Dialectical Materialism

History of Philosophy - 2.The First Dialecticians

Even today the idea of change is understood in a one-sided and superficial way. Evolution is interpreted to mean slow, gradual change which precludes sudden leaps. Contradictions are not supposed to exist in nature, and where they arise in human thought are attributed to subjective error. In point of fact, contradictions abound in nature at all levels, and are the basis of all movement and change.

Over a hundred years after Darwin, the idea that everything changes is generally accepted among educated people. It was not always so. The theory of evolution by natural selection had to fight a long and bitter struggle against those who defended the biblical view that god created all species in seven days, and that the species were fixed and immutable. For many centuries, the Church dominated science and taught that the earth was fixed at the centre of the universe. Those who disagreed were burnt at the stake.

Even today, however, the idea of change is understood in a one-sided and superficial way. Evolution is interpreted to mean slow, gradual change which precludes sudden leaps. Contradictions are not supposed to exist in nature, and where they arise in human thought are attributed to subjective error. In point of fact, contradictions abound in nature at all levels, and are the basis of all movement and change. This fact was understood by thinkers from the earliest times. It is reflected in some elements of Buddhist philosophy. It underlies the ancient Chinese idea of the principles of ying and yang. In the 4th century B.C., Hui Shih wrote the following lines:

"The sky is as low as the earth; mountains are level with marshes.
The sun is just setting at noon; each creature is just dying at birth."
(Quoted in G. Thomson, The First Philosophers, p. 69.)

Compare this to the following fragments of the founder of Greek dialectical philosophy, Heraclitus (c. 544-484 B.C.):

"Fire lives the death of air, and air lives the death of fire;
Water lives the death of earth, and earth lives the death of water." And
 "It is the same thing in us that is living and dead, asleep and awake, young and old; each changes place and becomes the other."
"We step and we do not step into the same stream; we are and are not."

With Heraclitus, the contradictory assertions of the Ionian philosophers for the first time are given a dialectical expression. "Here we see land," commented Hegel, "There is no proposition of Heraclitus which I have not adopted in my Logic." (Hegel, History of Philosophy, Vol. one, p. 279.)

For all his importance, Heraclitus’ philosophy has only come down to us in about 130 fragments, written in a difficult aphoristic style. Even in his lifetime, Heraclitus was known as "the Dark" for the obscurity of his sayings. It is almost as if he deliberately chose to make his philosophy inaccessible. Socrates wryly commented that "what he understood was excellent, what not he believed to be equally so, but that the book required a tough swimmer." (Schwegler, p. 20.)

In Anti-D�hring, Engels gives the following appraisal of Heraclitus’ dialectical world outlook:

"When we reflect on nature or the history of mankind or our own intellectual activity, at first we see the picture of an endless maze of connections and interactions, in which nothing remains what, where, and as it was, but everything moves, changes, comes into being and passes away. (At first, therefore, we see the picture as a whole, with its individual parts still more or less kept in the background; we observe the movements, transitions, connections, rather than the things that move, change and are connected.) This primitive, na�ve but intrinsically correct conception of the world is that of Greek philosophy, and was first clearly formulated by Heraclitus: everything is and is not, for everything is in flux, is constantly changing, constantly coming into being and passing away." (Engels, op. cit., p. 24.)

Heraclitus lived in Ephesus in the violent period of the 5th century B.C., a period of war and civil strife. Little is known of his life, except that he came from an aristocratic family. But the nature of the period in which he lived is well reflected in one of his fragments: "War is the father of all things and the king of all; and some he has made gods and some men, some bond and some free." (The fragments are here quoted throughout from the Baywater edition, reproduced in Burnet’s Early Greek Philosophers.) But Heraclitus here does not just refer to war in human society, but to the role of inner contradiction at all levels of nature as well. Indeed, it is better translated as "strife." He states that: "We must know that war is common to all and strife is justice, and that all things come into being and pass away through strife." All things contain a contradiction, which impels their development. Indeed, without contradiction, there would be no movement and no life.

Heraclitus was the first to give a clear exposition of the idea of the unity of opposites. The Pythagoreans, in fact, had worked out a table of ten antitheses:

1) The finite and the infinite
2) The odd and the even
3) The one and the many
4) The right and the left
5) The male and the female
6) The quiescent and the moving
7) The straight and the crooked
8) Light and darkness
9) Good and evil
10) The square and the parallelogram

These are important concepts, but they were not developed by the Pythagoreans, who satisfied themselves with a mere enumeration. In fact, the Pythagoreans had the position of the fusion of opposites through a "mean," eliminating contradiction by seeking the middle ground. Polemicising against this view, Heraclitus uses a most striking and beautiful image: "Men do not know how what is at variance agrees with itself. It is an attunement of opposite tensions, like that of the bow and the lyre." Contradiction lies at the root of everything. The desire to eliminate contradiction would actually presuppose the elimination of all movement and life, consequently, "Homer was wrong in saying: ‘Would that strife might perish from among gods and men!’ He did not see that he was praying for the destruction of the universe; for, if his prayer were heard, all things would pass away…"

These are profound thoughts, but are clearly at variance to everyday experience and "common sense." How can something be itself and something else at the same time? How can a thing be both alive and dead? On this kind of argument, Heraclitus poured scorn: "It is wise to hearken, not to me, but to my Word, and to confess that all things are one." "Though this Word is true evermore, yet men are unable to understand it when they hear it for the first time as before they have heard it at all. For, though all things come to pass in accordance to this Word, men seem as if they have no experience of them, when they make trial of words and deeds such as I set forth, dividing each thing according to its kind and showing how it truly is. But other men know not what they are doing when they awake, even as they forget what they do in sleep." "Fools when they do hear are like the deaf; of them does the saying bear witness that they are absent when present." "Eyes and ears are bad witnesses to men if they have souls that understand their language."

What does this mean? The Greek for Word is "Logos," from which logic is derived. Despite its mystical appearance, Heraclitus’ opening remark is an appeal to rational objectivity. Do not listen to me, he is saying, but to the objective laws of nature which I describe. That is the essential meaning. And "all things are one?" Throughout the history of philosophy, there have been two ways of interpreting reality—either as one single substance, embodied in different forms (monism, from the Greek word meaning single); or as two entirely different substances, spirit and matter (known as dualism). The early Greek philosophers were materialist monists. Latter, the Pythagorians adopted a dualist position, based upon a supposedly unbridgeable gulf between mind (spirit) and matter. This is the hallmark of all idealism. As we have seen, it has its roots in the primitive superstitions of savages who believed that the soul left the body in dreams.

The above passage is a polemic against the philosophical dualism of the Pythagoreans, against which Heraclitus defends the position of earlier Ionic monism—that there is an underlying material unity of nature. The universe has not been created, but has always existed, in a process of continuous flux and change, whereby things change into their opposites, cause becomes effect, and effect cause. Thus contradiction lies at the root of everything. In order to get at the truth, it is necessary to go beyond the appearances, and lay bear the inner conflicting tendencies of a given phenomenon, in order to understand its inner motive forces.

The ordinary intelligence, by contrast, is content to take things at face value, the reality of sense perception, the "given," the "facts," are accepted without more ado. However, such perception is at best limited, and can be the source of endless errors. To give just one example—for "sound common sense" the world is flat, and the sun goes around the earth. The true nature of things is not always evident. As Heraclitus puts it, "nature loves to hide." In order to arrive at the truth, it is necessary to know how to interpret the information of the senses. "If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it," he wrote, and again, "Those who seek for gold dig up much earth and find a little."

"Everything flows," was the basis of his philosophy, "You cannot step twice into the same river; for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you." This was a dynamic view of the universe, the exact opposite of the static idealist conception of the Pythagoreans. And when Heraclitus looked for a material substance to underpin the universe, following in the footsteps of Thales and Anaximenes, he chose that most elusive and fleeting element, fire.

The idea that everything is in a constant state of flux, that there is nothing fixed and permanent, except motion and change, is an uncomfortable one for the ordinary cast of mind to accept. Human thinking is, in general, innately conservative. The desire to cling to what is solid, concrete and reliable is rooted in a profound instinct, akin to that of self-preservation. The hope for an after life, the belief in an immortal soul, flows from a rejection of the fact that all things come into existence, and also pass away—"panda rhei," everything flows. Man has stubbornly sought to attain freedom by denying the laws of nature, inventing certain imaginary privileges for himself. True freedom, however, as Hegel explained, consists in correctly understanding these laws, and acting accordingly. It was the great role of Heraclitus to provide the first more or less fully worked-out picture of the dialectical world outlook.

Heraclitus’ philosophy was greeted by incredulity and hostility even in his own lifetime. It challenged the assumptions, not only of all religion and tradition, but of the "common sense" mentality which sees no further than the end of its nose. For the next 2,500 years, attempts have been made to disprove it. As Bertrand Russell comments:

"Science, like philosophy, has sought to escape from the doctrine of perpetual flux by finding some permanent substratum amid changing phenomena. Chemistry seemed to satisfy this desire. It was found that fire, which appears to destroy, only transmutes: elements are recombined, but each atom that existed before combustion still exists when the process is completed. Accordingly it was supposed that atoms are indestructible, and that all change in the physical world consists merely in re-arrangement of persistent elements. This view prevailed until the discovery of radio-activity, when it was found that atoms could disintegrate.

"Nothing daunted, the physicists invented new and smaller units, called electrons and protons, out of which atoms were composed; and these units were supposed, for a few years, to have the indestructibility formerly attributed to atoms. Unfortunately it seemed that protons and electrons could meet and explode, forming, not new matter, but a wave of energy spreading through the universe with the velocity of light. Energy had to replace matter as what is permanent. But energy, unlike matter, is not a refinement of the common-sense notion of a ‘thing’; it is merely a characteristic of physical processes. It might be fancifully identified with the Heraclitean Fire, but it is the burning, not what burns. ‘What burns’ has disappeared from modern physics.

"Passing from the small to the large, astronomy no longer allows us to regard the heavenly bodies as everlasting. The planets came out of the sun, and the sun came out of a nebula. It has lasted some time, and will last some time longer; but sooner or later—probably in about a million million years—it will explode, destroying all the planets. So at least the astronomers say; perhaps as the fatal day draws nearer they will find some mistake in their calculations." (B. Russell, op. cit., p. 64-65.)

The Eleatics

In the past it was thought that Heraclitus’ philosophy was a reaction against the views of Parmenides (c. 540-470 B.C.). The prevailing opinion now is that, on the contrary, the Eleatic school represented a reaction against Heraclitus. The Eleatics attempted to disprove the idea that "everything flows" by asserting the direct opposite: that nothing changes, that movement is an illusion. This is a good example of the dialectical character of the evolution of human thought in general, and the history of philosophy in particular. It does not unfold in a straight line, but develops through contradiction, where one theory is put forward, is challenged by its opposite, until this, in turn, is overturned by a new theory, which frequently appears to signify a return to the starting point. However, this apparent return to old ideas does not mean that intellectual development is merely a closed circle. On the contrary, the dialectical process never repeats itself in exactly the same way, since the very process of scientific controversy, discussion, constant re-examination of positions, backed up by observation and experiment, leads to a deepening of our understanding and a closer approximation to the truth.

Elia (or Velia) was a Greek colony in southern Italy founded about 540 B.C. by emigrants fleeing from the Persian invasion of Ionia. According to tradition, the Eleatic school was founded by Xenophones. However, his connection with the school is unclear, and his contribution was overshadowed by its most prominent representatives, Parmenides and Zeno (born 460 B.C.). Whereas the Pythagoreans abstracted from matter all determinate qualities except number, the Eleatics went one step further, taking the process to an extreme, arriving at a totally abstract conception of being, stripped of all concrete manifestations, except bare existence. "Only being is; non being (becoming) is not at all." Pure, unlimited, unchanging, featureless being—this is the essence of the Eleatic thought.

This view of the universe is designed to eliminate all contradictions, all mutability and motion. It is a very consistent philosophy, within its own frame of reference. There is only one snag. It is directly contradicted by the whole of human experience. Not that this worried Parmenides. If human understanding cannot grasp this idea, so much the worse for understanding! Zeno elaborated a famous series of paradoxes designed to prove the impossibility of movement. According to legend, Diogenes the Cynic disproved Zeno’s argument by simply walking up and down the room! However, as generations of logicians have found to their cost, Zeno’s arguments are not so easy to dispose of in theoretical terms.

Hegel points out that the real intention of Zeno was not to deny the reality of motion, but to bring out the contradiction present in movement, and the way it is reflected in thought. In this sense, the Eleatics were, paradoxically, also dialectical philosophers. Defending Zeno against Aristotle’s criticism that he denied the existence of motion, he explains:

"The point is not that there is movement and that this phenomenon exists; the fact that there is movement is as sensually certain as that there are elephants; it is not in this sense that Zeno meant to deny movement. The point in question concerns its truth. Movement, however, is held to be untrue, because the conception of it involves a contradiction; by that he meant to say that no true Being can be predicated in it." (Hegel, History of Philosophy, Vol. 1, p. 266.)

In order to disprove Zeno’s argument, it is not enough to demonstrate that movement exists, as Diogenes did, just by walking around. It is necessary to proceed from his own premises, to exhaust his own analysis of motion, and carry it to its limits, to the point where it turns into its opposite. That is the real method of dialectical argument, not merely asserting the opposite, still less resorting to ridicule. And, in fact, there is a rational basis for Zeno’s paradoxes, which cannot be resolved by the method of formal logic, but only dialectically.

"Achilles the Swift"

Zeno "disproved" motion in different ways. Thus, he argued that a body in motion, before reaching a given point, must first have travelled half the distance. But, before this, it must have travelled half of that half, and so on ad infinitum. Thus, when two bodies are moving in the same direction, and the one behind at a fixed distance from the one in front is moving faster, we assume that it will overtake the other. Not so, says Zeno. "The slower one can never be overtaken by the quicker." This is the famous paradox of Achilles the Swift. Imagine a race between Achilles and a tortoise. Suppose that Achilles can run ten times faster than the tortoise which has 1000 metres start. By the time Achilles has covered 1000 metres, the tortoise will be 100 metres ahead; when Achilles has covered that 100 metres, the tortoise will be one metre ahead; when he covers that distance, the tortoise will be one tenth of a metre ahead, and so on to infinity.

From the standpoint of everyday common sense, this seems absurd. Of course, Achilles will overtake the tortoise! Aristotle remarked that "This proof asserts the same endless divisibility, but it is untrue, for the quick will overtake the slow body if the limits to be traversed be granted to it." Hegel quotes these words, and comments: "This answer is true and contains all that can be said; that is, there are in this representation two periods of time and two distances, which are separated from one another, i.e., they are limited in relation to one another;" but then he adds, "when, on the contrary, we admit that time and space are related to one another as continuous, they are, while being two, not two, but identical." (Hegel, op. cit., p. 273.)

The paradoxes of Zeno do not prove that movement is an illusion, or that Achilles, in practice, will not overtake the tortoise, but they do reveal brilliantly the limitations of the kind of thinking now known as formal logic. The attempt to eliminate all contradiction from reality, as the Eleatics did, inevitably leads to this kind of insoluble paradox, or antimony, as Kant later called it. In order to prove that a line could not consist of an infinite number of points, Zeno claimed that, if it were really so, then Achilles would never overtake the tortoise. There really is a logical problem here. As Alfred Hooper explains:

"This paradox still perplexes even those who know that it is possible to find the sum of an infinite series of numbers forming a geometrical progression whose common ratio is less than 1, and whose terms consequently become smaller and smaller and thus ‘converge’ on some limiting value." (A. Hooper, Makers of Mathematics, p. 237.)

In fact, Zeno had uncovered a contradiction in mathematical thought which would have to wait two thousand years for a solution. The contradiction relates to the use of the infinite. From Pythagoras right up to the discovery of the differential and integral calculus in the 17th century, mathematicians went to great lengths to avoid the use of the concept of infinity. Only the great genius Archimedes approached the subject, but still avoided it by using a roundabout method.

The Pythagoreans stumbled on the fact that the square root of two cannot be expressed as a number. They invented ingenious ways of finding successive approximations for it. But, no matter how far the process is taken, you never get an exact answer. The result is always midway between two numbers. The further down the list you go, the closer you get to the value of the square root of two. But the process of successive approximation may be continued forever, without getting a precise result that can be expressed in a whole number.

The Pythagoreans thus had to abandon the idea of a line made up of a finite number of very small points, and accept that a line is made up of an infinite number of points with no dimension. Parmenides approached the issue from a different angle, arguing that a line was indivisible. In order to prove the point, Zeno tried to show the absurd consequences that would follow from the concept of infinite divisibility. For centuries after, mathematicians steered clear of the idea of infinity, until Kepler in the 17th century simply swept aside all logical objections and boldly made use of the infinite in his calculations, to achieve epoch making results.

Ultimately, all these paradoxes are derived from the problem of the continuum. All the attempts to resolve them by means of mathematical theorems, such as the theory of convergent series and the theory of sets have only given rise to new contradictions. In the end, Zeno’s arguments have not been refuted, because they are based on a real contradiction which, from the standpoint of formal logic, cannot be answered. "Even the abstruse arguments put forward by Dedekind (1831-1916), Cantor (1845-1918) and Russell (1872-1970) in their mighty efforts to straighten out the paradoxical problems of infinity into which we are led by our concept of ‘numbers,’ have resulted in the creation of still further paradoxes." (Hooper, op. cit., p. 238.) The breakthrough came in the 17th and 18th centuries, when men like Kepler, Cavalieri, Pascal, Wallis, Newton and Leibniz decided to ignore the numerous difficulties raised by formal logic, and deal with infinitesimal quantities. Without the use of infinity, the whole of modern mathematics, and with it physics, would be unable to function.

The essential problem, highlighted by Zeno’s paradoxes, is the inability of formal logic to grasp movement. Zeno’s paradox of the Arrow takes as an example of movement the parabola traced by an arrow in flight. At any given point in this trajectory, the arrow is considered to be still. But since, by definition, a line consists of a series of points, at each of which the arrow is still, movement is an illusion. The answer to this paradox was given by Hegel.

The notion of movement necessarily involves a contradiction. Consider the movement of a body, Zeno’s arrow for example, from one point to another. When it starts to move, it is no longer at point A. At the same time, it is not yet at point B. Where is it, then? To say that it is "in the middle" conveys nothing, for then it would still be at a point, and therefore at rest. "But," says Hegel, "movement means to be in this place and not to be in it, and thus to be in both alike; and this is the continuity of space and time which first makes motion possible." (Hegel, op. cit., Vol. 1, p. 273.) As Aristotle shrewdly observed, "It arises from the fact that it is taken for granted that time consists of the Now; for if this is not conceded, the conclusions will not follow." But what is this "now"? If we say the arrow is "here," "now," it has already gone.

Engels writes:

"Motion itself is a contradiction: even simple mechanical change of place can only come about through a body being both in one place and in another place at one and the same moment of time, being in one and the same place and also not in it. And the continual assertion and simultaneous solution of this contradiction is precisely what motion is." (Engels, Anti-D�hring, p. 152.)

The First Atomists

Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, born about 500 B.C., in Asia Minor, in the period of wars with the Medes, and the rise of Athens under Pericles. Anaxagoras moved to Athens where he was a contemporary of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Diogenes and Protagoras. He was a far more original and profound thinker, who had a tremendous impact on philosophy in Athens. Aristotle said that he was like "a sober man among drunkards." Anaxagoras, following the best Ionian tradition, believed in experiment and observation. "There can be no question," says Farrington, "but that he regarded sense-evidence as indispensable for the investigation of nature, but, like Empedocles, he was concerned to show that there were physical processes too subtle for our senses to perceive directly." (B. Farrington, Greek Science, p. 62.)

His scientific discoveries were of the first order. He believed that the sun was a mass of molten elements, as also were the stars, although these were too far away for their heat to be felt. The moon was nearer, and made of the same material as the earth. The light of the moon was a reflection of the sun, and eclipses were caused by the moon blocking off the sun’s light. Like Socrates later, he was accused of atheism, probably accurately, since he scarcely mentions religion in his cosmology. These revolutionary ideas shocked the conservative Athenians, eventually leading to Anaxagoras’ banishment.

In opposition to Parmenides, Anaxagoras held that everything is infinitely divisible, and that even the smallest amount of matter contains some of each element. He also considered that matter was made up of particles of many kinds. Thus he asked how it occurs that bread, when eaten, turns into bones, flesh, blood, skin, and the rest. The only explanation was that the particles of wheat must contain, in some hidden form, all the elements necessary for the make up of the body, which are rearranged in the digestive process.

He believed there to be an infinite number of elements or "seeds." But there was one of them which played a special role. This was the nous, usually translated as "mind." Lighter than the other elements, it is, unlike the rest, unmixed, and permeates all matter, as an organising and animating principle. For this reason, Anaxagoras is usually regarded as an idealist. But this is far from certain. The arch-idealist Hegel considered that, while the nous was an important step in the direction of idealism, "with Anaxagoras it was not fully worked out." (Hegel, History, Vol. one, p. 330.) Anaxagoras’ nous can also have a materialistic interpretation, as the inner moving spirit of matter, or, more correctly expressed, energy. Hegel himself understood that it did not mean an external intelligence, but the objective processes which take place within nature, providing it with form and definition.

The idea that matter consists of an infinity of tiny particles, invisible to the senses, represents a most important generalisation, and a transition to the atomic theory, that remarkable anticipation of modern science, first expounded by Leucippus (c. 500-440 B.C.) and Democritus (c. 460-370 B.C.). The breakthrough was even more astonishing when we bear in mind that these thinkers had no access to electron microscopes, or any other technological aids. There was therefore no means of corroborating the theory, let alone developing it at that time. More importantly, it incurred the wrath of the religious, and the scorn of the idealists, and was allowed to sink without trace in the long, dark night of the Middle Ages, until, like so many ideas of Antiquity, it was rediscovered by the thinkers of the Renaissance, like Gassendi, where it played an important role in stimulating the new scientific outlook.

About Leucippus, so little is known that some even doubted his existence, which, however was proved by the discovery of papyri at Herculaneum. Most of his sayings have come down to us through the writings of other philosophers. In a startlingly new hypothesis, Leucippus stated that the whole universe was made up of just two things, atoms and the void, an absolute vacuum. He was also the first to establish what later became known as the law of causality and the law of sufficient reason. The one authentic fragment which has survived says: "Naught happens for nothing, but everything from a ground and necessity." (Burnet, Early Greek Philosophers, p. 340). The early atomists were determinists. They placed causality firmly at the centre of all natural processes, but they did so in an unbending way, reminiscent of the later mechanical determinism of Laplace. This rigidity of the earliest atomists was later corrected by Epicurus, who put forward the idea that atoms falling through the void swerve slightly, thus introducing the element of accident into the framework of necessity.

The atomists derived all things from an infinite number of fundamental particles, the "atoma" (which means "that which cannot be divided"). These atoms were alike in quality, but unlike in quantity, differing only in size, shape and weight, although the smallness of their size made it impossible to see them. In essence, this was correct. The entire physical world, from coal to diamonds, from the human body to the scent of roses, is composed of atoms of different sizes and weights, arranged in molecules. Present day science can give a precise quantitative expression to this assertion. The Greek atomists were in no position to do this, because the limitation upon the development of technology inherent in the slave method of production prevented the proper utilisation of the brilliant inventions of the time, including the steam engine, which mostly remained on the level of toys and curiosities. All the more remarkable, then, was the way in which they anticipated one of the most important principles of 20th century science.

The celebrated American physicist Richard P. Feynman, underlines the place of atomic theory in present day science:

"If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed onto the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied." (Feynman, Lectures on Physics, 1-3.)

And again:

"Everything is made of atoms. That is the key hypothesis. The most important hypothesis in all of biology, for example, is that everything that animals do, atoms do. In other words, there is nothing that living things do that cannot be understood from the point of view that they are made of atoms acting according to the laws of physics. This was not known from the beginning: it took some experimenting and theorising to suggest this hypothesis, but now it is accepted, and it is the most useful theory for producing new ideas in the field of biology.

"If a piece of steel or a piece of salt, consisting of atoms one next to the other, can have such interesting properties; if water—which is nothing but these little blobs, mile upon mile of the same thing over the earth—can form waves and foam, and make rushing noises and strange patterns as it runs over cement; if all of this, all the life of a stream of water, can be nothing but a pile of atoms, how much more is possible? If instead of arranging the atoms in some definite pattern, again and again repeated, on and on, or even forming little lumps of complexity like the odour of violets, we make an arrangement which is always different from place to place, with different kinds of atoms arranged in many ways, continually changing, not repeating, how much more marvelously is it possible that this thing might behave? Is it possible that that ‘thing’ walking back and forth in front of you, talking to you, is a great glob of these atoms in a very complex arrangement, such that the sheer complexity of it staggers the imagination as to what it can do? When we say we are a pile of atoms, we do not mean we are merely a pile of atoms, because a pile of atoms which is not repeated from one to the other might well have the possibilities which you see before you in the mirror." (Ibid., 1-13.)

The world outlook of the Greek atomists was naturally materialist. This earned them the hatred of the idealists and the religiously-inclined. A particularly spiteful campaign of calumny was directed against Epicurus, whose philosophical views were so distorted for centuries as to turn them into their exact opposite in the popular imagination. They were self-confessed atheists. There is no room for god in this view of the universe. Democritus found the cause of mutation and change in the nature of the atoms themselves, falling through the vacuum (the "void"), they impinge on one another, arranging themselves in different ways, like combining with like.

Through an endless series of different combinations, we get the constant changes which are everywhere to be seen in nature, and which give rise to the transitoriness of worldly things. There was an infinite number of worlds "born and dying," not created by god, but arising and being destroyed out of necessity, in accordance with natural laws. Knowledge of these things is derived mainly from sensory perception, but this gives us only a "dim" understanding of nature. It must be supplemented and transcended by "bright" reason, which leads to the cognition of the essence of things, the atoms and the void. The fundamental elements of a scientific materialist world outlook are all present in these few lines.

The philosophy of Democritus was further developed and deepened by Epicurus. Like his mentor, he explicitly denied the interference of the gods in the affairs of the world, basing himself on the eternity of matter, in a state of continual motion. However, he rejected the mechanistic determinism of Leucippus and Democritus, introducing the idea of a spontaneous (internally conditioned) "deviation" of the atoms from their course, in order to explain the possibility of collisions between atoms moving at equal speed through empty space. This was an important step forward, posing the dialectical relation between necessity and chance—one of the key theoretical questions over which modern physics is still wracking its brains, although the solution was found long ago by Hegel.

Epicurus’ theory of knowledge is based entirely on acceptance of the information given to us by the senses. All senses are "heralds of the true," nor is there anything that can refute the senses. Here his presentation, while starting from a correct assumption—I interpret the world through my senses—represents a step back in relation to Democritus. It is too one-sided. Sense perception is undoubtedly the basis of all knowledge, but it is necessary to know how to interpret correctly the information of the senses. That is what Heraclitus meant when he said that eyes and ears are bad witnesses to men who have barbarian souls. The narrow empirical approach invariably leads to errors. Thus, according to Cicero, Democritus thought that the sun was immensely large, whereas Epicurus believed it to be only about two feet in diameter. In other respects, however, Epicurus made some startling discoveries. Gassendi, who may be considered the father of modern atomism, praised Epicurus because, exclusively by reasoning, he showed the fact later demonstrated by experiment, that all bodies, irrespective of their mass and weight, have the same velocity when falling from above to below.

Lucretius on Religion

Epicurus and his followers declared war upon religion which feeds off men’s fear and ignorance. The first book of Lucretius’ great philosophical poem The Nature of the Universe contains what amounts to a materialist and atheist manifesto:

"When human life lay grovelling in all men’s sight, crushed to the earth under the dead weight of superstition whose grim features loured menacingly upon mortals from the four quarters of the sky, a man of Greece was first to raise mortal eyes in defiance, first to stand erect and brave the challenge. Fables of the gods did not crush him, nor the lightning flash and the growling menace of the sky. Rather, they quickened his manhood, so that he, first of all men, longed to smash the constraining locks of nature’s doors. The vital vigour of his mind prevailed. He ventured far out beyond the flaming ramparts of the world and voyaged in mind throughout infinity. Returning victorious, he proclaimed to us what can be and what cannot: how a limit is fixed to the power of everything and an immovable frontier post. Therefore superstition in its turn lies crushed beneath his feet, and we by his triumph are lifted level with the skies." (Lucretius, The Nature of the Universe, p. 29.)

Even here, the religious prejudices of the translator are apparent. He cannot bring himself to translate the word "religio" as religion, preferring to render it as "superstition." This, in 1951! The materialist philosophy of Epicurus made a big impact on the young Karl Marx, who chose it as the subject of his doctoral dissertation while at university. Marx considered that the Roman philosopher-poet Lucretius was "the only one in general of all the ancients who has understood Epicurean physics," who has written "a more profound exposition." ( Marx-Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 1, p. 48, referred to hereafter as the MECW.)

In the most striking poetic language, Lucretius defends the indestructibility of matter, the correct idea that matter can neither be created nor destroyed:

"This dread and darkness of the mind cannot be dispelled by the sunbeams, the shining shafts of day, but only by an understanding of the outward form and inner workings of nature. In tackling this theme, our starting-point will be this principle: Nothing can ever be created by divine power out of nothing. The reason why all mortals are so gripped by fear is that they see all sorts of things happening on the earth and in the sky with no discernible cause, and these they attribute to the will of a god. Accordingly, when we have seen that nothing can be created out of nothing, we shall then have a clearer picture of the path ahead, the problem of how things are created and ocassioned without the aid of the gods." (Lucretius, op, cit. p. )

The law of the conservation of energy, proved by Mayer, Joule, Helmholz and others in the mid-19th century shows that the total amount of energy neither disappears nor is created, when changing from one kind to another. This provides an unshakable basis for the materialist position that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. This idea is also brilliantly conveyed by Lucretius:

"The second great principle is this: nature resolves everything into its component atoms and never reduces anything to nothing. If anything were perishable in all its parts, anything might perish all of a sudden and vanish from sight. There would be no need of any force to separate its parts and loosen their links. In actual fact, since everything is composed of indestructible seeds, nature obviously does not allow anything to perish till it has encountered a force that shatters it with a blow or creeps into chinks and unknits it." (The Nature of the Universe, p. 33.)

The Epicurean world view maintains that the universe is infinite, and matter has no limit, either externally or internally:

"If there are no such least parts, even the smallest bodies will consist of an infinite number of parts, since they can always be halved and their halves halved again without limit. On this showing, what difference will there be between the whole universe and the very least of things? None at all. For, however endlessly infinite the universe may be, yet the smallest things will equally consist of an infinite number of parts. (ibid., p. 45.)

And: "Learn, therefore, that the universe is not bounded in any direction. If it were, it would necessarily have a limit somewhere. But clearly a thing cannot have a limit unless there is something outside to limit it, so that the eye can follow it up to a certain point but not beyond. Since you must admit that there is nothing outside the universe, it can have no limit and is accordingly without end or measure." (ibid., p. 55.)

If the scientists of our own century had had an equally sound philosophical outlook, we would have been spared the most glaring errors of method, such as the search for the "bricks of matter," the "big bang" with its finite universe, the "birth of time," the equally absurd "continuous creation of matter," and the like. In relation to time, Democritus stated that time had no origin, that it does not exist in itself, apart from the movement of things or things at rest. How infinitely more scientific than certain present-day physicists who talk about the alleged "beginning of time" 20 billion years ago! In their apparatus, they are more advanced, but in their mode of thinking, they are worlds behind the early materialists.

The consistent materialist outlook of Epicurus earned him the most venomous attacks of the Church from the earliest times. The apostle Paul specifically mentions them in the Acts of the Apostles, xvii, 18. In Dante’s time, the accusation of Epicureanism meant someone who denied the Holy Ghost and the immortality of the soul. In general, Epicurus is thought to have advocated an amoral and hedonistic philosophy, in which all manner of gluttony and licentiousness was permitted. All this is just a crude slander against Epicurus and his philosophy.

In terms of morality and ethics, the Epicurean philosophy represents one of the noblest products of the human spirit. It resembles the famous dictum of Spinoza: "Neither weep nor laugh, but understand." Epicurus sought to free humanity from fear, by promoting a clear understanding of nature, and man’s place in it. He asked himself what is the basis of all fear, and answered, the fear of death. His main aim was to eliminate this fear, by explaining that death is nothing for me in the present, for I am alive, and will be nothing to me in the future, since, after death, I can know nothing about it. Therefore, he enjoined men to set aside fear of death and live life to the full. This beautiful and humane philosophy has always been anathema to those who wish to direct the eyes of men and women away from the problems of the real world to an alleged world after death, which is supposed to reward or punish us according to our just deserts.

The accusation of grossness and hedonism against Epicurus stems from the vengeful attitude of the Christian apologists against a cheerful and life-enhancing philosophy—the exact opposite of their own. They sought to bury their enemy under a heap of slander. In fact, Epicurus, like Spinoza, identified the good with pleasure, or the absence of pain. He considered human relations from the point of view of utility, which finds its highest expression in friendship. In a period of great social turbulence and uncertainty, he preached withdrawal from the world, and a life of peaceful meditation. He recommended men to reduce their needs to a minimum, away from the world of strife, competition and war. This was, of course, an utopian idea, but it is nothing to do with the ugly and spiteful caricature put in circulation by the opponents of materialism. Epicurus remained true to his ideals on his deathbed, from where he wrote: "A happy day is this on which I write to you…The pains which I feel…could not be greater. But all of this is opposed by the happiness which the soul experiences, remembering our conversations of a bygone time."

The Rise of Idealism

The term "dialectics" comes from the Greek "dialektike," derived from "dialegomai," to converse, or discuss. Originally, it signified the art of discussion, which may be seen in its highest form in the Socratic dialogues of Plato. This was no accident, but flowed from the very nature of Athenian democracy, with its ample scope for oratory and debate in public assemblies. This gave rise to a new breed of public figures, professional teachers and speakers of all kinds, from courageous freethinkers and profound philosophers to unscrupulous demagogues.

The words "sophist" and "sophistry" to modern ears have a thoroughly disreputable ring about them, suggesting intellectual dishonesty, trickery and lies, masked by clever turns of phrase. That, indeed, was how sophism ended up. But it was not always so. In a way, they can be compared to the philosophers of the French Enlightenment in the 18th century. They were rationalists and freethinkers, who stood opposed to all existing dogmas and orthodoxy. Their maxim was "Doubt Everything." All existing things and ideas had to be subjected to the most far-reaching criticism. This undoubtedly contained a revolutionary and dialectical kernel. "On this new-found field now the Sophists disported, enjoying with boyish exuberance the exercise of the power of subjectivity, and destroying, by means of a subjective dialectic, all that had been ever objectively established." (Schwegler, History of Philosophy, p. 30.)

The activities of the sophists reflected life in Athens during the period of the Peloponesian war between Athens and Sparta. They were both scholars and practical men, the first ones to charge a fee for teaching. Plato remarks in the Republic that the doctrines of the Sophists express only the same principles which guided the practice of the multitude in their civil and social relations. The hate with which they were persecuted by the statesmen proves the jealousy with which the latter saw them. The sophists were attacked for saying that morality and truth were subjective concepts, which could be determined by anyone, according to his personal preferences and interests. But they were only saying what was already the established norm in practice. We see the same thing today. Professional politicians do not like to be reminded of the moral code which really operates in the corridors of power!

"Public life was becoming an arena of passion and self-seeking," writes Schwegler, "the party-strifes, which agitated Athens during the Peloponesian war, had blunted and stifled the moral sentiment; every one accustomed himself to set his own private interest above that of the state and of the common good, and to seek in his own self-will and his own advantage the standard of his action and the principle of his guidance. The axiom of Protagoras, man is the measure of all things, was in practice only all too truly followed, while the influence of rhetoric in public assemblies and decisions, the corruption of the masses and their leaders, the weak points which cupidity, vanity, and party-spirit betrayed to the crafty, offered only all too much occasion for its exercise.

"What was established, and had come down so, had lost its authority, political regulation appeared as arbitrary restriction, moral principle as a result of calculated political training, faith in the gods as human invention for the intimidation of free activity, piety as a statute of human origin which every man had a right to alter by the art of persuasion. This reduction of the necessity and universality of nature and reason to the contingency of mere human appointment, is mainly the point where the Sophists are in contact with the general consciousness of the cultivated classes of the time; and it is impossible to decide what share theory had here, and what practice; whether the Sophists only found practical life in a theoretical formula, or whether the social corruption was rather a consequence of the destructive influence which the Sophists exercised over the entire circle of the opinions of their contemporaries." (Schwegler, History of Philosophy, p. 31.)

The turbulence of the times, with constant changes, wars, destruction and unrest, found a reflection in the restless spirit of dialectical contradiction. The unsettling movement of thought, upsetting existing ideas mirrored the actual conditions of Greece at the time of the Peloponesian wars. Likewise, the need to win over the assembly or law-court by clever argument provided a material base for the rise of a generation of professional orators and dialecticians. But that is not to say that the initial content of sophism was determined by considerations of personal advantage or pecuniary gain, any more than was, say, Calvinism. But, given the prevailing social conditions, the later development of sophism was determined in advance.

The first generation of sophists were genuine philosophers, often identified with democratic politics and with a materialist understanding of nature. They were rationalists and encyclopaedists, just as their French equivalents in the decades before 1789. And in the same way, they were clever and witty, with an ability to deal with all sides of a problem. Protagoras was celebrated as a teacher of morals, Gorgias as a rhetorician and politician, Prodicus as a grammarian and etymologist, and Hippias as a polymath. They were to be found in all the professions and spheres of knowledge. But gradually the movement, which really never constituted a real school, began to degenerate. The wandering "wise man" going from town to town in search of good pay and a rich patron became a figure of contempt and ridicule.

The common feature of all the previous schools of thought examined here is their objectivity, the assumption that the validity of our ideas depends on the degree to which they correspond to objective reality, to the world outside us. The sophists broke entirely from this, advancing instead the position of philosophical subjectivity. This is well summed up in the celebrated phrase of Protagoras (481-411 B.C.), "Man is the measure of all things; of those which are, that they are; of those which are not, that they are not."

There is some dispute about the exact meaning of this phrase, which may also be put in a way which implies that Protagoras was a materialist, a view which fits in with a remark of Sextus Empiricus, to the effect that Protagoras said that "the main causes (‘logoses’) of all things are in matter." But there can be no doubt that the general trend of sophism was in the direction of extreme subjectivism. As a result of their withering attacks on existing beliefs and prejudices, they were regarded as subversives in conservative circles. Protagoras himself was expelled from Athens for atheism, and his book On the Gods was burnt.

Religious conviction and its philosophical counterpart, dogmatism, is not culture. Even Heraclitus, despite his great wisdom, was not free from a dogmatic and narrow cast of mind, as shown by the tone of his utterances. But no real progress is possible along this path. Sophism, therefore, at least in its first period, played a positive role in breaking down the old universal dogmas into their component parts and counterposing each of the parts to the others. There was a negative side, in that the isolated elements were open to be twisted and turned out of context, in a typically "sophist" way. Yet, as Hegel says, "A man of culture…knows how to say something of everything, to find points of view in all." (Hegel, History of Philosophy, Vol. 1, p. 356.) In fact, Hegel thought that the arguments of Protagoras in Plato’s dialogue of that name were superior to those of Socrates.

This kind of esprit (wit) is entirely foreign to the Anglo-Saxon tradition and mentality, which generally regards it with ill-concealed suspicion, and distaste. Yet, as Hegel, penetratingly observes, sophism marks the beginning of culture in the modern sense of the word. For culture presupposes a rational consideration of things and a choice.

"In fact, what is most striking in a man or people of culture is the art of speaking well, or of turning subjects round and considering them in many aspects. The uncultivated man finds it unpleasant to associate with people who know how to grasp and express every point of view with ease. The French are good speakers in this sense, and the Germans call their talking prattle; but it is not mere talk that brings about this result, for culture is also wanted. We may have mastered a speech quite completely, but if we have not culture, it is not good speaking. Men thus learn French, not only to be able to speak French well, but to acquire French culture. What is to be obtained from the Sophists is thus the power of keeping the manifold points of view present to the mind, so that the wealth of categories by which an object may be considered, immediately occurs to it." (Ibid., p. 359.)

Despite the disrepute in which sophism is supposed to be held nowadays, it is the true father of modern professional politics, law and diplomacy. We observe with tedious regularity how bourgeois politicians are prepared to defend with apparently total conviction, now one position, now precisely the opposite, adducing in either case the most impressive moral and practical arguments. The same procedure may be observed in the law courts any day of the week. And why bother the reader with a list of examples of the consummate lying, manoeuvring deceit practised by the diplomatic corps of every government in the world? These people have all the faults of the sophists and none of their virtues!

It is true that the sophists made a living out of their nimble wits and ability to argue for or against almost anything, as a lawyer argues for the defence or the prosecution, irrespective of the intrinsic rights and wrongs of the case (the verb "sophizesthai" meant "making a career by being clever"). They were the prototype of the smart lawyer and the professional politician. But they were much more than that. Even in the more morally questionable activities of the sophists, there was a real philosophical principle involved. As Hegel wittily observes:

"In the worst action there exists a point of view which is essentially real; if this is brought to the front, men excuse and vindicate the action…A man does not require to make great progress in his education to have good reasons ready for his worst actions; all that has happened in the world since the time of Adam has been justified by some good reason." (Ibid., p. 369.)

The basic idea which underlies the dialectic of sophism is that truth is many-sided. This is an extremely important truth, and fundamental to the dialectical method in general. The difference lies in the use to which it is put. Scientific, objective dialectics strives to grasp every phenomenon in an all-round manner. Subjective dialectics, the dialectic of sophism, takes one or another aspect of the whole, and counterposes it to the rest. In this way, it is possible to deny the whole by insisting on the part, which, in itself, is perfectly sound. This is the method of the legal charlatan, the eclectic, and also, in a cruder way, of "common sense," which makes arbitrary assumptions based upon particulars.

They tried to use the arguments of Zeno and Heraclitus to justify their views, but did so in a negative and one-sided way. For example, Heraclitus had said that it is impossible to step in the same stream twice. One of his disciples went further, saying that you could not even step into it once! This, however, is false. The idea of Heraclitus was that everything is and is not, because everything is in flux, constantly changing. The second view merely takes one half of the equation—that everything is not. This is not at all what Heraclitus meant. The objective world certainly exists, but it is in a permanent process of motion, development and change, in which nothing remains as it was before.

The sophists were sceptics. "As to the gods," wrote Protagoras, "I am unable to say whether they are or are not; for there is much which prevents this knowledge, both in the obscurity of the matter, and in the life of man which is so short." That sentence got him banished from Athens. The fundamental difference with the earlier philosophy is the subjective character of the sophist outlook. "Man is the measure of all things." This statement may be taken in two ways, practical and theoretical. In the first sense, it can be taken as a defence of egotism, self-interest, and the like. In the second sense, it represents a theory of knowledge (epistemology) which is subjective. Man counterposes himself to the objective world, and, at least in his imagination, subjects it to himself. His own reason decides what is what. The essential thing is not what is, but how I see it. This is the basis of all forms of subjective idealism, from Protagoras to Bishop Berkeley, from Kant to Werner Heisenberg.

Basically, the subjective idealist claims that the world is unknowable. We can have no real grasp of the truth, but only opinions, based on subjective criteria. "The truth?" asked Pontius Pilate ironically, "What is the truth?" That is the language of the cynical politician and bureaucrat, who hides his self-interest behind a thin veneer of "cultured" sophistry. Philosophically speaking, however, it is an expression of subjective idealism, which denies the possibility of really knowing the world outside us. This outlook was most clearly expressed by one of the most famous sophists, Gorgias of Leontini (483-375 B.C.), who wrote a provocatively-titled book—On Nature, or On That Which Is Not. The title already says it all. Gorgias based himself on three propositions: a) nothing is real, b) if anything were real, it could not be known, and c) if it could be known, it could not be expressed.

Such opinions seem absurd. Yet they have repeatedly surfaced in the history of philosophy in different forms, including in our own times, when even respected scientists can permit themselves to assert that humans cannot comprehend the quantum world of sub-atomic particles, and that photons and electrons only materialise in a given spot when they are observed by someone; that is, the observer creates his result through the subjective act of observation. Here we once again depart from the world of objectivity, and return, through the tradesman’s entrance of subjective idealism, to the realms of religious mysticism.

The present-day scientists who advocate such views have far less excuse than the sophists, who were the children of their time. The early attempts to find a rational explanation for the processes of nature had reached a point where they could not be taken any further by thought alone. The thinkers of that period arrived at a series of brilliant generalisations about the nature of the universe. But in order to test them and develop them further, it was necessary to examine them in detail, to break them down into their component parts, to analyse them one by one. This work was started by the sophists, and later put on a more rigorous basis by Aristotle. The heroic period of great generalisations gradually gave way to the slow and painstaking accumulation of facts, experiment and observation. Only in this way could the truth or falsehood of the different hypotheses be finally demonstrated. Before we reach this stage, however, we come to the high point of classical philosophical idealism.

Socrates and Plato

By subordinating the objective world to subjectivity, the sophists had stripped it of all inherent law and necessity. The sole source of order, rationality and causation was the perceiving subject. Everything was declared to be relative. For example, they held that morality and social conduct was determined by convenience (a similar view is held by the Pragmatists, a philosophy which enjoyed a lot of support in the United States, and which fits in nicely with the need to make morality compatible with the ethics of the "free enterprise" jungle). Thrasymachus of Chalcedon in the late 5th century B.C. openly declared that "right is what is beneficial for the stronger or better one."

This was another period of war, revolution and counterrevolution. In 411 B. C., after a hundred years of slave-owning democracy, there was a revolution in Athens, followed by a counter-coup two years later. There followed a disastrous war with Sparta, which imposed the rule of the "Thirty Tyrants," under which numerous atrocities were perpetrated by the aristocratic party in power. But by 399 B. C., the Thirty had been overthrown, and Socrates, who had the misfortune to have had several of them as his pupils and friends, was put on trial and sentenced to death.

Socrates (469-399 B.C.) was regarded by his contemporaries as a sophist, although he did not teach for money. Though he wrote nothing—his ideas have come down to us through the writings of Plato and Aristotle—he had a huge influence on the development of philosophy. His origins were humble; he was the son of a stonemason and a midwife. The motive force of his life was a burning desire to get at the truth, tearing aside all pretences and sophistry by a relentless process of question and answer. It is said that, in his attempt to get people to think about universal principles, he went about the workplaces of artisans and merchants, as well as the haunts of sophists and youths, subjecting all to the same procedure.

The method was always the same: setting out from a particular idea or opinion, usually derived from the concrete experiences and problems of life of the person involved, he would, step by step, by a rigorous process of argument, bring to light the inner contradictions contained on the original proposition, show its limitations, and take the discussion to a higher level, involving an entirely different proposition. This is the dialectic of discussion in its classical form. An initial argument (thesis) is advanced. This is answered by a contrary argument (antithesis). Finally, after examining the question thoroughly, dissecting it to reveal its inner contradictions, we arrive at a conclusion on a higher level (synthesis). This may or may not mean that the two sides reach agreement. But in the very process of developing the discussion itself, the understanding of both sides is deepened, and the discussion proceeds from a lower to a higher level.

The same dialectical process of the development of thought through contradiction can be seen in the history of science and philosophy. It was graphically expressed by Hegel in the Preface to his pioneering work The Phenomenology of Mind:

"The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant’s existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. These stages are not merely differentiated; they supplant one another as being incompatible with one another. But the ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes them at the same time moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other; and this equal necessity of all moments constitutes alone and thereby the like of the whole." (Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, p. 68.)

It is possible to say that in the Socratic dialogues we do not find a worked out exposition of dialectics, but we do find many important examples of the dialectical method in action. The celebrated Socratic irony, for example, is not just a stylistic trick, but a reflection of the dialectic itself. Socrates wished to make other people become aware of the contradictions underlying their own ideas, beliefs and prejudices. From each definite proposition, he deduced as a direct result, the exact opposite of what the proposition stated. Instead of merely attacking his opponents’ ideas, he would put them in a position where they themselves would draw the opposite conclusion. This is precisely the basis of irony, not just here, but in general. This dialectic of discussion is an art which was perfected by Socrates. He himself likens it to the art of midwifery, which he jokingly claimed to have learnt from his mother. It is, to quote Hegel, "the assisting into the world of the thought which is already contained in the consciousness of the individual—the showing from the concrete, unreflected consciousness, the universality of the concrete, or from the universally posited, the opposite which is already in it." (Hegel, History of Philosophy, Vol. 1, p. 402.)

In just the same way, the task of Marxists is not to introduce into the working class a socialist consciousness "from without," as some have imagined, but to proceed from the existing state of awareness of the class, and show concretely, step by step, how the problems which workers face can only be resolved by a radical transformation of society. It is not a question of preaching from without, but of making conscious the unconscious aspiration of working people to change society. The difference is that this process is not brought to fruition exclusively in the debating chamber, but by practical activity, struggle and the experience of the class itself. The problem, nevertheless, remains essentially the same: how to break down existing prejudices and get people to see the contradictions present, not only in their heads, but in the world in which they live—to get them to see things as they really are, not as they imagine them to be.

Socrates would begin with the most self-evident, everyday, even trivial facts given to us by our senses. Then he would compare these with other facts, proceeding from one detail to the next, and in this way, gradually eliminating all accidental and secondary aspects, until, finally, we are brought face to face with the essence of the question. This is the method of induction, proceeding from the particular to the universal, a most important method for the development of science. Aristotle explicitly credits Socrates with the invention (or, at least, perfection) of the method of induction and logical definitions which are closely related to it.

The search for the general which lies hidden within the particular is one of the most important aspects of the development of human thought in general. Starting with elementary sense perception which registers individual facts and circumstances, the human mind begins slowly and painfully to abstract from these particulars, discarding the inessential, until it finally arrives at a series of more or less abstract generalisations. Though these "universals" have no existence separate and apart from the particular things that embody them, they nonetheless represent the essential being of things, expressing a far truer and deeper truth than the particular. The progress of human thought in general is closely related to the ability to generalise on the basis of experience, and to arrive at abstract ideas which correspond to the nature of reality.

In his autobiography, Trotsky touches on this question:

"Later, the feeling of the supremacy of the general over the particular became an integral part of my literary and political work. The dull empiricism, the unashamed cringing worship of the fact which is so often only imaginary, and falsely interpreted at that were odious to me. Beyond the facts, I looked for laws. Naturally, this led me more than once into hasty and incorrect generalisations, especially in my younger years, when my knowledge, book-acquired, and my experience in life were still inadequate. But in every sphere, barring none, I felt that I could move and act only when I held in my hand the thread of the general." (Trotsky, My Life, p. 88.)

The aim of Socrates was to proceed, by means of logical argumentation, from the particular to the general, to arrive at the "universal." For him, this was no longer a question of getting to the most general laws governing nature, as was the case with earlier Greek philosophers, but rather of man examining himself, his own nature, his thought and actions. The philosophy of Socrates is not the philosophy of nature but the philosophy of society, above all of ethics and morality. His favourite subject is "What is the Good?" In reality, this question can only be answered concretely, with reference to the historical development of society, since there is no such thing as a supra-historical morality. This can be seen clearly in the case of ancient Greece, where the very language betrays the historical relativity of morality. The Greek word for goodness "arete," like its Latin equivalent, "virtus" (from which we get the English "virtue") originally meant something like combative manliness. As J. D. Bernal points out: "It took a long time to soften into the ideal of citizenship and still longer to Christian submissiveness." (J. D. Bernal, op. cit., p. 135.)

Nonetheless, what is important is not the subject matter of these dialogues, but the method. This really represents the birth of logic, which was originally the handling of words (Greek "logoi"). Thus, logic and dialectics were originally the same—a technique for getting at the truth. The method involved breaking up concepts into their constituent parts, revealing their inner contradictions, and putting them back together again. It was a dynamic process, with even a certain element of drama and surprise. The first reaction to the discovery of a fundamental contradiction in previously held ideas is one of surprise. For example, the idea that motion implies being and not being in the same place at the same time. The dialectic constantly challenges what appeared at first sight to be unquestionable. It shows the limitations of vulgar thinking, "common sense" and superficial appeals to the "facts," which, as Trotsky rightly remarked, are "so often imaginary, and falsely interpreted."

The task of going beyond the particular, of breaking down the information provided by our eyes and ears, and arriving at abstract generalisations lies at the root of the development and growth of human thought, not only in a historical sense, but in the evolution of every individual in the arduous struggle to pass from childhood to conscious maturity. In the writings of Plato (428-348 B.C.) the search for the general, the "universal," becomes the central issue of philosophy to the exclusion of all else, one might say almost an obsession. In these works, profound thoughts, a brilliant style and some masterly examples of the dialectic of discussion are mixed up with the most blatant and mystifying idealism ever produced by the human mind.

For Plato, the universals of thought, for example, the idea of a circle, had an independent existence, separate and apart from particular round objects. From a materialist stand point, as we have seen, the idea of a circle was originally derived from the observation of round objects over a long period of time. Not so, says Plato. If one looks at any example of a round object, for instance the plate on this table, it will be seen to be imperfect. It is therefore only a poor copy of the perfect circle that existed before the world began. For a class of wealthy intellectuals, used to working only with thoughts and words, it was logical that these should appear to them to be endowed with a life and a power of their own:

"The emphasis on the discussion of words and their true meanings tended to give to words a reality independent of the things and actions to which they referred. Because there is a word for beauty, beauty itself must be real. Indeed it must be more real than any beautiful thing. This is because no beautiful thing is altogether beautiful, and so whether it is beautiful or not is a matter of opinion, whereas beauty contains nothing but itself and must exist independently of anything in this changing and imperfect material world. The same logic applies to concrete things: a stone in general must be more real than any particular stone." (Bernal, op. cit., p. 138.)

Plato’s Idealism

In his work Phaedo, Plato develops this idea in a consistent way. If we ask what the cause of a thing is, we end up with its essence—the Greek word is "eidos," which can be variously translated as form or idea, although Aristotle interprets it as "species," which is obviously preferable from a materialist standpoint. To go back to our dinner-plate. What makes it round? or—to use Platonic language—What is the cause of its roundness? One might answer, that it was caused by a potter rotating a lump of clay on a wheel and moulding it with his hand. But for Plato, the plate, like all other crude material objects, is merely an imperfect manifestation of the Idea, which, put in plain language, is God.

Plato’s theory of knowledge, which Aristotle says is different from that of Socrates, was based on the idea that the object of knowledge must be permanent, eternal, and since nothing under the sun is permanent, we must seek stable knowledge outside this fleeting and deceitful world of material things. When Diogenes ridiculed the theory of Ideas, by saying he could see the cup, but not "cupness," Plato retorted that that was because he had eyes to see, but no intellect. And it is true that merely to base oneself on sense-perception is not enough. It is necessary to go from the particular to the universal. The fundamental flaw here is to think that the generalisations of the intellect can stand on their own, divorced from, and counterposed to, the material world from which, ultimately, they are derived.

Marx and Engels in The Holy Family explained: in the philosophy of Idealism, the real relations between thought and being are stood on their head, "for the absolute idealist, in order to be an absolute idealist, must necessarily constantly go through the sophistical process of first transforming the world outside himself into an appearance, a mere fancy of his brain, and afterwards declaring this fantasy to be what it really is, i.e., a mere fantasy, so as finally to be able to proclaim his sole, exclusive existence, which is no longer disturbed even by the semblance of an external world." (MECW, Vol. 4, p. 140.)

The sophistical trick whereby this is done was wittily explained in the same work:

"If from real apples, pears, strawberries and almonds I form the general idea ‘Fruit,’ if I go further and imagine that my abstract idea ‘Fruit,’ derived from real fruit, is an entity existing outside me, is indeed the true essence of the pear, the apple, etc., then—in the language of speculative philosophy—I am declaring that ‘Fruit’ is the ‘Substance’ of the pear, the apple, the almond, etc. I am saying, therefore, that to be a pear is not essential to the pear, that to be an apple is not essential to the apple; that what is essential to these things is not their real existence, perceptible to the senses, but the essence that I have abstracted from them and then foisted on them, the essence of my idea—’Fruit.’ I therefore declare apples, pears, almonds, etc., to be mere forms of existence, modi, of ‘Fruit.’ My finite understanding supported by my senses does of course distinguish an apple from a pear and a pear from an almond, but my speculative reason declares these sensuous differences inessential and irrelevant. It sees in the apple the same as in the pear, and in the pear the same as in the almond, namely ‘Fruit.’ Particular real fruits are no more than semblances whose true essence is ‘the substance’—’Fruit.’ (Ibid, pp. 57-8.)

Far from advancing the cause of human understanding, the idealist method does not take us a single step forward. Only a study of the real, that is to say, material world, can deepen our understanding of nature and our place in it. By directing men’s eyes away from "crude" material things towards the realm of so-called "pure" abstraction, the idealists played havoc with the development of science for centuries. "By this method one attains no particular wealth of definition. The mineralogist whose science was limited to the statement that all minerals are really ‘the Mineral’ would be a mineralogist only in his imagination. For every mineral the speculative mineralogist says ‘the Mineral,’ and his science is reduced to repeating this word as many times as there are real minerals." (Ibid.)

As opposed to the earlier Greek philosophers, who were generally materialists, and set out from a study of nature, Plato consciously turned his back on the world of the senses. Not experiment and observation, but only pure deduction and mathematics was the road to truth. Above the entrance of his Academy in Athens he placed the inscription: "Let no man destitute of geometry enter my doors." Plato encouraged his students, for example, to study the stars, not as they are, but as they ought to be. Following in the footsteps of the Pythagoreans, he alleged that the planets showed their divine nature by their eternally unchanging orbits, the perfect regularity of their circular motion being an expression of the harmony of the universe. This cosmology, together with that of Aristotle, his great successor, held back the development of astronomy for 2,000 years. It represented a retreat from science to Pythagorean mysticism. Thus, in an Alexandrian hand-book on astronomy written by Geminus, we read:

"There underlies the whole science of astronomy,…the assumption that the sun and the moon and the five planets move at even speeds in perfect circles in an opposite direction to the cosmos. It was the Pythagoreans, the first to approach these questions, who laid down the hypothesis of a circular and uniform motion for the sun, moon, and planets. Their view was that, in regard of divine and eternal beings, a supposition of such disorder as that these bodies should move now more quickly and now more slowly, or should even stop, as in what are called the stations of the planets, is inadmissible. Even in the human sphere such irregularity is incompatible with the orderly procedure of a gentleman. And even if the crude necessities of life often impose upon men occasions of haste or loitering, it is not to be supposed that such occasions inhere in the incorruptible nature of the stars. For this reason they defined their problem as the explanation of the phenomena on the hypothesis of circular and uniform motion." (Farrington, Greek Science, pp. 95-6.)

Kepler discovered that the planets moved, not in circles, but in ellipses. Even this was not completely true, as Newton later showed. The ellipses are not perfect, either. But for the previous two millennia, the idealist picture of the universe held the force of an unchallengeable dogma. For much of that time it was backed by the formidable power of the Church.

It is significant that the ideas of Plato were known in the Middle Ages through only one work, the Timaeus, his worst book. This represents a complete counter-revolution in philosophy. From Thales on, Greek philosophy was characterised by an attempt to explain the world in natural terms, without recourse to the gods or any supernatural phenomena. The Timaeus is not a work of philosophy but a religious tract. Here we see a revival of "all the old crap," as Marx once put it. It is, in effect, the revival of the old creation myth. The world was created by a Supreme Craftsman. Matter consists of triangles because solids are bounded by planes, and planes can be resolved into triangles. The world is spherical and moves in circles because the circle is the most perfect form. Men who live badly are reborn as women in the next reincarnation, and so on and so forth.

In a passage strikingly similar to some of the statements of the present-day defenders of the "big bang," Plato writes about the "beginning of time":

"Time, then, and the heaven came into being at the same instant in order that, having been created together, if ever there was to be a dissolution of them, they might be dissolved together. It was framed after the pattern of the eternal nature, that it might resemble this as far as was possible; for the pattern exists from eternity, and the created heaven has been, and is, and will be, in all time. Such was the mind and thought of God in the creation of time." (The Dialogues of Plato, Jowett’s edition, Vol. 3, Timaeus, p. 242.) No wonder the Christian Church welcomed this with open arms!

Despite its dialectical side, the Platonic philosophy is essentially a conservative one, reflecting the world outlook of an aristocratic elite, who felt, correctly, that their world was crumbling about them. The urge to turn one’s back on reality, to deny the evidence of one’s senses, to cling to some kind of stability in the midst of turbulence and upheaval, to deny change, all this clearly corresponded to a powerful psychological and moral need.

www.marxist.comWorkers International LeagueHands Off Venezuela!