History, Plato and Marx

Sarah asked:

What philosophical difference between Plato and Marx helps us understand why history is important for Marx but not for Plato?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Your question is appealing at first blush, and the answer also springs to mind at once. For Marx, history recounts the evolution of large economic entities, and it is a perfectly normal and valid perspective to explain the simultaneous evolution of philosophical, political, religious, artistic and scientific achievements in all historical cultures as expressions of their underlying economic activity.

But having said this, one is at a loss to nail down a philosophical difference to Plato that could be helpful. There is simply no point of contact between them, because history plays hardly a role for Plato, and had in any case only just begun a few decades earlier with Herodotus as a new genre of literary art. Accordingly it could not occur to Plato to enquire into a subject matter that was missing from the intellectual agenda of his time. In any case history was a genre of ‘story telling’, rather than an invitation to philosophising.

This being the case, your question could have been answered in one word: “none”. Its presupposition is wrong, as it can’t enable us to compare apples with apples. Moreover the same argument applies to Marx’s position vis-a-vis practically all pre-18th century philosophers, as the first rigorous philosophy of history was penned by Hegel. This was so to speak the enabling factor for Marx — together with a number of thinkers on economics like Adam Smith, Ricardo et al., who provided him with ample intellectual fodder for his own socio-political perspectives. As Marx said himself, apropos Hegel, “The point is not to interpret history, but to change it.” This perspective was necessarily unavailable to Plato.

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