Man as his Own True Sun

Jamesvansteel By Jamesvansteel, 13th Apr 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
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A discussion of religion and intellectual criticism as it pertains to Marx's thought and religious ideology.

Man as his Own True Sun

In a unique position of great social change and greater historical consciousness, Karl Marx reflects on the philosophical and critical work of his fellow Germans with disappointment. He believes that they have hardly skimmed the surface of the issues they have claimed to have uprooted, nor addressed their own biases let alone upsetting entrenched thought. Marx, on the other hand, feels that he sees criticism and its correlates wholly and comprehends not only the driving forces behind all of politics and philosophy, but all of history and its future states. Willing to impart this knowledge to his German counterparts, Marx states in his critical essay on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right that “the criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism,” elucidating not only the historical but the ideological foundation upon which any philosophical skepticism must stand (53). Through criticism of religion man disengages from useless theological and metaphysical pursuits casting off many of the illusions that govern his thought, thus man takes up his own cause as master of his own circumstances and the primary if not sole object for philosophical questioning with the aim of casting off further illusions. Although such skepticism is an archetypal example of criticism, Marx fails to persuade that disavowal of religion is a priori to all other criticism. He neglects to observe his own illusions about religion, believing that it can serve no positive or valuable social purpose nor has any basis in man’s material reality and will be cast off universally as such.

In his work The German Ideology, Marx argues that his contemporary German philosophers have failed to separate entirely from Hegel’s philosophical influence and critics have failed to separate from philosophy. While criticism should question philosophical premises to test the foundation of ideas, for German criticism “the whole body of its inquiries has actually sprung from the soil of a definite philosophical system, that of Hegel,” showing that German criticism has not even achieved a level of skepticism great enough to perform its task of critiquing philosophy adequately (148). Rather, this criticism relies on and is confined to religious conceptions carried over from Hegelian propositions and given new names. Assuming religion, in the form of a uniting “universal principle”, still holds dominance even in criticism they pronounce “political, juridical, moral consciousness as religious or theological, and the political, juridical, moral man – “man” in the last resort – as religious” (148-149). Without purging religious worldviews from their thought German critics cannot critique man objectively nor approach philosophy on a basis of reality.

By drawing religion into question and subsequently negation, Marx believes that man’s focus turns from powers, consequences, and problems of the imagination toward a real self-consciousness of his material and living processes. As an “inverted world consciousness”, Marx understands religion to be a natural extension of man albeit in a state of perversion, “religion is indeed man’s self-consciousness and self-awareness so long as he has not found himself or lost himself again,” projecting a future ideal of self-perfection onto the outside world (53). Rather than play in the realm of imagination and concern the rational mind with inventions and impossibilities, man’s attention should be on his immediate circumstances and relations as they are the factors that affect his actual life. Further Marx proffers that religion is an attempt by man to realize himself, a “fantastic realization of the human being inasmuch as the human being possesses no true reality,” asserting that not only is religion modeled after human beings, but that human beings have no inherent nature as such (54). If man is the model for gods through his inverted consciousness, it follows that corrected consciousness could push man properly focused toward true self-perfection.

For Marx, the German Protestant Reformation was the initiation of such a transition of consciousness, questioning the established authority of religion and clergy through renewed faith. Moving from the domination and fanaticism of external religious institutions, Martin Luther called for a return to religious conviction itself and a focus on the innermost heart of man. In this way, Protestantism began to reposition man’s consciousness toward himself and his own nature, posing questions not of “the layman’s struggle against the priest outside himself, but of his struggle against his own internal priest, against his own priestly nature,” thus critiquing established religion as a belief system and paving the way for its negation and all other critiques of illusory truths (60). But for Marx, it is not enough simply to question or criticize religion; it must be abolished altogether for mankind to progress forward.

As the spirit of the Reformation advances, all aspects of religion must be brought into question, including its independent validity. Assuming religion’s total falsity a concluded fact, Marx wishes again to show man that he is his own master, “man, who has found in the fantastic reality of heaven where he sought a supernatural being, only his own reflection, will no longer be tempted to find only the semblance of himself… where he seeks and must seek his true reality” (53). As the “opium of the people”, religion addresses real suffering and promises real happiness, but does not alleviate the cause or provide a basis for either of these respective human problems. By removing the placating force of religion in society, suffering and unhappiness will be seen for what they truly are - human problems with human solutions. Marx believes religion offers men only illusions to conceal their true condition, and “the call to abandon their illusions about their condition is a call to abandon a condition which requires illusions,” throwing off all of religion from their backs as a stupefying agent which anesthetizes them against them true conditions (54).

It is in this way that the critique of religion forms a basis for all other critiques, in that the casting off of illusions is the primary goal of all criticism. Once man has come to question such a fundamental belief as faith, “the criticism of religion disillusions man so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality as a man who has lost his illusions and regained his reason,” gaining for man a rational perspective on his present condition and a “categorical imperative” of casting off all illusions therein (54, 60). Criticism then takes on a certain social necessity as it is no longer a commentary, “an end in itself, but simply a means; indignation is its essential mode of feeling, and denunciation its principle task,” bringing criticism to the forefront of human thought in the crusade against injurious illusions (56). While his contemporary German critics are content with replacing one interpretation of reality with another, Marx feels it is the purpose of criticism to measure the intellectual formulations of man against a grounded, empirical reality. Only through rational, material, historically verified criticism can philosophical premises be made of use to man’s real condition, bringing the alleviation of suffering and the nurturing of men’s happiness into the realm of science (149).

While the criticism and negation of religion is a powerful example of rational self-consciousness and a model for the casting off of social illusions, Marx does not present a convincing argument that the criticism of religion leads logically to its inevitable falsity. Is it not possible for man to develop reason and self-consciousness alongside religious belief? His bias against religion is clearly established in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction when he states, “the profane existence of error is compromised once its celestial oratio pro aris et focis has been refuted,” ascribing a fantastical and vicious conception to religion and assuming its complete error (53). If criticism is to be made on observable material facts alone rather than lofty theories or metaphysical speculations, then evidence for or against the existence of a spiritual nature to reality must be called into question. Marx would be hard pressed to disprove the existence or prove the inherent harm of religious truth on material bases other than the hypocrisy of some of its advocates, but there are manifest observable facts about the reality and value of religious teachings, regardless of the nature of the specific belief.

Marx himself establishes the empirical study of history and material relations as a rational basis for understanding man, and yet he overlooks the contributions of religion to ethics, political thought, national alliances, and social unity over the course of history (149). He speaks, probably exclusively, about the state of contemporary German Christianity with references to ancient Roman religion, yet addresses none of its historical significance, let alone the social advantages of religions such as Buddhism, Confucianism, or reform Catholicism. Pressing the balance on the side of negative examples, Marx has neglected the social narrative and organization, relational and family ethics, democratic ethos, and individual contentment that arise from cohesive religious belief, to say nothing of art, scholarship, or communal consciousness. Alongside Christianity there are ample historical examples of the benefits of cultural cohesion in war and peace in Rome and Greece as well as elsewhere in the ancient world. To neglect observable historical facts is a sin against Marx’s own credo of rational criticism, which he seems not to have turned on his own belief systems.

For Marx, the criticism and refutation of religion begins the formation of a new global consciousness which places man himself as the sun around which he revolves. By casting off the illusions of religious institutions external to him, man gains a rational perspective on himself and a disposition toward casting off other illusions which separate his will to perfection from the means of achieving it. Despite his overzealous refutation of the value of religion in society, his principles of self-consciousness and focus on empirical evidence provide a method of understanding and purifying criticism for the benefit of all mankind.

Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1978. Print. Rpt. of The German Ideology, Critique of Hegel's "Philosophy of Right". 1843.

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