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Ode on a Grecian Printing-Press: Marx and the possibility of antiquity

Adam Edward Lecznar

In 1842, Karl Marx (1818-1883) submitted his doctoral dissertation on the differences between the Epicurean and Democritean theories of atomism. This paper begins with Marx’s youthful treatment of Epicurean philosophy as an example of how to philosophize practically in the aftermath of the theoretical philosophy of Plato and Aristotle; it goes on to argue that ,throughout his life, ancient Greece offered Marx a source of hope in the potential of human activity. This argument runs counter to the common reading of Marx’s relationship with antiquity as one necessarily characterized by failure due to his strict adherence to an iron-bound historical determinism (as in Neville Morley’s 1999 article ‘Marx and the Failure of Antiquity’). As early as 1975 Heinrich von Staden suggested that ancient Greece offered an exceptional case in Marx’s philosophy; this paper builds on von Staden’s work to argue that that the conceptual framework established by Marx in dialogue with ancient Greek texts and ideas continued to offer a way of understanding human agency that would underpin much of his later thinking.

This paper goes on to focus on another nodal moment in the young Marx’s reception of the ancient world to argue that it forms a continuation of the approach to Greek antiquity that he had earlier initiated. It looks at a cartoon published in 1843 in response to the Prussian government's suppression of the Rheinische Zeitung, a newspaper that Marx briefly edited; this cartoon portrays Marx as Prometheus, chained to a printing press and gnawed by the eagle of Prussian censorship. Marx expressed his deeply felt admiration for the myth of Prometheus throughout his life; it is particularly clear  in his decision to quote Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound in the introduction to his doctoral dissertation. But rather than read Marx's (self-)association with Prometheus as a self-contained instance of classical reception, I place it in the context of his relationship with Bruno Bauer and the Young Hegelian movement in Berlin, as well as alongside Marx’s contemporary writings on Prussian censorship and the freedom of the press in the Rheinische Zeitung: on this reading, Marx’s turns to Prometheus are not just wistful examples of nineteenth-century German philhellenism, but an earnest attempt to use a resonant mythological form to understand the possibility of philosophizing after Hegel and the difficulties of writing against the cultural status quo.

The paper concludes where so many attempts to unravel Marx’s relationship with Greek antiquity have ended in the past: the brief reference at the end of his unfinished Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie (1857, published posthumously in 1939) where Marx wrote about the continued resonance of ancient Greek mythology in the contemporary world:

All mythology overcomes and dominates and shapes the forces of nature in the imagination and by the imagination; it therefore vanishes with the advent of real mastery over them. From another side: is Achilles possible with powder and lead? Or the Iliad with the printing press, not to mention the printing machine?

The recurring and jarring image of the printing-press in Marx’s discussions of ancient Greek mythology and literature, of Prometheus and the Iliad, suggests that Marx is trying to understand the relevance of ancient Greece in a world with entirely different material conditions. His attempts to renew Epicurus, Prometheus and the Iliad inspire paradoxical conclusions: for while it might now be impossible to compose them in their original form, the continued passion that they inspire is proof of a different kind of possibility in which ancient mythological forms encode ideas and provoke responses that speak to fundamental and transhistorical human passions. Marx’s readings of ancient Greece thus suggest that the recurrence of ancient forms in modernity is a key example of human beings acting against the constraints of their present conditions in order to build a more universal structure of human flourishing. 

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Marx and Antiquity

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