Epicurus. Photo: Jamie Heath / CC BY-SA 3.0. Parthenon, Athens. Photo: Weekend Wayfarers / Flickr / CC BY 2.0 Epicurus. Photo: Jamie Heath / CC BY-SA 3.0. Parthenon, Athens. Photo: Weekend Wayfarers / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The inspired insights of the first materialists in antiquity laid the foundations of modern science, as Sean Ledwith describes

Marx and Engels both had a lifelong interest in the ideas, events and personalities of ancient Greece. Conventional historians often like to talk about the so-called ‘Greek Miracle’ lasting from about 700-300 BCE in which many of the foundational concepts of the Western world first emerged. Pioneering developments in disciplines as diverse as architecture, drama, philosophy, poetry, political science, and sculpture were made by creative geniuses such as Euripides, Phidias, Socrates and Aristotle who remain the starting points for study in their respective fields. The era also witnesses dramatic political upheavals including the rise of Athenian democracy, its clashes with the Persian Empire and the Spartan state and the climactic hegemony of Alexander the Great.

Marx was intrigued by the philosophical problem of why this era, perhaps above all other pre-capitalist ones, retained its appeal in the modern world:

‘The difficulty we are confronted with is not, however, that of understanding how Greek art and epic poetry are associated with certain forms of social development. The difficulty is that they still give us aesthetic pleasure and are in certain respects regarded as a standard and unattainable ideal. Why should not the historical childhood of humanity, where it attained its most beautiful form, exert an eternal charm because it is a stage that will never recur? Many of the ancient peoples belong to this category. The Greeks were normal children. The charm their art has for us does not conflict with the immature stage of the society in which it originated. On the contrary, its charm is a consequence of this and is inseparably linked with the fact that the immature social conditions which gave rise, and which alone could give rise, to this art cannot recur.

Built on slavery

As materialists, Marx and Engels were clear-eyed that the undoubted epochal achievements of antiquity were rooted in a merciless and rapacious system of human slavery which condemned the bulk of the population to grinding misery so that an exploitative stratum, including the aforementioned personalities, had the time and leisure to develop their revolutionary concepts and techniques. Engels writes:

‘It was slavery that first made possible the division of labour between agriculture and industry on a larger scale, and thereby also Hellenism, the flowering of the ancient world. Without slavery, no Greek state, no Greek art and science, without slavery, no Roman Empire. But without the basis laid by Hellenism and the Roman Empire, also no modern Europe. We should never forget that our whole economic, political and intellectual development presupposes a state of things in which slavery was as necessary as it was universally recognised.

No miracle

Also as materialists, Marx and Engels understood that the achievements of the Greek Miracle were the consequence of a conjuncture of social and economic forces converging in the Eastern Mediterranean at a particular historical point, and not due to any supposed superiority of Western values, as bourgeois historians in the 18th and 19th centuries had argued. Greece and its associated islands in the Aegean Sea were ideally situated to benefit from the intersection of trade in both goods and ideas that flowed between the neighbouring civilisations of Egypt, Babylon and India as the Iron Age supplanted the Bronze Age round about 800 BCE.

These societies were more economically advanced but their predominantly flat geographical terrain made them vulnerable to top-down control by oppressive and powerful monarchies. As a largely mountainous territory, Greece in contrast, was harder for rulers to establish expansive hegemony and the linked islands developed efficient navies to protect their independence. Money had emerged in Asia Minor during this era, allowing the maritime economies of the Greeks to expand and prosper.

Ionian revolution

Significantly, it was in Ionia on what we call the west coast of Turkey that philosophy first developed. The coastal port of Miletus, in particular, was home to a remarkable sequence of thinkers who collectively created an unprecedented materialist view of the universe; that is to say, one which underplayed or even eliminated religion as a factor in the conception of the natural world. The city, and the surrounding region at this time became the site of intensified class struggle between the new class of merchants and traders who challenged the political power of established control of landowning aristocracies. This added to the intellectual and economic ferment that stimulated the rise of the school of Milesian materialism, pioneered by Thales who lived from about 640 to 546 BCE.

Although our knowledge about him is extremely scanty, ancient sources record that Thales remarkably predicted the solar eclipse that took place in 585, a remarkable testament to the astronomical and mathematical advances that accompanied the expansion of commerce and navigation in the Aegean at this time. Unsurprisingly in light of his location, the foundation of Thales’ materialism was a belief that water is the basis of all things in nature. Like all the Milesian materialists, Thales’ brilliant intuition may seem simplistic to our sophisticated scientific outlook in the 21st century but considering the crucial importance of water in the development of life on Earth and in our own bodies it represents a huge step forward in loosening the grip of religious dogma.

One of Thales’ relatives and pupils, Anaximander, brilliantly anticipated the Darwinian view of evolution many centuries before the great Victorian scientist by highlighting the interaction of quantitative and qualitative change in all living and non-living things: ‘It is the principle of all becoming and passing away; at long intervals infinite worlds or gods rise out of it and again they pass away into the same.’ Common to the Milesians, Anaximander based his supposition not merely on abstract reasoning on close observation of nature, particularly how the fossil record indicated the existence of many species which although long extinct had contributed in some way to the surviving life forms on the planet.

Pristine simplicity

The last of the great early Ionian materialists, Anaximenes, postulated that modulations of air were the primary building blocks of the universe. Again, an inspired guess in light of our current understanding about the critical role of hydrogen in the early history of the universe. Engels neatly observed how the unadorned directness of the Milesians was at once the source of both their greatness and their ultimate limitation:

‘Here dialectical thought still appears in its pristine simplicity… Among the Greeks — just because they were not yet advanced enough to dissect, analyse nature — nature is still viewed as a whole, in general. The universal connection of natural phenomena is not proved in regard to particular; to the Greeks it is the result of direct contemplation. Herein lies the inadequacy of Greek philosophy, on account of which it had to yield later to other modes of outlook on the world. But herein also lies its superiority over all its subsequent metaphysical opponents.

The Ionian materialists laid the foundations for the next wave of Greek philosophers who overlapped with the revolutionary events in Athens which famously brought the world’s first democracy to power. In 508 BCE a coalition of merchants, small property owners and indebted peasants coordinated an uprising in the city that expelled the Pisastratids, a family of tyrants, and initiated a framework of popular participation and voting which represented the peak of political development in antiquity. The democracy of the following 5th and 4th centuries was limited by modern standards-excluding women, foreigners and slaves-but still was a huge advance on the absolute monarchies which dominated previous societies.

Lenin on Heraclitus

The first of the truly dialectical thinkers to emerge in the Aegean region was Heraclitus who lived from c 540-483 BCE and resided in Ephesus in modern Turkey. His seminal idea about change being a fundamental aspect of reality reflects the intensified class struggle of this crucial era. He is probably the best known of these Presocratic thinkers with his famous aphorism that ‘you cannot step into the same river twice’ frequently cited even today. Heraclitus explicitly rejected the existence of the gods and proposed fire as the primordial element of the universe: ‘This one order of things was created by none of the gods, nor yet by any of mankind, but it ever was, and is, and ever shall be eternal fire-ignited by measure and extinguished by measure.’

His emphasis on strife or conflict as an essential and ever-present factor in all aspects of nature was a significant influence, centuries later, on the thinking of Marx and Engels about the centrality of class struggle in human societies. Heraclitus writes: ‘We must know that struggle is common to all and strife is justice, and that all things come into being and pass away through strife.’ Lenin also hailed Heraclitus as one of the trailblazers of dialectics for this underscoring of how the clash of conflicting forces is the dynamo of progress at all levels:

‘For the One is that which consists of two opposites, so that when cut into two the opposites are revealed. Is not this the proposition that the Greeks say their great and famous Heraclitus placed at the head of his philosophy and gloried in it as a new discovery.

Marx and the Atomists

The most important of the Greek philosophers, as far as the fathers of Marxism are concerned, were Democritus and Epicurus. As a student in Germany in the early 1840s, Marx focused  his doctoral dissertation on a comparison of these two great thinkers. At this point in his life, Marx of course was yet to fully develop the theoretical system that would come to be associated with his name, but this work was one of the avenues of thought that would lead him towards revolutionary socialism a few years later. Democritus was the pioneer of atomic theory, writing about 460-370 BCE. Incredibly without any scientific equipment, Democritus speculated that the whole of nature is composed of invisible and indivisible particles of matter which are in constant motion and interaction through the void, which he first described as atoms. Our modern understanding of the sub-atomic world means that the Democritean framework looks simplistic but his fundamental insight about the essential building blocks of nature remains a cornerstone of physics.

From philosophy to politics

Marx recognised the great achievement of Democritus but valued Epicurus, who lived a few decades later, as even more important in his ideas. For the latter, atoms are the unseen components of nature but their activity is not deterministic or mechanistic as Democritus suggested. For Epicurus, autonomy and chance play significant roles in the movements of atoms. As young Marx was inching his way towards a version of historical materialism which emphasised human agency as a force in history, his preference for Epicurus over Democritus becomes comprehensible. As Marx wrote in his doctoral thesis:

‘The deviation of the atom from the straight line is not an accidental feature in the physics of Epicurus… Just as the atom frees itself from its relative existence, the straight line, by setting it aside, by withdrawing from it, so the whole Epicurean philosophy withdraws from the limitative mode of being, wherever the abstract notion of individuality, autonomy and the negation of relativity in all its forms find expression in it.’

This, of course, is not the clearest expression of Marx’s breakthrough emphasis on the self-emancipation of the working class but his promotion here of Epicurus’ more dynamic model of the atom is an embryonic version of what would emerge as the distinctively Marxist belief in the ability of human beings to be the subjects, and not just the objects of history.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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