Karl Marx’s doctoral dissertation wasn’t on economics or history or political philosophy; it was on the Greek atomists. Specifically, it was a systematic comparison of the atomic theories of Democritus and Epicurus.
Perhaps ironically, given his later reputation as arch-determinist and arch-materialist, Marx takes the side of Epicurus, the anti-reductionist and proponent of spontaneously swerving atoms, over the necessitarian reductionist Democritus; Epicurus makes nature active, Marx tells us, while Democritus leaves nature passive and inert. (As Marx points out, this criticism of Democritus was first made by Aristotle, and Epicurus may have formulated the doctrine of the swerve in order to rescue atomism from this Aristotelean charge.) Many of the ideas that Marx would eventually become famous for in the sphere of social philosophy he tries out here for the first time in the field of natural philosophy; hence the dissertation is an important document for the study of Marx’s intellectual development, just as Nietzsche’s early writings on the Presocratics (Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks and The Pre-Platonic Philosophers) are important for understanding Nietzsche’s own thought.
But the illumination isn’t directed solely authorward. Like Nietzsche’s study of the Presocratics – and if anything even more so – Marx’s study of the atomists views the early Greek thinkers through the lens of 19th-century German philosophy, and anachronistically reads modern concerns back into the ancients. Yet, again like Nietzsche’s Marx’s discussion nevertheless sheds insightful light on the ancients and raises fascinating questions about them. Thus even if the Hegelian categories that Marx labours to impose on Epicurus won’t quite take, much of what he has to say about him is, I think, genuinely useful for classical scholars. (For example, I was intrigued by Marx’s suggestion that the atomic swerve is reproduced structurally throughout the Epicurean system, in the sage swerving away from public life, the gods swerving away from the kosmoi etc.; and I was forcefully struck by Marx’s enumeration of the respects in which the celestial bodies that Epicurus scorned mirror the properties of his beloved atoms.)
So I’m pleased that the “first complete single-volume edition of Karl Marx’s doctoral dissertation to appear in English” has been published. (Previously one had to dig through the 800-page first volume of Marx’s Collected Works.)
Logically this book should appeal both to readers with an interest in Marx and to readers with an interest in Greek philosophy. But the publishers seem to be marketing it solely to the first group – for the title they’ve given it is not Marx’s own title Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature, nor yet the perhaps sexier Karl Marx on the Greek Atomists, but instead the topically opaque First Writings of Karl Marx – perhaps as a bait-and-switch for consumers who will buy a book on atomism only if they think it’s a book on politics. Unfortunately, this probably means that the book will fail to attract the notice of some readers who might otherwise be interested in it. (The author of the Introduction also seems to be interested in the book solely for the light it sheds on Marx and not at all for the light it might shed on the Greek atomists.)