Karl Kautsky

Ethics and the Materialist Conception Of History

Chapter I
Ancient and Christian Ethics

In the history of Philosophy the question of Ethics comes to the fore soon after the Persian wars. The repulsion of the gigantic Persian despotism had had a similar effect on the tiny Hellenic people to that of the defeat of the Russian despotism on the Japanese. At one blow they became a world-power, ruling the sea which surrounded them and with that commanding its trade. And if now over Japan the great industry is going to break with a weight of which they have only as yet experienced the commencement, so, after the Persian wars, Greece, and Athens in particular, became the headquarters of the world commerce of that time, commercial capitalism embraced the entire people and dissolved all the traditional relations and conceptions which had hitherto ruled the individual and regulated his dealings. The individual found himself suddenly transplanted into a new society – and indeed the more so the higher he stood socially – in which he lost all the traditional supports, in which he found himself left wholly to himself. And yet despite all this seeming anarchy, everyone felt not only a need for distinct rules of conduct, but he found more or less clearly that in his own inner being there worked a regulator of his action which allowed him to decide between good and bad, to aim for the good and to avoid the bad. This regulator revealed itself as a highly mysterious power. Granted that it controlled the actions of many men, that its decisions between good and bad were given without the least delay and asserted themselves with all decision – if any one asked what was the actual nature of this regulator and on what foundation it built its judgments, then were both the regulator which dwelt in the breast of every man, as well as the judgments which appeared so natural and self evident, revealed as phenomena which were harder to understand than any other phenomena in the world.

So we see then that since the Persian wars Ethics, or the investigation of this mysterious regulator of human action – the moral law – comes to the front in Greek Philosophy. Up to this time Greek Philosophy had been in the main natural philosophy. It made it its duty to investigate and explain the laws which hold in the world of nature. Now nature lost interest with the philosophers ever more and more. Man, or the ethical nature of humanity, became the central point of their investigations. Natural Philosophy ceased to make further progress, the natural sciences were divided from philosophy; all progress of the ancient philosophy came now from the study of the spiritual nature of man and his morality.

The Sophists already had begun to despise the knowledge of nature. Still farther went Socrates, who was of opinion that he could learn nothing from the trees, but certainly from the human beings in the town. Plato looked on Natural Philosophy as play.

With that, however, the method of philosophy changed. Natural Philosophy is of necessity bound to rely on the observation of nature. On the other hand how is the moral nature of man to be recognized with more certainty than through the observation of our own personality? The senses can be mistaken, other men can deceive us. But we ourselves do not lie to ourselves, when we wish to be truthful. Thus finally that alone was recognized as certain knowledge which man produced from himself.

But not alone the subject and the method, but also the object of philosophy was different. Natural Philosophy aimed at the examination of the necessary connection of cause and effect. Its point of view was that of causality. Ethics on the other hand dealt with the will and duty of man, with ends and aims which he strives for. Thus its point of view is that of a conscious aim, teleology.

Now these new conceptions do not always reveal themselves with equal sharpness in all the various schools of thought.

There are two methods of explaining the moral law within us.

One can look for its roots in the obvious motive forces of human action, and as such appeared the pursuit of happiness or pleasure. Under the production of wares, the production of private producers externally independent of each other, happiness and pleasure and the conditions necessary thereto are also a private affair. Consequently men come to look for the foundation of the moral law in the individual need for happiness or pleasure. That is good that makes for the individual’s pleasure, and increases his happiness. And evil is that which produces the contrary. How is it then possible that not everybody under all circumstances wishes only the good? That is explained by the fact that there are various kinds of pleasure and happiness. Evil arises when men choose a lower kind of pleasure or happiness in preference to a higher, or sacrifice a lasting pleasure to a momentary and fleeting one. Thus it arises from ignorance or short-sightedness. Accordingly Epicurus looked on the intellectual pleasures as higher than the physical because they last longer and give unalloyed satisfaction. He considers the pleasure of repose greater than the pleasure of action. Spiritual peace seems to him the greatest pleasure. In consequence all excess in pleasure is to be rejected; and every selfish action is bad, since respect, love and the help of my neighbors, as well as the prosperity and welfare of the community to which I belong are factors which are necessary to my own prosperity, which, however, I cannot attain if I only look out for myself without any scruples.

This view of Ethics had the advantage that it appeared quite natural and it was very easy to reconcile it with the needs of those who desired to content themselves with the knowledge which our senses give us of the knowable world as the real and to whom human existence appeared only a part of this world. On the other hands this view of ethics was bound to produce in its turn that materialist view of the world. Founding Ethics on the longing for the pleasure or happiness of the individual or on egoism and the materialist world concept conditioned and lent each other mutual support. The connection of both elements comes most completely to expression in Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) His materialist philosophy of nature is founded with a directly ethical aim.

The materialist view of nature is in his view alone in the position to free us from the fear which a foolish superstition awakes in us and to give us that peace of soul without which true happiness is impossible.

On the other hand, all those elements who were opposed to the materialism were obliged to reject his ethics, and vice versa; those who were not satisfied with this ethics were not satisfied with the materialism either. And this ethic of egoism, or the pursuit of the individual happiness, gave ample opportunity for attack. In the first place it did not explain how the moral law arose as a moral binding force, as a duty to do the right and not simply as advice, to prefer the more rational kind of pleasure to the less rational. And the speedy decisive moral judgment on good and bad is quite different from the balancing up between different kinds of pleasures or utilities. Also, finally, it is possible to feel a moral duty even in cases where the most generous interpretation can find no pleasure or utility from which the pursuit of this duty can be deduced. If I refuse to lie, although I by that means stir up public opinion forever against me, if I put my existence at stake, or even bring on myself the penalty of death, then there can he no talk of even the remotest pleasure or happiness which could transform the discomfort or pain of the moment into its opposite.

But what could the critics bring forward to explain this phenomenon? In fact nothing, even if according to their own view a great deal. Since they were unable to explain the moral law by natural means it became to them the surest and most unanswerable proof that man lived not only a natural life, but also outside of nature, that in him supernatural and non-natural forces work, that his spirit is something supernatural. Thus arose from this view the ethic of philosophic idealism and monotheism, the new belief in God.

This belief in God was quite different to the old polytheism; it differed from the latter not only in the number of the gods; it did not arise from the fact that these were reduced to one. Polytheism was an attempt to explain the process of Nature. Its gods were personifications of the forces of Nature; they were thus not over Nature, and not outside of Nature, but in her and formed a part of her. Natural Philosophy superseded them in the degree in which it discovered other than personal causation in the processes of nature, and developed the idea of law, of the necessary connection of cause and effect. The gods might here and there maintain a traditional existence for a time even in the philosophy, but only as a kind of superman who no longer played any active role. Even for Epicurus, despite his materialism, the gods were not dead, but they were changed into passive spectators.

Even the non-materialist ethical school of philosophy, such as was most completely represented by Plato (427-347 B.C.), and whose mythical side was far more clearly developed by the neoplatonists, especially by Plotinus (204-270 A.D.) – even this school did not find the gods necessary to explain nature, and dealt with them in no other way than did the materialists. Their idea of God did not spring out of the need to explain the natural world around us, but the ethical and spiritual nature of man. For that they required to assume a spiritual Being standing outside of and over nature, thus outside of time and space, a spiritual Being which formed the quintessence of all morality and who ruled the crowd who worked with their hands. And just as the former conceived themselves as noble, and the latter appeared to them common and vulgar, so did nature become mean and bad, the spirit on the other hand elevated and good. Man was unlucky enough to belong to both worldS, that of matter and of spirit. Thus he is half animal and half angel, and oscillates between good and evil. But just as God rules nature, has the moral in man the force to overcome the natural, the desires of the flesh and to triumph over them. More complete happiness is nevertheless impossible for man so long as he dwells in this vale of tears, where he is condemned to bear the burden of his own flesh. Only then when he is free from this and his spirit has returned to its original source – to God – can he enjoy unlimited happiness.

Thus it will be seen that God plays a very different role to what he does in the original Polytheism. This one God is no personification of an appearance of the outer nature, but the assumption for itself of an independent existence on the part of the spiritual (or intellectual) nature of man. Just as this is a unity so can the Godhead be no multiplicity. And its most complete philosophic form, the one God, has no other function than that of accounting for the moral law. To interfere in the course of the world in the manner of the ancient gods is not his business, here suffices, at least for philosophers, the assumption of the binding force in the natural law of cause and effect.

Certainly the more this view became popular and grew into the religion of the people, the more did a highest, all embracing and all ruling spirit take on again personal characteristics; the more did he take part in human affairs, and the more did the old gods smuggle themselves in. They came in as intermediators between God and man, as saints and angels. But even in this form the contempt for nature held good, as well as the view that the spiritual and especially the ethical nature of man was of supernatural origin and afforded an infallible proof of the existence of a supernatural world.

Between the two extremes Plato and Epicurus, there were many intermediary positions possible. Among these the most important was the Stoic Philosophy, founded by Zeno (B.C. 341-270). Just like the Platonic Philosophy it attacked those who sought to derive the moral law from the pleasure or egotism of the single passing individual; it recognized in him a higher power, standing over the individual, which can drive man to action, and which brings him pain and grief, nay even to death. But different to Plato they saw in the moral law nothing supernatural, only a product of nature. Virtue arises from the knowledge of nature; happiness is arrived at when man acts in accordance with nature, that is in accordance with the universe or the universal Reason. To know nature and act in accordance with her, reasonably, which is the same as virtuously, and voluntarily to submit to her necessity, disregarding individual pleasure and pain, that is the way to happiness which the wise go. The study of nature is, however, only a means to the study of virtue. And nature itself is explained by the stoics from a moral point of view. The practical result of the Stoic ethics is not the search for happiness, but the contempt of pleasure and the good things of the world. But this contempt of the world was finally to serve the same end, that which appeared to Zeno as well as Epicurus as the highest – viz., a state of repose for the individual soul. Both systems of ethics arose out of the need for rest.

This intermediary position of the Stoic ethics between the Platonic and the Epicurean corresponded to the view of the universe which Stoicism drew up. The explanation of nature is by no means without importance to them, but nature appeared to them as a peculiar kind of monotheistic materialism which assumes a divine original force from which even the human soul springs. But this original force, the original fire, is bodily, it exists in and not outside of nature, and the soul is not immortal, even if it survives the human body. Finally it will be consumed by the original fire.

Stoicism and Platonism finally became elements of Christianity and overcame in this form the materialist Epicureanism. This latter materialism could only prove satisfactory to a social class which was satisfied with things as they were, which found in them its pleasure and happiness, and had no need for another state of affairs.

It was necessarily rejected by classes to whom the world as it was seemed bad and full of pain – to the decaying class of the old aristocracy as well as to the exploited classes – for whom present and future in this world could only be equally hopeless when the material world, that is the world of experience, was the only one, and no reliance was to be placed in an almighty spirit who had it in his power to bring this world to destruction. Finally materialism was bound to be rejected by the whole society so soon as this had so far degenerated that even the ruling classes suffered under the state of affairs, so that even these came to the opinion that no good could come out of the existing world, but that this only brought forth evil. To despise the world with the Stoics, or look for a Redeemer from the other side with the Christians, that was the only alternative.

A new element came in Christianity with the invasions of the Barbarians, which substituted for the decadent society of the Roman Empire another in which the decrepit remains of the Roman system of production and their views of life combined with the youthful German society, the latter being organized on the basis of the mark, and a people of simple thought, content to enjoy life; these elements combined to produce a strange new formation.

On the one hand the Christian Church became the bond which held the new state together: here again the theory is apparently confirmed that the spirit is stronger than matter, since the intelligence of the Christian priesthood showed itself strong enough to tame the brute force of the German Barbarians. And this brute force, springing as it did from the material world, appeared to the representatives of Christianity, in addition, as the source of all evil, where it was not ruled by spirit and held in check; on the other hand they saw in the spirit the foundation of all that was good.

Thus the new social situation only contributed to strengthening the philosophic foundation of Christianity and its system of ethics. But on the other hand there came through this new situation the joy in life and a feeling of self confidence into society which had failed at the time of the rise of Christendom. Even to the Christian clergy – at least in the mass – the world no longer appeared a vale of tears and they acquired a capacity for enjoyment – a happy Epicureanism, certainly a coarser form and one which had nothing in common with the ancient philosophy. Nevertheless the Christian priesthood was obliged to hold to the Christian ethic, no longer as the expression of their own moral feeling, but as a means of maintaining their rule over the people. And everything forced them to recognize more and more the philosophic foundation of this system of ethics, namely the independence, nay the mastery of the spirit, over the real world. Thus the new social situation produced on the one hand a tendency to a materialist system of ethics, while on the other a series of reasons arose to strengthen the traditional Christian ethic. Thus arose the double morality, which became characteristic of Christianity, the formal recognition of a system of ethics which is only partially the expression of our moral feeling and will, and consequently of that which controls our action. In other words, moral hypocrisy became a standing social institution, which was never so widely spread as under Christianity.

Ethics and religion appeared now as inseparably bound together. Certainly the moral law was the logical creator of the new God; but in Christianity God appeared as the author of the moral law. Without a belief in God, without religion, no morality. Every ethical question became a theological one, and as the most original and simple form of social indignation is the moral, the feeling of moral indignation, the feeling of the immorality of the existing social institution – so did every social uprising commence in the form of a theological criticism, to which certainly came as an additional factor the circumstance that the Church was the foremost means of class rule and the Roman Priesthood the worst exploiters in the middle ages, so that all rebellion against any form of exploitation always affected the Church in the first place.

Even after the Renaissance at a time when philosophic thought had again arisen, questions of ethics remained for a long time questions of theology.


Last updated on 26.12.2003