The First Philosophers:
Studies in Ancient Greek Society

by George Thomson


1. Theory and Practice

J. E. RAVEN, in his Pythagoreans and Eleatics, gives this estimate of early Greek philosophy:

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of early Greek thought is the extent of its reliance on dogmatic reasoning alone. With a cheerful ignorance of the conditions of scientific knowledge, it seeks nevertheless to expound a theory of the objective world. The evolution of that theory, culminating in the atomism of Leukippos and Demokritos, presents a gradual approximation to the truth; and that approximation, not the least astonishing achievement of the Greek genius, was effected not so much by minute observation of phenomena as by the continual exchange of conflicting and equally arbitrary opinions. Greek thought during the fifth century resembles, therefore, a prolonged symposium; and though we may grant, in the light of later knowledge, that the atomists had the last word, it can hardly be doubted that the most important contribution to the debate is to be found in the conflict, the details of which we have now explored, between the Pythagoreans on the one hand and the Eleatics on the other, It remains only to recapitulate the main points of the dispute, and to see how the modified Pythagoreanism that emerged from it contributed towards, and yet fell far short of, the Platonic doctrine with which it was soon to be fused. [1]

The first comment to be made on these observations is that, granted that in the light of later knowledge the Atomists had the last word, how is it that 'the most important contribution to the debate' is found to lie, not in their work at all, but in the controversy which prepared the way for the Platonic doctrine of Ideas? Raven expands this conclusion at the end of his book:

The Pythagoreans had, by their theory of numbers and harmony, introduced a crude and undeveloped 'science of measurement'; and to this extent Plato was in their debt. They had, however, failed to distinguish the two ‘widely different' species that fall under the genus metretiké. It was the achievement of Sokrates to turn men's minds towards the 'measuring of things against the mean, the due and morally right'; and it was the achievement of Plato, by his theory of Ideas, finally to distinguish that class of measurement from the other, and to establish it as the mistress of which the other is but the handmaid. [2]

Raven reveals here the same confusion as Cornford, whose pupil he was. It is admitted that the Ionian materialists sought 'to expound a theory of the objective world', but then they were ignorant 'of the conditions of scientific knowledge'; it is admitted that the later materialists, in the atomic theory, did approximate to the truth, but they too neglected 'the minute observation of phenomena'; and so, having disqualified the materialists, we are free to award the palm to Plato's theory of Ideas, which has no claim to be considered scientific at all. It is, rather, anti‑scientific, being so conceived as to discredit the minute observation of phenomena and hence to deny the possibility of scientific knowledge. And this is the theory to which after paying lip‑service to science Raven asks us to give the last word.

The second point inviting comment is his apt designation of early Greek philosophy as a 'prolonged symposium' or debate. This comparison shows up both its positive and its negative aspects. On the one hand, there was at that time no other country in the world where such debates were being held, or could have been held, with the single exception of China. The distinctive character of early Greek philosophy, as compared with Mesopotamian or Egyptian thought, is that it was not dogmatic, in the sense of being restricted by a consciously imposed and accepted body of theological doctrine; on the contrary, it was rational, pursued for the most part with the conscious aim of excluding the supernatural. Hence, although it fell short of scientific knowledge, it was an important step towards the development of science. On the other hand, having little foundation in observation and none at all in experiment, it was dogmatic in the sense that it proceeded from a priori premisses accepted as self‑evident.

In both these aspects it reflected the structure of society as determined by the development of the productive forces. It was the work of a ruling merchant class based on slave labour. Without the leisure created for them by the workers, the intellectuals of the ruling class would have had no time for symposia. True, a leisured class had existed long before in Mesopotamia and Egypt, but this was a priest‑ridden class of landowners preoccupied with the struggle to control those economic forces which eventually brought the merchant class to power. The Bronze Age states of the East had been monarchical and theocratic, whereas the new Greek cities of the Iron Age were almost from the beginning republican—first oligarchical and then democratic. At the same time, as members of a leisured class, these intellectuals had no part in the labour of production, and consequently their theories were divorced from practice. Hence their neglect of observation and experiment, and their 'arbitrary' assumptions. In this connection, however, it should not be overlooked that in the fifth century B.C. Something like a science of medicine did begin to emerge, being based on the systematic observation of actual cases; and, as we have seen, the medical writers protested vigorously against the arbitrary assumptions of the philosophers (pp. 305‑6). In them we hear for the first time the authentic voice of scientific inquiry.

Above all, however, early Greek philosophy expresses the outlook of a class engaged in the exchange of commodities. This does not mean, of course, that every philosopher was a merchant, although some of them were, and many of them were politicians actively engaged in promoting their class interests. Moreover, we must be careful not to exaggerate the development of ancient commodity production. Restricted as it was by slave labour, it was never strong enough to abolish entirely the old households, based on a self‑sufficient natural economy. Hence individual merchants were constantly being absorbed into the landowning class and, in the Hellenistic age, faced with mass revolts of the slaves, the two classes became virtually one. Nevertheless, it was a basic factor in the rise of Greek philosophy. Small in volume though it was, its development was so rapid as to shatter at one blow, so to speak, the primitive tribal ideology, which, owing to their relatively late development, had persisted among the Greeks into the period of the democratic revolution. This explains why, following the invention of the coinage, the spread of money made so deep an impact on Greek life and thought. How, then, does early Greek philosophy reflect the new economic and social relations brought into being by the circulation of money? This question has been constantly before us in the preceding chapters. It is raised again here in order to recapitulate the main thesis of this book.

Primitive society was based on the production of use values. The means of production were communally owned, and both production and consumption were collective. There were only rudimentary divisions of labour, and social relations were simple and direct, being based on kinship. In keeping with these conditions, primitive consciousness was uniformly subjective, concrete, practical. Being only very imperfectly aware of the objectivity of the external world, man was also ignorant of the objective limits to his power to change it. It appeared to him therefore as an assemblage of sensible qualities, as a field for the satisfaction of his desires through the exercise of his will organised in the collective labour of production. And, since his knowledge of it, such as it was, was obtained entirely through production, which alone had enabled him to surpass the purely sensory consciousness of the animals, the categories of his knowledge were of necessity social categories, being determined by the level of development of the productive forces and by the social relations into which he had entered for the purpose of production. Hence, in so far as he was able to think of the external world as something separate from himself, he thought of it as a social order. Nature and society were one. Accordingly, just as his social relations were subject to the collective control of the community, so also the world of nature, as he imagined it, could be controlled by collective action; and, since the human community was composed of totemic kinship groups related by common descent, so also was the community of nature. These rudimentary conceptions of nature found expression, on the one hand, in the form of magic, which served as an illusory technique of production supplementing the deficiencies of the real technique, and, on the other, in the form of myths, which began as nothing more than the oral accompaniment to the magical act, but developed gradually into a rudimentary theory of reality.

With the division of society into classes, which began as a division between the producers and the organisers of production, between manual and mental labour, the conditions were created for immense advances, not only in the technique of production, but also in the organisation of society and in the enrichment of the human consciousness, leading to the emergence of civilisation. At the same time, just as society was divided within itself, so also was the human consciousness. These internal contradictions, kept in constant motion by continuous developments in the forces of production, have been the driving force of history. Without them the polarisation of wealth necessary for the creation of a leisured class, free to devote itself to theoretical pursuits, such as the abstract sciences and philosophy, would have been impossible; yet, with this division between intellectual and manual labour, theory was continually being drawn apart from practice and so losing touch with reality. Without it there could have been no development of abstract thinking, and hence no philosophy or science; with it, the intuitive dialectics of primitive society, springing from the union between theory and practice, was continually being effaced by metaphysical mystifications of the kind described by Marx (p. 322). Such metaphysical views of the world are indeed a reflection of reality; but the reality which they reflect is not simply, as it purports to be, the world of nature; it embodies also the class structure of society as seen by the ruling class, which cannot maintain itself without fostering the illusion that its power is a product, not of history, but of nature. And yet, since the social relations, from which these illusions spring, are constantly changing and developing in response to developments in the productive forces, so all the intellectual products of class society also change and develop, driven forward by their internal contradictions. This is the secret historical logic which, unknown to the debaters, presided over the 'prolonged symposium' of Greek philosophy.

The characteristic feature of class society as opposed to primitive communism is the development of the production of exchange values, that is, of commodity production. The effect of commodity production was to break down the primitive relations, based on the production of use values and regulated by the palpable, personal ties of kinship, and to create a new nexus of relations based on the market, which brings men together simply as individuals, as owners of commodities; and, since the laws governing the marker are beyond their understanding and control, the relation between them appears to them as a relation, not between persons, but between things:

Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from this form itself. The equality of all sorts of human labour is expressed objectively by their products all being equally values; the measure of the expenditure of labour‑power by the duration of that expenditure, takes the form of the quantity of value of the products of labour; and finally, the mutual relations of the producers, within which the social character of their labour affirms itself, takes the form of a social relation between the products. A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men's labour appears to them as an objective character stamped on the product of that labour, because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation existing not between themselves but between the products of their labour. [3]

Having recognised the significance of commodity production for the history of thought, we have no difficulty in understanding why it was that philosophy, as distinct from mythology, emerged for the first time in Greece and China with the invention of the coinage. In the Bronze Age states of Egypt and Mesopotamia commodity production had never penetrated further than the upper strata of society, which accordingly had preserved, in a modified form, the personal relations and mythical ideology of primitive communism. In Greece and China, however, the old relations and ideas were dissolved and replaced by new relations and ideas, which, being based on money, were abstract. This was the origin of philosophy. In both countries the development of these new relations and ideas was subsequently arrested, but, especially in Greece, only after the concept of 'pure reason', reflecting the relations of a monetary economy, had achieved its classical formulation. In this way, man, the subject, learnt to abstract himself from the external world, the object, and see it for the first time as a natural process determined by its own laws, independent of his will; yet by the same act of abstraction he nursed in himself the illusion that his new categories of thought were endowed with an immanent validity independent of the social and historical conditions which had created them. This is the ‘socially necessary false consciousness', which, on the one hand, has provided the epistemological foundation of modern science right down to our own day, and, on the other, has prevented philosophers from recognising the limitations which are inherent in their 'autonomy of reason' in virtue of its origin as the ideological reflex of commodity production.

2. The Illusion of the Epoch

It is characteristic of the ruling class in each epoch of class society to regard the established social order as a product, not of history, but of nature. This is what Marx and Engels called 'the illusion of the epoch'. It corresponds to the concept of 'socially necessary false consciousness', and it follows from the Marxist principle that 'it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, it is their social being that determines their consciousness'.

Each epoch has introduced a new illusion, determined by the new class relations, the new relations of production. Thus the mode of exploitation characteristic of ancient society was slavery; and slavery was justified by Aristotle on the ground that the slave is naturally inferior to the freeman. [4] The mode of exploitation characteristic of feudal society was serfdom; And serfdom was justified by John of Salisbury on the ground that 'according to the law of the universe all things are not reduced to order equally and immediately, but the lowest through the intermediate and the intermediate through the higher'. [5] The mode of exploitation characteristic of capitalist society is wage labour, the labourer being 'free' to sell his labour power, just like any other commodity, on the open market; and this 'free competition' was justified by Rousseau's contrat social, 'which makes naturally independent individuals come in contact and have mutual intercourse'. [6]

These 'illusions' are inevitably reflected in the philosophical and scientific theories of the ruling class. The world of nature and of man is interpreted on the basis of certain assumptions which are accepted without question as absolute truths, although in fact they are historically determined by the position of the given class in the given epoch.

In ancient society freedom was believed to consist in the conscious domination exercised by the slave‑owner over the slave. His domination was socially complete, being limited only by the physical capacities of the slave. This relation gave rise to teleological theories of the universe, which is set in motion and directed by a 'divine master' or 'first mover' without any physical effort on his part but simply by an act of will. There was no conception of natural law. Its place was taken by the idea of anánke or 'coercion', which connoted the relation between slave‑owner and slave.

In feudal society freedom was still believed to consist in the conscious domination of man by man, that is, of the lord over the serf, but the domination is no longer socially complete, being restricted by the feudal system of 'degrees', which include the serf as a full member of the community. Accordingly, the Aristotelian system, which was accepted as the foundation of medieval theology, was modified at certain points. In particular, the divine master operated within the self‑imposed limits of his own appointed 'laws'. This marks the beginning of the concept of natural law.

With the removal of feudal restrictions on 'free competition', the domination of the capitalist over the proletarian became veiled by the relations of commodity exchange; and, stripped of their divine sanction, the universal laws of feudal society became natural laws. It was only in this epoch that science, in the full sense of the word, came into being:

Science is thus conceived for the first rime as the field of laws which connect phenomena in a mutually determining way, and are sufficiently explained by exhibiting the structure of that determinism. [7]

Just as the capitalist system expanded and developed by constantly revolutionising its instruments and relations of production, so in this epoch of society we have witnessed the growth of science on a scale without precedent in the history of the world. At the same time, however, since the relations of production are now veiled by the market, the laws of bourgeois science differ from the 'universal laws' of feudal ideology in that they tend to exclude society. The natural sciences make great advances; the social and historical sciences lag behind. Nature and history are counterposed. Nature is regarded as the realm of necessity, standing outside of man—a realm which man can operate according to his will, provided that he understands its laws; but man himself is somehow 'free', his freedom being seen 'as a product, not of history, but of nature'. In bourgeois society, as Frankfort has so candidly remarked, 'man does not quite succeed in becoming a scientific object to himself' (p. 94). Hence the limitations of bourgeois science:

The weak points in the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism that excludes history and its process, are at once evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions of its spokesmen, whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality. [8]

It is one of the achievements of Marxism to have overcome this limitation. In contrast to earlier forms of materialism, which were all confined to the contemplation of the world as an external object, dialectical and historical materialism embraces man himself, the subject, and thus reunites theory with practice. In this, of course, it expresses the outlook characteristic of the proletariat, the new class which, by abolishing the private ownership of the means of production, is putting an end to the class struggle, and hence also to the division between mental and manual labour.

Reviewing the whole process, we may say that in primitive society the individual was barely conscious either of himself or of his natural environment as existing separately from the social environment of his clan or tribe. The capacity of objectifying the external world developed as the bonds of kinship which united the tribal group were dissolved by divisions of labour, exchange between individuals, and production for exchange. With the growth of commodity production these tribal ties were replaced by ties of a new kind, which, on the one hand, served to define the subjective self‑sufficiency of the individual, and, on the other, to bind him objectively to other individuals in a nexus of relationships which, since they lay beyond his understanding and control, presented themselves to his consciousness, not as they really were, but as absolute truths founded on abstract reason. Hence, as Sohn‑Rethel has well said, 'the discovery of nature as a physical cosmos is correlated with man's discovery of himself as man':

In 'pure thought', arising out of a monetary economy, man becomes aware of himself as distinct from the rest of nature, but only by severing himself from practice, by separating himself from nature. Hence his self‑discovery is also his self‑deception. The power of pure thought and abstract reasoning, which he attributes to the mind, is really due to the fact that commodity exchange has become the nexus of society. The timeless, absolute concepts of pure thought, in terms of which the mind is framed, are based on the elimination of everything that relates to usage. Hence it comes about that, while the bodily part of us, which, measured in terms of human history, is unchanging, appears as timebound and transient, that part of us which arises directly out of our history, our mind, appears as timeless and unoriginated. [9]

These concepts, which constitute the Kantian 'autonomy of reason', are the mental reflex of the social relations brought into being by commodity production, which has been a feature of the economic basis of class society in all its successive epochs. They belong to those 'common forms or general ideas' of which mention is made in the Communist Manifesto:

Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man's ideas, views and conceptions—in one word, man's consciousness—change with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and his social life?

What else does the history of ideas prove than that intellectual production changes its character in proportion as material production is changed? The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class. . . .

The history of all past society has consisted in the development of class antagonisms—antagonisms that assumed different forms at different epochs.

But, whatever form they may have taken, one fact is common to all past ages, viz.. the exploitation of one part of society by the other. No wonder, then, that the social consciousness of past ages, despite all the multiplicity and variety it displays, moves within certain common forms, or general ideas, which cannot completely vanish except with the total disappearance of class antagonisms.

The communist revolution is the most radical rupture with traditional property relations; no wonder that its development involves the most radical rupture with traditional ideas. [10]

Through this revolution man is at last enabled to see the world, including himself, as it really is, and hence, having healed the breach at the heart of human society, to shape his own destiny, master of both society and nature. 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'. This has long been the dream of philosophers, prophets and poets, but for the most part they have placed its realisation in an imaginary world beyond the grave. So Plato:

There the seasons are tempered so that men live without sickness and much longer than here; and in sight, hearing, understanding and all other faculties they are as far superior to us as air is in purity to water and ether to air; and they have sacred groves and shrines there, in which the gods really dwell, and divine voices and oracles and intuitions and other forms of direct intercourse with the gods; and they see the sun, moon and stars as they really are, and in every respect enjoy all the happiness that follows from this. [11]

And so St. Paul:

For now we see in a glass darkly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then shall I know even as I have been known. [12]

Or, if the vision is realised in this life, it is only for a moment, at the point of death, as when the blinded Faust, imagining himself to stand with a free people engaged in creative labour in an earthly paradise, utters the cry that brings on him his doom: Verweile doch, du bist so schön!

In modern times, however, with the rise of the proletariat, bourgeois poets have reflected, some dimly and some more clearly, the growing determination of the workers to build the promised land with their own sweat and blood 'here where men sit and hear each other groan'. Only then, freed of illusions, will man become fully 'self‑knowing'. So Keats:

     'High Prophetess,' said I. 'purge off,
Benign, if it so please thee, my mind's film.'
'None can usurp this height,' returned that shade,
'But those to whom the miseries of the world
Are misery, and will not let them rest.' [13]

So Shelley:

The loathsome mask has fallen; the man remains
Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man,
Equal, unclassed, tribeless and nationless,
Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king
Over himself. [14]

And so Hardy:

But—a stirring thrills the air
Like to sounds of joyance there
     That the rages
     Of the ages
Shall be cancelled and deliverance offered from the
     darts that were,
Consciousness the Will informing, till It fashion all
     things fair! [15]

So long as man is ignorant of the laws which govern his existence, he is their slave, and they appear to him as the will of a superior being; but, in so far as he understands them, he can master them and make them serve his will.

Lastly, the material basis of these poets' visions has been analysed by Marx and presented as a scientific theory, the truth of which is now being demonstrated in practice:

The life process of society, which is based on the process of material production, does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan. [16]


1 Raven 175. [Pythagoreans and Eleatics. Cambridge, 1948.]

2 Ib. 187.

3 Marx: C 1. 42‑3. [Capital. Vol. 1. London, 1946]

4 Arist. Pol. 1254b.

5 John of Salisbury Polycraticus 6. 10.

6 Marx: CCPE 266. [Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Calcutta, 1904]

7 Caudwell FSDC 162. [Further Studies in a Dying Culture. London, 1949.]

8 Marx C 1. 367.

9 Sohn‑Rethel IML. [Intellectual and Manual Labor.]

10 Marx‑Engels MCP 226. [‘Manifesto of the Communist Party.’ SW 1. 189.] 

11 Pl. Phdo 111b‑c.

12 1 Cor. 13. 12.

13 Keats Hyperion.

14 Shelley Prometheus Unbound 3. 4­.

15 Hardy The Dynasts, ad fin.: see Thomson THP. [‘Thomas Hardy and the Peasantry.’ Communist Review August 1949]

16 Marx C 1. 51.

SOURCE: Thomson, George. The First Philosophers: Studies in Ancient Greek Society. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1972. (First published 1955, 2nd ed. 1961, reprinted with corrections, 1972.) Chapter XVI, "False Consciousness," pp. 336-347.

The First Philosophers: Studies in Ancient Greek Society (Contents & Prefaces) by George Thomson

The First Philosophers: Studies in Ancient Greek Society: Chapter XIV: Being (§5 & 6) by George Thomson

The First Philosophers: Studies in Ancient Greek Society: Chapter XV: Materialism and Idealism by George Thomson

Intellectual and Manual Labor: Contents by Alfred Sohn-Rethel

The Thunderbolt, Interpenetration and Heraclitus” by David H. DeGrood

Philosophy and the Division of Labor: Selected Bibliography

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