DIALECTICS AND DECADENCE
ECHOES OF ANTIQUITY IN MARX AND NIETZSCHE
This work examines and compares the epistemologies and ethics of two of the most prominent and radically diverse German social theorists of the nineteenth century: Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). At first glance, two more completely different philosophers cannot be found. One defended socialism and the other aristocratic elitism, one was a student of Hegel and the other a student of Kant, and one believed in moral truth and the other nihilism. Max Weber said that the political and methodological diversity of these two individuals provided the foundations for the development of modern social theory. The central aim of this work is to trace the source of the imagination and inspiration for their ideas back to classical antiquity. We will see that the full range of their ethics and epistemologies is better understood within the context of their understanding of classical Greece. There is a clear continuity that runs between ancient Greece and nineteenth-century German social thought.
Marx and Nietzsche were students of Greek antiquity. Nietzsche, a trained classical philologist whose doctoral thesis examined the intellectual sources of Diogenes Laertius, said, "Greek antiquity provides the classical set of examples for the interpretation of our entire culture and its development." To some extent this has already been recognized, but the emphasis here will be on Nietzsche's interpretation of Greek metaphysics, ethics, and tragedy. This will be examined in his research and lectures on pre-Platonic Greek philosophy from Thales to Anaxagoras, his theory of Greek tragedy, his rejection of Socratic and scientific rationalism, and his critique of Christianity in the development of his epistemology and ethics. Marx was also a trained classical philologist and philosopher who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the post-Aristotelian philosophy of nature of Democritus and Epicurus. He intended to teach Greek philosophy and history at the University of Bonn. Of specific interest is the question, why did Marx return to the post-Platonic philosophers, whereas Nietzsche was concerned with the pre-Platonic writings? What were the different questions and issues that fired their imaginations, stirred their souls, and influenced their choices of classical philosophers to investigate?
The first part of this book, Romance with Antiquity: Dreaming of Democracy in a Moral Economy, begins with an examination of the influence of Greek philosophy and literature on the work of Marx. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Winckelmann, Goethe, Schiller, Hölderlin, and Hegel, in their poetry, literature, and aesthetics, turned to the Greeks for ideas and inspiration. Their art and writings reflected a pursuit of simplicity, beauty, nobility, and serenity. In the mid-nineteenth century, the soft breeze blowing off the Acropolis toward the University of Berlin reached Marx. His doctoral dissertation, The Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature (1841), examined the theory of physics and astronomy of Democritus and Epicurus and offered his first insights into the primacy of individual freedom and his rejection of the methods of the natural sciences. Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and Politics provided the philosophical foundations for his early and later ideas on democracy, social organization, distinctions between human needs and individual rights, and relationships between individual freedom and the community. These Greek works even provided the formal structure within which to understand the relationship between historical and dialectical science, on the one hand, and ethics in the Grundrisse and Capital, on the other. His labor theory of value and economic crisis theory must be interpreted through this spreading "Greek fire."
Seven times throughout the first volume of Capital, Aristotle is either directly quoted in Greek or centrally mentioned. Marx places his economic crisis theory within the heart of Aristotle's theory of social justice (distributive, rectificatory, and reciprocal justice), household management, and the political community. At every turn in the development of his major ideas about market commerce or capitalist production from the initial stages of his labor theory of value to his analysis of surplus value, abstract labor, and the social organization of production, Marx turns to Aristotle for insight and guidance. Reexamining Marx through the eyes of Aristotle's ethics and politics opens up new horizons of interpretation. In this first volume of Capital, Marx's theory of value is directly paralleled with Aristotle's theory of market equality and commensurability; Marx's theory of the changing historical and social foundations of capitalism with Aristotle's natural law of slavery and the economy (critique of historical fetishism); his theory of appearances and commodity exchange with Aristotle's distinction between use value and exchange value; his analysis of simple circulation of commodities (C-M-C) and his critique of commerce and profit making (M-C-M), that is, the satisfaction o( human needs and the satisfaction of profit acquisition, alongside Aristotle's theory of the Oeconomic and Chrematistic; his notion of the contradictions of capital (profits of merchants' capital and usury of moneylenders' capital) with Aristotle's theory of chrematistike; his theory of species being and the social form and organization of production with Aristotle's theory of the political nature of man; and, finally, Marx's view of the revolutionary and emancipatory potential of modern technology and industry with Aristotle's dreams about the Greek inventions of Daedalus and Hephaestos.
With Aristotle's rejection of chrematistike (unnatural wealth acquisition and money making) and a market economy constantly in view, Marx moved from a critique of political economy toward a theory of moral economy. The conflicts and struggles produced by modern society are translated and interpreted through the political and aesthetic language of the polis. This perspective opens up a whole new avenue of social critique and evaluation of Capital. The apparent contradictory aspects of Marx's philosophy and economics, his early and later works, as well as his different methodologies all begin to take on a different hue. His economic theory becomes infused into an all-encompassing theory of ethics and social justice.
Chapter 2 undertakes an analysis of the institutions and values of fifth-century Athenian polity and Aristotle's views on democracy in the Politics. Focus on the Athenian Assembly, Boule, and jury courts helps clarify the central features of the Athenian democratic system, as well as Aristotle's own insightful comments on its organization, structure, and principles. The debate over Aristotle's ideal polity and the traditionally conservative interpretations of his defense of aristocracy or monarchy are closely examined and rejected. The argument will be made that Marx's view of the future and participatory democracy had their origins in Greek thought, thus providing a broader, more comprehensive, and more profound understanding of democracy than is found in all forms of liberal thought. It is over the nature of democracy in Marx that the clash between the ancients and moderns reaches its peak. Both the historical and philosophical dimensions of the ancients are then juxtaposed with Marx's analysis of the democratic imagination and reality found in the Paris Commune of 1871.
The second half of this chapter makes the transition from politics to epistemology in. order to show how Marx's politics and theory of democracy are intimately connected to his attempt to resolve the epistemological dilemmas of nineteenth-century philosophy. From his political theory to his theory of knowledge and methodology, practical discourse and public discussion within a democratic polity respond to the many questions concerning the nature of truth, knowledge, and science. Like Aristotle, he will reject both science (episteme) and art (techne) as making legitimate claims to political truths (phronesis). One way to approach these questions is by examining the relationships between method and temporality in Marx's later writings. His methods are closely connected to the different temporal dimensions -- present, past, and future: the dialectical method of Capital (1867-94) revealed the present inherent contradictions of capitalism based on the split between use value and exchange value, production for the satisfaction of human needs and production for the realization of private profit; the historical method of the Grundrisse (1857-58) examined the underlying past structural and economic foundations of capitalism in the development of modern industrial society; and the political method of democratic consensus found in the Civil War in France (1871) emerged as he studied the social revolution of the Paris Commune and its radical economic and political decentralization of power.
Herein lay the secrets to Marx's vision of a democratic future. One could even say that these three distinct methods reflected the specific methodological influences of Hegel, Kant, and Aristotle, respectively. Hegel's dialectical method and theory of contradictions influenced Marx's view of the contradictions of capitalism; the application of Kant's transcendental logic influenced the study of history in an attempt to uncover the universal and necessary structures of capitalist society; and Aristotle's view of justice and democracy, epistemology and politics influenced Marx's ideas about needs, democracy, and "theory and practice."
Chapter 3 solidifies Marx's relationship with antiquity and develops his ethical theory beyond the Greeks by providing an investigation into the influence of ancient Israel and the prophetic tradition on his moral philosophy, his rejection of moral and methodological abstractionism, and his critique of fetishism. Being steeped in the political writings and scriptural interpretations of Benedict de Spinoza and having studied the Hebrew prophets and Old Testament with Bruno Bauer during his last years at the University of Berlin, Marx was aware of the prophets' ethical prescriptions against inequality, wealth accumulation, class differences, and the degradation of poverty. He was also aware of the relevance of the ethical covenant, critique of idolatry and false gods, and the jubilee and sabbatical years for the continuous renewal of the Hebraic moral community. These ideas become incorporated into his critique of economic alienation, commodity fetishism, and market liberties, his rejection of the methods and ideals of political economy and positivism, his defense of aesthetic creativity, human emancipation, and radical freedom, and his search for the ethical standards for a just society free from the anarchy of modern capitalist production. The Hebrew tradition also counteracts the dominance of property and class found in Attica, while calling for a moral and egalitarian society.
The second part of this volume, Antiquity by Moonlight: Tragic Imagination in an Age of Nihilism, examines the relation between Nietzsche and classical Greece and its effects on his critique of pure and practical reason: epistemology and moral philosophy. Nietzsche's doctoral thesis examined the origins of the ideas of Diogenes Laertius. Though never submitted, it was later published as a Gratulationsschrift at the University of Basel -- Beiträge zur Quellenkunde und Kritik des Laertius Diogenes. Throughout his writings, Greek philosophy and art played a pivotal role in his vision of humanity, from his earliest works on Theognis, Democritus, and Diogenes Laertius down to The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Philosophy during the Tragic Age of the Greeks (1873), Early Greek Philosophy (1871-73), The Philosopher: Reflections on the Struggle between Art and Knowledge (1872), The Struggle between Science and Wisdom (1875), and finally to Twilight of the Idols (1888). What is especially fascinating about Nietzsche is that he appropriates the Greek experience in his early writings through the perspective of Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Lange.
Nietzsche's analysis of pre-Socratic metaphysics and science, the development of a theory of drama on the basis of his readings of Aeschylus and Sophocles, his reliance on Winckelmann, Goethe, Schiller, and Schopenhauer for his aesthetic insights, his integration of Schiller's theory of optimism and tragic reconciliation and Schopenhauer's theory of pessimism and tragic resignation, his understanding of history in terms of Aristotle's notion of phronesis, and the later development of his ideas on the Übermensch and nihilism are all filtered through his primary Greek vision -- the centrality of aesthetic creativity and the development of individual character in a meaningless and painful universe. Burdened by the terrors and horrors of existence reflected in death, suffering, and an unforgiving fate, the Greeks created a world of beauty, harmony, and purpose. In place of wars, political and economic unrest, and human mortality, they created a mythology of anthropomorphic gods, divine retribution, eternal peace, and social justice.
Nietzsche saw his major contribution to the development of a theory of tragedy as integrating the artistic drives of the dynamic, creative, and destructive Dionysian impulse with that of the mythmaking, form-giving, and meaning-creating Apollonian impulse. This was also another way of integrating Schiller and Schopenhauer. Nietzsche's analysis of Greek philosophy, including the works of Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Parmenides, and Anaxagoras, is important in that it parallels the development of his ideas from The Birth of Tragedy. His central focus is on their ideas of being and becoming, wisdom and suffering, Apollo and Dionysus. From these early Greek philosophers, he learns that physics is a "science" that projects anthropomorphic metaphors onto the world. Whether he is discussing Greek drama or Greek philosophy, he views the world as a human creation in which language, illusions, conventions, and metaphors construct meaning from an abyss of absurdity. There is ultimately no reality, no meaning, no values, and no teleology. In these early writings, there is a clear connection between his theories of tragedy, epistemology, and metaphysics.
Marx and Nietzsche reacted strongly to the Enlightenment view of knowledge and truth, while respecting the primacy of the individual. But rather than viewing the individual as a bundle of sense impressions or a receptacle of natural rights, they saw the person in terms of the natural law tradition of classical Greece. They also admired the formation of the subject and its rebellion against the recalcitrant social system of the polis and the reified philosophical systems of Plato and Aristotle. Marx returned to the post-Aristotelian philosophy of Epicurus, and Nietzsche returned to the pre-Platonic thought of the Sophists in search of the courage and wisdom to escape the alienation and decadence of Western rationality.
The methodologies of Marx and Nietzsche had one major ingredient in common. Both were infused with the spirit of the dialectic, without being weighed down by its mechanics or metaphysics. Skepticism, unlike its use in the Cartesian tradition, was not simply a convenient starting point. Once the idea of an absolute end to the search for knowledge in religion, art, and philosophy was rejected, their thoughts became infused with the dilemma raised by Hume in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. The relationships between thought and reality, concepts and experience became a source of continuous concern for them. The spiritual heart of both their philosophies rested in a regaining of "power" and control over their lives, which had previously been surrendered to Christian morality and modern science, and to the philosophies, values, and institutions of liberal politics and classical political economy.
Reason had been debased by its reduction to a predictive science whose purpose was domination and rule over people. Reason had been turned into a force against individuals, imprisoning and eclipsing their bodies and imaginations, dictating correct moral behavior or proper economic and political action, imposing categorical imperatives or economic natural laws, and restricting the possibilities of history and social development and the potentialities of self-enlightenment and liberation. Human experience and sensuality had become a form of alienated objectivity that dictated the correct moral action or proper course of social activity. Laws of economic and moral development became direct expressions of nature and universality. Objectivity was draped with the mantle of neutrality and truth, while subjectivity was perceived as deviant, personal, and particularistic. Under these historical and cultural conditions, religion, morality, and political economy were criticized as undercutting the very possibility for the expression of human rationality and freedom. The individual had been sacrificed on the fetishized altar of idolatry; the forms of idolatrous illusions were a matter of historical perspective.
In Chapter 5, Nietzsche's epistemology is closely considered. In his works On Truth and Falsity in their Ultramoral Sense (1873), The Use and Abuse of History (1874), and the Nachlass (1883-88), some of which appeared in translated form as The Will to Power, he developed his theory of perspectivism in which he argued that facts are always filtered through a preexisting theory. Objective experience is always preformed and prestructured by the decadence of Western civilization in religion, philosophy, and science with their claims to universal truth. Belief in objectivity is a form of distorted understanding in which the process of becoming is replaced by a reified substance. Illusions of transcendent truth and universal reality and illusions of objectivity and self replace the more transient perspectives of the moment. In the process, a morality is created that threatens to reduce rationality and moral values to a very narrow range of thought. The result, according to Nietzsche, is a "suicide of reason." Both Marx and Nietzsche viewed this process of alienation and decadence as reaching its peak with the development of modernity and liberalism.
Nietzsche viewed the development of Kantian practical reason as
the modern apex of moral rationality originally developed by Socrates and Plato. But while rejecting Kant's moral philosophy, he continued, like Marx, to view the world in terms of ethical categories. Throughout his major works on morality from Thus Spoke Zarathustra> (1883-85) to Beyond Good and Evil (1886), The Genealogy of Morals (1887), and Twilight of the Idols (1888), he presents the ultimate ideal of humankind to live morally and freely, but in a society characterized by the "transvaluation of values." By this he means a complete critical rethinking of the nature of morality, objectivity, and rationality. This represented as much a continuation of the Kantian imperative as it did its rejection. As the ideas implicit in the latter's constitution theory of truth lead to their transcendence in Nietzsche's theory of perspectivism, so too the categorical imperative was transcended by "overcoming" traditional morality. As in the case of Marx's writings, this should not be interpreted as a rejection of morality, only its critical rethinking and transformation.
Nietzsche's ethical philosophy is encapsulated in his theory of decadence, the will to power, eternal return, Übermensch, moral nihilism, the psychology of slave morality, and his critique of Christian and Kantian morality. This is the focus of Chapter 6. Regarding his critique of Kantian moral philosophy and Christianity, there is some overlap between his ideas and Hegel's "The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate" found in the latter's early theological writings. From the way Nietzsche approaches nihilism, it is clear that the concept does not represent his approach to ethics, but rather, it provides him with a sociological and psychological method by which to uncover the historical foundations of religion and moral philosophy. Nihilism results from an undermining of religion and morality with the development of science and positivism. It is also a reflection of the former's inner nature. Traditional morality, by accepting a notion of a static and transcendent value system, destroys true rationality and morality in the process, since, for Nietzsche, it destroys the dynamic impulse to create moral values. It distorts the very possibility of subjectivity. Creativity and self-realization are the chief characteristics and goals of the Übermensch, the striving individual who overcomes moral decadence (loss of the subjective and creative element in the individual) and regains control over the original constitutive act of creating and implementing the categorical imperative. The insights gained from his earlier interests in classical aesthetics and drama are now joined to his ethical writings. Dionysian wisdom has come full circle.
The final part of this book, Unbinding Prometheus: Classical Imagination and Vision in Nineteenth-Century Germany, briefly outlines the mostly opposite paths that Marx and Nietzsche took with their insights. Marx moved toward socialism and radical democracy, whereas Nietzsche moved toward the cultivation of virtue and individual character. Nietzsche was very critical of socialism and rejected what he saw as its egalitarian and leveling impulses. But this is not dissimilar to Marx's own criticisms of both crude communism and vulgar Marxism in the Paris Manuscripts. In this comparison of their works, we must distinguish between their philosophical positions and their reactions to historical circumstances. What we will see is that Marx borrowed heavily from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (books 1,5,6, 8, and 9) on the nature of the good of man, justice, intellectual virtues (practical wisdom, technical reason, and philosophical wisdom), and friendship within the polis, whereas Nietzsche borrowed from books 2, 3, 4, 5, and 10 on moral virtues, philosophical contemplation, and happiness. Marx developed the Aristotelian moment, which emphasized the political and ethical community, as he moved in the direction of a democratic society built on the principle of the satisfaction of human needs. Nietzsche, in his isolation and loneliness, in his personal pain and suffering, moved in the direction of an aristocracy of virtue and artistic creativity.
The last chapter of this work argues briefly for a new and admittedly controversial thesis: the integration of Marx's critique of political economy and Nietzsche's theory of aesthetics and ethics. The argument begins by showing that political and economic democracy provides part of the necessary structural conditions for the full development of individual potentialities leading to self-realization. But the moral development of the individual is also crucial. Cultural aristocracy is not incompatible with social democracy, since the purpose of an egalitarian society is to encourage and promote intellectual and spiritual differences, diversity, and individual development. The danger to democracy comes not from cultural differences, individual achievement, or even an aristocracy of virtue and character. The real danger lies in an aristocracy of concentrated wealth and institutionalized class power. Economic and political equality (Marx) is absolutely necessary for intellectual and spiritual inequality (Nietzsche). The development of character and self-determination cannot be accomplished in a class society based on market exchange as Aristotle had already recognized. Marx was also aware that it would be in a true and radical democracy that individual autonomy and moral freedom could be realized. From this perspective, both thinkers represent two distinct moments of Aristotelian ethics as they are worked out in modernity. Alasdair MacIntyre, when dealing with the important issue of which ethical philosophy to follow in his work After Virtue, asked the question, "Nietzsche or Aristotle?" The answer lies not in a choice between them, but in the modern integration of the two Aristotelian themes of practical reason found in Marx and Nietzsche: social ethics and moral imagination.