Karl Marx
Part II: On the Difference between Democritean and Epicurean Physics In Detail

Chapter Five
The Meteors


Ingenious as Democritus' astronomical opinions may be for his time, they present no philosophical interest. They neither go beyond the domain of empirical reflection, nor have they any more definite intrinsic connection with the atomic doctrine.

By contrast, Epicurus' theory of the celestial bodies and the processes connected with them, or his theory of meteors (in this one term he includes it all), stands in opposition not only to Democritus, but to the opinion of Greek philosophy as a whole. Worship of the celestial bodies is a cult practised by all Greek philosophers. The system of the celestial bodies is the first naive and nature-determined existence of true reason [Vernunft]. The same position is taken by Greek self-consciousness in the domain of the mind [Geist]. It is the solar system of the mind. The Greek philosophers therefore worshipped their own mind in the celestial bodies.

Anaxagoras himself, who first gave a physical explanation of heaven and in this way brought it down to earth in a sense different from that of Socrates, answered, when asked for what purpose he was born: For the observation of the sun, the moon and the heaven.(1) Xenophanes, however, looked up at heaven and said: The One is God.(2) The religious attitude of the Pythagoreans, Plato and Aristotle to the heavenly-bodies is well known.

Indeed, Epicurus opposes the outlook of the whole Greek people.

Aristotle says it often seems that the concept provides evidence for the phenomena and the phenomena for the concept. Thus all men have an idea of the gods and assign the highest region to the divine, barbarians as well as Hellenes, and in general all who believe in the existence of the gods, evidently connecting the immortal with the immortal, for otherwise it is impossible. Thus if the divine exists-as it actually does-then what we say about the substance of the celestial bodies is also correct. But this corresponds also to sensuous perception, insofar as human conviction is concerned. For throughout the time that has passed, according to the memories handed down from people to people, nothing seems to have changed, either in heaven as a whole, or in any part of it. Even the name seems to have been handed down from the ancients to the present time, and they assumed that which we also say. For not once, not twice, but an infinite number of times have the same views come down to us. For since the primary body is something different, apart from the earth and the fire and the air and the water, they called the highest region "ether", from thein aei [to run always]. giving it the by-name: eternal time.(3) But the ancients assigned heaven and the highest region to the gods, because it alone is immortal. But the present teaching testifies that it is indestructible, ungenerated and not subject to any mortal ills. In this way our concepts correspond at the same time to intimations about God.(4) But that there is one heaven is evident. It is a tradition handed down from our ancestors and the ancients and surviving in the form of the myths of later generations, that the heavenly bodies are gods and that the divine encompasses all nature. The rest was added in mythical form for the belief of the masses, as useful for the laws and for life. Thus the myths make the gods resemble man and some of the other living creatures, and invent similar things connected with and related to this. If we discard the additions and hold fast only to the first, namely, the belief that the primary substances are gods, then we must consider this as having been divinely revealed, and we must hold that after all sorts of art and philosophy had, in one way or another, been invented and lost again, these opinions came down to us like relics.(5)

Epicurus, on the contrary, says:

To all this we must add that the greatest confusion of the human soul arises from the fact that men hold that the heavenly bodies are blessed and indestructible and have conflicting desires and actions, and conceive suspicion according to the myths.(6) As to the meteors, we must believe that motion and position and eclipse and rising and setting and related phenomena do not originate in them owing to One ruling and ordering or having ordered, One who at the same time is supposed to possess all bliss and indestructibility. For actions do not accord with bliss, but they occur due to causes most closely related to weakness, fear and need. Nor is it to be supposed that some fire-like bodies endowed with bliss arbitrarily submit to these motions. If one does not agree with this, then this contradiction itself produces the greatest confusion in men's souls.(7)

Aristotle reproached the ancients for their belief that heaven required the support of Atlas(8) who: 'In the places of the West stands, supporting with his shoulders the pillar of heaven and earth (Aeschylus, Prometh., 348 ff.). Epicurus, on the other hand, blames those who believe that man needs heaven. He finds the Atlas by whom heaven is supported in human stupidity and superstition. Stupidity and superstition also are Titans.

The letter of Epicurus to Pythocles deals entirely with the theory of the heavenly bodies, with the exception of the last section, which closes the letter with ethical precepts. And appropriately,' ethical precepts are appended to the teaching on the meteors. For Epicurus this theory is a matter of conscience. Our study will therefore be based mainly on this letter to Pythocles. We shall supplement it from the letter to Herodotus, to which Epicurus himself refers in writing to Pythocles.(9)

First, it must not be supposed that any other goal but ataraxy and firm assurance can be attained from knowledge of the meteors, either taken as a whole or in part, just as from the other natural sciences.(10) Our life does not need speculation and empty hypotheses, but that we should live without confusion. just as it is the business of the study of nature in general to investigate the foundations of what is most important: so happiness lies also in knowledge of the meteors. In and for itself the theory of setting and rising, of position and eclipse, contains no particular grounds for happiness; only terror possesses those who see these things without understanding their nature and their principal causes.(11) So far, only the precedence which the theory of the meteors is supposed to have over other sciences has been denied; and this theory has been placed on the same level as others.

But the theory of the meteors is also specifically different in comparison both with the method of ethics and with other physical problems, for example, the existence of indivisible elements and the like, where only one explanation corresponds to the phenomena. For this is not the case with the meteors.(12) Their origin has no simple cause, and they have more than one category of essence corresponding to the phenomena. For the study of nature cannot be pursued in accordance with empty axioms and laws. (13) It is constantly repeated that the meteors are not to be explained haplos (simply, absolutely), but poilachos (in many ways).

This also holds for the rising and setting of the sun and the moon,(14) the waxing and waning of the moon,(15) the semblance of a face on the moon,(16) the changes of duration of day and night,(17) and other celestial phenomena.

How then is it to be explained?

Every explanation is sufficient. Only the myth must be removed. it will be removed when we observe the phenomena and draw conclusions from them concerning the invisible.(18) We must hold fast to the appearance, the sensation. Hence analogy must be applied. In this way we can explain fear away and free ourselves from it, by showing the causes of meteors and other things that are always happening and causing the utmost alarm to other people.(19)

The great number of explanations, the multitude of possibilities, should not only tranquillise our minds and remove causes for fear, but also at the same time negate in the heavenly bodies their very unity, the absolute law that is always equal to itself. These heavenly bodies may behave sometimes in one way, sometimes in another; this possibility conforming to no law is the characteristic of their reality; everything in them is declared to be impermanent and unstable.(20) The multitude of the explanations should at the same time remove [aufheben] the unity of the object.

Thus while Aristotle, in agreement with other Greek philosophers, considers the heavenly bodies to be eternal and immortal, because they always behave in the same way; while he even ascribes to them an element of their own, higher and not subjected to the force of gravity; Epicurus in contrast claims the direct opposite. He reasons that the theory of the meteors is specifically distinguished from all other physical doctrine in this respect, that in the meteors everything occurs in a multiple and unregulated way, that everything in them is to be explained by a manifold of indefinitely many causes. Yes, in wrath and passionate violence he rejects the opposite opinion, and declares that those who adhere to only one method of explanation to the exclusion of all others, those who accept something Unique, hence Eternal and Divine in the meteors, fall victim to idle explanation-making and to the slavish artifices of the astrologers; they overstep the bounds of the study of nature and throw themselves into the arms of myth; they try to achieve the impossible, and exert themselves over absurdities; they do not even realise where ataraxy itself becomes endangered. Their chatter is to be despised.(21) We must avoid the prejudice that investigation into these subjects cannot be sufficiently thorough and subtle if it aims only at our own ataraxy and bliss.(22) On the contrary, it is an absolute law that nothing that can disturb ataraxy, that can cause danger, can belong to an indestructible and eternal nature. Consciousness must understand that this is an absolute law.(23)

Hence Epicurus concludes: Since eternity of the heavenly bodies would disturb the ataraxy of self-consciousness, it is a necessary, a stringent consequence that they are not eternal.

But how can we understand this peculiar view of Epicurus?

All authors who have written on Epicurean philosophy have presented this teaching as incompatible with all the rest of physics, with the atomic doctrine. The fight against the Stoics, against superstition, against astrology is taken as sufficient grounds.

And we have seen that Epicurus himself distinguishes the method applied in the theory of the meteors from the method of the rest of physics. But in which definition of his principle can the necessity of this distinction be found? How does the idea occur to him?

And he fights not only against astrology, but also against astronomy itself, against eternal law and rationality in the heavenly system. Finally, opposition to the Stoics explains nothing. Their superstition and their whole point of view had already been refuted when the heavenly bodies were declared to be accidental complexes of atoms and their processes accidental motions of the atoms. Thereby their eternal nature was destroyed, a consequence which Democritus was content to draw from these premises.(24) In fact, their very being was disposed of [aufgehoben].(25) The atomist therefore was in no need of a new method.

But this is not yet the full difficulty. An even more perplexing antinomy appears.

The atom is matter in the form of independence, of individuality, as it were the representative of weight. But the heavenly bodies are the supreme realisation of weight. In them all antinomics between form and matter, between concept and existence, which constituted the development of the atom, are resolved; in them all required determinations are realised. The heavenly bodies are eternal and unchangeable; they have their centre of gravity in, not outside, themselves. Their only action is motion, and, separated by empty space, they swerve from the straight line, and form a system of repulsion and attraction while at the same time preserving their own independence and also, finally, generating time out of themselves as the form of their appearance. The heavenly bodies are therefore the atoms become real. In them matter has received in itself individuality. Here Epicurus must therefore have glimpsed the highest existence of his principle, the peak and culminating point of his system. He asserted that he assumed the atom so that nature would be provided with immortal foundations. He alleged that he was concerned with the substantial individuality of matter. But when he comes upon the reality of his nature (and he knows no other 'nature but the mechanical), when he comes upon independent, indestructible matter in the heavenly bodies whose eternity and unchangeability were proved by the belief of the people, the judgment of philosophy, the evidence of the senses: then his one and only desire is to pull it down into earthly transience. He turns vehemently against those who worship an independent nature containing in itself the quality of individuality. This is his most glaring contradiction.

Hence Epicurus feels that here his previous categories break down, that the method of his theory becomes different. And the profoundest knowledge achieved by his system, its most thorough consistency, is that he is aware of this and expresses it consciously.

Indeed, we have seen how the whole Epicurean philosophy of nature is pervaded with the contradiction between essence and existence, between form and matter. But this contradiction is resolved in the heavenly bodies, the conflicting moments are reconciled. In the celestial system matter has received form into itself, has taken up the individuality into itself and has thus achieved its independence. But at this point it ceases to be affirmation of abstract self-consciousness. In the world of the atoms, as in the world of appearance, form struggled against matter; the one determination transcended the other and precisely in this contradiction abstract-individual self-consciousness felt its nature objectified. The abstract form, which, in the shape of matter, fought against abstract matter, was this self-consciousness itself. But now, when matter has reconciled itself with the form and has been rendered self-sufficient, individual self-consciousness emerges from its pupation, proclaims itself the true principle and opposes nature, which has become independent.

All this can also be expressed from another point of view in the following way: Matter, having received into itself individuality, form, as is the case with the heavenly bodies, has ceased to be abstract individuality; it has become concrete individuality, universality. In the meteors, therefore, abstract-individual self-consciousness is met by its contradiction, shining in its materialised form, the universal which has become existence and nature. Hence it recognises in the meteors its deadly enemy, and it ascribes to them, as Epicurus does, all the anxiety and confusion of men. Indeed, the anxiety and dissolution of the abstract-individual is precisely the universal. Here therefore Epicurus' true principle, abstract-individual selfconsciousness, can no longer be concealed. It steps out from its hiding place and, freed from material mummery, it seeks to destroy the reality of nature which has become independent by an explanation according to abstract possibility: what is possible may also be otherwise, the opposite of what is possible is also possible. Hence the polemic against those who explain the heavenly bodies haplos [simply, absolutely] that is, in one particular way, for the One is the Necessary and that which is Independent-in-itself.

Thus as long as nature as atom and appearance expresses individual self-consciousness and its contradiction, the subjectivity of self-consciousness appears only in the form of matter itself. Where, on the other hand, it becomes independent, it reflects itself in itself, confronts matter in its own shape as independent form.

It could have been said from the beginning that where Epicurus' principle becomes reality it will cease to have reality for him. For if individual self-consciousness were posited in reality under the determination of nature, or nature under the determination of individual consciousness, then 'its determination, that is, its existence, would have ceased, because only the universal in free distinction from itself can know at the same time its own affirmation.

In the theory of meteors therefore appears the soul of the Epicurean philosophy of nature. Nothing is eternal which destroys the ataraxy of individual self-consciousness. The heavenly bodies disturb its ataraxy, its equanimity with itself, because they are the existing universality, because in them nature has become independent.

Thus the principle of Epicurean philosophy is not the gastrology of Archestratus as Chrysippus believes(26) but the absoluteness and freedom of self-consciousness - even if self-consciousness is only conceived in the form of individuality.

If abstract-individual self-consciousness is posited as an absolute principle, then, indeed, all true and real science is done away with [aufgehoben] inasmuch as individuality does not rule within the nature of things themselves. But then, too, everything collapses that is transcendentally related to human consciousness and therefore belongs to the imagining mind. On the other hand, if that self-consciousness which knows itself only in the form of abstract universality is raised to an absolute principle, then the door is opened wide to superstitious and unfree mysticism. Stoic philosophy provides the historic proof of this. Abstract-universal self-consciousness has, indeed, the intrinsic urge to affirm itself in the things themselves in which it can only affirm itself by negating them.

Epicurus is therefore the greatest representative of Greek Enlightenment, and he deserves the praise of Lucretius(27):

When human life lay grovelling in all men's sight, crushed to the earth under the dead weight of religion whose grim features loured menacingly upon mortals from the four quarters of the sky, a man of Greece was first to raise mortal eyes in defiance, first to stand erect and brave the challenge. Fables of the gods did not crush him, nor the lightning flash and growling menace of the sky.... Therefore religion in its turn lies crushed beneath his feet, and we by his triumph are lifted level with the skies.

The difference between Democritean and Epicurean philosophy of nature which we established at the end of the general section has been elaborated and confirmed in all domains of nature. In Epicurus, therefore, atomistics with all its contradictions has been carried through and completed as the natural science of selfconsciousness. This self-consciousness under the form of abstract individuality is an absolute principle. Epicurus has thus carried atomistics to its final conclusion, which is its dissolution and conscious opposition to the universal. For Democritus, on the other hand, the atom is only the general objective expression of the empirical investigation of nature as a whole. Hence the atom remains for him a pure and abstract category, a hypothesis, the result of experience, not its active [energisches] principle. This hypothesis remains therefore without realisation, just as it plays no further part in determining the real investigation of nature.


Appendix Plutarch vs. Epicurus


(1) Diogenes Laertius, 11, 3, 10. b

(2) Aristotle, Metaphysics, I, 5 [986 , 25]. The One is God.

(3) Aristotle, On the Heavens, 1, 3 [270b, 4-24]. Our theory seems to confirm experience and to be confirmed by it. For all men have some conception of the nature of gods, and all who believe in the existence of gods at all, whether barbarian or Greek, agree in allotting the highest place to the deity, surely because they suppose that immortal is linked with immortal and regard any other supposition as inconceivable. If then there is, as there certainly is, anything divine, what we have just said about the primary bodily substance was well said. The mere least with human evidence of the senses is enough to convince us of. this at certainty. For. in the whole range of time past, so far as our inherited records reach, no change appears to have taken place either in the whole scheme of the outermost heaven or in any of its proper parts. The common name, too, which has been handed down from our distant ancestors even to our own day, seems to show that they conceived of it in the fashion which we have been expressing. 'Me same ideas, one must believe, recur to men's minds not once or twice but again and again. And so, implying that the Primary body is something else beyond earth, fire, air and water, they gave to the highest place a name of its own, aither, derived from the fact that it "runs always" for an eternity of time.

(4) Ibid., II, 1 [284a, 11-15, 284, 2-5]. The ancients gave the Gods the heaven or upper place., 'as being alone immortal; and our present argument testifies that it is indestructible and ungenerated. Further, it is unaffected by any mortal discomfort ... it is not only more appropriate so to conceive of its eternity, but also on this hypothesis alone are we able to advance a theory consistent with popular divinations of the divine nature.

(5) Aristotle, Metaphysics, XI (XII), 8 [1074 31, 38-1074, 3]. Evidently there is but one heaven.... Our forefathers in the most remote ages have handed down to their posterity a tradition, in the form of a myth, that these bodies are gods and that the divine encloses the whole of nature. The rest of the tradition has been added later in a mythical form with a view to the persuasion of the multitude and to its legal and utilitarian expediency; they say these gods are in the form of men or like some of the other animals, and they say other things consequent on and similar to those which we have mentioned. But if one were to separate the first point from these additions and take it alone that they thought the first substances to he gods, one must regard this as an inspired utterance; and reflect that, while probably each art and each science has often been developed as far as possible and has again perished, these opinions, with others, have been preserved until the present like relics of the ancient treasure.

(6) Diogenes Laertius, X, 81. There is yet one more point to seize, namely, that the greatest anxiety of the human mind arises through the belief that the heavenly bodies are blessed and indestructible, and that at the same time they have volitions and actions ... inconsistent with this belief ... apprehending some evil because of the myths....

(7) Ibid., X, 76.. Nay more, we are bound to believe that in the sky revolution, solstices, eclipses, risings and settings, and the like, take place without the ministration or command, either now or in the future, of any being who at the same time enjoys perfect bliss along with immortality. 77. For troubles and anxieties ... do not accord with bliss, but always imply weakness and fear and dependence upon one's neighbours. Nor, again, must we hold that things which are no more than globular masses of fire, being at the same time endowed with bliss, assume these motions at will.... Otherwise such inconsistency will of itself suffice to produce the worst disturbance in our minds.

(8) Aristotle, On the Heavens, II, 1 [284 ' 18-201. Hence we must not believe the old tale which. says that the world needs some Atlas to keep it safe.

(9) Diogenes Laertius, X, 85. So you (i.e., Pythocles) will do well to take and learn them and get them up quickly along with the short epitome in my letter to Herodotus.

(10) Ibid., X, 85. In the first place, remember that, like everything else, knowledge of celestial phenomena, whether taken along with other things or in isolation, as well as of the other sciences, has no other end in view than peace of mind and firm conviction.

Ibid., X, 82. But mental tranquillity means being released from all these troubles and cherishing a continual remembrance of the highest and most important truths.

(11) Ibid., X, 87. For our life has no need now of ideologies and false opinions; our one need is untroubled existence.

Ibid., X, 78. Further, we must hold that to arrive at accurate knowledge of the cause of things of most moment is the business of natural science, and that happiness depends on this (viz. on . the knowledge of celestial phenomena).

Ibid., X, 79. There is nothing in the knowledge of risings and settings and solstices and eclipses and all kindred subjects that contributes to our happiness; but those who are well informed about such matters and yet are ignorant what the heavenly bodies really are, and what are the most important causes of phenomena, feel quite as much fear as those who have no such special information-nay, perhaps even greater fear.

(12) Ibid., X, 86. We do not seek to wrest by force what is impossible, nor to understand all matters equally well, nor make our treatment always as clear as when we discuss human life or explain the principles of ethics in general ... for instance, that the whole of being consists of bodies and intangible nature, or that the ultimate elements of things are indivisible, or any other proposition which ad-its only one explanation of the phenomena to be possible. But this is not the case with celestial phenomena.

(13) Ibid., X, 86. These at any rate admit of manifold causes for their occurrence and manifold accounts, none of them contradictory of sensation, of their nature.

For in the study of nature [physiology] we must not conform to empty assumptions and arbitrary laws, but follow the promptings of the facts.

(14) Ibid., X, 92.

(15) Ibid., X, 94.

(16) Ibid., X, 95 and 96.

(17) Ibid., X, 98.

(18) Ibid., X, 104. And [says Epicurus] there are several other ways in which thunderbolts may possibly he produced. Exclusion of myth is the sole condition necessary; and it will he excluded, if one properly attends to the facts and hence draws inferences to interpret what is obscure.

(19) Ibid., X, 80. When, therefore, we investigate the causes of celestial phenomena, as of all that is unknown, we must take into account the variety of ways in which analogous occurrences happen within our experience.

Ibid., X, 82. But mental tranquillity means being released from all these troubles.... Hence we must attend to present feelings and sense perceptions, whether those of mankind in general or those peculiar to the individual, and also attend to all the clear evidence available, as given by each of the standards of truth. For by studying them we shall rightly trace to its cause and banish the source of disturbance and dread, accounting for celestial phenomena and for all other things which from time to time befall us and cause the utmost alarm to the rest of mankind.

Ibid., X, 87. Some phenomena within our experience afford evidence by which we may interpret what goes on in the heavens. We see how the former really take place, but not how the celestial phenomena take place, for their occurrence may possibly be due to a variety of causes. [88.1 However, we must observe each fact as presented, and further separate from it all the facts presented along with it, the occurrence of which from various causes is not contradicted by facts within our experience.

(20) Ibid., X, 78. Further, we must recognise on such points as this plurality of causes or contingency....

Ibid., X, 86. These [celestial phenomena] at any rate admit of manifold causes for their occurrence....

Ibid., X, 87. All things go on uninterruptedly, if all be explained by the method of plurality of causes ... so soon as we duly understand what may he plausibly alleged respecting them....

(21) Ibid., X, 98. Whereas those who adopt only one explanation are in conflict with the facts and are utterly mistaken as to the way in which man can attain knowledge.

Ibid., X, 113. To assign a single cause for these effects when the facts suggest several causes is madness and a strange inconsistency; yet it is done by adherents of rash astrology, who assign meaningless causes for the stars whenever they persist in saddling the divinity with burdensome tasks.

Ibid., X, 97. And further, let the regularity of their orbits he explained in the same way as certain ordinary incidents within our own experience; the divine nature must not on any account be adduced to explain this, but must he kept free from the task and in perfect bliss. Unless this be done, the whole study of celestial phenomena will be in vain, as indeed it has proved to he with some who did not lay hold of a possible method, but fell into the folly of supposing that these events happen in one single way only and of rejecting all the others which are possible, suffering themselves to be carried into the realm of the unintelligible, and being unable to take a comprehensive view of the facts which must be taken as clues to the rest.

Ibid., X, 93. ...unmoved by the servile artifices of the astrologers.

Ibid., X, 87. ...we clearly fall away from the study of nature altogether and tumble into myth.

Ibid., X, 80. Therefore we must ... investigate the causes of celestial phenomena, as of all that is unknown, [... 1 while as for those who do not recognise the difference between what is or comes about from a single cause and that which may he the effect of any one of several causes, overlooking the fact that the objects are only seen at a distance, and are moreover ignorant of the conditions that render, or do not render, peace of mind impossible-all such persons we must treat with contempt.

(22) Ibid., X, 80. We must not suppose that our treatment of these matters fails of accuracy, so far as it is needful to ensure our tranquillity and happiness.

(23) Ibid., X, 78. ... but we must hold that nothing suggestive of conflict or disquiet is compatible with an immortal and blessed nature. And the mind can grasp the absolute truth of this.

(24) Comp. Aristotle, On the Heavens, 1, 10.

(25) Ibid., 1, 10 [279b, 25-261. Suppose that the world was formed out of elements which were formerly otherwise conditioned than as they are now. Then ... if their condition was always so and could not have been otherwise, the world could never have come into being.

(26) Athenacus, Banquet of the Learned, III, 104. ... One ... must with good reason approve the noble Chrysippus for his shrewd comprehension of Epicurus' "Nature", and his remark that the very centre of the Epicurean philosophy is the Gastrology of Archestratus....

(27) Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, 1, 63-70, 79-80.