is, will celebrate its reunion with a spiritualized nature.
From this comprehensive viewpoint, let us now take a fresh look at the main insights presented in the dissertation and the preparatory studies. A striking illustration of what has been said about the current relevance of Marx's historical analysis is to be found in a passage which, at the same time, may serve as an apt starting point for our survey. The passage is part of the annotations to the Appendix: “Critique of Plutarch's polemic against Epicurus’ theology”, only a fragment of which has been preserved. As is clear from these annotations, the first chapter of the Appendix had been entitled: “Man's relationship to God”, and divided into three paragraphs: 1. Fear and the transcendent being; 2. The cult and the individual; 3. Providence and the degraded God. Of the second chapter, called “Individual immortality” only a fragment of the first paragraph has been preserved: it is headed: “On religious feudalism. The hell of the populace”.
The annotations to the first paragraph of the first chapter of the Appendix contain, besides quotations from Plutarch, one from the book System of Nature, written by the French eighteenth-century spokesman of mechanistic materialism, d'Holbach. The passage in question inveighs against the traditional fear of a transcendent Being which for thousands of years has held mankind under its sway. The notion of the Godhead always arouses in us depressing ideas. Every time we hear the name of the Godhead pronounced, there arise in our minds fears and gloomy thoughts. If our moral standard is founded upon the far from moral character of a capricious God, then man can never be sure of his duty to God, to himself or to other men. Thus nothing is more dangerous than the suggestion that there exists a supra-natural Being before whom reason becomes speechless, a Being to whom everything on earth has to be forsaken in order to acquire salvation. The annotations to the third paragraph open with a quotation from Plutarch's reply to Epicurus’ denial of a divine providence. Plutarch tries to demonstrate that Epicurus’ argument concerning human fear of God is false. God is the Creator of all that is good, he is the father of all that is beautiful, he is capable neither of doing evil nor of suffering evil. Since wrath and grace, hate and love, are worlds apart, it is impossible for the Divinity to possess both qualities at once. God's essence is being gracious, so that wrath and evil-doing must be alien to him.
The annotations then turn back to modern philosophy. The philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm von Schelling is accused of having relinquished his youthful conviction in exchange for his present mystical philosophy. Marx recalls Schelling's pronouncement, formulated in 1795, refuting the rational ground of God's existence. If God is the object of human knowledge, He cannot at the same time be its precondition. Schelling had written the prophetic words, that now it was time to proclaim to mankind the freedom of human minds and to put an end to complaining about the loss of man's shackles.
These quotations from the early Schelling serve as introduction to some comments of Marx on the celebrated issue of the proofs of God's existence. Marx begins with a radical criticism of Hegel's treatment of the theological proofs of God's existence. For instance the cosmological proof had been interpreted by Hegel so as to mean: “Because of the non-being of the accidental, God or the Absolute is.” However, this is just the reverse of the theological proof, which reads as follows: “Because the accidental has true being, God is.” In the theological proof, God is the guarantee of the accidental world. Self-evidently, this also implies the reverse truth: that the accidental world is the guarantee of God's existence. Hegel's interpretation is, in fact, very much a maltreatment of these theological proofs. He has turned them upside down, that is to say, in order to justify them, he has rejected them. This manipulation leads Marx to exclaim: what a strange sort of client who must be killed by their advocate in order to be saved from condemnation!
It is noteworthy that at this early stage already Marx stands in such radical opposition to Hegel's philosophy of religion. A serious discussion of Marx's development in relation to Hegel must wait for my next lecture. For the moment I need only point out that Hegel's treatment of the cosmological proof of God's existence is based on an explicit refutation of Epicurus’ concept of the accidental. In the second volume of his Lectures on the philosophy of religion, Hegel deals with the presupposition of the cosmological proof. This presupposition is: accidental being, namely, a being that lacks self-determination and so needs a cause outside itself by which it is determined. He rejects the Epicurean concept of accidental being as that sort of being to which it makes no matter whether it be thus or thus.
Obviously, Hegel's procedure draws the sting out of the religious consciousness as envisaged in Marx's dissertation. First, Hegel gives a definition of the accidental which already entails the conclusion drawn by the cosmological proof of God's existence; and then he interprets this theological proof in such a way that the properly religious problem which hinges on confrontation with the accidental evaporates into the only true and real being of absolute necessity.
There would have been no point to Marx's study of Epicurus, if Marx had followed Hegel in explaining the religious problem away. What fascinated him about Epicurus was the iron consistency with which the latter confronted the religious challenge. It is not surprising, therefore, that Marx approaches the question of God's existence in terms of a coercive alternative. He sees only two possibilities: the proofs of God's existence are either no more than empty tautologies, or they are merely proofs of the existence of the essential human self-consciousness.
He begins to explore the first possibility, that the proofs of God's existence are just empty tautologies. Take, for instance, the ontological proof, which from the thought of God's existence concludes His existence. This proof may have just this meaning: “that which I imagine as reality is to me a real imagining, it acts upon me” (N.B.: the German word Wirklichkeit, reality, is cognate with the verb wirken, to act). In this sense, all gods, the pagan gods as well as the Christian god, have had a real existence. Did not the ancient Moloch, the pagan Canaanite god to whom children were sacrificed, actually reign? Was the delphic Apollo not a real power in the life of the Greeks?
With this in mind, Marx develops his argument by examining Kant's critique of the ontological proof of God's existence. In his Critique of Pure Reason Kant illustrates his critique with the example of a sum of money. “The value of a hundred real crowns is not one penny greater than the value of a hundred imaginary crowns. Indeed, the concept of the possible sum is the adequate notion of its reality. However, regarded from my standpoint as a proprietor the case is quite different. If my property contains a hundred real crowns, it is larger than with only a hundred imaginary crowns. The reality of the object is not included in my concept as an analytical conclusion, but is something added, synthetically, to my concept. Yet the sum of possible crowns has not increased when the crowns become real.”
In Marx's opinion this critique of Kant is pointless. Marx approaches the example from the subjective point of view. If somebody imagines himself possessed of a hundred crowns, if this imagining is more than a subjective emotion, if he really believes in it, then the hundred imagined crowns have for him the same value as a hundred real crowns would have. For instance, he will incur debts on the strength of his imagined property, it will act upon him and exert real influence, in the same way as mankind as a whole has incurred debts on the strength of its (belief in) gods. Far from having refuted the ontological proof, Kant's example might rather have served to confirm it. Real crowns have the same kind of existence as have imagined gods. Does a real crown exist anywhere else than in the imagination, even if this imagination has a universal, or rather a collective, character? If you were to import paper currency into a country where its function is unknown, you would be laughed at, because of your subjective imagination. If you were to introduce your gods into a country where the other gods are the ones recognized, people would soon show you to be suffering from delusions; and rightly so. Anyone who brought the god of a German tribe to the ancient Greeks, would have discovered proof of the non-existence of that god. For the Greeks he would have been non-existent. These examples concern the inanity of particular gods in particular countries; but an analogous conclusion may be drawn with regard to God's existence in general: in the country of Reason, God no longer exists. This is the logical conclusion of the first interpretation of the proofs of God's existence, that their meaning is merely tautological. The alternative interpretation explains these proofs to be merely proofs of the existence of the essential human consciousness, its logical explications. Take, for example, the ontological proof. What kind of being is immediately present, the very moment it is being thought of? It is the self-consciousness.
In this sense—thus Marx's triumphant conclusion—all proofs of God's existence are proofs of his non-existence, refutations of all imaginings about a god. The real proofs should read conversely: “Because nature is badly organized, God is.” “Because an unreasonable world is, God is.” “Because thought is not, God is.” Do these pronouncements mean anything, however, other than: “Whoever conceives the world as unreasonable, in a word, whoever is unreasonable himself, for him God exists. In short, unreason is God's existence”? This conclusion is underlined by the addition of two other quotations from the early Schelling. The first says that the absolute autonomy and freedom of reason contradict any postulation of an objective God. The second passage condemns as a crime against humanity any attempt to conceal principles that are universally communicable.
Human consciousness is the highest divinity. It allows of no rival. This solemn Promethean proclamation, which was already formulated in the preface, is thus convincingly demonstrated and confirmed at the end of the dissertation. The historical analysis of Epicurean philosophy as the supreme philosophy of human self-consciousness gets a finishing touch in its application to contemporary philosophy. A study which at first sight might look like a dry treatise on a remote past, finally reveals its hidden purpose: it is in fact the arena for a tenacious struggle with the whole of religious tradition and a resolute reckoning with the claims of Christian theology.
When we try, from the vantage-point of this final demonstration, to recapitulate the milestones along the road we have travelled, the first thing to note is the key function of the religious imagination. The importance of Marx's approach consists in his insight that the root of the question lies in the phenomenon of the imagination as such. Therefore, when he lumps all gods indiscriminately together, pagan as well as Christian, this is not out of a malicious desire to ridicule Christianity, but as a result of his analysis of the imagination. The power of imagination is so strong that it makes an impact equal to that of reality. The reverse is also true: real crowns have the same existence as imaginary gods. Thanks to his faculty of imagination, man is able to create his own environment, a system to live in, in short, a world. Whether the system is a monetary system or a religious system is neither here nor there. What matters is that both money and gods really exist for those in whose imagination they are real, and that outside that circle they are non-existent.
It would have been a simple solution to leave the issue there, so reducing it to a matter of psychological observation. As there are various currencies, so there are various religions. But Marx does not allow himself to be misled by a fallacious answer of that sort. What puzzles him is whether the magic circle of imagination can be broken. If imagination is indeed equal to reality, if the objects of imagination really exist, if the world created by imagination is man's real world, then the crucial point is whether any escape from this imagined reality or this real imagination is possible.
Of course, the example of a sum of money has nothing to do with Marx's interest in economics—which as a matter of fact was not aroused until several years after this. Moreover, the example in question was not that Marx had chosen but was derived from Kant's treatment of the ontological proof of God's existence. Yet the difference between Kant's use of the example and Marx's approach is significant for that very reason. In Kant's thinking the factor common to a sum of money and God's existence consists in the alternative, applicable to each of these objects, between real existence and possible, that is, imagined existence. Marx, on the contrary, is intrigued by the enigmatic capacity, common to both objects, to identify possible and real existence, imagination and reality. What is posed by Kant as an essential distinction between an analytic conclusion, belonging to the sphere of thought, and a synthetic conclusion, making the leap to reality, is discovered by Marx to be a mere tautology, a semantic distinction. For as long as imagined reality can make the same impact as real existence, any distinction between them is fallacious.
I repeat that the example he uses of a sum of money has no relevance to Marx's economic interest of a later period. But again, for this very reason his interpretation is a striking indication of the deeper motives that impelled him. It is not the religious issue as such which preoccupies him during these early years, any more than it is the question of economics as such which will absorb his attention during the mature period of his life. The point at stake is an underlying problem, one which lies at the root of the religious as well as the economic question. The fundamental problem arises from man's obvious but enigmatic ability to create, by force of imagination, a world of his own, his real world. And the crucial question, the life-and-death issue, is where to find the Archimedean point on which to stand and from which this world is to be moved. So long as this world is a limited world, the problem is not yet a life-and-death issue. Just as, the moment we leave our country, our currency is replaced by a different currency, so our religious system obtains only within the region where our gods are believed in. The German gods and the Greek gods had a limited domain. However, when for the variety of systems we substitute one universal system, the case is altered. Then there are no longer any number of different worlds; what remains is one world, the world of all mankind. There is no longer a geographical frontier offering the possibility of escape.
That is, in fact, precisely the situation with which Marx is confronted. On the religious level, there is this one universal system; Christianity. Marx is later to encounter an analogous universal phenomenon on the economic level, namely, Capitalism. The importance of his approach to each of these phenomena is bound up with its universality. The object of his interest is not this or that religious system, but the system of religion as such. He is not in discussion with this or that theology, but with theology per se. He is not puzzled by man's capacity for creating gods, but by man's relationship to God, the one and only God. He is not up against this or that world, but against the world, the universal world in which mankind lives today. Concretely, it is in Christianity that he meets this universal religion, this universal theology, this universal God, this universal world; just as later on, on the economic level, he will face this universal world in the capitalist system.
Looking for the Archimedean point from which to move this universal world, Marx explores in vain within the boundaries of his own time, his own environment, his own world. The “country of reason”, where one might escape this universal reign, is not near at hand. It may of course be found in the future; but the future can only be dreamt of or prophesied or seen in a vision. The alternative possibility is to look for this “country or reason” in the past. There is one advantage of the past as compared with the future, in that the past can be made an object of detailed study.
With this expectation in mind, Marx turns to the study of Greek philosophy. What he finds there is a complex set of phenomena which turns out, in fact, to contribute decisively to unravelling the problem he is facing in his own environment.
He discovers that the entire Greek tradition had been unable to break the magic circle of religious imagination. The struggle of Greek philosophy had been the struggle for freedom of the subjective spirit over against the objective world created by the religious imagination, a visible heaven. The substantial bond of life was too strong, the gravitation of political and religious existence proved too heavy, for Greek self-consciousness to overcome. In Socrates and Plato this struggle and its failure are exemplified. Socrates, the sage who embodies the critique of the idea over against nature, is at the same time rooted in the substantial conditions of the state and its religion; his subjectivity is unable to encroach upon the objective forces of the religious imagination. Plato turns Socrates’ ideality into a mythical symbol and projects his own subjectivity as an independent realm of ideas which hovers above and beyond substantial reality. Plato's ideality is a distinct realm existing inside the philosopher's own consciousness. This ideal realm and the realm of substantial reality meet one another through the intermediary of the Platonic myths and allegories whereby the transcendent is related to the immanent.
Marx sees essential and historical relationships between Platonism and Christianity. Plato's philosophy of transcendence has religious overtones, it takes the form of a doctrine of salvation. Conversely, the Christian religion is the apex of religious evolution, it is the perfect philosophy of transcendence. Historically speaking, various Platonic elements have been absorbed by Christianity. Nevertheless, Marx has been able to distinguish sharply between the two. More important than any analogy between Socrates as personified philosophy and Christ as personified religion is the comparison between institutionalized philosophy and institutionalized religion. On this level he perceives a radical contrast between Plato and Christ. In Plato's Republic we meet the full weight of Greek substantiality. The sage, who in the person of Socrates remains rooted in the substantial soil of the religious state and the state religion, comes to represent the leading caste of Plato's state. The idea, far from breaking through the magic circle of the substantial bonds, serves to sanctify, to idealize and eternalize them. In radical contrast with Plato, it is in Christ that the principle of subjectivity is set over against the state, which is itself condemned as worldly and profane.
At this point one might have expected Marx to say something definite to the effect that in Christ he recognizes a radical break with the spirit of classical antiquity. He comes very near to such a recognition when he goes on to refer to the contrast between Plato's Republic and the Christian Church. Of course, the former has remained an ideal, whereas the latter has assumed reality. Yet this is only half the truth; for this contrast has been inverted: whereas the Platonic idea succeeded reality, the Christian idea preceded it.
The ambiguity and obscurity of this comment seem to point to an underlying ambiguity in Marx's own mind. On the one hand, he has tried to show that there is a high degree of congeniality between Platonism and Christianity; but, on the other hand, he clearly recognizes a profound contrast between Plato and Christ. This he relates to the contradistinction between a general idea and a historical individual. Whereas the Platonic state is an embodiment of the Socratic idea, the Church, conversely, is related to Christ as a historical person. However, at the same time, Marx sees Christianity in the mirror of Platonism. If this apperception of his had concerned only a number of Platonic doctrines and notions that have become deeply ingrained in the tradition of Christian theology, then the question would present no great difficulty. Any Christian theologian could settle the discussion with Marx by, on the one hand, recognizing these historical Platonic influences in Christianity, and, on the other, trying to demonstrate that, essentially, there is an unbridgeable gap between Plato and Christ.
However, nothing of that sort would meet the point, because Marx himself had already stressed the essential contrast between Plato and Christ. The heart of the matter is to be found elsewhere, namely, in the remarkable parallel between the ways in which the Platonic and the Christian ideas have functioned in relation to reality. The reality of the Christian Church, which followed the coming of Christ has in fact, in the course of the Christian era, turned into a sanctification of substantial, political and religious ties, in the same way as the reality of the Greek substantial tradition came to be idealized in Plato's Republic. The transformation of the historical Socrates into a Platonic myth of love and death has been repeated in the transposition of Christ's life and death into a theological realm beyond this world.
It is this fateful continuity between the whole tradition of Greek philosophy and the Christian religion as “the perfect philosophy of transcendence” which induces Marx to look for the root of the problem inside the tradition of Greek philosophy itself. If the Christian veneration of a “written heaven”, a sealed Word, is a mere continuation, on a spiritual level, of the natural adoration which the Greeks devoted to the visible heaven, has there been a point in Greek history where its inner contradictions have at least been brought to the level of consciousness; where its magnificent but fatal naïvety has been unmasked; where its essential impossibility has come very near to explosion? If such a critical turning-point did indeed occur, then this crucial moment has its relevance not only for Greek philosophy but for the Christian era which has submitted to the same historical fate as the Greeks.
It was in Epicurean philosophy that Marx discovered the turning-point, while at the same time he exposes all its contradictions. Epicurus is not transformed at his hands into a new saviour, nor is his philosophy turned into a new mythology. Epicurus failed to break open the magic circle of the religious imagination, which culminated in the Greek veneration of the visible heaven. If the adoration of the heavenly bodies was a cult celebrated by every Greek philosopher, the basic reason for that was that in the heavenly bodies Greek philosophers worshipped their own mind. Epicurus’ philosophy actually rests on the same foundation. If he had drawn the logical conclusion from his own atomistic theory, he would have been obliged to join this cult of the visible heaven. For the heavenly bodies are his atoms become real.
In other words, even Epicurus did not discover, in his theoretical concept of nature, the Archimedean point from which to move the Greek substantial world. The reason was that he too remained imprisoned within the magic circle of imagination. The tautological circle which Marx exposed as the vitium originis of the theological proofs of God's existence, was the very circle which enclosed the Greek approach to reality. Epicurus’ atomistic view of the world was as indefinite a product of the imagination as are the Christian theological concept of God, paradise, creation and salvation. If Epicurus’ philosophy is the natural science of self-consciousness, then he has brought the innate spirit of Greek philosophy to its highest perfection.
Even if Epicurus had achieved no more than this, he might still have been an important Greek philosopher; yet he would not have become, in Marx's eyes, the greatest representative of Greek Enlightenment. But Epicurus was in fact more than just another Greek philosopher. He was the last of the line; his philosophy meant the end of Greek philosophy, it sounded the final chord of the Greek symphony; with it died a hero who, for century after century, had filled the stage of Greek history. In Epicurus the Greek spirit died of its own contradictions.
The crucial point in Epicurus’ philosophy is located precisely where he contradicts his own presuppositions. The cult of the visible heaven, the adoration of the eternal and immutable celestial bodies, was the crown of the Greek spirit. This cult was the root, the culmination and the guarantee of the whole of the Greek substantial tradition. Greek philosophy from its very outset right up to Aristotle had projected its inmost spirit, its deepest consciousness, in this cult. And what is more, Epicurus’ own view of the atoms as the immortal foundations of nature is realized in the celestial bodies. Nevertheless, in total contradiction of the whole tradition of Greek philosophy, his own included, Epicurus refuses unconditionally to defer to this cult. At this point all his efforts are designed to draw the embodiments of autonomous, immortal, sovereign nature down into earthly transitoriness, to demote the eternal to the level of mere accidentality, to profane the sanctity of the divine heaven. He breaks with the outlook of the whole Greek people and with the highest religious ideal of the philosophers, whose goal is the contemplation of the divine harmony.
Epicurus’ refusal to conform is an act of apostasy. He lapses from the gravitational field of nature, and breaks the substantial ties which had held together the political and religious existence of antiquity. Moreover, he is an isolated, a lonely apostate. And worse, his act of apostasy lacks any theoretical backing; for it is in glaring opposition to his own theory. What he did was impossible; and yet he achieved it. His sole foundation, the Archimedean point from which he moves his own world, is the absolute freedom of self-consciousness which he as an individual wants to maintain against any element that threatens or derives it. But this freedom has no place within the world he is part of, it is a freedom born of exile, it obliges him to cross the frontier of his own world and to move abroad, to seek “the country of reason”. In other words, in order to maintain his principle of absolute self-consciousness, he has to abandon the basis of his own theory. His freedom can be realized only in another dimension, in the dimension of praxis.
This qualitative leap from theory to practice, although made by a lonely apostate, in fact went far beyond the range of an individual action. Epicurus’ philosophy is the mirror of a historical turning-point. In Aristotelian philosophy the Greek spirit reached its culmination and at the same time was confronted with its ultimate limitations. The post-Aristotelian period had either to descend into epigonism or move over to a new dimension. The post-Aristotelian philosophical schools were the typical products of such a transition. They were the result of a process of dissolution and foreshadowed an imminent catastrophe. In Epicurus’ philosophy the knell is rung over the gods of antiquity. His worldless god and godless nature, consisting of a huge repulsion-process of the atoms, anticipate the collapse of the ancient harmony and the titanic struggle of the Roman period. But on the other hand, this post-Aristotelian period exhibits the first signs of a new day. Where the old gods have died, a new divinity is coming to birth.
Marx proclaims this new divinity to be the human self-consciousness, a supreme divinity without peer or rival; but that is only half the story. Shortly before he enunciated this bold creed in the preface to his dissertation, and writing in the sixth exercise-book of the preparatory studies, he had compared his own post-Hegelian situation with the transitional period of post-Aristotelian philosophy. In that connection he had described the full ambiguity of the transition; the new divinity had not so far clothed itself in the bright light of day; its features still bore the darker aspect of fate. The transition from theory to practice, the movement out of the shadowy realm of Amenthes, judge of the dead, into practical confrontation with the world, the transformation of internal thought into external will, entailed the discovery of a new continent beyond the familiar horizon.
In the mirror of Epicurus, Marx saw his own situation reflected. It is not enough to draw a parallel between Aristotle and Hegel and to point to an analogy between post-Aristotelian and post-Hegelian philosophy. Aristotelean philosophy was the culmination of the whole Greek tradition. In the same way, Hegelian philosophy summed up the Christian theological and philosophical tradition. In the mirror of Epicurus, Marx saw reflected his own departure from a Christian era whose God had died, into another country beyond the horizon, a country of the future.