August Thalheimer: Introduction to Dialectical Materialism


4 - Greek Idealism

From the further development of Greek materialistic philosophy I shall select only the most prominent names and schools - Anaximander, Heraclitus and the Atomists, most prominent of whom are Democritus and Empedocles.

I begin with Anaximander. Like Thales of Miletus, he comes from the renowned Greek commercial city of which we have already spoken. He lived somewhat after Thales. His theory is characterized by the proposition that the world has emerged from formless stuff, from unformed homogeneous matter, as he called it. The development of this matter or of this formless stuff occurs through its separation into contradictory elements. This is the way the heavenly bodies came into being, the sun and the other stars. Man developed from fish-like beings which had taken to the land. To this conception of the world, of the planets, and of life, Anaximander added the conception of the future decline of the world. If the emergence of the world consists in the division of matter, in the breaking up of matter into opposite elements, then the decline of the world, of individual beings, consists in dissolution of these elements. According to Anaximander's theory matter is eternal and indestructible. As you see, it is a fairly broadly constructed theory of the development of the world, a theory which is completely materialistic, that is, deriving from natural causes. One cannot help being astonished at its correctness in the large, at a time when all the great accomplishments of modern natural science were lacking.

The second great name which I mention is that of Heraclitus the Obscure, of Ephesus. The nickname "Obscure" was given to him because of the obscurity and the difficulty of his writings. Heraclitus was also born in one of the greatest commercial cities of Greek Asia Minor, Ephesus. This city was one of the strongest competitors of Miletus. He lived about five hundred years before Christ. His great significance lies in the fact that he first discovered and gave expression to the qualities of what later developed into dialectics. I shall recount his principal ideas. Heraclitus arrived at his conceptions of the origin and nature of the world by synthesizing previous doctrines concerning the emergence of the world, the previous cosmology. Every previous philosopher had the world emerging from a different stuff. One, like Thales, from water, another from light, a third from stuff in general. From these doctrines Heraclitus elaborated the general universal transformation of all things. This conception he compressed into the striking proposition, "Everything is in flux"; that is, everything is changing, nothing remains as it is. He also compressed it into another proposition: "One cannot ascend the same river twice." This contained the same thought differently expressed. The river never remains the same; every instant it is a different river. In this instance, the river, of course, is only a figure of speech. It serves as the symbol of all the changes in nature and in the human world. This conception of the unceasing, universal change of all things can be taken as a fundamental conception of dialectics. According to the view of Heraclitus the world as a. whole is eternal - that is, infinite in time; and endless - that is, infinite in space. But this world is always changing; it never remains the same. This change, however, is not conceived in terms of modern evolution. According to Heraclitus world-change does not proceed continuously forward, but in what the physicists and chemists call a circular process. It is a constant transformation of things, which, however, always reverts to a certain starting point. For example: like all his predecessors Heraclitus differentiates four elements: fire, earth, air, and water. These four elements continuously change into each other, but in such a manner that the change always occurs within the same circle of the four elements. This change of things occurs, according to Heraclitus, not arbitrarily, but in accordance with certain mass relationships. It is regular change. This also as a new and advanced thought. Heraclitus called the world an eternal fire - again figuratively, of course. He did not mean that the world emerged from fire as the prime stuff; fire was merely a figurative designation for the continual process of change. The world is not a stable substance, but a continual chemical process. I have already said - and I need not elaborate - that the Heraclitean conception of chance must not be confused with the modern concept of evolution. It is a change that occurs in a circle and which reverts to the original starting point.

Another basic idea of Heraclitus is that this change of all things follows the rule that opposites always emerge from opposites; that is, that this change always takes place in the form of contradictions. For this, too, he found a striking metaphorical expression: "Conflict is the father of all things." The conflict of opposites is the impulse to all change, to all development. This is also a fundamental conception of dialectics, and Heraclitus was able to express even this thought in very general fashion. He applied it to the relation of Being and Non-Being. Heraclitus said that Being and Non-Being, these two extreme opposites, come together in the concept of Becoming. The thought is clear. A thing that is becoming is, and at the same time is not, that thing. These two ideas are contained in Becoming. Otherwise expressed: The nature of all things and processes consists of the togetherness of opposites. All things, in other words, are polar, are composed of opposites or contradictions.

Also germane to the theory of Heraclitus is the fact that he declared himself against the notion of the immortality of the soul. He also declared himself against the doctrine that sensual pleasure is bad, a doctrine which at that time played an important role among certain religious societies, and we shall soon see why.

I proceed now to another point, namely, the explanation how this theory of Heraclitus is connected with the mode of production and with the class relationships of the time. From your actual observation of contemporary events, it is understandable to you how a world-view is connected with certain class attitudes. This observation which we can make today holds for all periods. Each world-view has its roots in certain class relationships. There is only this difference; we can very clearly see the modern class relations, whereas the class relations of 2,000 to 3,000 years ago are only in small part known. Often we have to guess at these because the historical sources are meager. Concerning the class position of Heraclitus we can roughly say the following:

He belonged to the municipal aristocracy in Ephesus. I have already discussed the rule of the aristocracy in these cities. Previous to the time of Heraclitus a government of such aristocrats existed, but this had been unseated by the government of a Tyrant or military commander.

This Tyrant was supported by the mass of petty craftsmen and peasants against the aristocracy. Later the rule of the Tyrant yielded to a more or less restricted democracy which was brought into Ephesus by the citizens of the city of Athens. Heraclitus, who belonged to the aristocracy against which the Tyrant fought and against which the Tyrant played the masses of the people, was naturally considered a revolutionary. The existing state of affairs was not to his liking. He was anxious to overthrow it. Therefore there developed in him the conception that it is a general law of all existing things not to remain as they are, but to change — to change, indeed, into their opposites. From the relations which prevailed in the city he arrived at the idea that conflict is the impulse of all change. And he came to the conclusion that this holds not only for political and social relations in the city, but that it applies universally. I believe that the concept of dialectics will now be accessible to you. The masses of the people in Ephesus were severely oppressed and exploited by the Tyrants. They had to work for the Tyrants, they had to pay heavy tribute, and in part also to perform forced labor. In this situation the masses of the people sought any ideas at all which could give them consolation. And so they took refuge in religion, which gave them the consolation they needed. They established religious groups which sought security in the theory of a Redeemer who would come and free the people; in the theory of the immortality of the soul; and in the evil of sensual pleasures - a theory which is very congenial to an exploited mass of people. When men turn against sensual pleasures, this signifies a political break with and a repudiation of the luxurious life of the rich. All should live as simply and frugally as possible, and avoid luxury. This idea is congenial to the exploited and oppressed masses at a time when the material prerequisites are not yet at hand for all to be able to live in plenty; that is to say, when the productiveness of labor is still poorly developed. And this was the case then, as opposed to the situation now in capitalist society. Heraclitus' attitude is explained in the simplest manner by reference to the role of the mass of the people, the role of the Tyrant, and Heraclitus' own membership in the aristocracy. Since the Tyrant was supported by the mass of the people against the aristocracy, Heraclitus had to turn against the ideas of these masses, against their religious ideas, against the conception of a Redeemer, against the immortality of the soul, and against the doctrine of the evil or sensual pleasures. Thus you see that all the fundamental ideas in Heraclitus are determined, are conditioned by the characteristic class relations of his time.

I should now like to make a few brief comments on the theory of atoms. Atomic theory or atomistics was developed by a number of these philosophers of nature. The principal proposition of the theory maintains that the world consists of small, identical material parts and empty space. The various movements of these material parts explain all phenomena. I do not need to develop this theory further. Atomic theory is today a part of natural science, of chemistry, of physics, etc. The significance of atomic theory in antiquity, however, lay in the fact that it was the most consistent development of materialism. This theory of atoms has played a part in all consistent theories of materialism for thousands of years.

With this I close the discussion of the Ionian natural philosophy, the period of materialistic philosophy in ancient times, and come now to a most important turning point, when materialist philosophy was replaced by idealist philosophy. This turning point is linked with the names of two great philosophers of ancient times, Plato and Aristotle. Plato was born in 429 B.C., Aristotle in 384 B.C. They are thus somewhat later than the Ionian philosophers of nature. These two philosophers of idealism have had a tremendous influence on the whole subsequent period, on the philosophy of the Middle Ages, as well as on the world-view of modern times. In the last analysis we can say that all idealistic world-views have their origin in Plato and Aristotle. We will now investigate the reasons for this transition from the materialist to the idealist world-view. The fundamental reason for this is the complete development of slave economy as the basis of Greek society and the beginning of its decline. This society, founded on slave labor, led into a blind alley, with no way out. In the seventh century slave labor was just appearing in the Greek colonies of Asia Minor, although slave trade was already in full swing. Industrial labor was, in the main, performed by handicraftsmen or free wage laborers. In the fifth and fourth centuries, however, in Athens - where the philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, lived and taught, slave labor was the foundation of the State and of the whole economy. Slavery was the basis of the class system in Athens at that time, and not, as has often superficially been contended, the opposition between aristocracy and democracy, which was only an opposition within the ruling class which consisted of free citizens. Both the rich and poor free citizens were propped on the shoulders of slaves. The rich as well as the poor freemen in Athens lived at the expense of the slaves, who were without rights, who were not considered men but simply tools endowed with speech. That the Athenian people were able to devote themselves to politics, art, philosophy, gymnastics, and all such fine things was made possible only by abundant and constant importation of slave laborers. This is not simply my opinion; it is taken from a work on ancient Athens by a good bourgeois historian.

I shall now develop the contradictions which beset a society which is built on a slave economy. First contradiction and first difficulty: In no slave economy is the natural propagation of slaves sufficient to maintain it. This experience is not restricted to antiquity. The same thing occurred in the slave plantations in the South of the United States of America. To maintain the slave economy, there must be a continual importation of new slaves. They can be obtained only through wars or predation. Continual waging of war, which is necessary for a State built on a slave economy, naturally saps the strength of such a State. To wage war in ancient times it was necessary for the citizen about to go to war to furnish his own equipment. This was costly, of course, especially for a mounted warrior. He had to maintain his horse and a groom. He had to be able to support his dependants at home as well as himself in the field. This necessity gradually impoverished the simple farmers and artisans who participated. Thereby the power of the State was diminished, and it was exposed to the danger of being conquered by another State where the farmers and artisans were not yet undermined. To be humbled and conquered meant something quite different then from what it means today. It meant that the people would be carried off as slaves - men, women and children.

The second contradiction in which a society built on slave labor is involved is the following: It is proudly maintained in such a society that working for a living is unworthy of a freeman. Labor is stigmatized as unworthy. Labor is only for slaves. This conception of labor dominated the best and most open minds of antiquity. And it had a further consequence: The free people who could not exploit slaves were dependent on the State for a livelihood. They were parasites, spongers on the State. The unpropertied freeman of antiquity was fundamentally different from the modern proletarian. The latter through his labor supports the whole society, the capitalists and everything else. The unpropertied freeman, the proletarian of antiquity, was supported by the State at the expense of slave labor. The State itself maintained a great number of slaves who provided the means of support for the unpropertied freemen. Moreover, a powerful city like Athens subjugated a great number of other cities who had to pay tribute, which also served to maintain these unpropertied freemen. Thus the existence of such a city was naturally very precarious. A society which rests on such an uncertain foundation as slave labor becomes increasingly involved in difficulties.

The third contradiction within this city which was at the same time a state - city and state are here one - is the following: Within this city there developed, even among the freemen, more and more class oppositions. The great private fortunes increased and fell into the hands of fewer people, whereas the artisans were impoverished by continual warfare. This sharpened the opposition between creditors and debtors. At the same time the moral bond which bound the city dwellers to each other became weaker and weaker, and this led to continual civil wars which jeopardized the existence of the State more and more.

Further, I should like to mention a fourth and very important point in the realm of economics: Slave labor hinders technical progress. The connection here is very clear. Since slaves work only under compulsion, they cannot be given very delicate or complicated tools. Slave labor can only be accomplished with the crudest and roughest tools. As soon as slave labor becomes the characteristic phenomenon of a society, technical development is hindered, and the development of the forces of production is brought to a standstill. Thus, at the height of the slave economy in antiquity we find technical stagnation and also a loss of the interest in natural science such as was prevalent in the colonies of Asia Minor which we have mentioned.

These conditions resulted in the following: first, that the problem of development in nature and the problem of the origin of the world no longer stood in the foreground as they did in the ascending period of Greek social development. Instead, the questions characteristic of society in its middle stage are emphasized: How should man live, how should the State be governed, how should the economy be carried on, what is good, what is evil, what is permitted, what is forbidden? All these questions of morals now become matters of controversy.

The second and most important result linked with the transition to the declining phase of ancient society is the transition from the materialistic to the idealistic world-view. This critical change from materialism to idealism is conditioned by, and based on the facts which I have already set forth. It was conditioned, namely, by the circumstance that the old slave owning society had passed its apex and had entered upon its declining phase.

I should like to sketch very briefly the main features of Plato's idealism so that you may know something about the idealism here indicated. According to Plato, the true essence of things does not consist of a stuff, as the philosophers of nature had said, but rather the principle of the world is spiritual, non-material. The world of the senses, the world of sense-experience is notin Plato's conception, an actual and true world, but only apparent and illusory. This world of sensory phenomena is only a consequence, a copy of eternal Ideas, of eternal spiritual prototypes, which are independent of material phenomena. Thus the true locus of things is posited in the mind. The highest idea is the idea of the Good. These ideas not only are the true essence, the very kernel of the world; they are, moreover, the ultimate impulse and the ultimate measure of all events. With Aristotle this is further developed: Reason is the essence, the ultimate impulse or prime mover of all worldly events.

But upon precisely what is this transition from materialism to idealism based? In the last analysis upon the fact that there is, from the standpoint of the ruling class of this period, no material, historical, progressive solution of social contradictions, as I have already shown. It is not possible for a slave economy to make the transition to a higher form of society and economy. It is a blind alley, a cul-de-sac. I have explained to you how the Christian religion grew up among the oppressed classes. In the same way idealistic philosophy grew on in the ruling class at this critical moment in the Athenian State. This idealistic philosophy became an element and a basis of later Christianity. What social aim did this idealist doctrine have? Its aim was to idealize the existing social situation, that is, to beautify to eliminate the contradictions in it, to immortalize it. The supremacy of the Idea, the supremacy of Reason, was only a universalization of the theory that the reasonable and the wise should rule. And of course every ruling class conceives these to he the members of the ruling class itself. The people, according to this notion, are unreasonable, and it is always a very small minority, the ruling class, which is reasonable. When this theory is carried from the State over to the whole world, idealistic philosophy appears, the concept of the supremacy of Reason over all things. In the later centuries and millennia this idealistic philosophy generally became one of the strongest foundations for the views of the ruling class. But you must not think that the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle was in their time reactionary within the ruling class. It was not. Ancient society had no way out. There was no class in this society which could offer any sort of antithetical, revolutionary outlet. On the question of slavery, democracy in ancient Greece did not and could not have a fundamentally different viewpoint, since its existence was based on resources of the State provided by slave labor. It would be a very great error to mistake the democracy of Greek antiquity for bourgeois or proletarian democracy. The opposition between ancient Greek democracy and modern bourgeois democracy is even greater than that between bourgeois and proletarian democracy. The basic problems of this ancient society were not those of democracy or aristocracy; these were only problems of the superstructure. The basic problem was slave labor, the relation of the slaves to freemen. The reactionary aspect of this philosophy stands out in bold relief only in relation to slavery, in the fact that it is the philosophy of a slave owning society, based upon slave labor. It appears reactionary in the light of later historical development which abolished slave labor and substituted more progressive forms of exploitation. But this philosophy not only had a reactionary aspect; it also had a progressive aspect. We shall speak of this in the next chapter.