Thursday, 15 May 2014

Critiquing Timpanaro’s Concept of Hedonism vis-à-vis Materialism - PART I

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya

Sebastiano Timpanaro believed that ‘the agreement between materialism and Leopardian pessimism had its basis in hedonism; and hedonism is the basis of all scientific systems of ethics’ (On Materialism p.66). I have already critiqued Timpanaro’s concept of ‘materialist pessimism’ (Psyche and Society 11: 2 December 2013, 7-15). Let us now turn to the issue of hedonism1 vis-à-vis materialism, particularly Marxism.

Like optimism and pessimism, hedonism and asceticism or, in today’s terms, consumerism and abstinence/self-denial, do not normally appear in the studies of Marxism; nor has Terry Eagleton in his recent delightful work, Why Marx was Right (2011) included it as a query to be answered.2 Similarly, authors concentrating on Marxist morality, and, for that matter, the ethical foundations of Marxism, generally do not seem to be concerned with the issues that Timpanaro raises.3 Yet the issues themselves are not of a trifling nature; they do demand a new look. It is all the more necessary to review the matter, because Timpanaro does not refer to Marxism alone but to materialism as a whole. Therefore a brief historical overview of hedonism vis-à-vis materialism is called for.


Materialism appeared in the west in the sixth/fifth century BCE with the advent of ‘the first philosophers’ (Engels DN p.186, George Thomson 1955) in Greece. They have been given a collective title: ‘the Presocratics.’ The contributions of Democritus (460-370 BCE), Heraclitus (530-470 BCE), and the much-maligned post-Socratic philosopher, Epicurus (c.341-270 BCE) were highly appreciated by Marx (MECW 1: 25-76), Engels (AD p.401, DN pp.44, 186­90), and Lenin (CW 38: 267-70, 282, 291-297, 334, 346, etc.), all owing much to Hegel’s History of Philosophy. What attracted them most was their philosophy of nature, because it was totally materialistic. Epicurus has generally been labelled by some later writers as a thorough-going hedonist or eudaemonianist. Horace (65-08 BCE), the Latin poet, for example, invites a friend: ‘When you want to smile then visit me: sleek, and fat I’m a hog, well cared-for, one of Epicurus’ herd’ (Epistle 1.4.16). Many modern European languages (I know of English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish) have such words as Epicure, Epicurean or other derivatives from Epicurus to suggest a gastronome, connoisseur of good food and wine, and the like: in short, a person devoted to utter sensualism. In spite of specific denials issued by the historians of philosophy and contributors to the philosophical dictionaries and encyclopedias (for some such examples, see R. Bhattacharya 2009/2011 pp.30, 124-26; 2010c p.21) this prejudice against the materialists dies hard. It is all due to the bad name given to Epicurus by Horace, the medieval Christian Church authorities, and others of the same ilk. Apparently they knew nothing about Epicurus’ philosophical views either of nature (atomism) or of humans (rational and discriminating attitude towards life).4 Such ignorance, however, did not prevent the fideists from slandering Epicurus and by implication materialism as such.5

The same kind of calumny has been directed against Carvaka, reputed to be the founder of a materialist system of philosophy in India in or around the eighth century CE. A verse has been attributed to him (or to the supposed founder of the materialist system, Brihaspati) which urges people to live happily, for nothing is beyond the ken of death; once the body is reduced to ashes, there is no return. Sayana-Madhava, a fourteenth-century south-Indian doxographer, distorted a part of this verse by substituting ‘nothing is beyond the ken of death’ by ‘consume clarified butter7 even by incurring debt’ (See Bhattacharya 2009/2011 p.201-06). This unwarranted removal of a clause and its replacement by a plea for crude self-indulgence by any means, fair or foul, has proved to be highly effective. Even those who do not know the ABC of philosophy, whether of the idealist or of the materialist variety, think that the quintessence of the Carvaka/Lokayata system is encapsulated in that gross counsel, ‘Consume clarified butter even by incurring debt’ (rinam kritva ghritam pibet.)

Since all the works of all the materialist systems of India before the Carvaka, such as the early Lokayata and bhutavada (mentioned in the Tamil epic Manimekalai (composed between the fourth century and the seventh century CE) and those of the Carvaka system itself (the base text, the commentaries or any explicatory work of any kind), are lost to us up till now, no defence put forward by the Pre-Carvakas or the Carvakas is known (For sources, etc. see R. Bhattacharya 2013a). But as regards Epicurus, even though almost all his writings are lost, a crystal-clear explanation concerning what he meant by ‘living happily’ is contained in a letter to a friend, which has fortunately come down to us. He says:
‘When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or wilful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. [131] It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of revelry, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life ; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul. Of all this the beginning and the greatest good is prudence. Wherefore prudence is a more precious thing even than philosophy; from it spring all the other virtues, for it teaches that we cannot lead a life of pleasure which is not also a life of prudence, honour, and justice ; nor lead a life of prudence, honour, and justice, which is not also a life of pleasure. For the virtues have grown into one with a pleasant life, and a pleasant life is inseparable from them. (Letter to Menocoeus, in: Diogenes Laertius, 10.131-32)’
Hedonism in popular use means not only indulgence in food and drinks but also Casanova-like licentiousness. This kind of willful misunderstanding and hence conscious misrepresentation is not altogether new. Going back to the fourth century BCE, we find Aristophanes, the Greek comedian, in his play Ekklesizousai (c.390 BCE, variously translated as The Assemblywomen, Congresswomen, Women in Parliament, Women Seize the Reins, etc.), making fun of the idea of having everything in common, including women. Any satire is expected to exaggerate the object that is being held up for ridicule. Such a depiction therefore is only to be expected in a satirical Aristophanic comedy. But it is not to be taken as a truthful representation of what such ancient Greek egalitarianists actually proposed.6

The picture in medieval India was no different. Krishnamishra (c. eleventh century) in his allegorical play, Prabodha-candrodaya (The rising of the moon of Intellect), makes Carvaka say:
‘Where is the embrace of the long-eyed ones, the embrace pressing the shoulder with one’s arms and which is pleasing because of the prominent breasts compressed, and where is begging, fasting, penance, exposure to the burning heat of the sun which emaciate the body of these fools.’ (2.22 p.43. For a different translation, see C/L, p.346)’
Sayana-Madhava in his chapter on the Carvaka philosophy (chap.1) quotes the verse that follows in this play:
‘The pleasure which arises to men from contact with sensible objects, Is to be relinquished as accompanied by pain – such is the reasoning of fools; The berries of paddy, rich with the finest white grains, What man, seeking his true interest would fling away because these are covered with husk and dust.’ (2.23 p.43; C/L p.249. For a different translation, see C/L, p.346)
In more recent times, socialists and communists have been similarly attacked for advocating ‘free love,’ promoting freedom of women from all social constraints, and abolishing such sanctimonious institutions as marriage, family, etc. Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto lashed out against this unjust charge:

‘Abolition [Aufhebung] of the family! Even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists…

‘On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form, this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution…

The bourgeois family will vanish as a matter of course when its complement vanishes, and both will vanish with the vanishing of capital…

The bourgeois sees his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to the women…

He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production…

For the rest, nothing is more ridiculous than the virtuous indignation of our bourgeois at the community of women which, they pretend, is to be openly and officially established by the Communists. The Communists have no need to introduce community of women; it has existed almost from time immemorial.’ (Moscow ed. pp. 77-78)

All this does not signify hedonism of any kind, neither in relation to food and drinks, nor to man-woman relationship. In fact young Marx and Engels had already taken their stand vis-à­vis hedonism, as evidenced in German Ideology. They stated their view in no ambiguous terms:
‘The philosophy which preaches enjoyment is as old in Europe as the Cyrenaic school [see note 1 below]. Just as in antiquity it was the Greeks who were the protagonists of this philosophy, so in modern times it is the French, and indeed for the same reason, because their temperament and their society made them most capable of enjoyment. The philosophy of enjoyment was never anything but the clever language of certain social circles who (sic) had the privilege of enjoyment. Apart from the fact that the manner and content of their enjoyment was always determined by the whole structure of the rest of society and suffered from all its contradictions, this philosophy became a mere phrase as soon as it began to lay claim to a universal character and proclaimed itself the outlook on life of society as a whole. It sank then to the level of edifying moralising, to a sophistical palliation of existing society, or it was transformed into its opposite, by declaring compulsory asceticism to be enjoyment.’ (GI pp.469-70).
Marx and Engels, not to speak of Lenin and his successors, did not deal with the question of materialism vis-à-vis hedonism in their later writings. As shown above, Marx and Engels had made up their mind about this in their early phase, when they were engaged in the exercise of ‘self-clarification’.6 Yet Timpanaro states almost as an established fact that hedonism is as much a part of materialism as pessimism. This is an example of blatant revisionism in the domain of philosophy. However, in order to refute Timpanaro’s claim, we need to study the development of Marx-Engels’ approach through the stages they underwent in formulating their approach to human life and its goals. Let us examine the case against the backdrop of the development of Marx’s and Engels’s outlook in this regard from EPM (Economical and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, also known and often referred to as ‘Paris Manuscripts’), through GI (The German Ideology, 1845-46), to CM (Communist Manifesto, 1847-48).


To the readers: Quotations from some sources, more particularly from the works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, unless otherwise mentioned, are taken from the texts available in the Marxist Internet Archive. For facilitating references and locating the exact place, the page numbers in the print versions are also given, although the translations will vary to some extent.

  1. In order to have a general understanding of hedonism as a technical, philosophical term, see ‘Aristippus of Cyrene (c. 435-350 BC),’ ‘Cyrenaics,’ and ‘hedonism’ in Blackburn (or any other dictionary/encyclopedia of western philosophy). See also Shields, and Tännsjö.
  2. See, for instance, Bottomore and others (eds.). There is no article on hedonism and no reference to it in the article on ethics. See also Eagleton.
  3. See the works by Ash, Kamenka, and Sayers, devoted exclusively to the place of ethics in Marxism.
  4. It is interesting to note that, while almost all the Presocratic and post-Socratic philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero are placed in the first circle of Dante’s Inferno (Canto 4), Epicurus and his followers are separated and assigned to the sixth circle (Canto 10), their sin being that they ‘make the soul die with the body.’ But Dante did not continue to hold the same view of Epicurus throughout his life. See Mazzeo pp.106-20
  5. For a bird’s-eye view of Epicurus and his philosophical views, particularly ethics, see Bogomolov, pp. 259-78 and Shields (ed.), pp. 237-50.
  6. It is interesting to observe that in medieval England, of all persons, Plato and Seneca were taken to be the advocates of communism! In Piers the Plowman by William Langland (c.1332-c.1400 CE) a passage runs as follows:

Envy heard this and bade Friars go to college And learn logic and law and also the contemplative life, And preach to men of Plato and prove it by Seneca, That all things under heaven ought to be in common (Passus XX, p.198)

  1. Marx and Engels did not succeed in publishing German Ideology in book form in their life time. The ms lay ‘abandoned to the gnawing criticism of the mice’. But they were not overly concerned, for the main purpose behind writing the book was to achieve self-clarification, and they felt they had achieved it. See GI, pp. 13 and 681-82 n1.
  2. In another edition of Axel published by J. M. Dent et Fils, the sentence occurs on p. 260. The play, otherwise insignificant, is widely known for this speech alone.
  3. For a somewhat different translation of this highly significant passage see Capital (Penguin Books), vol.1, 7:1, p. 284.
  4. This note is given by Marx on page V of the manuscript where it is separated by a horizontal line from the main text, but according to its meaning it refers to this sentence. (Note by Progress Publishers)

Works Cited

Aristophanes. The Knights, Peace, The Birds, The Assemblywomen, Wealth. Trans. David Barrett and Alan H. Sommerstein. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978.

Ash, William. Marxism and Moral Concepts. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1964.

Ash, William. Marxist Morality. London: Howard Baker, 1988.

Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. Studies on the Cārvāka/Lokāyata. Firenze (Florence): Societa Editrice Fiorentina, 2009; London: Anthem Press, 2011.

Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. Lokāyata Darśana and a Comparative Study with Greek materialism, in: Partha Ghose (ed.), Materialism and Immaterialism in India and the West: Varying Vistas. New Delhi: Centre for the Studies on Civilizations, 12:5, 2010, pp.21-34. (2010c)

Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna Development of Materialism in India: the Pre­Carvakas and the Carvakas, Esercizi Filosofici 8, 2013, pp. 1­12. (2013a)

Blackburn, Simon. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Bogomolov, A. S. History of Ancient Philosophy: Greece and Rome. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1985.

Bottomore, Tom and others (eds). A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. New Delhi. Maya Blackwell/ Worldview, 2000 (second edition).

C/L Cārvāka/Lokāyata. Ed. Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad in collaboration with Mrinal Kanti Gangopadhyaya.. New Delhi: Indian Council of Philosophical Research/Rddhi India, 1990.

Concise Oxford English Dictionary. Twelfth Edition. Eds. Angus Stevenson and Maurice Waite. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Dante. The Divine Comedy. Translated by J. A. Carlyle (Inferno), T.Okey (Purgatario), and P.H. Wicksteed (Paradiso). New York: Vintage Books, n.d.

de l’isle-Adam, Comte de Auguste Villiers. Axel. Paris: Maison Quantin. 1890. (A copy of this edition is to be found in the University of Toronto Library, Call no. LF V758.2, accn. no. 153342, also available on the web). Another copy of the play published by J. M. Dent et Fils from Paris, London, and New York, n.d., can be read on the web:

Eagleton, Terry. Why Marx was Right. Kolkata: Seagull Books, 2012.

Engels, Frederick. Anti-Dühring. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977.

Engels, Frederick. The Condition of the Working-Class in England. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1980. (sic)

Engels, Frederick. Dialectics of Nature. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1982.

Engels, Frederick. Ludwig Feurbach and the End of German Classical Philosophy, in Marx-Engels, On Religion, Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, n. d.

Engels, Frederick. The Peasants’ War in Germany. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969.

Hegel, G.W.F. The Philosophy of History. New York: Dover Publications, n.d.

Horace. Epistles. Translated by A. S. Kline © 2005

Kamenka, Eugene. The Ethical Foundations of Marxism. London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962.

Kamenka, Eugene. Marxism and Ethics. London: Macmillan, 1969.

Krishnamishra. Prabodhacandrodaya. Ed. and Trans. by Sita Krishna Nambiar. Delhi: MLBD, 1971.

Langland, William. The Book concerning Piers the Plowman. Rendered into modern English by Donald and Rachel Attwater. Ed. Rachel Attwater. London: Dent/Everyman’s Library, 1967.

Lenin. V.I. Philosophical Notebooks. Collected Works, Vol. 38. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961.

Marx, Karl. Capital. Vol. I. Trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling. Moscow: Progress Publishers, n.d.

Marx, Karl. Capital. Vol. I. Trans. Ben Fowkes. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976.

Marx, Karl. Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature in: Marx-Engels, Collected Works (MECW), Vol. 1. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975.

Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House (FLPH), 1961.

Marx, Karl [and Frederick Engels]. Critique of the Gotha Programme. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1976. Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. Critique of the Gotha Programme, etc. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House (FLPH), n.d.

Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. The German Ideology. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1968.

Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House (FLPH), n.d.

Marxist update: Anon. Philosophy of hedonism. downloaded on 27.2.2014.

Mazzeo, Joseph Anthony. Dante and Epicurus, Comparative Literature, 10:2 Spring 1958, pp.106­-20.

Packard, Vance. The Hidden Persuaders. New York: David McKay Co., 1960.

Ryazanoff, D (ed.). Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Calcutta: Radical Book Club, 1972.

Sayana-Madhava. Sarvadarsanasamgraha, Chap. 1. See C/L.

Sayers, Sean. Marxism and Morality -revised.doc -marxismandmorality.pdf

Shields, Christopher (ed.). The Blackwell Guide to Ancient Philosophy. Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.

Tännsjö, Rorbjörn. Hedonistic Utilitarianism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998. [Extracts available on the net.]

Thomson, George. The First Philosophers (Studies in Ancient Greek Society, vol. 2). London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1955.

Timpanaro, Sebastiano. On Materialism. London: Verso, 1980.

Acknowledgements: Amitava Bhattacharyya, Amlan Dasgupta, Chinmay Guha, Debapriya Pal, and Sunish Kumar Deb. The usual disclaimers apply.

Prof Ramkrishna Bhattacharya taught English at the University of Calcutta, Kolkata and was an Emeritus Fellow of University Grants Commission. He is now a Fellow of Pavlov Institute, Kolkata.

This paper was first published in Psyche and Society 12:1 May 2014, 4-1

Part II of this essay is here


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