EPICURUS AND MARX
Translated by Pedro Sette Câmara
§16. Epicurus and Marx
Epicurus inverts, as seen on § 10, the logical relationship between practice and theory. If normally theory is the logical basis of practice and if the latter is the exemplification of the first in the level of facts, in Epicureanism practice is what produces the psychological conditions which will make the theory believable, and the theoretical discourse will be nothing but the discursive element of practice, the translation into speech of the belief produced by habit. The Epicurean theory does not describe the perceived world, but its practice alters, by way of exercises, the perception of the world so that it becomes similar to the theory. The point is not to understand the world, but to transform it.
It is likely that the reader will have recognised the last sentence: it is Karl Marx's 11th Thesis on Feuerbach. Everything leads us to believe that the time Marx devoted to the study of the philosophy of Epicurus – the subject of his doctoral thesis – has left on the final version of Marxism much deeper traces than what is generally supposed by scholars and the mature Karl Marx would like to let show. The Marxist symbiosis of theory and practice does not come from Hegel – it is actually an Epicurean inheritance. However, what happens is that this symbiosis, abolishing the normal distance between the plane of action and that of speculation, suppresses, in both Marxist and Epicurean Philosophy, the difference between the actual and the possible, precipitating us into a hallucinatory crisis where the theoretical detachment which is the foundation of the very notion of objective truth1 disappears. The desire, the impetus, the ambition – either of the individual soul or of the revolutionary masses – becomes the sole foundation of a world vision in which theory has no purpose, except as a rhetoric stimulant of practical action, or, once any given action has been taken, to endorse whatever resulted from it. Even if the effects of any such action are quite different from what had been expected, there will not be enough critical detachment to appreciate them, and they will not only be accepted but also celebrated as normal and desirable: theory here has no independent value, being reduced to an a posteriori rationalisation, to a praise of the irrevocable facts. The capacity of the world’s left to justify the worst atrocities of the communism regime in the name of a humanitarian utopia – and, after the end of communism in the USSR, to go on preaching socialist ideals as if there were no intrinsic relationship between them and what happened in the Soviet inferno – is a morbid inheritance that came from Epicureanism through Marx. It is no surprise that the outcome of the evolution of a century of Marxist thought was Antonio Gramsci, the theorist of "absolute historicism", who clearly states what in Marx was only implicit and insinuated: the elimination of the concept of objective truth and the submission of every cognitive activity to the goals and criteria of the revolutionary praxis; the absorption of logic on rhetoric, and of science on ideological propaganda2. It is also understandable that in another parallel line of this evolution, leading to Reich and Marcuse, erotic desire and not the force of objective economic causes be the true engine of progress and revolution. These developments disclose to the light of day tendencies which were already latent as traces from his Epicurean origins. The fact that they have risen again through the evolution of Marxism shows that Marx knew how to tread them down, but not how to overcome them. In vain, Marxist thinkers like Lukács or Horkheimer, who were more in tune with the classical traditions of the West and anxious to include Marx in the Canon, protested against the invasion of irrationalism which, mainly from the 60’s on, ended up contaminating all of the world’s left: as Dr. Freud would say, the rejected past returns with double the strength3.
Marxism and Epicureanism seem to go in opposite directions: the latter flees from the world in order to remain shut up in the garden with the elected ones, whereas the first reaches out to the collective action which will transform the world. But the difference is rather one of scale than of nature: in both cases, we are talking about enveloping human beings in an all-absorbing and hypnotic praxis, which will forever safeguard them from the temptation of objectivity, leaving no space for theoretical detachment and imprisoning all intellectual energies in a closed circuit of rhetorical self-persuasion. The point is to neutralise human intelligence, to make it run after utopian goals which, by way of an infernal dialectics that transfigures every defeat in a sign of close victory, will absorb it the more completely as the actual achievements fall short of the dreamed finalities. Only this can explain the phenomenon of thousands of intellectuals who have refused, through a whole century, to see the evils of communism, or, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, to acknowledge any relationship between these evils and the socialist ideal. Truly, is it not the effect of a peculiar scotoma that leftist intellectuals see in any movement of the right, however small, the signs of nazi-fascist insurrection and, on the other hand, that they believe the socialist ideal to have immaculately emerged from the Gulag? Is it not strangely morbid that the ideology which reduces the actions of individuals to the mere expression of deep ideological biases explains the sixty million victims of Stalin as the result of one man’s accidental evilness, with no root at all in the ideology he professed? That the intransigent defenders of the concept of society as a substantial whole, as an organic block in which ideology and practice are inherently bounded, explain the crimes of the Soviet government as accidental deviations completely alien to Marxist ideology? Is it not something really sick the obstinacy in keeping Karl Marx’s figure – or Lenin’s – free from any contamination with the crimes of the Soviet dictatorship, when even Christ himself was held responsible for the cruelties of the Inquisition? Is it not odd that, after all that was revealed about the communist tyranny, socialism still be a respectable ideal, whereas crimes on a much lesser scale have been enough to blood-stain forever the image of Italian and Spanish fascism, or of Latin-American dictatorships? Finally, is it not an intellectual anomaly that the philosophy which most emphasised the social and historical rooting of abstract concepts – condemning as "metaphysics" any acknowledgement of non-historical or supra-historical evidence – now try to present socialism as an essence most pure, uncontaminated by one whole century of communist experiment? How to explain the obstinate blindness of philosophers, of intellectuals, of artists, among which can be found some of the most remarkable people of this century, if not through the amazing illusionist power that is inherent to the very root of Marxism, through its almost diabolical ability to transfigure the appearance of things, leading people to see things different from what they are?
Marx had, personally, a tremendous sense of drama, of pretending, of prestidigitation; this has been established by his biographers accurately enough4. But that alone cannot endow his philosophy with such power to elude consciousness. However, once we point that the first interest of the young Marx was on the prince of philosophical illusionists, and, following that, we find in both Epicurus and Marx the premeditated and hallucinating confusion of theory in practice and practice in theory to be identical, then we realise the inexhaustible virulence of the Epicurean heritage, resisting through the millennia and reviving at every new cyclical effort to establish somewhere the kingdom of imposture.
§17. Comments on the "11th Thesis on Feuerbach"
Antes que te derribe, olmo del Duero,
ANTONIO MACHADO, "A un olmo seco"
I can give a more detailed explanation and a more "technical" grounding to what has been said on the latter §. Should the reader skip directly to §18, he shall not miss the argument’s thread, but will deprive himself of a more rigorous – and boring – demonstration.
On "11th Thesis on Feuerbach"5, Marx says that:
"The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it."
1. To whom is this summons directed? If Marx is reporting himself, in this thesis, to the traditional concepts of theoria and praxis, we must admit that, truly, philosophers have always busied themselves with the interpretation of the world, with the making of theories, because they thought it to be their specific job, that which distinguished them from other men, who in their turn were involved with praxis and had no interest on theoria, or on the contemplation of truth. In adopting the attitude which was contrary to that of most men, philosophers were a dialectic counterweight of praxis: contemplative life opposed itself to active life. Well, if non-philosophers have always been busy transforming the world while the philosopher was contemplating and interpreting it, what sense would it make in summoning them to a praxis in which they have been involved by immemorial habit, and which they never thought of abandoning? Such cannot be the meaning of Marx’s thesis. His summons is not directed to men in general, taken indiscriminately, much less to the men of praxis, but specifically to philosophers. They were the ones who have been busy only with the interpretation of the world. Therefore, it is them who must be summoned to a change of attitude. The 11th Thesis on Feuerbach proposes, essentially, a change in the attitude of the philosopher as such. It is not the establishment of a new praxis, but a new kind of theoria, which, in its turn, consists of praxis.
2. In order to understand in what consists this change, we have to understand the former attitude. In what consists the interpretative attitude which Marx opposes to the transforming attitude? Since theoria and praxis are classical concepts of Greek philosophy, we must turn ourselves to it. (It is true that the term praxis has, in Marxism, a different and specific meaning, but that makes no difference, for if the Greek philosophers Marx had in mind made theoria, as opposed to praxis, we cannot presume they possibly had in mind the Marxist understanding of the word praxis, but rather the Greek understanding.)
In Greek philosophy, the word theoria had a precise meaning. It was related to the notions of logos ("reason" or "language"), of eidos ("idea" or "essence"), of ón ("patency", "unveiling", "disclosing of the occult truth".)
The theoretical man, the philosopher, did not spend his time with contemplation in the general sense, with looking in the sense that other men could, them too, contemplate and look. As an example, all men contemplated theatre shows, the beauty of human beings and of the landscape etc. The common man’s contemplation could have amusement, aesthetic, utilitarian or whatever purposes. But not the philosopher’s. It was a very specific kind of contemplation, one that had a specific motivation and a specific goal, which made it a precisely philosophical contemplation and nothing else. The philosopher would contemplate things in order to grasp their essence (eidos), making patent (aletheia) their true being (ón); after that, the philosopher stated (logos) what this thing was, making patent (aletheia) the true being (ón) which was hidden.
To put it in another way, to the philosopher, phenomena were signs which he deciphered in search of the meaning or essence. From sign to meaning, the interpretative key was reason or logos. Through reason, the philosopher could jump from a level to another: from the level of unstable, deceiving phenomena to the level of essences, of true being. This level was considered to be superior, for it comprised and surpassed the world of phenomena (it contains all manifest phenomena, plus numberless non-manifest essences or possibilities), besides being stable, immutable, and eternal. This attitude became more defined and self-conscious from the time of Platonism, but it was already the attitude of the Eleatic philosophers. It is an attitude based altogether on the belief that all facts and all beings are phenomena – "appearances" – of something: they are exteriorisations or exemplifications of essences or possibilities eternally contained in the Divine Intelligence. The Greek Philosopher contemplated things, therefore, sub specie æternitatis, that is, in the category of eternity, under the light of eternity; he looked for their eternal meaning above their transitory and phenomenic appearance. This contemplation therefore bestowed on things a superior dignity and reality and a superior ontological consistence. As regards the ends of this analysis, the difference between Platonism and Aristotelism is of lesser importance. For Plato, essences constituted a separated and transcendent world; for Aristotle, the intelligible core was immanent to the sensible world; however, in both cases there is a passage from immediate phenomena to a more permanent and deep layer.
The interpretation (hermeneia) of appearances consisted on this rise on the ontological level, from the phenomenic being up to the essential being. The term hermeneia derives from the name of the god Hermes, or Mercury, the god psicopompo, that is, "guide of the souls", whose duty was taking them up and down through the worlds or planes of reality, from the sensible to the intelligible, from the particular, transitory and apparent to the universal and stable. On this consisted, basically, the interpretative attitude of the Greek philosopher.
3. What is the essential difference between the contemplating or interpretative attitude and the transforming attitude, that is, what is the essential difference between theoria and praxis?
3.1. Theoria, in elevating the object to the level of its idea, essence, or archetype, catches the set of possibilities of which this object is the particular and concrete manifestation. As a case in point, the archetype of "horse", the possibility of "horse", can manifest itself through black, speckled, Arab, percherons or quarter horses, in horses we may ride for our sport and horses that help us doing some work. It can manifest itself in prosaic cart horses or in famous, almost-personalised horses like that of Alexander the Great. It can manifest itself in mythical beings which "participate in horsehood", like Pegasus or the unicorn, each one bearing in its own turn a set of symbolic intentions and significations. Finally, reason, upon investigating the being of the object, elevates the latter up to its ultimate nucleus of possibilities, rescuing it from its empirical accidentality, and restoring, so to speak, its "eternal" sense. The "practical" consequence that comes from it is portentous. In knowing an archetype, I not only know what the something is, both actually and empirically, but everything that it can be, all the latency of possibilities it can manifest and is insinuated behind its particular manifestation, located in space and time.
Praxis, on the contrary, transforms the object, that is, it actualises one of the possibilities, causing all the others to be immediately excluded. Let us take an example – say, a tree. If I investigate the object "tree" in order to attain to its archetype, I become conscious of what "tree" is, of what it could be, of what it can mean to me and to others, I can look at it on different planes of reality etc. But, if I transform the tree in a chair, it no longer can be transformed in table or in wardrobe, much less in a tree. From chair, it can only be transformed in an old chair, and after that, in trash.
3.2 The philosopher, therefore, takes the immediate sensible appearance as a sign or as a symbol of a being. To the praxis man, however, the appearance of things is always the raw material for the desired transformations. Theoretical investigation considers a being in the set of possibilities that contain it, explaining and integrating it in the total sense of reality. Praxis, on the other hand, limits its possibilities by irrevocably actualising one of them. For theoria, a being is above all its form in the Aristotelian sense, that is, that which makes it what it is; whereas for praxis a being is above all matter, that is, that which allows it to become something which it is not. This opposition must not be mistaken for that of the "static" and the "dynamic", because internal dynamic is part of the form – e.g. the form of a seed is the complete plant which the seed is able to become. To put it more correctly, we can say that theoria is concerned with what a being is in itself and by itself, and praxis is concerned with what it is not, in the secondary being, and sometimes in the false being or parody of being that can be produced from it. It was on this perspective that the Hindu doctrines denied that action could bring any knowledge of any kind. Action produces only transformation, a flow of impressions, illusion, which we can leave only through posterior reflexive detachment, through theoretical and critical "denial" of the consummated action: the philosophic soul, a latent potency in homo sapiens, only is actualised as a reflection over the delusions of the homo faber6.
3.3 Should praxis require any theory, such theory will not consider the nature of a being, and will not attempt to make an investigation of what place a being occupies in the total body of reality, but rather only in what it can be transformed in the next moment, not by its own internal dynamic, but by force of human intervention. Such theory will not be a theory of the object, but a theory of the action the object may suffer. It is not a theory of being, but a theory of praxis. Since praxis is always human action, then every object will always be considered under only one category: the category of passion, that is, of the transforming actions it may suffer. The point is no more to understand what is a horse or a tree, or their place in reality, but rather what I can do, within my own personal range of interests, with the tree or the horse, independently of what they are. I can, as case in point, burn the tree or eat the horse: if theory respected the ontological and even physical integrity of the object, praxis begins by denying it, that is, by not admitting that the object is what it is and by demanding that it be transformed in something else: it does not interpret, but it transforms.
3.4 It should be evident that the case here is not to condemn praxis over some utopian contemplative life, but only to restore the sense of a hierarchy of values that seems to be inherent to the structure of any sane human individual. The transforming praxis concerns essentially the means: since every transformation is intended to produce some result or end, the object submitted to it is always and necessarily a means and only a means. It is a means or an instrument the land which man works, and so are means and instruments the sheep he feeds and kills and the tree he throws down. Work is a means and an instrument, as well as capital. Whatever is a means or an instrument is worth nothing by itself but only by something else: the means or instrument is an intermediary, a transition or a passage, something that will be left at a certain point and surrender its place to the ends. Man’s universal tendency to save effort testifies to the subjection of the means to the ends.
Inversely, something which is an end, something that is worth in itself, cannot be the object of transforming praxis, but of contemplation and love. As Miguel de Unamuno used to say, "the car is useful because I can use it to go to the house of my beloved; but what’s the usefulness of my beloved?". I may, of course, lower her to a means or an instrument of my pleasure, but on that case I no longer have any love for her, but for pleasure in itself7. The loved object, if it is truly loved, is not a means, but an end. We do not desire to change it, to transform it or to use it for some other purpose, but we desire rather to enjoy its presence without causing it any alteration, without changing it in the slightest detail8. On the contrary, in contemplating and in loving it is us who transform ourselves: "The lover is transformed in his beloved", in the famous verse by Luís de Camões.
Therefore, there are some aspects of reality which can only be known through praxis and others through theoria. But praxis acts necessarily by denying the object, by reducing it to a mere means and instrument, and theoria by the affirmation of its plenitude and of its worth as an end. It becomes evident, then, that:
3.4.1 There is a different dosage of theoria and praxis for the knowledge of the various kinds of beings: whatever is to me a means and an instrument can only be known by use; that which is an end and worth in itself can only be known by me as long as I contemplate it, love it, and defend its ontological integrity against any attempt to transform it in something else. Van Gogh knew brushes and ink as he used them, and on their use they were finished. But I know Van Gogh’s pictures as they are kept intact for my contemplation.
3.4.2 In the realm of physical beings, there is no pure praxis nor pure contemplation. There are only doses of them, according to the scale of the ends’ worth and to the opportunity of the means. Only the supreme end can be the object of pure contemplation. Only the utterly insignificant object, without any ontological consistence and worth of itself can be submitted to pure praxis. Both of these limits are metaphysical, and never reached within the world of physical experience.
3.4.3 However, there is a clear hierarchical distinction: contemplation, being the objective and finality, has a primacy over praxis, which, all in all, has no purpose but to cast away the obstacles that separate us from contemplative enjoyment. Man does not transform what pleases him, but what does not please him: he gives himself up in contemplation for his own joy, and in praxis because of necessity (even though there is, of course, a fun and contemplative element in praxis that makes work pleasing in itself and that grants it worth that is independent from its practical usefulness.)
3.4.4. From all that is above said we conclude that to put praxis as a foundation and supreme value of human knowledge is to bring in the reign of means in spite of the ends; it is to invert the meaning of every human action and to deny the ontological consistence of reality. It is to consider reality in its totality – including man and his History, as well as the set of individual actions made by human beings – as an immense instrument without any finality. It is to transform the universe in a banana-straightening machine.
Here are in Marx the roots of the "nietzscheization" of the left, in which many theoreticians, aroused in scandal, will see a betrayal of Marxism. The philosophy of praxis contains, in its core, the denial of the sense of reality, and the praise of absurdity, which may not be explicit but remains nonetheless potent. It is obviously an unconscious Epicurean heritage, rescued after the world crisis of Marxism, when the left’s intellectuals went on a mass indulging on a pseudo-heroism of nonsense, exalting themselves for continuing to defend social ideals which, in a senseless world, can only consist in a Nietszschean affirmation of the will to power, or in a gratuitous and arbitrary clinamen which some, for pedantism or for fun, oppose to the gratuitous and arbitrary clinamen of the atoms9. The tough materialist wants to be a Clint Eastwood of philosophy, brave over his horse, looking with indifference to the random movements of the atoms in the prairie and showing contempt for the weak who need a meaning for life. The lonely knight in the desert of absurd synthesises Marx, Nietzsche and Epicurus.
3.5.There is a curious parallelism between the notions of ‘object of theory’ and ‘object of praxis’ on one side, and, on the other side, between ‘use value’ and ‘exchange value’. The ‘use value’ of an object is, in a certain way, a property, a quality inherent to it, something that is part of its ontological consistence, whereas the ‘exchange value’ is an accident, as Marx himself points out: it depends on historical circumstances which have nothing to do with the nature of the object. One of the moral reproaches Marxism makes to capitalism is that the exchange value ends up devouring the use value until it disappears, until it makes all objects exist only as ‘merchandise’, as in the famous boutade of Bertolt Brecht: "I don’t know what it is. I only know the price". It is the same as saying that capitalism absorbs the category of substance in the category of passion. Whether capitalism really does it or this is just rhetoric figure, an exaggeration, is something worth investigating. Nonetheless, in Karl Marx’s philosophy such an inversion is obvious, and in this case the reproach Marx makes to capitalism loses objective consistency, being reduced to a mere projection: Marx reproaches capitalism for something that is not necessarily in capitalism, but on his own subconscious mental patterns.
3.6 Being a theory of action and not of the object, praxis will not acknowledge on the object any aspect other than that of its immediate ‘transformability’. Even without knowing what a tree is, I can use the wood to make a table or a bookshelf. Praxis will, finally, deny the world and phenomena an ontological consistence of their own, one that man is able to know: it will liquefy all individual essences in raw material for more praxis and that will result in a new and much more radical type of subjective idealism, for the objective world is nothing but the stage for praxis. Theory will say nothing of the objects as they are, but only as they can be under hammer and forge.
It would be interesting to investigate how such a thing could be conciliated with the alleged "materialism" of Marxism, for Marxism reveals itself rather a subjective idealism, in the strict and almost ‘Fichtean’ sense, with the only difference that its subject is not the human individual, but the whole of historical mankind, before whose praxis the natural universe – ‘matter’ – loses all substantiality and is reduced to mere raw material of human action, lowering nature to the status of ancilla industriæ. It is this characteristic of collective subjective idealism that grants Marxism its tremendous illusionist power to drunken and pervert, of which men of great intelligence sometimes are contaminated.
However, when I consider how small is the extension of the material universe reached by human action (which amounts to part of the Earth’s surface), and how infinite is the extension of celestial worlds which we cannot transform but only contemplate, I ask myself if the theory of praxis isn’t just a monstrous, universalising amplification of a phenomenon that’s local and terrestrial – collectively subjective – and if before the magnitude of the cosmos the ‘theoretical’ attitude isn’t the wiser.
From the theory of praxis comes yet the idea – which today is almost a dogma – that science arises a posteriori from a rationalisation of technique, that is, of action: man does not generate science by means of contemplation, but by means of the manipulation of objects and of transforming them in something else. Then we lack an explanation for the fact that in almost every civilisation one of the first sciences to develop and reach perfection is no other than astronomy, in which the objects are too far away to be able to be ‘transformed’, and for that reason man can only contemplate. (A fanatic practicist could raise the objection that astronomy developed for the purposes of sea-travelling, but that would be nonsense because we can find a very complex astronomy among people who were not sailors, like the Mayas). This chronological and structural priority of Astronomy is highlighted by Plato10, who sees the explanation for the origin of all sciences in the contemplation of the regularity and rationality of the celestial bodies’ movement. The Marxist explanation, in its turn, can only stay afoot by means of a gross falsification of the chronological order. In order for it to gain any verisimilitude in the eyes of man, it was first necessary that the bourgeois society reduced to a slave of technique and of practical utility an intellectual activity in which for millennia those who practised it had seen an end in itself. The practicist interpretation of the origin and meaning of science is but a gross projection the bourgeois makes of his own criteria and values upon the mentality of other times, which became unintelligible to him11.
Home - Informações - Textos - Links - E-mail