Paul Lafargue

Social and Philosophical Studies

The Origin of the Idea of Good

I. Formation of the Heroic Ideal

One and the same word is used in the principal European languages to indicate material goods and moral Good. We may without suspicion of rashness conclude that the fact must be the same in the idioms of all nations which have arrived at a certain degree of civilization, since we know today that all traverse the same phases of material and intellectual evolution. Vico, who had set forth this historic law, affirms in his Scienza Nuova that

“there must necessarily exist in the nature of human affairs a mental language common to all nations, which language designates uniformly the substance of things which are the moving causes of social life. This language bends into different forms, as numerous as the different aspects which the things may assume. We have proof of this in the fact that proverbs, these maxims of popular wisdom, are alike in substance among all nations, ancient and modern, though they may be expressed in the most different forms.”

I pointed out in the preceding articles on the origin of abstract ideas and the idea of justice, the twists and turns through which the human spirit passed to represent in Egyptian hieroglyphics the abstract idea of motherhood by the image of the vulture and that of justice by the cubit. In this study I shall try to follow it in the tortuous road which it has traversed to arrive at confusing under the same word material goods and moral Good.

The words which in the Latin and Greek languages serve for material goods and moral Good were originally adjectives applied to the human being.

Agathos and bonus are generic adjectives. The Greeks and the Romans of barbarous times to whom they were applied possessed all the physical and moral qualities required by the heroic ideal; so their irregular superlatives, aristos, esthlos, beltistos, etc., and optimus, are in the plural used substantively to indicate the best and the foremost citizens. The historian, Velleius Paterculus gives the name of optimates to the patricians and the rich plebeians who leagued them selves against the Gracchi.

Strength and courage are the first and most necessary virtues of primitive men in perpetual war among themselves and against nature. [2] The savage and the barbarian, strong and courageous, possess in addition the other moral virtues of their ideal. Thus they comprise all physical and moral qualities under the same adjective. Strength and courage were then so near to the sum total of virtue that: the Latins, after using the word virtus for physical strength and courage, came to employ it for virtue, while the Greeks gave the same successive meanings to the word areté; and that the word pavelin, the primitive weapon, which in Greek is called kalon serves later for the beautiful, while the Latin word for it, quiris indicates the Roman citizen. Varro tells us that originally the Romans represented the god Mars by a javelin.

It was inevitable that strength and courage should make up the whole of virtue at that time, since to prepare for war, to acquire bravery in order to meet its perils, to develop physical strength so as to endure its fatigues and privations; and moral strength in order not to fall under the tortures inflicted upon prisoners, was the whole physical and moral education of the savages and barbarians. From childhood their bodies were suppled and tempered by gymnastic exercises and hardened by fasts and blows, under which they sometimes succumbed. Pericles, in his Funeral Oration over the first victims of the Peloponnesian War, contrasts this heroic education still in force at Sparta, which preserved its primitive customs, with that of the young men of Athens, which had entered into the democratic bourgeois phase. “Our enemies,” said he, “from the earliest childhood train themselves to courage with the severest discipline, and we, brought up with mildness, have no less ardor for running the same risks.” Livingston, who found among the African tribes these heroic customs, drew a similar contrast for certain black chieftains between the English soldiers and the negro warriors.

Since courage in ancient times was the whole of virtue, cowardice must necessarily have been vice; thus the words which in Greek and Latin mean cowardly, kakos and malus, have the meaning of evil, vice. [3]

When the barbarian society became differentiated into classes, the patricians monopolized courage and the defense of the country. This monopoly was “natural” (if I may apply the expression of bourgeois economics), although nothing appears more natural to the capitalists than to send in their place on colonial expeditions working men and peasants, and even, when they can, to entrust the defense of their country to proletarians, who possess neither an inch of land, nor a cog of a machine. The patricians reserved to themselves, as a privilege, the defense of their country, because they alone had a country, for, then, one had a country only on condition of possessing a corner of its soil. The foreigners who for reasons of commerce and industry resided in an ancient city, could not even possess the house in which they trafficked from father to son, and they remained foreigners although living in the city for generations. It required three centuries of struggles for the Roman plebeians who lived on the Aventine Hill to obtain property in the lands on which they had built their dwellings. The foreigners, the proletarians, the artisans, the merchants, the serfs and the slaves were relieved of military service and had no right to bear arms, nor even to have courage, which was the privilege of the patrician class. [4] Thucydides relates that the magistrates of Sparta massacred treacherously two thousand Helots, who by their bravery had just saved the republic. From the moment that it was forbidden to the plebeians to take part in the defense of their native country, and consequently to possess courage, cowardice must necessarily have been the sovereign virtue of the plebeians, as courage was that of the aristocracy. Thus the Greek adjective, kakos (cowardly, ugly, bad), indicates a man of the plebeians; while aristos, superlative of agathos indicates a member of the patrician class – and the Latin malus indicates ugly, deformed as were in the patrician eyes the slave and the artisan deformed according to Xenophon, by their trades, while the gymnastic exercises developed harmoniously the body of the aristocrat. [5]

The patrician of ancient Rome was bonus and the eupatride of Homeric Greece was agathos because both possessed the physical and moral virtues of the heroic ideal – the only ideal that could have been engendered by the social environment in which they moved. They were brave generous, strong of body, and stoical of soul and moreover landed proprietors that is to say members of a tribe and of a clan possessing the territory on which they resided. [6]

The barbarians, who practice only the raising of cattle and agriculture of the rudest kind, give themselves up passionately to brigandage and piracy, as an outlet for their surplus physical and moral energy and to procure goods which they know no other way of procuring. In the Greek poem, of which only one strophe remains (the skolion of Hybrias), a barbaric hero sings, “I have for wealth my great lance, my sword and my buckler; ramparts of my flesh, with them I plow, with them I harvest; with them I gather the sweet juice of the vine, with them I am called ‘Master of the Mnoia’” (troop of slaves of the community). [7] Caesar relates that the Suevi every year sent half of their male population on pillaging expeditions. The Scandinavians, when their planting was finished, boarded their vessels and went out to pillage the coasts of Europe. The Greeks, during the Trojan War, left the siege to give themselves up to brigandage. “The trade of piracy then had nothing shameful about it; it led to glory,” said Thucydides. The capitalists hold it in high esteem. Colonial expeditions of civilized nations are nothing but wars of brigandage; but while the capitalists have their piracies committed by proletarians, the barbaric heroes paid in their own person. The only honorable way of gaining riches was then by war. Thus the savings of the son of a Roman family were called peculium castrense (money gathered in the camps). Later on when the dowry of the wife came to increase them they took on the name of peculium quasi castrense. This general state of brigandage made the Middle Age proverb literally true: “Who has land, has war.” The proprietors of flocks and crops never laid aside their arms. They accomplished with their arms in their hands the functions of every day life. The life of the heroes was one long combat. They died young, like Achilles, like Hector. In the Achaean army there were but two old men, Nestor and Phoenix. To grow old was then a thing so exceptional that age became a privilege – the first that slipped into human societies.

The patricians, assuming the defense of the city, naturally reserved to themselves its government. This was confided to fathers of families; but when the development of commerce and industry had formed in the cities a numerous class of rich plebeians, they were obliged after many civil struggles to make for them a place in the government. Servius Tullius created at Rome the Order of Knights with plebeians possessing a fortune of at least 100,000 sesterces (about 1,000 dollars) as estimated by the census. Every five years, they revised the roll of the equestrian order, and the knights whose fortune had fallen below the census figure, or had incurred a censorial stigma, lost their dignity. Solon, who had grown rich through commerce, opened the Senate and tribunals of Athens to those who possessed the means of maintaining a war-horse and a yoke of oxen. In all cities, of which historical records have been preserved, we find traces of a similar revolution, and everywhere wealth, which comports with the support of a war-horse, gives political rights. This new aristocracy, which took its origin in wealth amassed by commerce, industry and especially usury, could only gain acceptance and maintain itself in its social supremacy by adapting itself to the heroic ideal of the patricians and by assuming a part in the defense of the city, in whose government it shared. [8]

There was a time in antiquity when it was as impossible to conceive of a proprietor without warlike virtues as in our days to imagine a superintendent of mines or of a factory of chemical products without some administrative capacity and scientific knowledge. Property was then exacting; it imposed physical and moral qualities upon the possessor. The very fact of being a proprietor presupposed the possession of the virtues of the heroic ideal, since property could be conquered and preserved only on condition of having these. The physical and moral virtues of the heroic ideal were in some fashion incorporated into the material goods which communicated them to their proprietors. It is thus that in the feudal epoch the title of nobility was welded to the land. The baron, dispossessed of his manor, lost his title of nobility, which was added to those of his conqueror. It was the same with the dues and services; they were regulated according to the conditions of land and not according to the persons occupying it. Thus nothing was more natural than the barbaric anthropomorphism which endowed material goods with moral virtues. [9]

The role of defender of the nation, which the proprietors reserved to themselves, was not a sinecure. Aristotle remarks in his Politics that during the Peloponnesian Wars the defeats on land and sea decimated the rich classes of Athens; that in the war against the Iapyges the upper classes of Tarentum lost so many of their members that it was possible to establish a democracy and that thirty years before, following certain unhappy combats, the number of citizens had fallen so low at Argos that they were obliged to grant the right of citizenship to the periœeci (colonists living outside of the city walls). War made such ravages in its ranks that the warlike Spartan aristocracy feared to engage in it. The fortune of the rich, as well as their persons, was at the absolute disposition of the state. The Greeks designated among them the Liturgists, the Trierarchists, etc., who were obliged to defray the expenses of the public feasts and of the armament of the ships of the fleet. When after the Persian Wars it was necessary to reconstruct the walls of Athens destroyed by the Persians, public and private edifices were demolished in order to procure the materials to reconstruct them.

Since it was permitted only to the proprietors of real and personal property to be brave and to possess the virtues of the heroic ideal; since without the possession of material goods, these moral qualities were useless and even hurtful to their possessors, as is proved by the massacre of the 2,000 Helots, related above; since the possession of material goods was the justification of the moral virtues – nothing was then more logical and natural than to identify moral qualities with material goods and to confuse them under the same word.

II. The Decomposition of the Heroic Ideal

Economic phenomena and the political events which they engendered took it upon themselves to ruin the heroic ideal and to dissolve the primitive union of moral virtues and material goods, which language records in so artless a manner.

The division of the arable lands, possessed in common by all the members of the clan began to introduce inequality among them. The lands under the action of multiple causes became concentrated into the hands of a few families of the clan and ended by falling into the possession of strangers, to such an extent that increasing numbers of patricians found themselves dispossessed of their goods. They took refuge in the cities, where they lived as parasites, hornets, Socrates calls them. It could not be otherwise; for in ancient societies, and in fact every society based on slavery, manual and even intellectual labor, being performed only by slaves and foreigners, is poorly paid and is considered as degrading, except indeed for agriculture and the care of flocks.

The political situation created by the economic phenomena is explained by Plato in the Eighth Book of the Republic, with a strength and clearness of vision which cannot be too much admired. A violent class struggle was troubling the cities of Greece. The oligarchical state, that is to say the one based on the census, says Socrates, “is not one in its nature, it necessarily contains two states; one composed of the rich, the other of the poor, who inhabit the same ground, and conspire one against the other.” Socrates does not include among the poor the artisans and still less the slaves, but simply the ruined patricians.

”The greatest vice of the oligarchical state is that under it a man may sell all that he has, and another may acquire it, yet after the sale he may dwell in the city of which he is no longer a part, being neither trader, nor artisan, nor horseman nor hoplite, but only a poor, helpless creature. [10] It is impossible to prevent this disorder, for if it were prevented, a part would not possess excessive wealth, while others are reduced to extreme misery. The members of the ruling class, owing their authority only to the great property they possess, refrain from repressing by severe laws the libertinism of the dissipated young men and preventing them from ruining themselves by excessive expenditures, for they have the intention of buying their goods and appropriating them through usury, to increase their own wealth and power.”

The concentration of property creates in the state a class of

“people – armed with stings like hornets, some overwhelmed with debt, others marked with infamy, others who have at the same time lost their property and their honors in a state of hostility and constant conspiracy against those who have enriched themselves with the wreck of their fortunes and against the rest of the citizens; and loving but one thing, revolution. Nevertheless, the greedy usurers, with their heads down and without seeming to perceive those whom they had ruined, since others keep coming, inflict large wounds upon them by means of the money which they loaned them at high interest; and while multiplying their own revenues, they multiply in the state the breed of hornets and mendicants.”

When the hornets became by their number and their turbulence a menace to the security of the governing class, they were sent out to found colonies, and when this resource failed, the wealthy citizens and the state tried to calm them by distributions of food and money. Pericles could maintain himself in power only by exporting and feeding the hornets. He sent one thousand citizens of Athens to colonize the Chersonesus, five hundred to Naxos, two hundred fifty to Andros, one thousand to Thrace, as many to Sicily and to Thurium. He distributed to them by lot the lands of the Island of Aegina, whose inhabitants had been massacred or banished. He paid the hornets, of whom he could not relieve Athens. He gave them money, even for going to the theatre. It was he who introduced the custom of paying six thousand citizens, that is to say nearly half the population enjoying political rights, for exercising the function of judges (dikasts). [11] The pay of the judges, which at first was one obol per day was raised to three by the demagogue Cleon. The annual sum amounted to 5,560 talents, or $180,000, which was a considerable sum even for a city like Athens. So when Peisander abolished the democratic government, he decreed that the judges should no longer be paid, that the soldiers alone should receive wages, and that the management of the public affairs should be entrusted to but five thousand citizens, capable of serving the state with their fortune and their person. Pericles, to restrain and satisfy the artisans, who made common cause with the hornets, had been obliged to undertake great public works.

The economic phenomena, which, by dispossessing a part of the patrician class, created a class of unclassed, ruined revolutionaries, developed more rapidly in the cities, which by their maritime position became centers of commercial and industrial activity. The class of plebeians enriched by commerce, industry and usury, increased in proportion as the number of ruined patricians and parasites increased. These enriched plebeians, to snatch political rights from the rulers, leagued themselves with the dispossessed nobles and when they had obtained political rights, they united with the rulers to combat the impoverished patricians and the plebeians with little or no fortune; and these latter, when they became masters of the city, abolished debts, banished the wealthy and divided up their property. The banished rich implored the assistance of foreigners to return to their city, and in their turn massacred their conquerors. These class struggles ensanguined all the cities of Greece and prepared them for the dominance of Macedonia and Rome.

The economic phenomena and the class struggles which they engendered had overthrown the conditions of life, in the midst of which the heroic ideal had been elaborated.

The manner of making war had been profoundly transformed by the economic phenomena. Piracy and brigandage, these favorite industries of barbaric heroes, had been rendered difficult, since the improved fortifications of the cities sheltered them from surprises. Solon, although at the head of a commercial city and him self a merchant, had been obliged out of complaisance for inveterate habits, to found at Athens a college of pirates, but the establishment of numerous colonies along the shores of the Mediterranean, and the commercial development resulting from this, had forced the maritime cities to police the seas and give chase to the pirates, whose industry lost prestige in proportion as its profits diminished.

Changes of great importance had been made in the military organization on sea and land. The Homeric heroes, like the Scandinavians who later on were to ravage the European shores of the Atlantic, when they started on a maritime expedition took no rowers and sailors with them. Their flat-bottomed ships, which they built themselves and which according to Homer could not have carried more than from fifty to one hundred and twenty men, were manned only by warriors who rowed and fought. The battles were on land only. The Iliad mentions no engagement on the sea. The improvements which the Corinthians introduced into shipbuilding and the increase of naval strength made necessary the use of mercenary rowers and sailors, who took no part in the battles in which the hoplites and other less heavily armed warriors engaged on sea and land. The mercenary once acclimated in the fleet, pushed himself into the land armies. These were at first composed only of citizens taking the field with three or four days rations, which they furnished themselves, as well as their horses and arms. They foraged on the enemy when their provisions gave out and returned to their firesides when the expedition, always of short duration, was ended. But when the war, carried on at a distance, required a long attendance of the army, the state was obliged to provide for the support of the warrior. Pericles at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War gave for the first time at Athens pay to the warriors, who then became soldiers – that is to say, wage-workers, mercenaries. The pay amounted to two drachmas (about forty cents) a day, for the hoplites. Diodorus Siculus says that it was at the siege of Veii that the Romans introduced pay into their armies. From the moment when pay was given for fighting, war became a lucrative profession, as in the Homeric times; corps of soldiers were formed in which the poor citizens and the unclassed and ruined patricians enrolled themselves, just as there existed already bands of mercenary rowers and sailors, selling their services to the highest bidder. [12]

Socrates said that an oligarchical state – that is to say, one governed by the rich, – “is powerless to make war, because it is obliged to arm the multitude and consequently to have more to fear from it than from the enemy; or else not to use it and go into battle with an army truly oligarchical;” – that is to say reduced to the rich citizens. But the new necessities of war forced the rich to repress their fears and to violate the ancient customs. They were obliged to arm the poor and even the slaves. The Athenians enrolled slaves in their fleet, promising them liberty, and they liberated those who had fought valiantly at Arginousae (B.C. 406). The Spartans, themselves, were obliged to arm and liberate Helots. They sent to the relief of the Syracusans, besieged by the Athenians, a corps of 600 hoplites composed of Helots and Neodamodes (newly admitted to citizenship); while the government of the Spartan Republic branded with infamy the Spartans who had laid down their arms at Sphacteria, although several of them had occupied high political positions, it granted liberty to the Helots who had smuggled provisions through to them while they were besieged by the Athenians. The wage which transformed the warrior into a mercenary, into a soldier [13], becomes in a short time an instrument of social dissolution. The Greeks had sworn at Platea that “they would bequeath to their children’s children hatred against the Persians, that this hatred might last as long as the rivers should flow to the sea,” nevertheless half a century after this proud oath Athenians, Spartans and Peloponnesians paid eager court to the king of Persia in order to obtain subsidies to pay their sailors and their soldiers. The Peloponnesian War hastened the fall of the aristocratic parties and brought out into broad daylight the ruin of heroic customs, which the economic phenomena had silently prepared.

The rich who had reserved to themselves as the first of their privileges the right to bear arms and to defend their country rapidly acquired the custom of replacing themselves in the army by mercenaries. A century after the innovation of Pericles the bulk of the Athenian armies was composed of paid soldiers. Demosthenes says in one of his Olynthiacs that in the army sent against Olynthus there were 4,000 citizens and 10,000 mercenaries; that in that which Phillip defeated at Chaeronea there were 2,000 Athenians and Thebans and 15,000 mercenaries. The rich, although not fighting, reaped the benefits of war. “The rich are excellent for keeping riches,” said Athenagoras, the Syracusan demagogue, “they leave dangers to the multitude, and not content with seizing the greater part of the advantages of war, they usurped them all.”

The barbarian patricians, trained from childhood to all the labors of war, were warriors who defied all comparison. The newly rich, on the contrary, could endure war with difficulty, as Socrates states:

”When the rich and the poor find themselves together in the army on land or sea and observe each other mutually in circumstances of danger, the rich then have no reason to despise the poor; on the contrary, when the poor man, wiry and sunburned, posted on the battlefield by the side of a rich man, brought up in the shade and weighed down with superfluous flesh, sees him all out of breath and troubled with his body, – what thought do you think comes to him at that moment? Does he not say to himself that these people owe their riches only to the cowardice of the poor, and when they are by themselves, do they not say to each other, ‘Of a truth, these rich are not good for much.’”

The rich, deserting the military service and putting mercenaries in their place to defend their country, lost the physical and moral qualities of the heroic ideal while preserving the material property which justified their existence. It happened then, as Aristotle observes, that wealth, far from being the reward of virtue, excused men from being virtuous. [14]

But the heroic virtues, no longer cultivated by the rich, became the appanage of mercenaries, freedmen and slaves, who possessed no material goods; and these virtues, which led the barbaric heroes to property, sufficed only to enable the soldiers to live miserably on their pay. Economic phenomena had thus decreed the divorce of the material goods and the moral qualities, formerly so intimately united. [15]

Among these mercenaries with heroic virtues were found a considerable number of patricians who had lost their property through usury and civil wars, while the rich included in their ranks many people enriched by commerce, usury, and even by war, carried on by others. Thus at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, when Corinth prepared its expedition against Corcyra, Thucydides relates that the state promised its citizens, who should enroll themselves a share in the conquered lands and offered the same advantages to those who, without taking part in the campaign, should give 50 drachmas.

The heroic ideal had fallen to pieces, sowing disorder and confusion in moral ideas, and this confusion was reflected in the religious ideas The grossest superstition continued to flourish even at Athens: which condemned to death Anaxagoras, Diagoras and Socrates; which burned the works of Protagoras for impiety against the gods. Nevertheless the comic authors launched against the gods and the priests, which was still bolder, the most audacious and the most cynical attacks. The demagogues and tyrants profaned their temples and pillaged their sacred treasures and debauchees defiled and overturned by night the statues of the gods placed in the streets. The religious legends, handed down from the most remote antiquity and accepted naively as long as they agreed with current customs, had become shocking by their grossness. Pythagoras and Socrates demanded their suppression, even though it were necessary to mutilate Homer and Hesiod, or to forbid the reading of their poems. Epicurus declared that to believe in the legends about the gods and to repeat them were the acts of atheism. The Christians of the first centuries did nothing but generalize and systematize the criticisms which the pagans had made in the midst of paganism.

The hour had sounded for the bourgeois society – then springing up for the society based on individual property and commercial production – to formulate a moral ideal and a religion corresponding to the new social conditions fashioned by economic phenomena; and it is the eternal honor of the sophistical philosophy of Greece to have traced the principal lines of the new religion and the new moral ideal. The ethical work of Socrates and Plato has not yet been surpassed. [16]

III. The Bourgeois Moral Ideal

The heroic ideal simple and logical, reflected in thought the surrounding reality without disguises and without distortions. It erected into primary virtues of the human soul the physical and moral qualities which the barbarian heroes had to possess in order to conquer and preserve the material goods which classed them among the first citizens and the happy men of earth.

The reality of the rising democratic bourgeois society no longer corresponded to this ideal. Riches, honors and enjoyments were no longer the prize of valor and of the other heroic virtues any more than in our capitalistic society property is the recompense of labor, method and economy. Nevertheless, riches continued always to be the end of human activity and even became more and more its sole and supreme end. To reach this end, so ardently desired, it was no longer necessary to put in action the heroic qualities formerly so prized; but as human nature was not despoiled of these qualities, while in the new social conditions they had become useless and even hurtful for making one’s way in life, and as they became in the ancient republics causes of trouble and civil war, there was urgent need of subduing and domesticating them by giving them a platonic satisfaction in order to utilize them for the prosperity and preservation of the new social order.

The sophists undertook the task. Some, like the Cyrenaics, not trying to disguise the reality, recognized squarely and proclaimed loudly that the possession of wealth was “the sovereign good” and that the physical and intellectual enjoyments which it procures were “the chief end of man.” They professed boldly the art of gaining wealth by all means, lawful and unlawful, and of escaping the disagreeable consequences which might ensue from the unskilful violation of laws and customs. Other sophists, like the cynics and many of the stoics, in open revolt against the laws and customs, wished to return to the pre-social state and to “live according to nature.” They affected contempt of wealth; “The wise man alone is rich,” they shouted ostentatiously. But this disdain for the wealth beyond their reach, was too violently opposed to the trend of the day and the general sentiment, and was often too declamatory to be taken seriously. Moreover, neither group gave any tendency of social utility to their moral theories, and it was precisely this that the bourgeois democracy demanded. Other sophists, like Socrates, Plato and a great number of stoics faced the moral problem squarely. They did not erect contempt for riches into a dogma, but on the contrary they recognized they were one of the conditions of happiness, and even of virtue, though they had ceased to be its recompense. The just man ought no longer to call on the out side world for the reward of his virtues but to seek for it within his inner sanctuary, in his conscience, which should be guided by eternal principles placed outside the world of reality, and he could hope to obtain this reward only in another life. [17]

They did not revolt against the laws and customs, like the cynics; on the contrary they advised conformity to them and counseled each to remain in his place and to adjust himself to his social station. It is thus that St. Augustine and the fathers of the church imposed as a duty upon Christian slaves to redouble their zeal for their earthly master in order to merit the favors of their heavenly master. [18]

Socrates, who had lived in intimacy with Pericles, and Plato, who had frequented the courts of the Tyrants of Syracuse, were profound politicians, seeing in ethics and religions nothing but instruments for governing men and maintaining social order.

These two subtle geniuses of sophistical philosophy are the founders of the individualistic ethics of the bourgeoisie – of the ethics which can only end by putting words and acts into contra diction, and by giving a philosophical sanction to the division of life into two parts; the ideal life, pure, and the practical life, impure – one being the antithesis of the other. It is thus, that “very noble and very honorable ladies” of the seventeenth century had succeeded in making love in a double fashion, consoling themselves for their intellectual love with platonic lovers by solid enjoyment of physical love with their husbands, completed according to their need by one or several lovers for good measure.

It is impossible for the ethics of any society based on mercantile production to escape this contradiction, which is the consequence of the conflicts in which the capitalist struggles: if to succeed in his commercial and industrial enterprises, he must capture the good opinion of the public by adorning himself with virtues, he cannot put them into practice if he wishes to prosper. But he understands that these virtues of parade are for others imperious – “categorical imperatives,” as Kant says. It is thus that if he unloads worthless merchandise, he demands payment in good money. [19] The bourgeoisie, if it maintains its class dictatorship only by brutal strength, has need of sapping the revolutionary energy of the oppressed classes by making them believe that its social order is the realization as nearly as possible of the eternal principles which adorn the liberal philosophy, and which Socrates and Plato had partially formulated more than four centuries before Jesus Christ.

Religious ethics does not escape this fatal contradiction. If the highest formula of Christianity is “love one another,” the Christian churches, to draw customers to their shops, think only of converting the heretics by fire and sword, in order to save them, as they assure us, from the eternal fires of hell.

The barbarian social environment, engendered by war and the communism of the clan, resulted in stretching to their extreme limit the noble qualities of the human being – physical strength and courage and moral stoicism, the devotion of body and goods to the community, to the city. The bourgeois social environment, based on individual property and mercantile production, erects on the contrary into cardinal virtues the worst qualities of the human soul, egotism, hypocrisy, intrigue, profligacy and pilfering. [20]

Bourgeois ethics, although Plato claims that it descends from the heavens and that it is on a plane above vile interests, reflects so modestly the vulgar reality, that the sophists instead of elaborating a new word to designate this principle, which according to Victor Cousin, who is a good judge of it, is “ethics in its entirety,” took the current word and called it the Good – to agathon. When the Christian ideal was formulated by the side of and in the train of the philosophical ideal, it underwent the same necessity. The fathers of the church impressed upon it the seal of vulgar reality.

Beatus, which the pagans employed for rich, and which Varro defines as “he who possesses much goods,” qui multa bona possidet, becomes in ecclesiastic Latin, “he who possesses the grace of God.” – beatitudo, which Petronius and the writers of the Decadence employ for riches, means under the pen of St. Jerome, heavenly felicity: – beatissimus, the epithet given by the authors of paganism to the opulent man, becomes that of the patriarchs, of the fathers of the church and the saints.

Language has revealed to us that the barbarians, by their habitual anthropomorphic way of proceeding, had incorporated their moral virtues into material goods. But the economic phenomena and the political events which prepared the ground for the mode of production and exchange of the bourgeoisie, dissolved the primitive union of the moral and the material. The barbarian did not blush for this union, since it was the physical and moral qualities of which he was the proudest which were set in action for the conquest and the preservation of material goods. The bourgeois, on the contrary, is ashamed of the low virtues which he is forced to put in play to arrive at his fortune, so he wishes to make believe, and he ends by believing, that his soul wanders above matter and feeds on eternal truths and immutable principles; but language, the incorrigible tell-tale, unveils to us that under the thick clouds of the must purified ethics hides the sovereign idol of the capitalists, the Good, the Property-god.

Ethics, like the other phenomena of human activity, is subject to the law of economic materialism formulated by Marx: The mode of production of the material life dominates in general the development of the social, political and intellectual life.



1. The same phenomenon may be observed In our own language: bon (good) in the old French signifies courageous. The song of Roland implies it always in this sense:

Franceis sunt bon, si ferrunt vassalement

(The French are brave, they will strike bravely, XCI.)

Speaking of the archbishop Turpin, Roland says:

Li arcevesque est mult bons chevaliers:
Nen ad meillur en terre desuz ciel,
Bien set ferir e de lance e d’espiet.

(The archbishop is a brave knight, none better on earth under heaven,
he knows how to strike well with the lance and the spear, CXLV)

King John had been surnamed “Good” on account of his courage. Commines, who wrote in the fifteenth century said good men for brave men. Goodman, after having been in English the epithet for the soldier and after having indicated the head of the family, the master of the house ends like the French bonhomme in being applied to the peasant, – goodman Hodge. Hodge is a contemptuous term for peasant. It is no doubt when bonhomme came to be generally applied to peasants, whom the nobles and soldiers pillaged (to live on the goodman, was a current expression) that the word took on the ridiculous meaning which it has kept. According to Ducange, it has had at times the significance of cuckold. The addition of a suffix makes good and bon grotesque, goodie, bonasse. Agathos and bonus could not in ancient times acquire such a meaning. It is only in the Latin of the Middle Ages that we meet with, bonatus goodie. The writers of the Byzantine period used agathos especially in the sense of gentle, mild, and it seems that the gamins of modern Athens use it for imbecile.

2. Physical force was so prized that in the Third Book of the Iliad, when Helen points out to the old men of Troy the Greek chieftains, it is not by their age, their physiognomy or their character, but by their strength that she distinguishes Ulysses from Menelaus and Ajax, both of whom he surpasses in the breadth of his shoulders. Diodorus Siculus, in summing up the qualities of Epaminondas, mentions first the vigor of his body, then the strength of his eloquence, his bravery, his generosity and his skill as general.

3. Imbellis, imbecillus, which signify unsuited for war are especially used by the Latin writers for cowardly, weak in body and mind: malus has a more general sense. It is the epithet applied to one who physically and morally does not possess the requisite virtues.

4. Even in democratic Athens in the time of Aristophanes, the merchants were not drafted for military service. The sycophant of his Plutos declares that he has become a merchant so as not to go to war.

Plutarch says that Marius,

“to fight against the Cimbri and the Teutons, enrolled, in spite of the customs and laws, slaves and vagrants. All the generals before him excluded such from their armies. Arms, like other honors of the Republic, were only for men who were worthy and whose well known fortune answered for their fidelity.”

5. “Work at a trade deforms the body and degrades the mind. It is for this reason that those who engage in these labors are never called upon for public services.” (Xenophon’s Economics)

6. The epithet stoical applied to barbarian heroes is an anachronism, but merely a verbal one: the word was manufactured to indicate the disciples of Zeno, who taught under the portico, stoa; the barbarians possessed the moral force, which the stoics forced themselves to acquire.

7. The cavaliers at the end of the Middle Ages, who had been ruined by the Crusades and dispossessed of their lands, by their internal dissensions, lived only by war, and like the Greek hero gave the name of the “Harvest of the Sword” to the booty gained in combat.

8. Aristophanes, an advocate of the aristocratic party and an adversary of the Athenian democracy, opposes the ancient manners to the new, and by a strange inconsistency, overwhelms with the most envenomed arrows of his satire Lamachus, Cleon and the demagogues, demanding that obtaining in spite of the opposition of the aristocrats, the continuance of the war against Sparta. The times had changed, the ancient aristocracy of blood and the new aristocracy of wealth had lost a great part of their warlike sentiments and preserved in its integrity only the proprietor sentiment, war no longer enriched them. It carried off their cattle, ravaged their fields, uprooted their olives and their vines, destroyed their crops and burned their houses. Aristophanes, himself, had estates in Eubœa, which was one of the battle fields of the Peloponnesian war. Plato, who in his quality of idealist is an ardent defender of property, demands in his Republic that the Greeks decide that in every war among themselves, houses and crops should not be burned. These warrior pastimes should be permitted only in barbarous countries.

9. An inverted phenomenon of hippomorphism was produced In the Middle Ages. The nobles, having reserved to themselves the right of bearing arms on horseback, had by this fact such superiority in combats that the horse appeared to communicate to the feudal baron certain warlike virtues; so he took, like the rich men of ancient republics, the name of his mounts and called himself chevalier, caballero, etc. His most highly prized virtues were those of the horse as chevaleresques, caballerescos, chivalrous. Don Quixote judged the horse so important a personage in errant chivalry that it required all his casuistry to permit Sancho Panza to follow him mounted on an ass.

10. Socrates means that not being able to maintain a war-horse and not having the means to buy a complete armor, they could not serve either as a horseman or as a hoplite, that is to say, a fully armed warrior.

11. The number of citizens at Athens having political rights was 14,040, as is proved by the census made by Pericles for the distribution of the grain which was sent to them as a present from Egypt.

12. Thucydides relates that the ambassadors of Corinth, in order to influence the Spartans, intimidated by the naval forces of Athens, to join them in declaring war, said to them: “We need only make a loan to entice away with higher wage the rowers of Athens.” Nicias, In the letter which he addresses from Sicily to the Athenian assembly, complains of the desertion of the mercenaries. Some years later the sailors left the Athenian fleet in Asia Minor to pass over to that of Lysander, who gave them higher pay. The Carthaginians, to fight the Greek army in Sicily, enrolled Greek soldiers who were working at the trade or fighting for pay. Alexander found in the service of Darius Greek mercenaries whom he incorporated in his own army after having pardoned them for fighting on the side of the barbarians against the Greeks. Fighting for pay abolished the patriotic sentiment so savage and deep-rooted in the barbarian. Greek mercenaries were found fighting in all armies. When the stoics and cynics, long before the Christians, spoke of human brotherhood arising above the narrow walls of the ancient city, they were merely giving a humanitarian and philosophical expression to the fact accomplished by economic and political events.

13. The word soldat, which in European languages has replaced warrior (soldier, English; soldat, German; soldado, Spanish; soldato, Italian, etc.,) comes from solidus, a small coin, from which is derived solde, pay. It is from the wage he receives that he soldier derives his name. Historically, the soldier is the first wage worker.

14. A similar phenomenon reappeared toward the end of the Middle Ages. The feudal lord had no right to the rents in kind or the personal service of his serfs and vassals except on condition of defending them against the numerous enemies which surrounded them; but when in the course of economic and political events there was a general pacification within the country, the lord no longer had to fulfill his role of protector, yet this did not prevent him from preserving and even aggravating the services and the rents in kind, which had lost their justification.

15. The capitalistic epoch has seen an analogous divorce, quite as brutal and quite as fertile in revolutionary consequences. At the beginning of the capitalistic epoch, during the first years of the nineteenth century, the ideal of the small trader and the artisan acquired a certain consistency in public opinion: labor, order and economy were considered as closely bound to property. These moral virtues then led to the possession of material goods. The economists and the bourgeois moralists may still, like paroquets, repeat that property is the fruit of labor, but it is no longer its reward. The virtues of the ideal artisan and the small trader no longer lead the wage-worker anywhere but to the bureau of charities and the hospital.

16. We must understand by mercantile production the form of production in which the laborer produces not for his consumption or that of his family, but for sale. This form of production, which characterizes bourgeois society, is distinguished absolutely from the forms which preceded it, in which production was for one’s own consumption, whether employing slaves, serfs or wage-workers. The patrician families of antiquity, like the lords of the Middle Ages, had produced on their estates and in their workshop, food, clothing arms, etc.; in a word, almost everything they had need of, and they exchanged only the surplus above their consumption at certain periods of the year.

17. The soul, a metaphysical entity, existing by itself, independently of the body which it animates during life and abandons after death, is an invention of the savages They had found nothing simpler to explain the phenomena of the dream than to divide man in two; the body buried in sleep, remained in its place deprived of life, while the soul, which they called the double, set off on a journey, hunted, fought, avenged itself and acted; then returned to reanimate its corporal envelope, which came to life. The double after death continued to live. Thus at funerals they sacrificed animals and broke weapons in order that their doubles might continue to serve the dead. The souls of savages and barbarians living the communal life of the clan, those of women as well as those of men, betook themselves after death to an extraterrestial dwelling where they lived again an existence analogous to that which they had lived on earth. The soul of the Esquimau hunted the seal; that of the Redskin chased the bison; that of the Scandinavian fought by day and banqueted by night in Valhalla with the Valkyries.

Following and resulting from the transformation of primitive communism, the notion of the extraterrestial dwelling slipped away from the human mind and that of the soul became obscured, – to the point that during the patriarchal period, the head of the family was the only one who was thought to live after death; but his soul instead of betaking itself to paradise, led a supremely sad life in his tomb. The head of the family, who in his quality of administrator of the property had centralized in his person the rights of the members of his family, equally concentrated in himself their immortal souls. Then another explanation of the dream was discovered. Dreams were communications from the divinity, which had to be interpreted to understand one’s destiny. I spoke above of the role played by the immortality of the soul of the head of the family in the establishment of the right of primogeniture. The new explanation of the dream gave birth to a new order of exploiters of human stupidity, practicing the trade of dream-interpreter. They flourished in the time of Socrates.

At the time of the dissolution of the patriarchate, all members of the family, women excepted, in regaining their independence, found again, at the same time with their rights, their immortal souls, which had been confiscated by the head of the family. But as most of those who had re-entered into the possession of their souls had on the contrary lost their house and terrestial goods, they were greatly embarrassed to know where they should lodge after death. They were obliged to reinvent the extraterrestial dwelling of the savages. Socrates and Plato were ardent in utilizing the immortality of the soul as an instrument for governing men, disengaging it from the ruins of the patriarchal family. They had been preceded on this path by the Pythagorians. But it was Christianity which carried the exploitation of the soul to its highest perfection.

18. The cynics, and after them the first Christians, could demand the abolition of slavery. They were revolutionaries, but Socrates and the fathers of the church undertook rather the mission of propping the existing social institutions by the aid of morals and religion.

19. The pagans did not try to disguise the truth and they put commerce under the patronage of Mercury, the god of thieves. The Catholics are more Jesuitical. The religious orders, which are not exclusively consecrated to the capture of inheritances, make of commerce and industry their principal and even their only occupation, although they pretend to worship a God pure of all falsehood and innocent of all fraud.

The first act of the capitalistic bourgeoisie on coming into power in 1789 was to proclaim the liberty of theft, by relieving commerce and industry from all control. The guild masters of the Middle Ages, working only for the local market, for their neighbors, had established a severe control over production. The syndics of the guilds were authorized to enter workshops at any hour in order to examine the material and the manner in which it was worked. To facilitate their inspection the doors and the windows of the workshop remained open while the work was going on. The artisans of the Middle Ages worked literally under the eyes of the public. The goods before being put on sale were controlled by the syndics and marked with a seal or some other sign attesting that the guild guaranteed their good quality. This incessant control, which hampered and repressed the flight of the thieving genius of the capitalistic bourgeoisie, was one of its most serious grievances against the guilds.

20. The bourgeois writers are accustomed to heaping all the vices of civilization upon the savages and barbarians, whom the capitalists rob, exploit and exterminate under pretext of civilizing them, and it is they who corrupt them physically and morally with alcoholism, syphilis, the Bible, obligatory labor and commerce.

The travelers who come in contact with savage nations not contaminated by civilization, are struck by their moral virtues; and Leibniz, who alone is worth all the philosophers of liberalism, could not refrain from paying homage to them:

“I know beyond doubt,” he wrote, “that the savages of Canada live together in peace, although there is no sort of magistrate among them. We never, or scarcely ever, see in that part of the world quarrels, hatreds or wars, if not between men of different nations and different languages. I should almost dare call this a political miracle unknown to Aristotle, and which Hobbes has not observed. Even the children playing together rarely come to blows, and when they begin to warm up a little too much, they are soon restrained by their comrades. Do not imagine that the peace in which they live is the effect of a sluggish and insensible character, for nothing equals their activity against the enemy, and the sentiment of honor among them is active to the last degree, as is testified by the ardor which they show for vengeance and the fortitude with which they die in the midst of torments. If these people, with such great natural qualities could some day add to them our arts and science we should by the side of them be mere abortions.”

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Last updated on 14.9.2008