Marx's critique of religion is an essential part of his critical philosophy; or, to put it another way, his critique of religion has to be understood as the culmination of his critique of philosophy. Since throughout the development of Marx's thinking the philosophy of Hegel was the culmination of all philosophy, Marx's critique of philosophy is, in fact, the story of his critical relationship to Hegel. In short, Marx's critique of religion is the culmination of his critique of Hegel.
In an earlier lecture I examined the ambiguous relationship in which Marx was involved from the moment he began to realize the significance of Hegel's philosophy. In his Critique of Hegel's dialectic and philosophy as a whole, written in 1844, Marx stressed the necessity for true philosophy of a critical confrontation “with its mother, Hegel's dialectic”. He blamed members of the Young Hegelian school like Bruno Bauer for being incapable of this critical distancing. From the very outset Marx had had an ambivalent relationship to Hegel, compounded of admiration and aversion, love and resentment, dependence and independence, identification and dissatisfaction. The gods which he had now begun to look for in the very midst of the world still remained gods. The idea which he tried to find in reality itself continued to be an idea. Hegel's “grotesque melody of the rock” disquieted his mind because of the contradictory elements it was composed of. On the one hand, Hegel's absolute spirit was inaccessible to him, shrouded in darkness like a god; and he felt as though he were swept off his feet in the demonic torrent of Hegel's dialectic. On the other hand, Hegel promised him the understanding of concrete, down-to-earth reality, in contrast with an earlier German idealism which was given to flying off into the stratosphere.
In consequence, the dissertation offered Marx an excellent practice-ground for clarifying his ambivalent feelings. In fact the dissertation already contains, in principle, the essential critique which in subsequent years Marx was to develop and direct against Hegel's philosophy. At the same time Marx recognized the importance of the admirably bold plan of Hegel's history of philosophy, which he regarded as the very foundation of the history of philosophy. However, both the strength of Hegel's position as an historian of philosophy and his weakness as a philosopher of history induced Marx to take the necessary steps whereby he could transcend Hegel's position.
In the foreword to the dissertation the three main elements of Marx's critique are already implicitly formulated. His first objection is to Hegel's neglect of detail—a defect which he explains as an inevitable corollary of the stupendous sweep of Hegel's enterprise. This objection in itself might have been of no very great importance; for it is usual enough for a scholar to offer some correction of his mentor and predecessor. But the detail which Hegel had overlooked and which Marx claimed to have discovered turned out to be of overriding significance. Its neglect therefore had far-reaching consequences. Its discovery was precisely the discovery of “the key to the true history of Greek philosophy”, as Marx triumphantly describes the result of his study. In other words, for all his merit as a systematic historian of Greek philosophy within the larger historical setting of philosophy in general, Hegel is alleged to have missed the key. The door giving access to the truth of Greek philosophy did not open for him.
But the stone which the builders rejected became the chief cornerstone for the new building that Marx was beginning to design. His discovery and the method which led him to it bear a striking resemblance to Kepler's revolutionary discovery in the astronomical field.
Introducing the first chapter of his dissertation, Marx describes how he has succeeded in parting company with the well-established prejudice that saw in Epicurean physics only certain arbitrary modifications of Democritean physics and regarded the two systems as, in effect, identical. Precisely because this prejudice is as old as the history of philosophy, Marx was obliged to go into the minutest detail. The differences are so concealed that it takes a microscope, so to speak, to detect them. But, Marx argues, the outcome will be all the more important, since what can be demonstrated on a small scale can be demonstrated better still where the relationships are envisaged in larger dimensions. The result was, in fact, important; for the detail which Marx discovered to be crucial, namely, Epicurus’ view of the declination of atoms from a straight line, was, as it turned out, the key to the radical departure of Epicurean philosophy, evident in his theory of the celestial bodies, its departure from the whole religious tradition of Greek philosophy.
Marx's discovery parallels that which in the first decade of the seventeenth century obliged Johannes Kepler to overturn the traditional view of the celestial bodies and their motions. The parallel is noteworthy in various respects; but for the moment it will suffice to concentrate on one particular aspect. Kepler had been assistant to the great Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe, who by means of considerably improved technical instruments had been able to refine astronomical observations and to reduce the margin of error in measurement to less than two minutes of a degree. After Tycho Brahe's death, his detailed measurements of the motion of the planet Mars were placed at Kepler's disposal. When he compared the result of the measurements in every detail with the movements as they ought to be according to his conception of the celestial movements, he discovered a difference of eight arc-minutes. More essential even than his discovery was the fact that he made it and the consequences he drew from it. The fact of Kepler's discovery resulted from his principle concerning the necessity of perfect agreement between measurement and concept, between observation and hypothesis. Whereas Ptolemy and even Copernicus would have ignored the slight difference which Kepler had observed—so that they would have considered his observation to confirm their hypothesis—Kepler made the opposite choice. In order to justify the observation, he rejected the hypothesis. In the closing sentence of the nineteenth chapter of his book Astronomia Nova Kepler speaks of his revolutionary discovery: “Solely by these eight arc-minutes I have been guided towards the total reformation of astronomy; they have become the material for a great part of this book.”
Marx, like Kepler, was guided towards a radically new concept by a detail, only discoverable by refined measurements or, as Marx puts it, by a microscope. A detail, neglected by the whole history of philosophy, forced him to adopt a new approach to philosophy and, more especially, to part company with Hegel.
The stupendous sweep of Hegel's history of philosophy, which made him overlook certain crucial details, was connected with a second aspect to which Marx objected, namely, Hegel's speculative view. What Hegel called the speculative idea par excellence hindered him from recognizing in the post-Aristotelian systems the great importance that they have for the history of Greek philosophy and for the Greek mind in general. Marx does not precisely explain what he means by Hegel's view of the speculative idea or what his fundamental objections to this view are; but he several times uses the term “speculation” with reference to the history of Greek philosophy also. When he tries to define the wider subject to which his dissertation is only preliminary, he uses two alternative expressions. When referring to the cycle of post-Aristotelian philosophy, he several times uses an expression like “in relation to previous Greek philosophy”; but other phrases, obviously with an identical meaning, are: “in relation to all Greek speculation” and “in relation to earlier speculation”.
Evidently, what he intends is a contrast between non-speculative and speculative Greek philosophy. A further indication of this is to be found in the second draft of a foreword for his dissertation, which Marx wrote at the end of 1841 or the beginning of 1842, that is, in the period when he had just abandoned his planned academic career but had not yet given up wanting to have his dissertation printed and published. Marx introduces his dissertation as an earlier work, designed as part of a presentation of Epicurean, Stoic and Sceptic philosophy as a whole, a project which at this moment cannot be realized, being interrupted by political and philosophical concerns of a totally different character. Now, at last, the time has arrived for real understanding of these philosophical systems. Their authors are the philosophers of self-consciousness. This last sentence is substituted for another which he has crossed out, but which had begun with the statement that hitherto all philosophers have slighted these three philosophies, the philosophies of self-consciousness, on account of their non-speculative character.
The term “non-speculative” is obviously taken by Marx to be synonymous with “subjective”. In the introduction to the first chapter he opposes the subjective form of Greek philosophy to its content. If the preceding systems are more significant and more interesting in virtue of their content, the post-Aristotelian ones, and particularly the cycle of Epicurean, Stoic and Sceptic schools, are important because of the subjective form, the character of Greek philosophy. It is precisely the subjective form, the mental vehicle of philosophical systems, which we have until now almost entirely ignored in considering only their metaphysical pronouncements.
In other words, the characterization of Hegel as a speculative philosopher applies also to the earlier philosophers, all of whom have disdained these post-Aristotelian systems and have one-sidedly preferred the preceding tradition of Greek Speculation. The parallel between Hegel and Aristotle has to be understood, therefore, as indicating that both philosophers consummated the tradition of speculative philosophy, that is, of a philosophy which presents a metaphysical content. By way of contrast, Marx wants to display the subjective form of philosophy; he is concerned with its mental vehicle, with its character.
At the time he was preparing his dissertation, Marx did not yet fully realize that his departure from Hegel had even more far-reaching consequences. They are, however, implicit in his conclusions. His critique of Plutarch had a wider significance. In his foreword, Marx stresses the importance of his critique as being aimed at a typical representative of a species: Plutarch's attack on Epicurus’ theology strikingly represents the relation of the theologizing intellect to philosophy. Of course, the term “philosophy” is used here in a special sense, namely, as the true philosophy exhibited in Epicurus’ radical break with the whole theologizing tradition of Greek philosophy. This is precisely what Marx elsewhere describes as Greek Speculation. The basic reason for Hegel's misunderstanding of Epicurus’ importance lies, therefore, in the speculative trend of Hegel's philosophy which, far from overcoming the theologizing intellect, tended rather to confirm and sanction it. In the years that ensued, it was to become obvious that Marx's critique of Plutarch as representative of the religious tradition in itself entailed, implicitly at any rate, a critique of Hegel.
These features of Marx's critique vis-à-vis Hegel's philosophy are only aspects of the crucial problem of how to live in a post-Hegelian era. It was this which impelled Marx to choose Epicurean philosophy as the subject of his dissertation. After a total philosophy such as Hegel's, has life lost its meaning? How is it possible to live in such an aftermath? The question was anything but theoretical, since philosophy was anything but a theoretical issue. In Hegel's philosophy, Marx had faced the totality of contemporary history, the conscious expression of the total context in which he had been born. To come to grips with Hegel therefore involved a decisive struggle with his own historical situation. Hegel's thinking had, as it were, absorbed the world into the totality of his speculation. And so after the death of the master it was simply impossible to continue along the same lines; Hegel's death spelt the end of an era, an end to the possibility of identifying oneself with the world in a philosophical manner. From now on, man's relationship to his own world had radically changed.
The historical analogy helped Marx to come to grips with his own situation. As post-Aristotelian philosophy had revealed the inner dissolution of the Greek era and had anticipated the Titanic struggle of the Roman period, so post-Hegelian philosophy had contained the germ of a gigantic schism which was to disrupt the coming era. Any attempt by Hegelian philosophers to follow in their master's footsteps could only produce pathetic examples of impotent epigonism. Hegel's philosophy resembled Aeolus’ harp, from which only the tempest could conjure music. The true import of this philosophy was for the future to demonstrate. The mature plant had to die for the seeds to come to fruition.
In this way Marx tried to clarify his own ambivalent relationship to Hegel as the necessary corollary of his historical situation. The paradoxical nature of his own consciousness sprang logically out of his attachment to the master; for the conscious realization of the inner contradictions of history was the essence of Hegel's thinking. Thus it was possible for Marx to explain Hegel's increasing conservatism in terms of the maturation of a total philosophy. He defended Hegel against the suggestion made by some Young Hegelian thinkers that certain aspects of their master's system were to be explained by his accommodating himself to the authorities. These critics overlooked the essential difference between Hegel's position and their own. The disciples had received the system ready-made from the master's hands; their relationship to it had the character of reflection. Conversely, for the teacher himself philosophy was in process of being created, so that his spiritual energy pulsated to its farthest periphery; his relationship to his own system was immediate, substantial.
This explanation did not, however, emerge from any attempt on Marx's part to take Hegel's increasing conservatism for granted. He even reckoned with the possibility that Hegel's accommodation to the established political powers had been deliberate. However, discussion of the moral implications of Hegel's attitude was pointless. The point at issue was whether this was rooted in a fundamental defect, inherent in Hegel's system as such. The master himself could not have been in the least aware that this external attitude resulted from a basic error. Therefore, it was the task of his pupils, instead of casting aspersions on the master's private conscience, to construe the essential form of his consciousness. In so doing they would really succeed in transcending the master's system.
On the same grounds, Marx rebutted the suggestion of an analogy between Socrates and Hegel, resulting in the conclusion that, since Socrates’ philosophy had been condemned by the official authorities of his time, Hegel's philosophy was likewise bound to be condemned. This suggestion completely ignored the essential difference between the respective historical situations of the two philosophers. Socrates was still imprisoned within the substantial circle enclosing Greek political and religious existence; and so his condemnation was an inevitable corollary of his own intrinsic limitations. But in our time the struggle is no longer one between spirit and nature; both sides have now become spirit and want to be recognized as such. Hegel was no longer a lonely apostate, fallen away from the gravitational field of nature; but in his total philosophy the development of world history from nature to spirit had been raised to the level of consciousness.
The fate of Hegel's philosophy was therefore different from that which condemned Socrates to drink the poisoned cup—different too from the fate which forced Giordano Bruno to pay for his fieriness of spirit at the stake. Hegel's system is not condemned by a hostile world, nor indeed was Hegel destined for martyrdom; but his philosophy is disintegrating at the very moment of its realization. For the realization of his philosophy is through and through contradictory; and the contradictions become manifest in the process of realization.
Marx, then, elucidates three aspects of this process whereby Hegel's philosophy changes from a speculative system into praxis, from theoretical spirit into the practical energy of the will.
First, when philosophy turns outward and opposes the phenomenal world, the philosophical system begins to solidify into an abstract totality. It becomes one side of the world in contradiction with another side. In the very process whereby the world becomes philosophical, philosophy becomes worldly, so that the realization of philosophy is at the same time its overthrow. In combating the world, philosophy fights against its own inner defect. Its antagonist is its own self, albeit with the factors inverted.
Besides this objective aspect, the realization of philosophy has a subjective aspect too. This latter concerns the relationship of the philosophical system which is being realized to its mental vehicles, its relationship to the individual self-consciousness. Parallel to the contradictions inherent in the objective aspect, this subjective aspect has its own contradictory implications. The individual self-consciousness is like a two-edged sword, one side of which is turned against the world, the other side against philosophy. For what from the objective viewpoint appears as an inverted relationship between philosophy and world, appears on the subjective view as a two-sided, contradictory purpose and act. When the individual self-consciousness liberates the world from perverted philosophy, non-philosophy (Unphilosophie), at the same time it liberates itself from the philosophy which by changing into a complete system also turned into a straitjacket. However, because this movement is still only beginning, the individual self-consciousness is still absorbed in the immediate activity of self-liberation; it has not had the time to transcend the system from a theoretical viewpoint. For this reason, the self-liberating consciousness is still involved in its opposition to the immutability of the system, it is still ignorant of the hidden fact that, in combating the system, it is engaged in realizing its several elements.
Thirdly, this double-edged character of philosophical self-consciousness presents itself in the form of a duality of philosophical schools, involved in a radical, mutual opposition. One school, the liberal or Young Hegelian party, clings to the concept and principle of philosophy, whereas the other party, the Old Hegelian school of positive philosophers, stresses the aspect of reality, the non-conceptual aspect of philosophy. The critical activity of the first school is philosophy turning outward; the second school tries to philosophize, that is to say, philosophy turns inward. Whereas the second school looks for the defect in the very heart of philosophy, the first school sees the defect as a defect of the world, so that it is its task to render the world philosophical.
It is strange that each party is doing the very thing which the other party wants to do and which itself alone does not want to do. However, the first party, despite its inner contradiction, is in general conscious of the principle and of its purpose. In the second school the perversity, the foolishness, becomes evident. Whereas the first party is capable of really progressive activities, the second party is only capable of defining purposes and tendencies, the form of which is in contradiction with their import.
To sum up, the inner contradictions inherent in the realization of Hegel's philosophy become manifest in three different modes or aspects. First, they appear as an inverted relationship and antagonistic rift between philosophy and the world; secondly, they appear as an internal schism inside the individual philosophical self-consciousness; and, finally, they appear as an external bifurcation and duality of philosophy, as two mutually antagonistic philosophical schools.
In this outline, written as a note to his dissertation, Marx summarized in essence the programme which lay ahead. The development of his thinking over the ensuing years is like the elaboration of a theme in music, being based on this initial pattern. There is only one point on which in the years that followed Marx materially transcended the confines of this outline. He stresses the fact that the very transformation of philosophy from theoretical spirit into practical energy has a theoretical character. The very praxis of philosophy is still theoretical; for it is the critique which measures the individual existence against the essence, the particular reality against the idea.
The fact is that as long as the shift from theory to praxis remained a shift inside the realm of philosophical reflection, the decisive step had not yet been taken. That step would mean proceeding from theoretical praxis to practical praxis, from philosophical action to real action, from a world illuminated by critical reflection to a world obscured by uncritical instinct. On the other hand, Marx would not have felt impelled to take that essential step beyond the philosophical realm, if its necessity had not been forced upon his mind during his explorations inside the philosophical realm. It was not until he had probed the final boundaries of philosophical reflection that he perceived the possibility and necessity of a leap beyond.
If we bear this fundamental limitation in mind, then the way Marx describes the threefold contradictions inherent in the realization of Hegel's philosophy does indeed contain the essential elements of his subsequent development. The interdependence of the three aspects is crucial. The unbearable contradiction between a total philosophy and a world which was its very counterpart emerged from the same source that produces the awareness of being imprisoned within a speculative, ready-made philosophical system. Likewise, the internal schism which had divided Hegel's legacy between two irreconcilable groups of inheritors was connected with the same background. Therefore, Marx's confrontation which took place in the following years with both schools of Hegelianism was only one prominent aspect of his attempt to overcome the contradictions which divided his own mind, as well as those inherent in the transformation of a theoretical philosophy into the dimension of practical reality. When we look at Marx's writings of the next few years, that is, up to 1845, it is evident that what he called his work of “self-explanation” (Selbstverständigung) went hand in hand with a critique, direct and indirect, of Hegel, intertwined with actions which translated this critique into practice. The indirect critique found expression in writings which enshrined his confrontation with the Hegelian Right and the Hegelian Left. In three other writings he tried to get to grips with the master himself.
Let us glance first of all at the evidences for his indirect critique. Small wonder that Marx first turned his critical reflection against the Hegelian Right. This was the second school mentioned in his outline, the school of so-called “Positive Philosophy”. In a letter to Arnold Ruge of April 1842, Marx promises to send him four different treatises: 1. “On religious art”; 2. “On the romanticists”; 3. “The philosophical manifest of the Historical School of Jurisprudence”; 4. “The positive philosophers”. Of these four treatises, only the third, a critical analysis of the Historical School of Jurisprudence, has been published, as an article in the Rheinische Zeitung. The others were never published, partly owing to repressive measures taken against the reviews in which they might have appeared. They have not even been preserved among Marx's manuscripts. But, in his letters to Ruge, Marx made some allusions to their content. The treatise on religious art originated as a treatise on Christian art, to be published as the second volume of the so-called Trumpet. The year before, the leader of the Young Hegelian school Bruno Bauer, had published an anonymous pamphlet with the title The Trumpet of the Last Judgment on Hegel the atheist and antichrist. An ultimatum. Affecting the standpoint of an orthodox Lutheran dismayed by the official approbation of Hegelianism, the pamphlet presented a series of quotations from Hegel, designed to show that he was not at all a pious conservative but a dangerous radical and atheist. Bauer had planned, in co-operation with Marx, to expand this pamphlet into a series of pamphlets under the same title, presenting a systematic exposition of Hegel's Aesthetics, Philosophy of Law, and so forth, in order to demonstrate that the Young Hegelian, not the Old Hegelian, school was truly loyal to the master's legacy. When censorship had frustrated this design, Marx rewrote his treatise under the title: “On religion and art, with particular reference to Christian art”; this new fashion, as he explains, had been liberated from the trumpet-like tone of the biblical prophetic style as with “The Lord roars from Zion”, as well as from the cumbersome restrictiveness of Hegel's presentation, which he had replaced with a more fundamental and freer presentation. The treatise had impelled him to discuss the general essence of religion, a theme which had brought him slightly into collision with Feuerbach, over the form, not the principle, of Feuerbach's approach. At all events, he concluded, so much the worse for religion.
Although the treatise itself has not been preserved, these clues are instructive enough. They inform us, first, about the intense interest Marx was showing, at this time, in the question of the essence of Christianity and of religion in general, which question he approached from the artistic viewpoint. For him this particular viewpoint was only one element of a larger whole, of which the political viewpoint was another aspect. In the same letter he comments on a recent declaration of the Prussian government regarding the scope of the law concerning crimes against the State and its officials. This leads Marx to make the biting observation that “a transcendental State and a positive religion belong together like a pocket-god and a pickpocket”. Furthermore, there would seem to be a close connection between his relationship to the Christian religion and his relationship to Hegel's philosophy. He begins to liberate himself from the pressure of the Christian tradition and, along with that, from the shackles of Hegel's system. The year before, Marx had read Feuerbach's recently published book, The Essence of Christianity; but in spite of his enthusiasm, he felt even at this early stage that his own approach was different.
The second of the four treatises mentioned by Marx in his letter to Ruge dealt with Romanticism. The title suggests a critical confrontation with an influential movement which, as we know from the poetry produced in his early academic years, had once fascinated him. In having it out with the Christian religion and with religion in general, he attempts at the same time to dispose of his own romanticist past. The fourth treatise is described by Marx as being directed against the “positive philosophers” whom, as he says with a touch of irony, “I have tickled a little”. We may infer from the title that this treatise contained a direct attack on the Old Hegelian school, which saw in Hegel's philosophy the mysteries of divine revelation confirmed and glorified.
The third treatise—the only one to have been preserved—contains a sharp attack on the so-called Historical School of Jurisprudence which Marx considered to be the culmination of reactionary political and juridical theory.
He stresses the fact that as far as their content is concerned these four treatises belong together. This is worth noting, since their paths lead in very different directions. The subjects cover a wide spectrum, ranging from romanticism, aesthetics, religious art and religion in general, via Hegel's philosophy, to the theory of law and State. Obviously, Marx views his arguments on all these divergent fronts in a single perspective.
However, Marx's confrontation with religious and political conservatism and more particularly with the Old Hegelian school, although important in itself, was less characteristic of his development than the encounter with his own confrères. Without this confrontation with others on the left, Marx would have been no more than a brilliant member of the Young Hegelian school; and his critique of religion would merely have added some literary touches to the already considerable amount of radically atheist polemics against the Christian religion and its established tradition. It is in his dialogue with the Young Hegelian school that the roots of Marx's critique of religion become visible. His critique proves to be directed not against religion as such but against an underlying tendency that can also be concealed in irreligious and atheistic theories. It is the tendency described in the preface to his dissertation as “speculation”. By introducing this term he succeeds in transposing the debate with religion to the general level of anthropology. At the same time, the term helps him to clarify his ambivalent relationship with Hegel's philosophy, since it is the speculative character of Hegel's thought which arouses his antagonism.
Marx's writings during the years 1843–47 witness to an ever more radical confrontation with the tendency to speculation wherever he meets it. It is noteworthy that even apart from those of his writings which contain his explicit and direct dealing with Hegel's philosophy, all his writings during these years are indirect attempts to settle accounts with speculation in its most perfect, that is, its Hegelian form. The article On the Jewish question was aimed at Bruno Bauer, the leader of the Young Hegelian school. It exposed Bauer's one-sided theological approach to the question of Jewish emancipation, which prevented him from getting down to the real point at issue, namely, a critique of politics. The content of this article was closely akin to that of another one published in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher of 1844, the Introduction to a critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law.
The argument was continued and enormously expanded in the book Marx wrote in co-operation with Engels during the autumn of the same year. The Critique of Critical Critique, directed at Bruno Bauer, his two brothers and their Young Hegelian colleagues—a group nicknamed “The Holy Family”—contained a series of devastating attacks on this post-Hegelian philosophy, which had turned the master's speculation into something like caricature. “The worst enemy of real humanism to be found in Germany,” runs the authors’ opening broadside in the Foreword, “is Spiritualism or speculative Idealism, which substitutes ‘self-consciousness’ or the ‘Spirit’ for real, individual man. It follows the teaching of the Gospel according to John: ‘It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail.’ Self-evidently, this fleshless spirit is only spirit in the imagination of this spiritualism. It is the complete caricature of speculation that we are combating in Bauer's critique. We consider it the most perfect expression of the Christian-German principle in its final attempt to assert itself by transforming ‘Critique’ into a transcendental power.” This book still presents Feuerbach's critique of Hegel as the true expression of “real humanism”, which had substituted “man” for the “old toggery” (an die Stelle des alten Plunders) of the “infinite self-consciousness”. It praises Feuerbach as the thinker who “completed and criticized Hegel from the Hegelian viewpoint, in that he dissolved the metaphysical absolute Spirit in the ‘real man based on nature’”. It was Feuerbach who “completed the critique of religion at the very moment he designed the great, nay, masterly, blueprint of a critique of Hegel's speculation, in a word, of all metaphysics”.
As a matter of fact, Feuerbach had criticized Hegel, but he did so from a Hegelian viewpoint. Feuerbach's real humanism was, in itself, a decisive step beyond Young Hegelian speculation, which remained imprisoned within the three elements of Hegel's philosophy: Spinoza's substance, Fichte's self-consciousness and the Hegelian absolute spirit as necessary-contradictory unity of substance and self-consciousness. Feuerbach had unmasked these elements as metaphysical travesties: substance is the metaphysical travesty of nature in its isolation from man: self-consciousness is the travesty of spirit in its isolation from nature; the absolute spirit is the metaphysically travestied unity of nature and spirit, that is, real man and the real human species.
Yet underneath the surface of this apparent agreement with Feuerbach's “real humanism”, Marx's crucial problem remained unanswered. No sooner had Marx, the exile from Paris, arrived in Brussels than, once again in co-operation with Engels, he was preparing a new book which contained a definitive confrontation with the diverse offshoots of the Young Hegelian school, including both Feuerbach and the so-called “true socialist” philosophers. This polemic, compiled little more than six months after “The Holy Family”, lumped them all together as representatives of “The German ideology”. Feuerbach's humanism, which in “The Holy Family” had still been approved as revealing the real basis of Hegelian speculation, was now in its turn unmasked as being merely a continuation of Hegelian speculation in a new form. Whereas Strauss and Bauer had worked with pure Hegelian categories, such as substance and self-consciousness, more recently Feuerbach and Max Stirmer had simply replaced these with mundane-sounding terms like man, human species and the individual. In other words, what until recently Marx had regarded as Feuerbach's exposé of Hegelian metaphysical speculation was now, conversely, unveiled as Feuerbach's profanation of Hegel, a secular translation of Hegelian speculation. Feuerbach turned out to have been incapable either of radically criticizing Hegel or of constructing a radical critique of religion.
The heart of the matter was a general failure of all German philosophical critique after Hegel. Basing itself on the foundation of the Hegelian system, it had reduced its critique to one of religious imaginings, it had remained a theological critique. The Young Hegelian school stood on the same ground as the Old Hegelian school, in that both believed in the dominance of religion, of concepts, of general ideas, over the existing world. The two schools parted company, in that this religious dominance was justified and sanctified by the Old Hegelian school, whereas it was assailed as usurpation by the Young Hegelians. This latter school was even arraigned by Marx as the main conservative force. Its critique fielded a recognition of the existing world. The result, that is to say, was the same; only the means, the interpretation, differed. Its revolution was carried out in the imaginary world of pure thought. To none of these critical philosophers has it occurred to question the relationship of their critique to their own material environment. Their German ideology turned out to be no more than a miserable reflection of the German situation. Or as Marx put it in his aphoristic comment on Feuerbach, written in the same year: “the philosophers have merely interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”
This radical attack on Hegelian speculation and its offshoots was at the same time Marx's definitive critique of what had initially been his own approach, as represented by his dissertation. Typically enough, Marx himself never explicitly acknowledged to what extent, in the years following upon his dissertation, his development had involved a departure from his original standpoint. In the years after 1848, his earlier writings seemed to him to be mere exercises, stages on the road which had led him to the final critique of political economy. For the observer trying, after the passage of a century, to survey Marx's career as a whole, the case is different. On closer analysis, the dilemma which had puzzled Marx when he was preparing and writing his dissertation proves to have been the crux which finally compelled him to look for a solution beyond the philosophical realm. It was the question of finding the Archimedean standpoint for a true critique of heaven, of theology, of religion.
Marx had chosen Epicurean philosophy as the perfect Greek example of the philosophy of self-consciousness. The choice expressed his acknowledgement of human self-consciousness as the highest divinity, impatient of any rival. It was an affirmation generally accepted by the Young Hegelian school at the time. However, it very soon appeared that although Marx might subscribe to the same creed, his perspective was fundamentally different from anything that his colleagues had in view. Less than four years later he rejected this philosophy of self-consciousness as merely a form of Hegelian speculation or, in other words, as an instance of German ideology. He concluded that no forms and products of consciousness can be overcome by theoretical critique, by resolution into “self-consciousness”, but only by the overthrow, in practice, of the actual social relations giving rise to this idealistic humbug; that not critique but revolution is the driving force of history, as also of religion, of philosophy, and of all other types of theory.
The pseudo-revolutionary idealism of this Young Hegelian philosophy was in Marx's view much like the self-deception of the eccentric who fought a life-long battle against the very idea of gravitation which, in his unbending opinion, was the cause of man's drowning in water. This comparison recalls the reference, in the preparatory studies for Marx's dissertation, to Epicurus as a lonely apostate from the gravitational field of nature, or, in other words, an apostate from the gravitational field of political and religious existence, the substantial bond which served to consolidate Greek life.
Marx refers in this passage to the substantial bond of Greek political and religious existence. Although, as we have observed in earlier lectures, in the preparatory studies, particularly in connection with the position of Socrates and Plato, the political aspect of this substantial dependence is explicitly discussed, the dissertation itself focuses attention exclusively on the religious side of Epicurus’ relationship to Greek life and thought. For the sake of our present argument, it may be useful to summarize the essential points of Marx's analysis. Epicurus’ original concept consisted in the notion of the declination of atoms from the straight line. The fall in a straight line, that is, the motion of gravity, reduces the atom to dependence upon the blind necessity of nature; its existence is purely material. The motion of declination from the straight line, therefore, constitutes the independence and freedom of the atom. In virtue of this deviation the atoms are purely autonomous bodies, or rather are bodies conceived in an absolute autonomy. In declination the real soul of the atom, the concept of abstract individuality, is represented.
Epicurus had in fact designed this concept by analogy with the motion of the heavenly bodies, which move not in straight but in oblique lines. The heavenly bodies are the highest representation of autonomy, of individuality, of weight. They are eternal and unchanging; they have their centre of gravity in themselves, not outside themselves. Separated by empty space, they deviate from the straight line, thus forming a system of repulsion and attraction in which they retain all their autonomy. Thus the heavenly bodies are atoms become real. In them matter has acquired individuality. Epicurus must have seen in this the highest existence of his principle element, the apex of his system. Nevertheless, he rebelled at this point against the consequence of his own philosophy and turned zealously against the worship of the heavenly bodies. This was his greatest inconsistency; and it was the deepest wisdom of his system that he should feel this and should express it consciously. Epicurus refused to follow the tradition of Greek philosophy which worshipped its own mind in autonomous nature, in the heavenly bodies. He opposed the view accepted by the Greeks as a whole, and so became the greatest Greek representative of Enlightenment.
This contradiction was rooted in the way Epicurus had designed his atomistic philosophy. The atom is a pure product of thought, its existence is a world of pure thought, empty space, annihilated nature. In so far as it comes into real existence it descends to a material basis which, as the vehicle of a world of multitudinous relations, never exists except in its external form. The atom, conceived as an abstract and complete particular substance, cannot affirm itself as an idealizing and dominating power over that multiplicity. Abstract particularity is freedom from being, not freedom in being. Therefore, the atom does not manifest itself in the light of appearance; or it descends 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 substance.
The crucial point is that not only the atom but also the totality of atoms, the atomistic world, exists as pure ideality. It is owing to the declination of atoms from the straight line, that is, by the negation of the natural necessity of gravitation, that the atoms encounter one another. If the atoms were not accustomed to decline, neither repulsion nor encounter would have arisen, and the world would never have been created. For the atoms are their own unique object and have reference only to themselves. Consequently, expressed in terms of space, they meet one another only when every relative aspect of their being, in which they are related to something else, is negated. This relative existence is their original motion, that of falling in a straight line. Thus they meet only through their declination. The immediate existing individual is realized according to its concept only in so far as it refers to another which is itself, even if the other thing appears as its opposite, in the form of immediate existence. 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. 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.
It is obvious from this summary that already in his dissertation Marx has drawn a parallel between the world of atoms, as conceived by Epicurus in his philosophy of nature, on the one hand, and the world of man, on the other. He even finished this chapter with an explicit reference to more concrete forms of repulsion instanced by Epicurus: “in the political sphere it is the contract, in the social sphere friendship, which is praised as the highest.” Marx did not, however, elaborate or explain this analogy. The theme of his dissertation was Epicurus’ act of rebellion against the religious tradition of Greek philosophy, a rebellion which went completely against the logic of Epicurus’ own atomistic philosophy. The political aspect of Greek life was passed over in silence in the dissertation; but in the preparatory studies Marx made a memorable reference to the political implications. Analysing the way in which Epicurus’ concept of the declination and repulsion of the atoms has been dramatized in Lucretius’ famous poem, Marx extols Lucretius as the true Roman epic poet who celebrates the substance of the Roman spirit. This Epicurean world, created by the mutual repulsion of completely autonomous atoms, reflects the bellum omnium contra omnes, the war of all men against all men, the rigid form of self-sufficiency, in a word, a nature become godless and a God become worldless.
The congeniality to which Marx refers between Epicurus’ world of atoms and the Roman view of society as a world of self-sufficient individuals is the hidden link between his dissertation and the writings and activities of his later years, in fact, of the remainder of his life. The fundamental issue, discussed in his dissertation in relation to the religious sphere, is in later years transposed to the political and economic realm. But the issue remains essentially the same. Remarkable evidence of this essential continuity is provided by a passage in the book The Holy Family.
The passage contains an attack on Bruno Bauer's political philosophy, notably on Bauer's thesis that the state is necessary in order to hold together the individual, egoistic atoms of civil society. Marx refutes this thesis by analysing the difference between civil society and the world of atoms. Without mentioning Epicurus, he takes up, in fact, the theme of his dissertation. He begins by demonstrating that, in the exact and prosaic sense of the word, the members of civil society are not atoms. Characteristic of atoms is the very quality of having no qualities at all, so that they have no relationship to other entities conditioned by natural necessity. The atom has no needs, is self-sufficient; the world outside the atom is the absolute void, is without content, meaningless; for the atom possesses in itself the fullness of its totality.
Marx then goes on to admit that in fact this atomic world does bear a resemblance to the structure of civil society. The egoistic individual within civil society may indeed believe himself to be an atom, that is to say, a relationless, self-sufficient, absolutely satiated, blissful being which does not need anything outside itself. But this belief is completely illusory. It consists in an unsensuous imagination, a lifeless abstraction whereby man inflates himself to the magnitude of an atom. This delusion is in total conflict with the joyless reality conveyed by the senses, which is not at all concerned with man's imagination. Man is forced by each of his senses to acknowledge the reality of the world and of the individuals outside himself; and even by his profane stomach he is reminded every day of the fact that the world outside himself is not empty but is the very source of fullness. Every activity and quality of man, every passion, becomes a dependence, a need whereby his egocentricity is turned into a desire for other things and other human beings outside himself. However, the egoistic individual has no self-evident awareness that he needs another egoistic individual in order to satisfy his needs. This relationship has therefore to be created by every individual, in that he becomes a procurer, as it were, between the alien need and the object of this need. Consequently, it is by sheer natural necessity, that is, by those human qualities which men apprehend as alienated from their own essence, in other words, by interests (Interesse) that the fellow members of civil society are held together. Their real bond is civil life, not political life. It is not by the state that atoms of civil society are held together, but by the fact that they are atoms merely in their own imagination, in the heaven of their fantasy, whilst in reality they are vastly different from atoms, being not divine egoists, but egoistic human beings. Today only crass political ignorance could lead us to suppose that civil life must be held together by the state. The truth is that the state is held together by civil life.
Here, at last, Marx applies his analysis of Epicurean philosophy to the political domain. The inner contradictions of Epicurus’ theoretical philosophy of self-consciousness had induced him to turn his back upon Greek religion; but those contradictions proved insoluble in the philosophical dimension. The practical solution which he found in the wisdom of perfect self-sufficiency was in line with his theoretical philosophy; but it offered a solution to its inner contradiction only in his imagination. While it was his greatness to have rebelled against the Greek concept of the cosmos, at the same time he rang down the curtain on the Greek polis and anticipated the Roman era. Marx completed for the modern era the task which had been accomplished by Epicurus for the Roman era. He turned the critique of heaven into a critique of earth, the critique of theology into a critique of politics.