On the Nature of Marx’s Things

  • Jacques Lezra
Part of the The New Antiquity book series (NANT)


“It goes without saying that but little use can be made of Lucretius” [Es versteht sich, dass Lucretius nur wenig benutzt werden kann].1 So, by way of preface or prophylaxis, opens the fourth of Marx’s Notebooks on Epicurean Philosophy, composed around 1839 as Marx was preparing his doctoral dissertation. A long list of citations from De Rerum Natura (DRN) follows, and then Lucretius is put to use—as Plutarch’s antagonist, in the long battle over the Epicurean tradition. In these early, informal notes by a young dissertator the reception of Lucretius hangs in the balance; what Althusser refers to as an “underground current” of the materialism of the encounter surfaces and is soon, over the course of the next 15 years, rechanneled or resubmerged.2 An account of mediation at odds with the mechanics, the economics, of use presents itself here, to be translated, never entirely successfully, first into the great Hegelian lexicon that the young Marx and his preceptors were unfolding, then into the languages of political economy. What sorts of use can be made of a thing? In what respects is Lucretius something to be used?


Nicomachean Ethic Middle Path Moral Disposition Philosophical Text Universal Force 
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  1. 1.
    Karl Marx, Notebooks on Epicurean Philosophy, in Marx/Engels Collected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1927), vol. 1. The German is from Epikureische Philosophie, in Marx-Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1968), B. 40, 145. Marx reads Lucretius in the 1801 Lepizig edition, De rerum natura libri sex, ed. H. C. A. Eichstädt (Leipzig: Wolf, 1801), which was based on Gilbert Wakefield, Richard Bentley, and Roscoe Pound, eds., Lucretii Cari De rerum natura libros sex, ad exemplarium mss. fidem recensitos, longe emendatiores reddidit (London: A. Hamilton, 1796).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Louis Althusser, Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978–87, ed. François Matheron and Oliver Corpet, trans. G. M. Goshgarian (New York: Verso, 2006).Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    For the Latin text, see Lucretius, Titi Lucreti Cari De Rerum Natura Libri Sex, 3 vols., ed. Cyril Bailey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1947). English translations of Lucretius are generally taken from De Rerum Natura, trans. W. H. D. Rouse, trans. revised Martin Ferguson Smith (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), with occasional modifications.Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    “Materialism is the born son of Britain. Even one of his great schoolmen, Duns Scotus, asked himself ‘whether matter cannot think.’ In performing this wonder, Duns had recourse to God’s omnipotence, that is, he made theology itself preach materialism. He was, moreover, Nominalist. Nominalism is one of the main elements of the English materialists, as it is indeed the first expression of materialism in Christian Europe.” [“Um dies Wunder zu bewerkstelligen, nahm er zu Gottes Allmacht seine Zuflucht, d.h. er zwang die Theologie selbst, den Materialismus zu predigen. Er war überdem Nominalist. Der Nominalismus findet sich als ein Hauptelement bei den englischen Materialisten, wie er überhaupt der erste Ausdruck des Materialismus ist.”] “England and Materialist Philosophy,” in “Further Selection from the Literary Remains of Karl Marx,” trans. and annotated by Max Beer, Labour Monthly (August 1923): 105–13; Aus dem literarischen nachlass von Marx und Engels, ed. F. Mehring, vol. 2 (Stuttgart: J. H. W. Dietz, 1902), 225–40.Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    G. W. F. Hegel, The Science of Logic, trans. A. V. Miller (London: Allen & Unwin, 1969), 369. At the time when Marx is writing, the question of declinatio has an additional value, inasmuch as the categorical jump from quantity to quality we find in Hegel also echoes the leap or jump of faith that becomes requisite in the so-called Spinozastreit, in Jacobi, Mendelssohn, and others. The differences with Lucretius are notable; the most important for my purposes is the voluntarist register into which Jacobi translates what in Lucretius, and even in Leibniz, is a condition of matter and of statements regarding matter.Google Scholar
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    Karl Marx, The Holy Family, in Marx/Engels Collected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1927), vol. 4, 128.Google Scholar
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    Jakob Böhme, as cited in Ludwig Feuerbach’s Geschichte der neuern Philosophie von Bacon von Verulam bis Benedict Spinoza, Ansbach, 1833, S. 161. Böhme’s work has recently been enlisted in the service of philosophical environmentalism; see, for example, Joel Kovel, “A Materialism Worthy of Nature,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 12:2 (2001): 73–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 16.
    For comments about Marx’s translation of declinatio as ausbeugen, see Carl Schmitt, Frieden oder Pazifismus?: Arbeiten zum Völkerrecht und zur internationalen Politik 1924–1978, ed. Günter Maschke (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2005), 934.Google Scholar
  9. 17.
    For Lucretius’s use of military analogies in this part of the poem, see Phillip De Lacy, “Distant Views: The Imagery of Lucretius 2,” in Oxford Readings in Lucretius, ed. Monica R. Gale (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), esp. 148–53.Google Scholar
  10. 18.
    Marx, Notebooks, 472; Epikureische, 154. The edition that Marx uses draws a comparison between this verse and Seneca’s Natural questions 5.1.2, “quod ex hoc intellegas licet: cum sol in aliquem clusum locum infusus est, uidemus corpuscula minima in diuersum ferri” (Seneca, Natural Questions, Books 4–7, trans. Thomas H. Corcoran [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972]). The difference with Lucretius’s verses is striking. For a comprehensive discussion of this section of the poem, see Don Fowler, Lucretius on Atomic Motion: A Commentary on De Rerum Natura 2.1–332 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 195.Google Scholar
  11. 19.
    Paul Friedländer, “Pattern of Sound and Atomistic Theory in Lucretius,” The American Journal of Philology 62:1 (1941): 16–34. I cite from pp. 27–28. For Memmius’s role in the poem, see Gavin. B. Townend, “The Fading of Memmius,” The Classical Quarterly, New Series, 28:2 (1978): 267–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    P. Ovidi Nasonis Metamorphoses, ed. Richard J. Tarrant (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).Google Scholar
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    Marx and Engels, Werke, supplementary volume (Ergänzungsband) (Berlin: Dieter Verlag, 1968), 154.Google Scholar

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© Jacques Lezra 2016

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