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The Hell of the Populace: Marx, Epicurus, and the Limits of Enlightenment

Martin Devecka

Marx’s doctoral dissertation reads like a full-throated vindication of Epicurus against the uncomprehending critique to which he had been subject from antiquity onward. In a fragment (“On Religious Feudalism”) that comes at the end of that dissertation, however, Marx takes a surprising turn: he admits that an ancient criticism of Epicurus may actually be correct. The criticism in question appears in Plutarch’s diatribe That Epicurus Actually Renders a Pleasant Life Impossible (1004-1005), where it is suggested that Epicurus’ denial of the afterlife renders his philosophy unsuitable for most people (οἱ πολλοί.)

I begin this paper by examining Plutarch’s account of this incompatibility. I show first that Plutarch defines οἱ πολλοί in class terms and according to sociological criteria, and then that he blames their inability to accept an “Epicurean death” on other beliefs which they hold because of the conditions under which they live and labor (pace Timpanaro 1980, whose approach to these questions I still find useful). Turning to Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, I then demonstrate that the “leisure class” character of Epicurean attitudes toward death is not an invention of Plutarch but is integral even to friendly accounts of Epicurean philosophy. Marx’s recognition of this, I argue, contributed to a significant development in his thought: the turn from an enlightenment notion of knowledge as sufficient for emancipation to a more pessimistic belief, visible for instance in “On the Jewish Question,” that mass enlightenment was impossible without a change in the conditions of social life.

In TEARPLI, Plutarch argues that the afterlife, which Epicurus denies, is a necessary psychological support for the majority of people, who, accustomed to live by toil, see nothing dreadful in the punishments of Hades provided that they can “carry on existing.” On Plutarch’s account, belief in the afterlife is the only thing that leads poor men to labor and build families—to engage in all the minutiae of social reproduction—because they believe that all this will be preserved after death (cf Warren 2004, pp. 17-56). For most people, then, Epicureanism is a philosophy without consolation. By countenancing Epicureanism as a “popular philosophy,” Plutarch shows that it is actually incompatible with the lived lives of the masses.

In Lucretius’ DRN, we find confirmation that Plutarch’s critique is more than caricature. At 3.931-967, Lucretius exhorts his readers to die without fear in language that has long been recognized as comic (e.g. Reinhardt 2002), but whose exact purport has not been appreciated: when he concludes this diatribe by urging the reader to give up the atoms that compose his body so that nature can use them to produce new forms, he casts his reader as a stereotypical Plautine senex who hoards his wealth rather than making it into an inheritance for his offspring. Here Lucretius seems to suggest that the one who dies well is the one who dies wealthy, an impression that is reinforced by the other metaphors with which the poet exhorts his audience to accept as sufficient the fullness of pleasure that they have enjoyed before death (cf Nightingale 2007).

I conclude by returning to Marx, and by suggesting that this encounter, via Epicurus, with the impossibility of mass enlightenment exercised a torsion on Marx’s thought. What he learned, I argue, was that mere knowledge of how things “really were” could not secure the liberation of the masses from their social and economic bonds: that these bonds produced an organic upwelling of ideas that were in conflict with, “enlightened” opinion. When we see Marx return to these issues in “On the Jewish Question,” he has already turned aside from enlightenment ideas about the liberating power of knowledge (cf Balakrishnan 2014). Thenceforth, for Marx, changing the material conditions and relations of social life will always be the first step in any campaign of liberation.

Session/Panel Title:

Marx and Antiquity

Session/Paper Number

41.3

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