1. The Epicurean Marx


May 26th, 2020

16 mins 48 secs

Your Host

About this Episode

Hello, my name is Lelyn R. Masters, and I believe the world is round.

I want to talk today about whether human beings can make a better world. The matter is usually treated as an article of faith either to be accepted or rejected based on how one feels or based on a sense one has from their life experiences. But I want to talk about it seriously, as one who believes in freedom and as someone who for better and for worse after all that has happened finds himself constrained to remain a Marxist. I hope to make these things clearer before the end of this podcast.

There is a certain Marx I’d like to help excavate, the Epicurean Marx. In 2018, who teaches the History of Philosophy in Milan Italy published Marx, Epicurus and the origins of Historical Materialism. I want to describe here the main arguments of that book, which develops the idea that Epicurean philosophy informs the whole of Marx’s work. In 1841 Marx finished a doctoral thesis entitled “The Difference Between Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature.” As the title suggests Marx therein lays out a parting of the ways between two of antiquity’s first and greatest materialists. Already I think you should be able to tell that Marx is going to be a particular kind of materialist. What you don’t get from the title is the fact that Marx is in dialogue here with Hegel, who he is going to identify with Democritus, and that in lifting up Epicurus he is breaking with Hegel in a particular way. We note in passing that Marx’s dissertation is not taken very seriously in the Marxist tradition, a point we will come back to later.
When Democritus looks out on the world he imagines that his senses must be kidding him. He imagines that the world and everything in it are made of atoms, that is the smallest part of substance that cannot be divided again, but he cannot see atoms. So, he concludes that the senses are lying and that only abstract reason can lead us to knowledge of the truth. Epicurus, by contrast, believes that the world is as it appears, more or less. The appearance of the world may be misleading at times, but it is not separate from the truth. To Epicurus, we should choose to accept that the world is as we experience it because doing so is the best path to happiness. Democritus famously scoured the world looking for the truth and not finding it: mainly because he thought that the truth should exist beyond his own experience. Epicurus, famously, was content to stay in his garden his whole life, content that knowledge of that garden was as good a way to know the world as traveling everywhere, just as limited, just as real. Both men were atomists, that is they both believed that the world was made up of atoms, but crucially Epicurus believed there was a connection between the atoms of the world and the images of the world that appear to us. What was more important to Marx was the claim that Epicurus made that atoms had to swerve.

That the world was made of atoms didn’t explain how things change, and it seems that things in the world were always changing. So, for both Democritus and for Epicurus the atoms had to be in motion. So, imagine the atoms are all falling. That was their creation myth. According to Marx it was Epicurus who added to the notion that the atoms as they fall must divert their path somewhat, and that the ensuing collisions create the world as we know it. It’s not a bad theory for a couple of dudes who didn’t have microscopes or telescopes. In reality Democritus did believe in the swerve the atoms make, what they called clinamen, but what’s important for us is that Marx prefers Epicurus for the fact that the latter’s science (1) affirms that the world we experience is real and (2) insists that the world as we know it changes in ways that are only somewhat predictable. Here is what Epicurus says about the gods, and this gets to the heart of what he thinks about reality, divinity and our ability to understand the real and the divine: “Not the man who denies the gods worshipped by the multitude, but he who affirms of the gods what the multitude believes about them, is truly impious.” (66). Note how important to Epicurus is the individual’s ability to reason beyond convention! Let’s point out here a couple things that Marx must believe about science given that he is an Epicurean. (1) Marx must think that the job of the scientist, of the political thinker, of the philosopher, must first of all be open to the world presenting her with unexpected events, and that we need a multitude of different points of view to understand them. That’s what the world is there for: to surprise us. That’s why we are all different people: so that we can hear all the things about god that are not part of our limited experience. (2) That the purpose of science is not an abstract knowledge, but a useful knowledge. Science is meant to help make us happy.
I guess people probably know that Marx is not an idealist, or at least they know that he is a materialist. But, the way in which he imagines the material world doesn’t rule out that we can change it with ideas. On the contrary, Marx is an Epicurean, and so he believes we should take in the accident filled world, and then work to change it based on what will make us happy. Or, in other words, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” (from Eleven Theses on Feuerbach, this quote is also on Marx’s grave).
To the ancient Greeks the sky was where we could observe the actions of divinity, where the gods acted. To Epicurus, and then also for Marx, the phenomena of the sky could not be reduced to a single meaning or purpose. To both men phenomena invoked a plurality of explanations, and for the scientist it was important first of all to not skip the phenomenon altogether, to not elide them by explaining them beforehand as the actions of a God or gods. Fusaro comments: “It is not important how the sunset is explained, but it is important not to leave any room for myths where the heavenly bodies are inhabited by gods or move according to a specific purpose. These daydreams, aside from failing to explain what really happens, induce fear and the subjugation of human beings to the gods” (48). Marx is connecting here the Spinozan concept of freedom to the idea of the truth. Spinoza’s idea of freedom is relative ability, and ultimately it’s going to be grounded in how cooperative society is because cooperation is what unlocks human potential. We should come back to Spinoza, but for the moment we underscore that for Marx if our belief about something doesn’t make us more free, then it is not worth believing, and that in the struggle for a better understanding we can be more free. “Marx observes that, for Epicurus, if we do not know every aspect of the celestial phenomena, it does not mean that we need to be afraid, as it follows from this that we can never know, simply that we do not know just yet. This does not forbid us in the future to learn what we do not know now...Epicurus’ contention against astronomers fits perfectly in this context: astronomers claim to know the causes of celestial phenomena but by being upset, full of fear, and ultimately, unhappy, their astronomical knowledge is useless. For Epicurus, it is not important to concretely know how eclipses happen or how the sun rises. From the ethical vantage point it is important to know that these phenomena have one or more rational explanations. This implies the admission that there are no zones inaccessible to reason. As Marx underlines, the multiplicity of explanations has a fundamental function for ethics… Marx insists that, since a sky governed by perfect and inflexible laws would make us feel inferior and scare us, Epicurus does not hesitate to overturn the perspective: in the sky, there is nothing that behaves in an absolutely determined and unitary way. All is rational but imperfect, with the consequence that there is no ontological difference between sky and Earth; unlike the dichotomy posited by Aristotle and almost all Greek philosophers. The sky is like the Earth and has nothing to be feared or worshiped as divine” (49-50). A more complete revindication of democracy and free speech one cannot find. Marx prefers a natural, physical realm where anything is possible, where we possess a freedom that can change our reality. He goes on to claim that because we are free so far as our relationships with the rest of humanity allow, our highest goal is a greater freedom in socially coordinated action and living. Socialism! This freedom is not just to sell one’s labor but is also freedom from hunger, for instance.
Marx’s attitude regarding religion is that of Prometheus, who steals the divine flame from the gods and brings it down to earth. Most Marxists imagine Marx’s serious thinking begins with The Holy Family, where Marx breaks from the other left Hegelians. This group believed that religious superstition had to be overcome first for humanity to reach freedom. Marx brings this critique down from olympus and applies it to worldly authorities. He’s the thinker who said that the material alienation of the worker is first before the alienation from the world into religious experience. In other words, it’s the lack of the lower classes’ ability to command the wealth they produce that makes them imagine a religious otherworld. The idea of heaven can be a trap. It deprives us of freedom if we imagine that a better world only exists after death, or in some beyond unreachable. Marx’s break with the left Hegelians is over their belief that getting rid of religion will free humanity, instead Marx affirms that only by addressing the concrete forms of unfreedom can we hope to liberate people from mythologized understandings. Only when freed from material oppression can humanity find in its own activity the divine. Moreover, The Holy Family is where Marx insists that because humanity is not meant by a divine order to be any particular way, because the hierarchies of church and state are not a part of any divine order, and people want to be free that they will want to maximize their freedom in the most powerful social organization possible. For Marx, the right of all people to a greater freedom finds its highest expression in socialism. “Marx’s certainty is that the historical roots and the theoretical starting point of Communism ought to be found in the Materialist theorem by which circumstances form human beings and, in order to transform human beings, circumstances must be transformed. If it is true that materialism lays on this theorem, then it is also true that materialism can only lead to Communism. Epicurus felt it as a problem, but the solution he gave was merely ideal: for him, to change men, it was enough to change the idea of reality and thus ensure for men a happy life. Epicureanism answered to this need, as Marx observed in his dissertation. In his philosophy Epicurus imagined a mankind-oriented reality: a reality in which gods do not bother our world, celestial bodies behave in different ways, a man can act freely, and so on...Epicurus glimpsed, thanks to the theory of clinamen [the swerving of atoms] the possibility of man’s self-determination, the possibility of changing circumstances. Therefore, the greatness of Epicurus’ thought has found that Materialist current that flows into Communism.” (95). Why communism? Because like Spinoza Marx thinks that we are most free when we work together harmoniously with other people. From The Holy Family: “If man is social by nature, he will develop his true nature only in society, and the power of his nature must be measured not by the power of separate individuals but by the power of society.” (Marx and Engels p176). This is the philosophical heart of Marxism: human freedom to create the circumstances to transcend our social hierarchies.

On this side of the 20th century, with the horror of Stalinism between us and Marx, it is hard to recognize in socialism Marx’s insistence on human freedom. But then, Marxists throughout that history have not all understood their science in Epicurean terms, that is as being fundamentally oriented towards human happiness, towards ethics.

So, the fact that Marx’s Epicureanism isn’t taken seriously by the subsequent Marxist tradition has certain consequences. We would expect such an omission to cause Marxists to speak of iron laws of necessity, to downplay the role of human agency and freedom and to reject free speech and open debate. The dogmatic explanation of all things in terms of class has often taken the part of proposing a kind of divine order, imposed on us from without. A whole life’s intellectual work could go into telling the story of how closely the Marxist tradition conforms to this image of dogmatic mechanical determinism, and how far Marxists in power have gone to frustrate human liberty. Suffice it to say that there are Marxists who step out of this trend, and that there are many more who do not. In the episodes of this podcast, each composed of several book reports, I aim to speak to different struggles, historical moments and controversies that seem to highlight the status of this concept of freedom that seems to me so essential to Marx’s project. We’ll come back around to a discussion of where this history leaves us, since this project is a political almanac, undertaken with, I hope, as large an openness as I can manage to the facts in the conviction that we are free to change the world. The word “almanac” comes from the Arabic word meaning “the climate.” In other words, this podcast suggests itself as an exploration of the conditions under which we toil to get free. I couldn’t set out on this project if I wasn’t already at peace with the fact that I’ll be putting forward what I as a finite and limited person have come to understand, but if I really think we can change things, if I really think that hope is an essential part of knowledge, then I can’t not make the attempt. I hope you will come along with me, and I welcome your comments and questions, because confirmed Marxist as I am I am convinced that I cannot get free without your help.

Art by: Erin Bakken

Music by: Harry Koniditsiotis