Questions And Answers

Marx’s ‘Confessions’

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya

One of the hobbies popular in England and Germany in the nineteenth century was to place a set of questions before some relative or well-known person (now called 'celebrity') and request her/ him to furnish the answers.[1] Karl Marx too was asked to fill up such a questionnaire by his daughters, Laura and Jenny, in 1865. Some of the questions are jejune, but some of the answers are remarkably interesting. The questions (quite unlike those placed before Rabindranath Tagore) and the answers provided by Marx are given below:[2]

Your favourite virtue                Simplicity
Your favourite virtue in man           Strength
Your favourite virtue in woman         Weakness
Your chief characteristic          Singleness of purpose
Your idea of happiness            To fight
Your idea of misery                 Submission
The vice you excuse most         Gullibility
The vice you detest most          Servility

People are told that 'though responded in a semi-facetious manner the answers throw light on Marx's personality'.[3] Excepting the third, all the answers are only to be expected of Marx.[4]

The questions and answers that follow deserve serious attention :
Your aversion                           Martin Tupper
Favourite occupation               Book-worming
Favourite poet                          Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Goethe
Favourite prose writer             Diderot
Favourite hero                          Spartacus, Kepler
Favourite heroine                     Gretchen

Martin Tupper (1810-89), an English poet, quite popular in his own times, was indeed one of Marx's bete noire, chosen aversion. Marx mentions him with extreme contempt in Capital, vol.I.[5] The poets and prose writers he preferred are all well-known. The name of Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), the famous German astronomer, by the side of Spartacus, the leader of the slave uprising in Rome (first century CE), is intriguing, but not inexplicable.6 Gretchen is Margaret, the pure and virtuous girl Faust loved (Goethe's Faust, Part I).

Four frivolous questions follow:
Your favourite Flower           Daphne
Your favourite Colour           Red
Your favourite Name            Laura, Jenny
Your favourite Dish                Fish

Laura and Jenny were the names of Marx's daughters (his wife too was called Jenny). 'Fish' may have been written to rhyme with 'Dish', and probably has nothing to do with Marx's actual favourite non-vegetarian item. As to his favourite colour, there is no room for doubt; what else could it be but red, the colour chosen for the flag of the socialist movement all over the world?

Two intriguing answers :
What however prompted this wrier to take up this questionnaire is not the questions and answers reproduced above. Well, this character has always been intrigued by the answers that Marx provided to the last two questions:

Favourite maxim      Nihil humani a me alienum puto
Favourite motto       De omnibus  dubitandum

Moscow editors, whether of the erstwhile Foreign Languages Publishing House (FLPH) or Progress Publishers (PP), are not niggardly in providing explanatory notes to such words or expressions as require some elucidation. In most of the cases they also trace the sources for the quotations and give full bibliographical details. But in case of this questionnaire (often called, no doubt jocularly, 'Confessions') they are all silent, in whichever book it is printed.[7] So the onus of searching out the meanings and the sources for these two sentences (called subhashita or sukti, 'well-said sentence' in Sanskrit) falls on the shoulder of the readers.

Nihil humani a me alienum puto
The Latin sentence can be literally translated as 'Nothing human is alien to me.' It is taken from a play called The Self-tormentor (Heauton Timoru-menos) by Terence (Publius Terentius Afer, 195/185-159 BCE), a famous Roman dramatist. This is a part of a speech given to Chremes, an over-inquisitive person, and occurs at the very beginning of the play. The background is as follows: Menedemus discovers the love affair of his son with a young girl. He begins to persecute him about it. The son leaves the country. The father repents his action and, as penance, purchases a farm and works there day in and day out (hence the title of the play). At this point, after a prologue, the curtain rises:

Enter CHREMES, and MENE-DEMUS with a spade in his hand, who falls to digging.

Although this acquaintanceship between us is of very recent date, from the time in fact of your purchasing an estate here in the neighborhood, yet either your good qualities, or our being neighbors (which I take to be a sort of friendship), induces me to inform you, frankly and familiarly, that you appear to me to labor beyond your years, and beyond what your affairs require. For, in the name of Gods and men, what would you have? What can be your aim? You are, as I conjecture, sixty years of age, or more. No man in these parts has a better or a more valuable estate, no one more servants; and yet you discharge their duties just as diligently as if there were none at all. However early in the morning I go out, and however late in the evening I return home, I see you either digging, or plowing, or doing something, in fact, in the fields. You take respite not an instant, and are quite regardless of yourself. I am very sure that this is not done for your amusement. But really I am vexed how little work is done here.1 If you were to employ the time you spend in laboring yourself, in keeping your servants at work, you would profit much more.

Have you so much leisure, Chremes, from your own affairs, that you can attend to those of others—those which don't concern you?

I am a man, and nothing that concerns a man do I deem a matter of indifference to me (humani nihil a me alienum puto). Suppose that I wish either to advise you in this matter, or to be informed myself: if what you do is right, that I may do the same; if it is not, then that I may dissuade you.[8]

Marx refers to this italicized line, with the order of the first two words reversed. The speech has been variously translated. To quote a few:

I am a man: and think myself interested in everything that concerns mankind. Imagine that I wish either to advise you, or to be informed myself: If what you do is right, I would follow your example; if wrong, I would dissuade you from persisting in it. (Translator unknown, 1777)

I am a man, and feel for all mankind.
Think, I advise, or ask for information:
If right, that I may do the same;
if wrong,
To turn you from it.
(Trans—George Coleman)

I'm human, so any human interest is my concern. Call it solicitude or curiosity on my part, whichever you like. If you're right I'll copy you, and if you're wrong I'll try to make you mend your ways. (Trans. Betty Radice, 1965)

I'm a human being; I consider nothing human foreign to me. [Anonymous][9]

The context in which it occurs does not warrant such a maxim or apophthegm Menedemus' words do not call for such a reply fraught with lofty sentiments. One commentator has observed:

The context is illuminating. A busybody farmer named Chremes is told by his neighbour to mind his own affairs; the homo sum credo is Chremes's breezy rejoinder. It isn't meant to be an ordinance from on high; it's just the case for gossip. Then again, gossip—the fascination people have for the small doings of other people—has been a powerful force for conversation among cultures. (www.perseus.tufts. edu)

Yet when the sentence is taken in isolation, torn out of context so to say, it seems to breathe the spirit of humanism.10 No wonder that Marx should like the sentence so much that he would select it as his 'favourite maxim'.

Marx was not alone in singling out this line. In St Augustine (354-430)'s time, the theatre resounded with applause at the delivery of this sentiment; 'for it is replete with the very essence of benevolence and disregard of self ( Cicero quotes the passage in his work De Officiis, Bi C9. This line was painted on the ceiling of Michel de Montaigne (1533-72)'s study tower. Richard Steele (1672-1729,), an eminent English essayist, writes:

The Play was the Self-Tormentor. It is from the beginning to the end a perfect picture of human life, but I did not observe in the whole one passage that could raise a laugh. How well-disposed must that people be, who could be entertained with satisfaction by so sober and polite mirth! In the first Scene of the Comedy, when one of the old men accuses the other of impertinence for interposing in his affairs, he answers, 'I am a man, and can not help feeling any sorrow that can arrive at man.' It is said this sentence was received with an universal applause. There cannot be a greater argument of the general good understanding of a people, than their sudden consent to give their approbation of a sentiment which has no emotion in it. If it were spoken with ever so great skill in the actor, the manner of uttering that sentence could have nothing in it which could strike any but people of the greatest humanity-nay, people elegant and skillful in observation upon it. It is possible that he may have laid his hand on his heart, and with a winning insinuation in his countenance, expressed to his neighbor that he was a man who made his case his own; yet I will engage, a player in Covent Garden might hit such an attitude a thousand times before he would have been regarded. (Spectator, No. 502)

De omnibus dubitandum:
Locating the source for Marx's favourite maxim is not difficult. Wihout being a super-Marxologist or a classical scholar, any educated person might know it. Moscow editors too might have easily found it out from a book of quotations (even in the pre-computer era). The Latin sentence is generally translated as 'Doubt everything' (literally 'All is to be doubted' or 'Let all (things) be doubted'). This is the title of a sermon of Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55), the Danish philosopher : De Omnibus Dubitandum Est (1843? published posthumously). The sentence of course did not originate from him. It is generally attributed to Rene Descartes (1596-1650), the French philosopher, despite the fact that it is nowhere to be found in his published works, nor in his unpublished writings, not even in any of his unfinished drafts. Then wherefrom did Marx get it?[11]

It was Georg Hegel (1770-1831), who in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy (1825-26) first attributed this sentence to Descartes, and Marx most probably got it from him.

This is how Hegel presents Descartes's approach:

Descartes expresses the fact that we must begin from thought as such alone, by saying that we must doubt everything (De omnibus dubitandum est); and that is an absolute beginning. He thus makes the abolition of all determinations the first condition of Philosophy. This first proposition has not, however, the same signification as Scepticism, which sets before it no other aim than doubt itself, and requires that we should remain in this indecision of mind, an indecision wherein mind finds its freedom. It rather signifies that we should renounce all prepossessions—that is, all hypotheses which are accepted as true in their immediacy—and commence from thought, so that from it we should in the first place attain to some fixed and settled oasis, and make a true beginning. In Scepticism this is not the case for with the sceptics doubt is the end at which they rest. But the doubting of Descartes, his making no hypotheses, because nothing is fixed or secure, does not occur in the interests of freedom as such, in order that nothing should have value except freedom itself, and nothing exist in the quality of an external objective. To him everything is unstable indeed, in so far as the Ego can abstract from it or can think, for pure thought is abstraction from everything. But in consciousness the end is predominant, and it is to arrive at something fixed and objective—and not the moment of subjectivity, or the fact of being set forth, known and proved by me. Yet this last comes along with the other, for it is from the starting point of my thought that I would attain my object; the impulse of freedom is thus likewise fundamental. (Hegel, 3:25-26. Emphasis added)

This is another instance of Marx's absolute confidence in Hegel, however unwarranted it might be.[12] Marx had read Descartes thoroughly in his youth, as is evident from his comments on two Descarteses, the natural scientist and the metaphysician, in The Holy Family (4:125-26). Yet, without bothering to verify whether Descartes had really said so, he accepted Hegel's words as true. Not only that, he adopted De omnibus dubitandum as his favourite motto. I do not mean to say that as a motto it is something exceptionable. Marx did not name Descartes as the 'onlie begetter' of this maxim, nor had he mentioned Terence as the author of his favourite maxim. The problem is that nobody knows who formulated this 'motto' or where it originated from. Hegel, in other words, was not right.

Mohit Sen-has referred to this sentence as 'the favourite proverb of Marx' (298) and quoted it twice (298, 402) in his memoirs as Omnia Dubitandum (sic!). In the second instance he calls it 'one of the favourite mottos of Marx', although Marx did not mention any other motto. Sen writes that Sardar K M Panikkar once told him that he (Sen) 'was brilliant but bookish'. 'How could I know India when I knew Latin but not Sanskrit!' (158). Unfortunately, Sen's Latin was inadequate.

Notes :
1.    Rabindranath Tagore too filled up such a set of printed questions. A facsimile in Rabindranath's own handwriting has been reproduced, among other sources, in Visva Bharati News, Vol. XXVIII No. XI, May 1960,190.
2.   The version printed in METEC, pp.226-H7 (reproduced in Prawer, 290, and reprinted in MELA, p.436 with minor variations) is selected, for it is the most complete one. Besides METEC and MELA, another source for the 'Confessions' is a collection of articles by different hands, called Communist Morality (date unknown, but published from the then USSR in or before 1966, the year I bought my copy). It contains, along with the writings (mostly excerpts) by Marx and others, a printed version of the text of one of the three variants of this 'Confessions' (reproduced above) and the facsimile of another, which mentions several other names among Marx's favourite prose writers (in addition to Diderot): Lessing, Hegel, and Bal. (Balzac?).
3.   MELA, 490 n244.
4.   The answer, 'Weakness' to the question, 'Your favourite virtue in woman' is rightly disapproved by all feminists and anti-sexists. But the answer might have been prompted by Marx's response to the earlier question. He just provided the antonym of 'strength,' and went back, apparently with more seriousness, to the questions that followed.
5.   Moscow ed. Part VII chap. XXIVsection 5 p.571 and n2; Penguin ed. 758 and 759 n51.
6.   Engels too thought highly of Kepler. Speaking of the darkness prevailing in Germany during 1648-1789 Engels mentions Kepler along with Jakob Boehme (theologian), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (philosopher), and Johann Sebastian Bach (musician) as 'glimmers of light'. MELA. 344.
7.   See n2 above. None of the authors/editors of these works provides the meaning of the two Latin sentences, nor does identify the sources for these two quotations.
8.   The speech in the text reads:

   Homo sum:
      humani nihil a me alienum puto.
      Vel me monere hoc vel
percontari puta:
      Rectum'st, ego ut faciam ;
non est, te ut deterream.

The Latin original, its English translation, and annotations are available on-line in the Perseus Project www. from which all quotations (unless otherwise mentioned) are taken.
9.   All are available on the web..
10.  Not this sentence alone. Terence's plays always contain such quotable quotes. For instance, in the Self-tormentor there are such lines as, 'Draw from others the lesson that may profit yourself, 'Time heals all wounds', 'Extreme justice is often extreme malice,' There is nothing so easy but that it becomes difficult when you do it reluctantly,' and, last but not least,
'Where there is life there is hope.' Is the Bangla proverb, yatakshan shwaas tatakshan aash (As long there is breath, there is hope), derived from this saying, or is it just another instance of great humans thinking alike (and fools seldom differing)?
11.   Another such sentence attributed to Descartes without citation is 'Doubt is the origin of wisdom' (Dubium sapientiae initium). Several other 'unsourced quotes' are attributed to Descartes,
12.  For an instance see Bhattacharya 2014, 37-41, which deals with Marx's view of Hanuman and Sabala, borrowed from Hegel. In this case too Hegel was hopelessly wrong.

Works Cited :
Bhattacharya, Ramkrishna. Hegel, Heine, Marx: Hanuman and Sabala. Frontier. Autumn Number (September 21-October 18, 2014), 37-41.
Communist Morality, n.d. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. 1995. Lectures on the History of Philosophy, vol.3: Medieval and Modern Philosophy. Trans. by E S Haldane and Frances H. Simson. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.
Marx, Karl and Federick Engels. 1975. The Holy Family. Collected Works, vol.4. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
MELA = Marx, Karl & Frederick Engels. 1970. Marx Engels on Literature and Art. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
METEC = Marx Engels through the Eyes of Their Contemporaries (1972). 1978. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
Prawer, S S, 1978. Karl Marx and World Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sen, Mohit. 2003. A Traveller and the Road: The Journey of an Indian Communist. New Delhi: Rupa,.
Tagore, Rabindranath.1960. ['Confessions']. Visva Bharati News, Vol. XXVIII No. XI, May 1960, p. 190.
Web Sources :
[Acknowledgements: Amitava Bhattacharyya, Amlan Dasgupta, Sunish Kumar Deb. The usual disclaimers apply.]

Autumn Number, Vol. 48, No. 14 - 17, Oct 11 - Nov 7, 2015