Reason and Revolution

Marcuse, Herbert. Reason and Revolution, new edition. Boston, 1960.


Any recognition of individual freedom consequently seemed to involve tearing down the ancient democracy. ‘That very subjective freedom which constitutes the principle and determines the peculiar form of freedom in our world – which forms the absolute basis of our political and religious life, could not manifest itself in Greece otherwise than as a destructive element.’

This destructive element was brought into the Greek city-states by Socrates, who taught precisely the ‘subjectivity’ that Hegel calls the destructive element for the ancient democracy. ‘It was in Socrates that… the principle of subjectivity [Innerlichkeit] – of the absolute independence of thought – attained free expression.’ Socrates taught that ‘man has to discover and recognize in himself that which is Right and Good, and that this Right and Good is in its nature universal.’ There are beautiful things in the state, good and brave deeds, true judgments, just judges – but something exists that is the beautiful, the good, the brave, etc.; it is more than all these particulars and common to all of them. Man has an idea of the beautiful, the good, etc., in his notion of beauty, goodness, etc. The notion comprises what is truly beautiful and good, and Socrates charged the thinking subject to discover this truth and to maintain it against all external authority. Socrates thus set the truth apart as a universal and attributed the knowledge of this universal to the autonomous thought of the individual. By doing so he ‘set the individual up as the subject of all final decisions, against the fatherland and customary morality.’ Socrates’ principles thus show ‘a revolutionary opposition to the Athenian State.’ He was condemned to death. This act was justified in so far as the Athenians were condemning their ‘absolute foe.’ On the other hand, the death sentence contained the ‘deeply tragical’ element that the Athenians thereby also condemned their society and their state. For, their sentence recognized that ‘what they reprobated in Socrates had already struck firm root among themselves.’