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  • The Stoics and EpicurusExtract From Être marxiste en philosophie
  • Louis Althusser
    Translated by G. M. Goshgarian

[End Page 10]

I cannot turn from Aristotle to bourgeois idealist theories of the subject without pausing over a crucially important philosophical event that flies in the face of the idealist tradition: the work of the Stoics and Epicurus.

With them came a philosophical revolution that directly concerns the arduous constitution of materialism. The Stoics (I am not proceeding chronologically) developed an astonishing logic that did away with the presuppositions of the logic of Being.1 It has, for that reason, fascinated modern logicians (neopositivist or not, that hardly matters here). For the Stoics chose not to subsume (subordinate) entities and facts under preexisting categories. They refused, in sum, to begin with the origin and Being. They dared to begin with nothing: with the absence of meaning (ce rien de sens) known, precisely, as the facts.

Their way of going about things might be summed up, in its entirety, in one short phrase: “If . . . then.” If men are mortal, then there is no other life; we must, then, try to find happiness here below; we must, then, struggle to find it in the form in which it is possible (for the Stoics, ataraxia and impassibility, which made sense in a world dominated by appalling class struggles and wars), and so on. In short, the Stoics started out from the facts, studied them, and drew the consequences they contained from them, without adding anything. We have become accustomed to this theory and practice in our experimental sciences. We should, however, be aware of its revolutionary import. No longer did Ideas precede the world as its model, dominate it thanks to their power, and lead it toward its necessary end. No longer was a definition of the individual subject to be sought by way of substance and essence.

There is just one world (but an infinite number of worlds is possible, and this hypothesis about infinity indicates just one thing: it brings out the contingency of all worlds and, consequently, of ours), and this world has neither origin nor end. Men live in this world with that which they perceive and make of it for their sole horizon, and have to manage with this wretchedness one way or another, with no hope that a god or master will ever rescue them from their confusion and finitude. That does not prevent them from living and adding to their knowledge, by virtue of the principle “if . . . then,” but they can hope for nothing from either Nature, which exists, or from the gods, who, if they exist, are perfectly impassible. That is how the Stoics came to an arrangement with the gods: by exiling them, as the new tyrants did their opponents. An excellent policy, which averts bloodshed, the sole condition being certainty that the opponent will never recover sufficient strength to set back out on the conquest of power. Weak gods are convenient. This simple idea would give rise, when the time came, to phenomenal developments in the sciences and politics, while also furnishing arms against religion and despotism.

Epicurus went infinitely further.2 He did not content himself with indicating, on the basis of the hypothesis of a plurality of worlds, the contingency of ours; he went into detail to show contingency at work by thinking it. He did not set out from an origin, either (which is always an origin of meaning and the end [fin]: the whole truth of things is wholly contained in the origin, as is, along with their truth, their necessary ends, that is, their destination and, consequently, each individual’s role in the state). He set out [End Page 11] from a strange “fact,” inspired by Democritus. This is the fact that, from all eternity (for the world is eternal—a materialist thesis par excellence), the world has been made up of atoms, undividable corporeal particles (perfect because indivisible individuals, a circumstance that settles part of the question of the subject) falling in the void, parallel to each other, like raindrops. We find the image of the rain in Lucretius’s Epicurean poem On the Nature of Things.3 On...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6539
Print ISSN
0300-7162
Pages
pp. 10-14
Launched on MUSE
2016-01-21
Open Access
No
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