Marx’s Notebooks on Epicurean Philosophy

Seventh Notebook

I. Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods

Book I

Chap. VIII “Hereupon, Velleius began, in the confident manner that is customary with them [the Epicureans], afraid of nothing so much as lest he should appear to have doubts about anything. One would have supposed he had just come down from the assembly of the gods and from the intermundane spaces of Epicurus”, etc., etc.

Chap. XIII Fine is the passage from Antisthenes:

“... in his book entitled The Natural Philosopher, he says that while there are many gods of popular belief, there is one god in nature [... ]”.

Chap. XIV. Of Zeno the Stoic it is said:

“... in his interpretation of Hesiod’s Theogony he does away with the customary and received ideas of the gods altogether, for he does not reckon either Jupiter, juno or Vesta as gods, or any being that is so called, but teaches that these names have been assigned with a certain meaning to dumb and lifeless things”.

Chap. XV. Of Chrysippus the Stoic it is said:

“In Book II [of his Nature of the Gods] he aims at reconciling the myths of Orpheus, Musa, Hesiod and Homer with what he himself said in Book 1 of the immortal gods, and so makes out that even the earliest poets of antiquity, who had no notion of these doctrines, were really Stoics”.

“In this he is followed by Diogenes of Babylon, who in his book entitled Minerva transfers the birth of the virgin goddess from Jove to physiology and dissociates it from myth”.

Chap. XVI. “For he [Epicurus] alone perceived that, first there must be gods, because nature herself has imprinted a conception of them on the minds of all mankind. For what nation or what tribe of men is there but possesses untaught some preconception of the gods? Such notions Epicurus designates by the word prolhjis, [prolepsis] that is, a sort of preconceived mental picture of a thing without which nothing can be understood or investigated or discussed. The significance and usefulness of this argument we learn in that work of genius, Epicurus’ Rule or Standard of Judgment”.

Chap. XVII. .... it must be understood that the gods exist, since we possess an instinctive, or rather innate, concept of them; but a belief which all men by nature share must necessarily be true.... If this is so, the famous maxim of Epicurus truthfully enunciates that ‘that which is eternal and blessed can neither know trouble itself nor cause trouble to another, and accordingly cannot feel either anger or favour, since all such things belong only to the weak’. [...] whatever is outstanding commands the reverence that is its due [... ]”.

Chap. XVIII. “From nature all men of all races derive the notion of gods as having human shape and none other... But not to make primary concepts the sole test of all things, reason itself delivers the same pronouncement [....] what shape [...] can be more beautiful than the human form? [...] it follows that the gods possess the form of man. However, that form is not a body, but only a semblance of a body, it has no blood, but only the semblance of blood”.

Chap. XVIII-XIX. “Epicurus ... teaches that the force and nature of the gods is such that, in the first place, it is perceived not by the senses but by the mind, not as solid things, or according to number, like that which Epicurus in virtue of their substantiality calls sterimnia, [solid objects] but as images, which are perceived by similitude and succession”.

Chap. XIX. “Because an endless train of precisely similar images arises from the innumerable atoms and streams towards the gods, our mind with the keenest feelings of pleasure fixes its gaze on these images and so attains an understanding of the nature of a being both blessed and eternal. Moreover there is the supremely potent principle of infinity, whic claims the closest and most careful study; and we must understand that this nature is such that like always corresponds to like. This is termed by Epicurus isonomia, or the principle of uniform distribution. From this principle it follows that if the whole number of mortals be so many, there must exist no less a number of immortals, and if the forces of destruction are beyond count, the forces of conservation must also be infinite. You Stoics are fond of asking us, Balbus, what is the mode of life of the gods and how they pass their days. It is obvious that nothing happier is conceivable, nothing more abounding in all good things. For God does nothing, he is free from all ties of occupations, he toils not, neither does he labour, but he takes delight in his wisdom and virtue and he knows with absolute certainty that he will always enjoy the greatest and eternal pleasures”.

Chap. XX. “This god we can rightly call happy, yours indeed most toilsome. For if the world itself is God, what can be less restful than to revolve at incredible speed round the axis of the heavens without a single moment of respite? But without rest there is no bliss. But if there is in the world some god who rules and governs it, maintaining the courses of the stars, the changes of the seasons and all the ordered process of things, and, watching over the land and the seas, guards the interests and the lives of men, is he not involved in irksome and laborious business! [531 We for our part deem happiness to consist in tranquillity of mind and entire exemption from all duties. For he who taught us all the rest has also taught us that the world was made by nature, without needing an artificer to construct it, and that which you say cannot be produced without divine skill is so easy that nature will produce, is producing and has produced worlds without number. Because you cannot see how nature can do all this without any intellect, you, like tragic poets, cannot biting your arguments to a denouement and have recourse to a god. His work you would certainly not require if you would but contemplate the immense and boundless extent of space that stretches out in every direction into which the mind projects itself and journeys onward far and wide without ever seeing any ultimate limit where it could stop. In this immense length and breadth and height there flits an infinite quantity of atoms innumerable, which though separated by void yet cohere together and taking hold of each other form an unbroken series out of which are created those shapes and forms of things which you think cannot be created without bellows and anvil and so have saddled us with an eternal master whom we must fear day and night; for who would not fear a prying busybody of a god who foresees and thinks of and notices all things and deems that everything is his concern. An outcome of this was first of all that fatal necessity which you call eimarmenh [fate] according to which whatever happens is the result of an eternal truth and an unbroken chain of causes. But what value can be assigned to a philosophy which holds Eke old women, and ignorant old women at that, that everything happens by fate? And next follows your mantikh [divination] in Latin divinatio, by which, if we listened to you, we should be so filled with superstition that we should be the devotees of soothsayers, augurs, oracle-mongers, seers and interpreters of dreams. But Epicurus has set us free from these terrors and delivered us out of captivity, so that we have no fear of beings who, we know, create no trouble for themselves and seek to cause none to others, while we worship with pious reverence the transcendent majesty of nature”.

Chap. XXL. Then follows Cotta’s objection.

“I ... pronounce that your exposition has been most illuminating, and not only rich in thought, but also more graced with a charm of style than is customary in your school”.

Chap. XXIII. “You said that a sufficient reason for our admitting that the gods exist was the fact that all the nations and races of mankind believe it. But that is at the same time a weak argument and a false one. ...”.

(After relating that the books of Protagoras, in which he denied the existence of the gods, had been burnt in the assembly of the people and he himself driven out of the country, Cotta continued:)

“From this I can well suppose that many people were caused to be more reserved in professing that opinion, since not even doubt could escape punishment”.

Chap. XXIV. “... for the outrageous doctrines of Democritus, or of Leucippus before him, that there are certain minute particles, some smooth, others rough, some round, some angular, some curved or hook-shaped, and that heaven and earth were created from these, not compelled by nature, but by some kind of accidental collision.... Then is this the truth? For as to happiness I do not deny anything, of which you say that not even the divinity has it without being relaxed in idleness.... I will grant you therefore that everything is made out of indivisible bodies; but this takes us no further for we are trying to discover the nature of the gods. Suppose we allow that they are made of atoms, then they are not eternal. For what is made of atoms came into existence at some time; but if they came into existence, before they came into existence there were no gods. And if the gods had a beginning, they must also perish, as you were arguing a little while ago about the world conceived by Plato. Where then do we find your blessed and eternal, by which two words you mean God? When you wish to make this out, you take cover in a thicket of jargon. For you said just now that God has no body, but a semblance of a body, no blood, but a semblance of blood”.

Chap. XXV.This is a very common practice with your school. You advance a paradox, and then, when you want to escape censure, you adduce something which is absolutely impossible, so that it would have been better to abandon the point in dispute rather than to insist on it so shamelessly. For instance, Epicurus saw that if the atoms travelled downwards by their own- outright, we should have no power to do anything, since the motion of the atoms W be determined by necessity. He therefore invented a device by which to avoid necessity (a point which had apparently escaped the notice of Democritus): he said that the atom, while travelling vertically downward by weight and gravity, makes a very slight swerve. To assert that is more shameful than not to be able to defend what he wants to defend”.

It is of substantial significance that the cycle of the three Greek philosophical systems, which complete pure Greek philosophy, the Epicurean, the Stoic and the Sceptic, take over their main elements from the past as they were already there. Thus, the Stoic philosophy of nature is largely Heraclitean, its logic is similar to that of Aristotle, so that Cicero already noted:

“... the Stoics, while they seem to agree with the Peripatetics as to substance, disagree in words”. On the Nature of the Gods, Book 1, Chap. vii.

Epicurus’ philosophy of nature is basically Democritean, his ethics similar to that of the Cyrenaics. Finally, the Sceptics are the scientists among the philosophers, their work is to compare, and consequently to assemble together the various assertions already available. They cast an equalising, levelling learned glance back on the systems and thereby brought out the contradictions and oppositions. Their method also has its general prototype in the Eleatic, Sophistic, and pre-Academic dialectics. And yet these systems are original and form a whole.

But they not only found ready-made building elements for their science; the living spirits of their spiritual realms themselves preceded the latter, so to speak, as prophets. The personalities associated with their system were historical persons, system was, so to speak, incorporated in system. This was the case with Aristippus, Antisthenes, the Sophists and others.

How is this to be understood?

Aristotle’s remark about the “nutritive soul":

“It is possible for this ... to exist apart from the others; but for the others to exist apart from it is impossible, at least in mortal beings” (Aristotle, On the Soul, Book If, chap. ii),

must be borne in mind also in regard to Epicurean philosophy in order to understand it itself on the one hand, and, on the other hand, to understand Epicurus’ own apparent absurdities as well as the ineptitude of his later critics.

With him the most general form of the concept is the atom; for this is its most general form of being, which, however, is in itself concrete and a genus, itself a species as against higher particularisations and concretisations of the concept of his philosophy.

The atom, therefore, remains the abstract being-in-self, for example, of the person, of the wise man, of God. These are higher qualitative additional determinations of the same concept. Therefore, in the genetic exposition of this philosophy one must not raise the inept question raised by Bayle and Plutarch, among others, as to how can a person, a wise man, a god, arise from and be composed of atoms. On the other hand, this question seems to be justified by Epicurus himself, for of the higher forms of development, e.g., God, he says that the latter consists of finer and more subtle atoms. In this connection it must be noted that Epicurus’ own consciousness is related to its further developments, to the further determinations of its principle imposed on him as the scientific consciousness of later people regarding his system.

If, for example, in respect of God, etc., abstraction being made of the further determinations of form which he introduces as a necessary link in the system, the question is raised of his existence, his being-in-self, then the general form of existence is the atom and the plurality of atoms; but precisely in the concept of God, of the wise man, this existence has been submerged in a higher form. His specific being-in-self is precisely the further determination of his concept and his necessity in the totality of the system. If the question is raised of any other form of being outside this, that is a relapse into the lower stage and form of the principle.

But Epicurus is bound to fall back constantly in this way, for his consciousness is atomistic like his principle. The essence of his nature is also the essence of his actual self-consciousness. The instinct which drives him, and the further determinations of this instinct-driven essence, are similarly again to him one phenomenon among others, and from the high sphere of his philosophising he sinks back again into the most general, mainly because existence, as being-for-self in general, is for him the form of all existence whatsoever.

The essential consciousness of the philosopher is separate from his own manifest knowledge, but this manifest knowledge itself, in its discourses with itself as it were about its real internal urge, about the thought which it thinks, is conditioned, and conditioned by the principle which is the essence of his consciousness.

Philosophical historiography is not concerned either with comprehending the personality, be it even the spiritual personality of the philosopher as, in a manner of speaking, the focus and the image of his system, or still less with indulging in psychological hair-splitting and point-scoring. Its concern is to distinguish in each system the determinations themselves, the actual crystallisations pervading the whole system, from the proofs, the justifications in argument, the self-presentation of the philosophers as they know themselves; to distinguish the silent, persevering mole of real philosophical knowledge from the voluble, exoteric, variously behaving phenomenological consciousness of the subject which is the vessel and motive force of those elaborations. It is in the division of this consciousness into aspects mutually giving each other the lie that precisely its unity is proved. This critical element in the presentation of a philosophy which has its place in history is absolutely indispensable in order scientifically to expound a system in connection with its historical existence, a connection which must not be [over]looked precisely because the [system’s] existence is historical, but which at the same time must be asserted as philosophical, and hence be developed according to its essence. Least of all must a philosophy be accepted as a philosophy by virtue of an authority or of good faith, be the authority even that of a people and the faith that of centuries. The proof can be provided only by expounding its essence. Anybody who writes the history of philosophy separates essential from unessential, exposition from content; otherwise he could only copy, hardly even translate, and still less would he be entitled to comment, cross out, etc. He would be merely a copying clerk.

The question to be asked is rather: How do the concepts of a person, of a wise man, of God, and the specific definitions of these concepts enter into the system, how are they developed out of it?

Cicero, On the Highest Goods and Evils

Book I

Chap. VI. “Let me begin ... with physics, which is his [Epicurus'] particular boast. Here, in the first place, he is quite a stranger.... Democritus believes in ... atoms, that is, bodies so solid as to be indivisible, moving about in a vacuum of infinite extent, which has neither top, bottom, nor middle, neither beginning nor end. The motion of these atoms is such that they collide and so cohere together; and from this process result the whole of the things that exist and that we see. Moreover, this movement of the atoms must not be conceived as starting from a beginning, but as having gone on from all eternity. He [Epicurus] believes that these same indivisible solid bodies are borne by their own weight perpendicularly downward, which he holds is the natural movement of all bodies; but thereupon this clever fellow, encountering the difficulty that if they all travelled downward in a straight fine, and, as I said, perpendicularly, no one atom would ever be able to overtake any other atom, accordingly introduced an idea of his own invention: he said that the atom makes a very tiny swerve,-the smallest divergence possible; and so are produced entanglements and combinations and cohesions of atoms with atoms, which result in the creation of the world and all its parts, and of all that is in them.... The swerving itself is an arbitrary fiction (for Epicurus says the atoms swerve without a cause, and nothing is more repugnant to the physicist than to speak of something taking place uncaused).... Democritus, being an educated man and well versed in geometry, thinks the sun is of a vast size; Epicurus considers it perhaps two feet in diameter, for he pronounces it to be exactly as large as it appears, or a little larger or smaller. Thus where Epicurus alters the doctrines of Democritus, he alters them for the worse; while for those ideas which he adopts, the credit belongs entirely to Democritus, — the atoms, the void, the images, or as they call them, eidola, whose impact is the cause not only of vision but also of thought; the very conception of infinite space, apeiria as they term it, is entirely derived from Democritus; and again the countless numbers of worlds that come into existence and pass out of existence every day”, etc.

Chap. VII. “Turn next to the second division of philosophy ... which is termed lonikh. [logic] Of the whole armour of logic your founder ... is absolutely destitute. He does away with definition; he has no doctrine of division or partition; he gives no rules for deduction or syllogistic inference, and imparts no method for solving dilemmas or for detecting fallacies of equivocation. The criteria of reality he places in sensation; once let the senses accept as true something that is false, and every possible criterion of truth and falsehood seems to him to be immediately destroyed.... He lays the very greatest stress upon that which, as he declares, nature herself decrees and rejects, that is, the feeling of pleasure and pain. These he maintains lie at the root of every act of choice and avoidance [...]:

Chap. IX. “[...] this Epicurus finds in pleasure; pleasure he holds to be the chief good, pain the chief evil. This he sets out to prove as follows: [301 Every animal, as soon as it is born, seeks for pleasure, and delights in it, as the chief good, while it recoils from pain as the chief evil, and so far as possible avoids it. This it does when it is not yet perverted, at the prompting of nature’s own unbiased and honest verdict. Hence he refuses to admit any necessity for argument or discussion to prove that pleasure is desirable and pain to be avoided. ... it follows that nature herself is the judge of that which is in accordance with or contrary to nature ...”.

Chap. XI. “So generally, the removal of pain causes pleasure to take its place. Epicurus consequently maintained that there is not such thing as a neutral state of feeling intermediate between pleasure and pain”.

Chap. XII. “One so situated must possess in the first place a strength of mind that is proof against all fear of death or of pain; he will know that death means complete unconsciousness, and that pain is generally light if long and short if strong, so that its intensity is compensated by brief duration and its continuance by diminishing severity. Let such a man moreover have no dread of any supernatural power; let him never suffer the pleasures of the past to fade away, but constantly renew their enjoyment in recollection, — and his lot will be one which will not admit of further improvement. But that which is not itself a swans to anything else, but to which all else is a means, is what the Greeks term the telos, the highest, ultimate or final good. It must therefore be admitted that the chief good is to live agreeably”.

Chap. XIII. “Nothing could be more useful or more conducive to well-being than Epicurus’ doctrine as to the different classes of the desires. One kind he classified as both natural and necessary, a second as natural without being necessary, and a third as neither natural nor necessary; the principle of classification being that the necessary desires are gratified with little trouble or expense; the natural desires also require but little, since nature’s own riches, which suffice to content her, are both easily procured and limited in amount; but for vain desires no bound or limit can be discovered”.

Chap. XVIII. “Epicurus, the man whom you denounce as a voluptuary, cries aloud that no one can live pleasantly without living wisely, honourably and justly, and no one wisely, honourably and justly, without living pleasantly. ... much less then can a n-tind divided against itself and filled with inward discord taste any particle of pure and liberal pleasure [...]”.

Chap. XIX. “For Epicurus thus presents his Wise Man who is always happy: his desires are kept within bounds; death he disregards; he has a true conception, untainted by fear, of the immortal gods; he does not hesitate to depart from life, if it would be better so. Thus equipped, he enjoys perpetual pleasure, for there is no moment when the pleasures he experiences do not outbalance the pains; since he remembers the past with gratitude, grasps the present with a full realisation of how great and pleasant it is, and does not depend upon the future; he looks forward to it, but finds his true enjoyment in the present ... and he derives no inconsiderable pleasure from comparing his own existence with the life of the foolish. Moreover, any pains that the Wise Man may encounter are never so severe but that he has more cause for gladness than for sorrow. Again, it is a fine saying of Epicurus that ‘the Wise Man is but little interfered with by fortune; the great concerns of life, the things that matter, are controlled by his own wisdom and reason'; and that ‘no greater pleasure could be derived from a life of infinite duration that is actually afforded by this existence which we know to be finite’. Dialectics, on which your school lays such stress, he held to be of no effect either as a guide to a better life or as an aid to thought. Physics he deemed very important. ... a thorough knowledge of the facts of nature relieves us of the burden of superstition, frees us from the fear of death, and shields us against the disturbing effects of ignorance, which is often in itself a cause of terrifying apprehensions; lastly, to learn what nature’s real requirements are improves the moral character also ...”.

By the fact that we acknowledge that nature is reasonable, our dependence on it ceases. Nature is no longer a source of terror to our consciousness, and it is precisely Epicurus who makes the form of consciousness in its directness, the being-for-self, the form of nature. Only when nature is acknowledged as absolutely free from conscious reason and is considered as reason in itself, does it become entirely the property of reason. Any reference to it as such is at the same time alienation of it. .

Chap. XIX. “On the other hand, without a full understanding of the world of nature it is impossible to maintain the truth of our sense-perceptions. Furthermore, every mental presentation has its origin in sensation: so that no certain knowledge will be possible unless all sensations are true, as the theory of Epicurus teaches that they are. Those who deny the validity of sensation and say that nothing can be perceived, are unable, having excluded the evidence of the senses, even to expound their own argument.... Thus physics supplies courage to face the fear of death resolution to resist the terrors of religion

Chap. XX. “Now Epicurus’ pronouncement about friendship is that of all the means to happiness that wisdom has devised, none is greater, none more fruitful, none more delightful than this....Epicurus well said (I give almost his exact words): ‘The same knowledge that has given us courage to overcome all fear of everlasting or long-enduring evil, has discerned that friendship is our strongest safeguard in this present term of life.

Chap. XXI. “If then the doctrine I have set forth ... is derived entirely from nature’s source; if my whole discourse relies throughout for confirmation on the unbiased and unimpeachable evidence of the senses ...”.

“No! Epicurus was not uneducated: the real ignoramuses are those who ask us to go on studying till old age the subjects that we ought to be ashamed not to have learnt in boyhood”.

Book II

Chap. II. op. cit. “For he says that he does not hold with giving a definition of the thing in question [...]”.

Chap. VII. (A passage out of the kuriai doxai of Epicurus.) “If the things in which sensualists find pleasure could deliver them from the fear of the gods and of death and pain, and could teach them to set bounds to their desires, we should have no reason to blame them, since on every hand they would be abundantly supplied with pleasures, and from nowhere would be exposed to any pain or grief, that is, to evil”.

Chap. XXVI. “In one of your remarks I seemed to recognise a saying of Epicurus himself.-that friendship cannot be divorced from pleasure, and that it deserves to be cultivated for the reason that without it we cannot live secure and free from fear, and therefore cannot live agreeably”.

Chap. XXXI. “For he [Epicurus] ... stated ... that ‘death does not affect us at all; for a thing that has experienced dissolution must be devoid of sensation; and that which is devoid of sensation cannot affect us in any degree whatsoever’ [...]”.

Book III

Chap. 1. “In fact Epicurus himself declares that there is no occasion to argue about pleasure at all [...]”.