Marx and the Medieval Mind

With the fragmentation of news sources, the Enlightenment ideal has come under pressure. We are living in a world where people feel the need to only read something when they know in advance that they are going to agree with what they’re going to hear. This means that no one actually reads works of other cultures unless they in some way adhere to deep principles that we hold dear. We read the literature of India, for instance, for its more liberal view of the mind’s contact with god but not for its practice (known as ‘sati‘) of having women voluntarily or by coercion burn themselves alive after their husbands are dead.

Perhaps that has always been the case. But the process of reading selectively has a cost to our ability to face the world as it is. Instead, we see the world in terms of how we want it to be.


The same holds true of the works of Karl Marx. Few actually read Marx. Those who do usually bring their a priori agreement with Marx’s assessment about the terrible conditions about the working classes and the need for corrective revolution. But I would argue (strongly) that agreements on a priori principles are not the basis of the Enlightenment principles. The Enlightenment was built on a posteriori principles, that is, on the world that the medieval thinker had relegated to the world of science.

The Enlightenment was built on the failure of scholasticism to erect a solid basis out of its inquiry into reason. After the failure of scholasticism, Descartes built a philosophical school on the basis that no one in history had ever found answers to philosophical questions.

Of philosophy I will say nothing, except that when I saw that it had been cultivated for many ages by the most distinguished men, and that yet there is not a single matter within its sphere which is not still in dispute, and nothing, therefore, which is above doubt, I did not presume to anticipate that my success would be greater in it than that of others; and further, when I considered the number of conflicting opinions touching a single matter that may be upheld by learned men, while there can be but one true, I reckoned as well-nigh false all that was only probable. (Discourse on Method)

His method was to be a method which would secure forever the foundations of thought.

Marx’s Enlightenment Project

Part of the Enlightenment project was to rationalize previously un-rationalized areas of human existence. Marx was attempting to create the first science of political economy. By all accounts, he did a good job. His Das Kapital is a masterpiece that is light years ahead of other contemporary schemes of political economy, advancing the past assumptions and giving form to previously un-rationalized thought.

But recognizing it as a masterpiece in its day is not the same as advancing the final solution to the problem, which is what Descartes and Enlightenment thinkers were promising. We can see problems that have appeared in the Marxist configuration of thought in the regime of Stalin and Mao. The question a philosopher would have to answer is whether the problems were with the implementation of Marx’s perfect ideas, in which case they could be corrected by holding closer to Marx’s text (the liberal view), or whether Marx’s ideas themselves were imperfect in their initial configuration and should be thrown out altogether (the conservative view).

The problem with deciding between these two seemingly exclusive alternatives is that there is no way to decide which one is right. Evidence can be adduced from both sides of the equation. Ultimately, the insolubility of this equation calls into question the stability of the Enlightenment solution to the problem of the medieval failure of reason. It turns out that, just like medieval thought, the Enlightenment was built on an insecure metaphysical premise.

Recent Events

Recent events have given critics the sense that the once firm foundations of reason have come under attack. Once again, America is divided into two camps. A liberal camp, which flaunts its anti-foundational rhetoric, and a conservative camp, which attempts to get back to common sense solutions. And once again, no solution is available. Instead, what we get are people pointing fingers at the other camp. The liberals rest their case on the principles of skepticism: at least they know what they don’t know. The conservatives rest their case on the fact that we know some things.

Unlike the liberal skeptic, I believe that we do know things. Unlike the conservative, I don’t believe that what we know accords with nature perfectly. As a result, I have had the fingers pointed at me from both sides of the liberal/conservative divide. I find the whole thing quite disturbing. And in response I have come up with my own system for dealing with the failure of the Enlightenment to close the circle of reason around itself. It is not to travel back to the skeptical premises of Descartes and

It is to acknowledge that the circle of reason rid that the Enlightenment plotting to close around itself into a complete circle is inadequate to the task. There is always something left out of any rationally constructed framework.

Wagner versus Marx

Already, by the time that Marx was writing, he was competing with the Romantic movement, which had recognized limits to the extent of reason to order our lives completely. Marx wrote during the age of Richard Wagner, and this is important. Wagner used music to fill in the blanks left out of the Enlightenment’s dry and rational approach to ‘truth.’ This gave him a broader view of ‘truth’ than the rationalists of the previous century, who tended to approach scientific problems using rational methods.

But there is no possibility of applying Wagner’s ideas to the notion of the science of politics. So we’re stuck with Marx’s approach to political economy.

Like Wagner, looks back to the Middle Ages as a sort of golden age, as opposed to the Enlightenment which looked back on the Middle Ages as an area of false hope in ignorant which the Enlightenment thinker would do away with in terms of more rational structures. So we get Marx’s handy compendium of old Enlightenment completeness as well as romantic nostalgia for a golden age. I believe, this accounts for the influence of otherwise opposing (or if not opposing, conflicting) schools of thought.

Marx’s Sources

Marx begin his portrait of the Middle Ages as a Golden Age, as many have. This means something. Ovid gives us the classic portrait of the Golden Age in his Metamorphoses. In that work, Ovid discovers the origins of human compatibility with the world of nature in the Golden Age. But then man (*boo hiss*) came along with his tools and began cultivating the earth (*boo hiss* again). This destroyed the delicate balance of mankind’s oneness with nature. After that, men started competing with each other for land and dividing the land up into property blocks. Then they started selling land to one another. Some got rich; others stayed poor.

This is one of the most popular poems of all time, so popular in fact that Jean-Jacques Rousseau drew on it for his prize-winning essay, Discourse on Inequality. In that essay, he drew on Ovid’s view of the world (rather directly; somewhere in my office I have an old essay on this; I’ll try to post in one day. You are, of course, thrilled). The Golden Age was lost to technology and culture. But in the 18th century, we finally had the technology (Ovid would call this ‘culture’) to bring ourselves back in line with the Golden Age. The Greeks had invented math; the moderns had perfected it. Likewise, ‘culture’; the Greeks had invented democracy; the 18th century perfected it.

The French aristocracy was the first casualty of Rousseau’s work. After that, intellectuals turned on the industrial revolution, which seemed so unequal in its distribution of resources. Pareto would argue that such distribution of resources is ‘natural.’ But Marx and his followers followed the Ovid-Rousseau route. Somewhere back in time, the world had been perfectly balanced. Human kind had been at one with nature,; and if we could just get back to that position, everything would be all right again.

Marx, Aristotle, and Me

He outlines his position in Book I, Chapter 26 of his Das Kapital, in which he turns to the problem of Primitive Accumulation. He finds a ‘vicious cycle’ in the problem of which came first.

We have seen how money is changed into capital; how through capital surplus-value is made, and from surplus-value more capital. But the accumulation of capital presupposes surplus-value; surplus-value presupposes capitalistic production; capitalistic production presupposes the pre-existence of considerable masses of capital and of labour power in the hands of producers of commodities. The whole movement, therefore, seems to turn in a vicious circle, out of which we can only get by supposing a primitive accumulation (previous accumulation of Adam Smith) preceding capitalistic accumulation; an accumulation not the result of the capitalistic mode of production, but its starting point.

He is outlining a classic chicken-or-the-egg problem here. Capitalism relies on the creation of surplus-value. Surplus-value can only come from taking the labor of each member of society and redistributing it in an inequitable manner. Property is theft. Labor is exploitation. Those who don’t think as Marx thinks are subject to ‘false consciousness.’

This is something that Aristotle, the inventor of logic had found the problem of infinite regress, troubling as well. I quote from a little-known and badly-written dissertation on the subject on the impact of Aristotle on medieval allegory:

Though Aristotle recognizes that the syllogism relies on an audience which accepts its premises, he denies the skeptic’s claim that the syllogism does not produce knowledge. Aristotle is not content to suggest that any individual syllogism is valid only insofar as the hearers agree on its premises. He therefore turns his attention to the question of the foundations of rationalism in a fundamental “pre-existent knowledge.” The potential result of the admission that all knowledge rests on such pre-existent knowledge allows the possibility that rational knowledge will become caught up in an infinite regress. In order to stop this infinite regress, elaborates a doctrine of demonstration. Aristotle maintains that those who believe that all reasoning is a circular petitio principii believe this because they do not recognize that there are other forms of knowledge than demonstration. He stops the infinite regress by allowing that there are foundational principles which precede demonstration. Every branch of scientific inquiry, for instance, rests on “indemonstrable” principles, terms agreed upon by those who participate in that branch of science.

What this means for the lay person who knows how to read but can’t read this is that every branch of knowledge rests on a foundation of a priori principles, and these principles are not set in the metaphysical ground but are determined by general agreement. On top of these generally agreed upon principles we build a posteriori demonstrative knowledge.

If these a priori principles were not artificially set by men, then ‘It would be turtles all the way down.’ Aristotle puts this in terms that make sense to him: ‘Otherwise the puzzle in the Meno will result; for you will learn either nothing or what you know” (Posterior Analytics I 1 71a29-30). But he is saying the same thing as the modern turtle-master. We must break out of our skepticism about knowledge or nothing we know will make sense. We will be stuck in our premises.

If that’s the case, then I will have my way of looking at the world and you will have yours. This reliance on a priori premises rather than a posteriori knowledge built on top of our premises is, of course, what I started writing about at the beginning of this essay. We are stuck in an era in which media has been configured to allow each of us to follow our own turtle all the way back down. The middle world of science and reason, by which we come to agreement over things, has been comparatively weak.

Marx’s Middle Ages

Marx finds his answer that will break the cycle of capitalist exploitation of the workers in a ‘primitive accumulation’ which precedes ‘capitalistic accumulation.’ There’s a lot riding on his being right about this ‘primitive accumulation.’ Imagine, for instance, that he’s wrong and people have always traded stuff for other stuff. And some people, like tribal emperors and kings, have always been required to accumulate more stuff than others have. And let’s just say that these tribal emperors redistributed their stuff through a system, say, of potlatch to keep the people happy.

Well, Marx doesn’t think like that. Such thoughts are for those persuaded by ‘false consciousness’. They need to corrected to get their thought “in accordance with scientific knowledge, [which] has already reached a historic moment in the world.” Such great moments are “unprecedented in human history.” That is to say that “the moment for completely banishing darkness from the world” has arrived and all the little people have to do is to welcome the change from darkness “into a world of light such as never previously existed” (for the source of these quotes, click here).

He likens the starting point to the medieval myth of the Fall of Man and the original sin that fell out of ‘man’s disobedience and the fruit.’

This primitive accumulation plays in Political Economy about the same part as original sin in theology. Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race. Its origin is supposed to be explained when it is told as an anecdote of the past. In times long gone by there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent, and, above all, frugal elite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living.

He goes on to liken the two stories:

The legend of theological original sin tells us certainly how man came to be condemned to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow; but the history of economic original sin reveals to us that there are people to whom this is by no means essential. Never mind! Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort had at last nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority that, despite all its labour, has up to now nothing to sell but itself, and the wealth of the few that increases constantly although they have long ceased to work.

He thinks that he has found such a starting point in the Middle Ages.

The economic structure of capitalist society has grown out of the economic structure of feudal society. The dissolution of the latter set free the elements of the former.

In other words, all we have to do to get back to the equitable distribution of resources is to undo the history of the West and roll things back to the feudal age. Nice!

Marx goes on to tell his readers of the terrible burden of freedom, as people became detached from the soil and their servitude and were able to earn a living in the free market:

The immediate producer, the labourer, could only dispose of his own person after he had ceased to be attached to the soil and ceased to be the slave, serf, or bondsman of another.

That sucks, indeed. People were much better off living in poverty as slaves of others, because they could at least get a fair day’s slave pay for a fair day’s slave work.

Maybe, and I’m just saying maybe, Marx was not as smart as he thought he was. And maybe, and once again I’m just saying maybe, his system of getting back to the Middle Ages before all this ‘capitalist accumulation’ had started in not the perfect system that so many of my academic colleagues thought it was. And maybe Rousseau was not as smart as he thought he was, either. Maybe he had not in fact found the secure starting point of humanity’s coincidence with the natural world after all. Maybe Ovid was right and that such myths as these are only myths, and not facts that we can or should build our hopes on.

Who Am I?

But then, who am I? Marx is famous. I’m not famous. Rousseau has followers up the ying-yang. I do not have any followers in, around, going in, or coming out of my ying-yang. Who are you going to believe? Me, or the famous people whose thoughts have stood the test of time? In fact, I recommend you stop reading this essay right now.

More Marx for Those Still with Me

Marx goes on to say that these new freedmen

became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and of all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And the history of this, their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.

Blood and fire! If for nothing else, I like Marx for his ability to turn a phrase. Clearly in Marx’s mind the cost of expanding markets, the mobility of free laborers, the resulting lower costs of goods, and the resultant increase in well-being and human happiness was not worth the cost of releasing people from slavery. This sounds like an argument, recounted by Shelby Foote in his history of the Civil War, made by Jefferson Davis on freedom from the tyranny of Northern government. I can’t find it right now, but Davis was fulminating about the North’s reduction of the South to slavery. In the margins I wrote, ‘Clearly no one would want to be a slave.’ Davis didn’t think of blacks as human at all, and that made his argument okay in his mind.

Maybe Marx, too, was a little too nostalgic for the Middle Ages, which he saw, as Wagner saw them, in a too-stark contrast with the problems of the modern age. What didn’t fit with his pre-existent vision was ignored. That’s always easier than changing your mind to make up for your lack of total vision. So Marx turns out to be a proponent of slavery, just like Davis. And that’s apparently okay for him, because he’s focused on the human component of thought, and the slaves were not human. It’s okay in the modern world for the same reason. We can divide off the offensive bits of Marx’s thought—they are relegated to the historical conditions of the past—and keep the timeless and transcendental aspects of his thought. This is the same way we purge India of its ‘sati’ practices, while keeping the best practices of self-involvement and narcissism which accord with our own practices.

My Middle Ages

I just wrote ‘The ‘Real’ Middle Ages, but I don’t believe that we can ever know the final truth of history. The best we can hope for ourselves is that, through hard work and dogged determination, that we can get as clear a picture as possible of the object under study, knowing that others will disagree with us. Sometimes this will be on account of the ignorance of others; sometimes this will be on account of my ignorance.

In any case, my Middle Ages is not one of slaves working happy on the land for happy masters. My Middle Ages is one in which serfs fled from captivity to sanctuary cities where they were happy to be free. (That was the Middle Ages of Jack Cade and Wat Tyler, as well). Moreover, the Middle Ages is one of progressive order overtaking irrational chaos. Guilds set rules to rationalize the practices of having someone like Wal-Mart breeze into town and set up a competing enterprise based on their economies of scale; government divided and enclosed land rationally to avoid land disputes that took so much time in the system of manorial courts; the system of justice itself was gradually reformed by rational men to replace the haphazard and random systems with more efficient centralized systems.

All of these things bespeak a move to order in an irrational nature. And on account of this order, the Middle Ages and its feudal order was destroyed. A better and more rational system of order was put in its place. This caused Descartes to announce that he had discovered ‘for the first time in history’ the true basis of the human mind’s connection with nature. But I digress.

How can Marx believe that it is desirable to go back and undo the systems we have put in place through rational means. I don’t know, but he does. It bespeaks a real distrust of the imperfect rational structures that we build on top of our premises of equality.

But it also bespeaks (to me) the inability of anyone—not just Marxists—to secure a firm foundation of human thought in nature. Those who operate on that basis must necessarily fling someone under the bus in order to make themselves look good. This is a necessary function of philosophical idealism. The move of the idealist is to announce that they have discovered the ‘whole truth.’ Then they must dispose of those who disagree. This is what happened to ‘the scab and traitor Liu Shaoqi.”

Having served as bus-flung person by well-meaning idealist professors more often that I’d like to admit—and I would say more often than necessary (but who am I to argue with my betters?)—I would disagree with my idealist colleagues. I don’t agree that anyone ever has had the ‘whole truth.’ Nor do I agree that anybody ever will.

My Augustine

This is in line, not with the Enlightenment ideals that I grew up with, but with what I learned in graduate school about medieval reservations about the power of reason to solve problems that arise from the use of reason.

[NOTE: There have been other interpretations of Augustine. This is what I was talking about on Medtextl over ten years ago when I wrote ‘Two or three weeks ago Norm Hinton hammered me again on Medtextl for saying something about D. W. Robertson, Jr. being wrong about the Roman de la Rose.’ Robertson thought that Augustine had solved the problem of fiction in an acceptable way. I disagree. That is an argument for another day. Just thought you should know.]

In my reading, and the reading of Charles Norris Cochrane, reason in pagan antiquity was able “to transcend the limitations of mere subjectivity to grasp objective world.” He strongly objected to this characterization of reason. “To this, Augustine replies with a challenge that reason itself present the credentials by which it presumes to operate” (402-03). Augustine determined that it was foolish to believe that reason could answer all the questions that emerged from reason itself.

If you this is a foolish position to hold, you are not alone. Bertrand Russell himself, ecraserer of infames, thought that Augustine had exchange reason for a superstitious belief in Christ. He, Russell, was not going to stand for that. He, like Voltaire, Rousseau, and Marx, would stand looking superstition in the face, and would use reason to overcome such foolish beliefs.

But, like Augustine in the late 4th and early 5th centuries, just after Bertrand Russell had completed his work on analytic logic in which he determined the proper way to parse the phrase ‘The King of France is bald,’ Kurt Gödel said in the 20th century pretty much the same thing as Augustine said in the late 4th. In the intervening Enlightenment years, people had forgotten what Augustine had said about the inability of reason to answer all the question that emerge from the use of reason.

The Cost of Marx’s Forgetting the Limits of Reason

Unlike Wagner, who was able to use extra-rational (irrational? I’ll let people like Bertrand Russell decide such issues) means of music to sop up the juice left that dripped out after he had grilled of the steak of reason for human consumption, Marx was using words alone. So language became the means of sopping up the leftover juice. And it wasn’t as flavorful as music—what is, really?—but cooks use the tools they are given. He thought that the tools he had been given were all the tools there were, and he manufactured a science of political economy out of the tools he had available to him.

And, as an advance over competing sciences of political economy, it has fared fairly well. But sciences, we learned in the Middle Ages, are relative. They are based on agreed upon premises. When premises change, we are obliged to shift our ground.

The Church had established ‘avant-garde’ premises by the 4th century. The individual was the center of the universe, not the abstract principles of reason (see the Cynics and the Stoics). After the premises remained the same in the face of changing conditions, the Church went from being on the avant-garde (which it surely was in the late 4th century) to being the holder of dated positions in the 15th. Their positions didn’t change. What came in its place was the work of Descartes. And yet, his position, so avant-garde in the 16th century, has become something that lowly me (and who am I?) can make fun of. His position hasn’t changed.

Marx, while a decent thinker, does not represent the ‘end’ of thought on political matters. Having said that, he remains an essential thinker on the middle terms of rational thought on political economy. Unfortunately, his followers are people who hope to overthrow the current order through revolution that will finally put the world in order once and for all. This is only acceptable if people are convinced—as Hitler, al-Quaida, and the Soviets were—that they have the final solution (note my satiric emphasis here) to the problems of the world.

I, for one, don’t believe it. There is a reason that kids make the best revolutionaries. They are too young to realize the real costs of their revolutionary behavior. The walls put up by society may not be permanent, but their destruction entails real pain for real people. And they are built, although loosely, upon human nature. And human nature is not infinitely malleable. We like to drink too much. We like to have sex. And all the government regulation intending to put an end to such behavior will do nothing to diminish our animal nature. But that doesn’t mean that the current culture is acceptable because it is the current culture. We are caught in a never-ending cycle driven by people’s need to put their perfect ideals into action in a universe that is not set up to receive the contents of our ideal minds as we would have them.

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