Karl Marx
The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature
Part One: Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature in General

Opinions on the Relationship between Democritean and Epicurean Physics


The way in which my general outlook is related to earlier points of view will become quite obvious if a brief review is made of the opinions held by the ancient authors concerning the relationship between Democritean and Epicurean physics.

Posidonius the Stoic, Nicolaus and Sotion reproach Epicurus for having presented the Democritean doctrine of atoms and Aristippus' teaching on pleasure as his own. (1) Cotta the Academician asks in Cicero: “What is there in Epicurus' physics which does not belong to Democritus? True, he modifies some details, but most of it he repeats after him.”(2) Cicero himself says similarly:

“In physics, where he is the most pretentious, Epicurus is a perfect stranger. Most of it belongs to Democritus; where he deviates from him, where he endeavours to improve, he spoils and worsens it.”(3)

Although many authors reproach Epicurus for aspersions against Democritus, Leonteus, according to Plutarch, affirms on the contrary that Epicurus honoured Democritus because the latter had adhered to the true doctrine before him, because he had discovered the principles of nature earlier.(4) In the essay De placitis philosophorum Epicurus is called one who philosophises after the manner of Democritus.(5) Plutarch in his Colotes goes further. Successively comparing Epicurus with Democritus, Empedocles, Parmenides, Plato, Socrates, Stilpo, the Cyrenaics and the Academicians, he seeks to prove that “Epicurus appropriated from the whole of Greek philosophy the false and did not understand the true”.(6) Likewise the treatise De eo, quod secundum Epicurum non beats vivi possit teems with inimical insinuations of a similar kind.

In the Fathers of the Church we find this unfavourable opinion, held by the more ancient authors, maintained. In the note I quote only one passage from Clement of Alexandria,(7) a Father of the Church who deserves to be prominently mentioned with regard to Epicurus, since he reinterprets the warning of the apostle Paul against philosophy in general into a warning against Epicurean philosophy, as one which did not even once spin fantasies concerning providence and the like.(8) But how common was the tendency to accuse Epicurus of plagiarism is shown most strikingly by Sextus Empiricus, who wishes to turn some quite inappropriate passages from Homer and Epicharmus into principal sources of Epicurean philosophy.(9)

It is well known that the more recent writers by and large make Epicurus, insofar as he was a philosopher of nature, a mere plagiarist of Democritus. The following statement of Leibniz may here represent their opinion in general:

“Of this great man” (Democritus) “we scarcely know anything but what Epicurus borrowed from him, and Epicurus was not capable of always taking the best.”(10)

Thus while Cicero says that Epicurus worsened the Democritean doctrine, at the same time crediting him at least with the will to improve it and with having an eye for its defects, while Plutarch ascribes to him inconsistency(11)and a predisposition toward the inferior, hence also casts suspicion on his intentions, Leibniz denies him even the ability to make excerpts from Democritus skilfully.

But all agree that Epicurus borrowed his physics from Democritus.


III: Difficulties Concerning the Identity Of the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature


(1) Diogenes Laertius, X, 4. They are followed by Posidonius the Stoic and his school, and Nicolaus and Sotion ... [allege that] he (Epicurus) put forward as his own the doctrines of Democritus about atoms and of Aristippus about pleasure.

(2) Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, I, xxvi [73]. What is there in Epicurus' natural philosophy that does not come from Democritus? Since even if he introduced sonar alterations ... yet most of his system is the same....

(3) Id., On the Highest Goods and Evils, 1, vi [21]. 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....

Ibid. [17, 18] ... the subject of Natural Philosophy, which is Epicurus' particular boast. Here, in the first place, he is entirely second-hand. His doctrines are those of Democritus, with a very few modifications. And as for the latter, where he attempts to improve upon his original, in my opinion he only succeeds in making things worse.... Epicurus for his part, where he follows Democritus, does not generally blunder.

(4) Plutarch, Reply to Colotes (published by Xylander), 1108. Leonteus ... writes ... that Democritus was honoured by Epicurus for having reached the correct approach to knowledge before him ... because Democritus had first hit upon the first principles of natural philosophy. Comp. ibid., 1111.

(5) (Id.,) On the Sentiments of the Philosophers, V, 235, published by Tauchnitz. Epicurus, the son of Neocles, from Athens, who philosophised according to Democritus....

(6) Id., Reply to Colotes, 1111, 1112, 1114, 1115, 1117, 1119, 1120 seqq.

(7) Clement of Alexandria, The Miscellanies, Vi, p. 629, Cologne edition [2]. Epicurus also has pilfered his leading dogmas from Democritus.

(8) Ibid., p. 295 [I, 11]. "Beware lest any man despoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the elements of the world and not after Christ" [Col. ii, 8] branding not all philosophy, but the Epicurean, which Paul mentions in the Acts of the Apostles [Acts xvii, 181, which abolishes providence ... and whatever other philosophy honours the elements, but places not over them the efficient cause, nor apprehends the Creator.

(9) Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors (Geneva edition) [I, 273]. Epicurus has been detected as guilty of having filched the best of his dogmas from the poets. For he has been shown to have taken his definition of the intensity of pleasures,- that it is "the removal of everything painful"-from this one verse:

"When they had now put aside all longing for drinking and eating." [Homer, Iliad, I, 469]

And as to death, that "it is nothing to us", Epicharmus had already pointed this out to him when he said,

"To die or to he dead concerns me not."

So, too, he stole the notion that dead bodies have no feeling from Homer, where he writes,

"'This dumb day that he beats with abuse in his violent fury." [Ibid., XXIV, 54]

(10) Letter of Leibniz to Mr. Des Maizeaux, containing [some] clarifications.... [Opera omnia,] ed. L. Dutens, Vol. 2, p[p]. 66[-67].

(11) Plutarch, Reply to Colotes, 1111. Democritus is therefore to be censured not for admitting the consequences that flow from his principles, but for setting up principles that lead to these consequences.... If "does not say" means "does not admit it is so", he is following his familiar practice; thus he (Epicurus) does away with providence but says he has left us with piety; he chooses friends for the pleasure he gets, but says that he assumes the greatest pains on their behalf; and he says that while he posits an infinite universe he does not eliminate "up" and "down".

The translation of Latin and Greek texts follows, when possible, that of the Classical Library. The translation differs in details from the text in the dissertation, which is the English translation of Marx's text, and therefore also of Marx's German translation of the Latin and Greek texts.- Ed.