What Does Ancient Atomism Have To Do With Class Struggle?

From Epicurus to Karl Marx and the collective pursuit of shared ends.

Is there any connection between Karl Marx’s dissertation on the ancient atomists, Democritus and especially Epicurus, and his political philosophy that views class struggle as the engine of history? Two approaches have been taken thus far: Most dismiss the dissertation as juvenilia that can be conveniently ignored. Others see the dissertation as a commentary on contemporary political philosophers thinly disguised behind the two atomist philosophers. The latter view, recently pursued very convincingly by Charles Barbour, seems to me the correct one—but it is still insufficient. Why did Marx choose the atomists specifically to address contemporary political issues? To answer this question, we need to turn to ancient philosophy.

Cicero offered the most perceptive, and most influential, summaries of the different ancient philosophical schools. In On Ends, the book in which he summarizes the practical philosophy of the ancients, he describes five Roman friends who are visiting Athens around 79BC in their quest to study philosophy and cultivate themselves. The friends attend a lecture by Antiochus, a famous Platonic philosopher. Afterwards, they wander outside the city’s walls and head to the original site of the Academy, which by now has been abandoned. They are exhilarated to be at the site of the first school of philosophy established by Plato, the place where the first formal philosophical lessons ever took place; and, moreover, to arrive at the end of the day, when—they celebrate unselfconsciously—the hordes of tourists are gone. The uber tourist is always someone who despises other tourists.

As they admire the stones where famous philosophers sat to teach, their attention turns to philosophical matters. They start thinking about the most significant question of philosophy, a question that had been discussed, debated, and disputed at the very place where they are standing. What is this question? It is, explains Cicero, the question of the good that can be examined by considering the ends that motivate action. In other words, the ancient philosophers thought that to act, one has to have a certain end in mind, even though they disagreed what this end actually is.

Aristotle’s unique contribution to this debate consists in providing the fundamental distinction between two different kinds of ends. He introduces this distinction at the very beginning of Nicomachean Ethics, but explains it more in book 6: The end of techne is something measurable. The end of phronesis is something that pertains to living as a whole. When the Greeks and the Romans talk about ethics, they mean action insofar as it pertains to the latter. Cicero’s notion of the end in the title of his book and in the discussion of the good is only the latter.

But this leads to a further point: phronesis leads to conflict about the ends of living, since it is impossible to measure with any certainty the success of ends about life as a whole. This is something that is made clear in Epicurus, especially in Principal Doctrines 31 to 38. Thus, he argues in doctrine 36 that justice depends on the given circumstances, and, he continues in 37, the change of circumstances means that phronesis might lead to a different conception of justice. In other words, people can end up disagreeing about what is just, which can also lead to conflict between them.

This argument about ends and change generating conflict is revived in modernity. I trace this in Spinoza, the Epicurean. Briefly: phronesis is translated into the calculation of utility in Spinoza, and this is again translated into the discourse of interest in English. From there it goes back to Germany where Marx encounters it, for example in the English economists and Scottish philosophy. Ergo, class struggle.

If you pause and think about what is said here about ends and phronesis, you will find the universal justification for revolution. We stop and make a calculation about the given circumstances. And we come to the conclusion that what is regarded as just by whatever dominant group is in fact not just at all. Even if it were just at some point, now the circumstances have changed.

This makes sense of a claim in the Communist Manifesto that may appear grandiose if not outright outrageous: that the entire history of humanity can be reduced to the competing interests of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. If by interest we understand intentional acts and the like, then of course this makes no sense. However, the distinctive feature of the end of phronesis is that it is about living as a whole. It is not about individual acts. Within this living as a whole, are the ends of our living. And, from this perspective, the historical claim that Marx and Engels make appears less outrageous. But that requires we assume they are working on the basis of the conception of ethical action or of praxis within the ancient framework of considering the ends of action in the manner that Epicurus did.

Why has this Epicurean framework been lost? I have written a book on this that will appear next year and which is titled The Ruse of Techne. This has to do with the critique of modernity that basically says that the science promised to be neutral. The ends of a scientific process were meant to only be the application of the laws of nature. However, interests always intervened. That’s the genesis of what the Frankfurt School calls “instrumental reason,” and Heidegger “Machenschaft,” or the “nihilism of modernity.” What this critique does is two-fold: First, it assumes a secular position whereby there is no transcendence. But unlike the ancients (or Spinoza, or Marx), the critique of modernity fails to distinguish between the two ends of action. The final ends of production are confused with the instrumental ends of phronesis. The two become indistinguishable. What is the upshot? The ingrained pessimism of modernity. Nothing really matters. Everything is really indifferent. Modern man has lost his moral compass.

Understanding action in terms of the ends of phronesis avoids such a pessimism. In contrast to the existential dread or the emptiness of the modern subject, a consideration of the ends of action can provide us a robust historical analysis that can become the ground of action, not in terms of solving our problems, but in terms of identifying shared ends that we can collectively pursue. And as mere humans in a world without any transcendent guarantees, that is good enough!

This article is based on a talked delivered at the philosophy department of Fudan University on June 16, 2022. A recording of the talk is available here.

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DIMITRIS VARDOULAKIS teaches philosophy at Western Sydney University. He is the chair of the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy, the director of the Thinking out Loud lecture series, and the co-editor of the Incitements series for Edinburgh University Press.


DIMITRIS VARDOULAKIS teaches philosophy at Western Sydney University. He is the chair of the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy, the director of the Thinking out Loud lecture series, and the co-editor of the Incitements series for Edinburgh University Press.

1 thought on “What Does Ancient Atomism Have To Do With Class Struggle?”

  1. How does this relate to utilitarianism? Isn’t that the mechanism that helps us travel between science and phronesis?

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