In his early essay On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, Nietzsche identifies three different ways of using history: the monumental, the antiquarian, and the critical.[1] Monumental historiography sees history as the achievements of “great men,” with all the inspiration and indirect (or sometimes not even indirect) suppression such exclusion entails. Antiquarians cherish the past for being past, in all its little details and eccentricities, with a great willingness to obsess over minutiae and hastily dismiss criticisms of what happened as hastily dismissive. Critical history looks into the past so as to critique the present for neglecting positive possibilities of the past. Each approach to history, when practiced in isolation from the others, winds up hamstringing our ability to flourish in time, as beings that feel burdened by the “it was.”[2] Instead, a balance of approaches is necessary.[3]

Kōjin Karatani’s newly translated book, Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy, is an intriguing exercise in the “critical” mode of historiography, but lacks the balance of the other two approaches. I am an antiquarian by both disposition and training, so it is hard for me to read Karatani’s sweeping claims and not be bothered by the rushed character of his arguments about the past. I can recognize this flaw in myself, and I try to keep an open mind about it. Nonetheless a few things bother me about this book, but not simply because they are different than the claims I would make—Karatani’s erasure of Egypt from “the origins of philosophy” being one of them—but also because Karatani’s “critical” historical approach (in the Nietzschean sense) hinders him from getting something genuinely new out of the Presocratic figures who are ordinarily dismissed as mere precursors. Karatani’s previous books distinguish him as a staunch Marxist, which is fine and to which I am sympathetic, but he lets his Marxist orthodoxy get in the way of the texts he analyzes, and what’s worse at times that puts him into contradiction with himself. For instance, he begins his book by critiquing the tired old dichotomy of philosophy and religion, such that “never the twain shall meet”—a line from Rudyard Kipling that I quote deliberately to echo Karatani’s point that it’s due to imperialist bias that we see “Eastern” philosophy as backward because it is bound up with religion, but distinguish “Western” philosophy as advanced for (supposedly) having extricated itself from religion.[4] But then in Chapter Two of the book, he writes: “It is clear enough that Ionian natural philosophy began as a critique of religion, in that it sought to explain the world without reference to the gods.”[5]

I have a lot of problems with this.

First of all, this flatly ignores the complexity of the philosophers Karatani invokes us to take a closer look at. To take one example, Thales not only said “All is water,” but he also said “All things are full of gods.” Karatani begins his book with the promise to do something fresh and exciting by thinking of philosophy’s origins from another side and angle, but then by emphasizing Thales and others as being good materialists (“All is water”) and deemphasizing or ignoring their theological conceptions when they would challenge his Marxist notion of materialism’s entailments (“All things are full of gods”), Karatani reduces his own project down to seeing the Ionian philosophers as Marxists avant la lettre. That then prompts readers like myself to ask: why not just read Marx then? We read figures from different historical periods because they have different perspectives than we do.

Second, Karatani’s orthodox Marxist position that religion’s primary function and value is to explain things (poorly) neglects the element of praxis in religion; while he occasionally acknowledges that religion can take different and more liberatory forms (under his A, B, C, and D modes), at moments such as in the passage quoted above, he dispenses with this nuance, with the purpose in mind to reject what is defunct and oppressive about capitalist society by showing its justifications to be flawed from the very get-go, anchored as they are in the flaws and crudeness of Athenian ideology. However much we can get on board with Karatani’s ultimate aim, it is important that we not simply see whatever we want to see in the past, and Karatani’s zeal to find confirmation of capitalism’s hollowness blinds him to monolithically characterize the Ionians as Egalitarian and Observant and the Athenians as Elitist and Obfuscatory.

It is this dichotomy that Karatani begins to develop in earnest in Chapter Two of Isonomia, having spent the Introduction sketching the terms of investigation and Chapter One articulating the sociopolitical preconditions for Ionian philosophy in isonomy (as my friends James Stanescu and Joshua Miller showed on their blogposts, respectively). Karatani begins the chapter by noting the inaccuracy of the trope that ethics begins with Plato, which I appreciate, since Heraclitus and Pythagoras and others have quite a lot to say about ethics. He begins by announcing that natural philosophy and ethics can be and were in fact thought together, by the Ionians first and foremost, because their isonomy meant individuals could exit the community and in so doing assert the possibility of individual dissent as valid.[6] Thus, contrary to people such as Hegel who claim that Socrates represents a new world-historical possibility of the individual in opposition to the community, Karatani sets forth that the Ionian materialists were already doing that and doing it better, because they were materialists—and furthermore that Socrates himself couldn’t have possibly shared Plato’s metaphysical views because a different pupil of his, Antisthenes, rejected Plato’s forms.[7] Yet a few pages later, perhaps sensing that such dissent would imply bad government on the part of Ionian poleis, Karatani backtracks: “The Ionian thinkers were of the polis. As much as they were advocates of a cosmopolitan and universal ethics, they sought to realize these in their chosen polis.”[8] One wonders if any of the native people in the lands the Ionians colonized were interviewed about their feelings about this “cosmopolitan and universal ethics”; in any case, no matter, for Karatani that land was terra nullius.

Karatani then goes on to say that it is this free market community of craftsmen free from state interference that enables individuals to think critically about a wide range of phenomena: health and the causes of disease in the case of Hippocrates, the longue durée of worldwide micro-phenomena that go into social behaviors in the case of Herodotus, war and the foolishness of thinking gods are in charge of it in the case of Homer, and the supremacy of natural forces and importance of labor in the case of Hesiod. For each of these Ionians, Karatani argues that their social freedom under isonomy enabled them to depart from tribal superstitions about gods, and vice-versa, their materialist skepticism about the supernatural enabled them to critique social stratifications. To gloss the essence of Karatani’s view: isonomy is the mortal enemy of hierarchy, because isonomy brooks neither arche (rule) nor what is hieros (sacred). No gods, no masters, no heroes, whatever.

I don’t know Herodotus or Hippocrates well enough to dispute his associations in this chapter, though when it comes to both Homer and Hesiod I object with some confidence. To argue that Homer and Hesiod are secretly skeptical or satirical of the gods they praise is a big claim, especially with respect to Zeus, who as king of the gods does not exactly reflect isonomy, and Karatani’s evidence for it is scant. Prima facie, in their texts Zeus and (through him) the institution of monarchy both come off as stable and ideal, and upon rereading the famous passage about the Shield of Achilles in Book XVIII of the Iliad, I do not see a clear representation of isonomy idealized on that shield, as Karatani claims.[9] Then there are passages like this, that drive my little antiquarian pea-brain crazy to read: “What should be clear from the above is that Homer’s personification of the gods is not mythological in nature. It rather lays bare the mechanism driving humans, and finds the means of overcoming it in assembly and trial in the public square. In this sense, we may say that Homer anticipates the critique of religion in Ionian natural philosophy.”[10]

Notice the tidy compartmentalization between religion and myth on the one hand, and driving mechanisms and philosophy on the other. Or we can take this passage: “Hesiod finds hope not over the horizon in some other world, but in the application of labor in the present world. We would never expect this kind of thinking to emerge in a society where warriors rule and labor is left to slaves and serfs.”[11] As it happens, I can imagine a society that demands everybody work that’s nonetheless pretty stratified; inversely, there have been bellicose societies that do not posit an afterlife or the existence of another world. Egypt was for quite a long while a highly stratified society with an elaborate bureaucracy with a clear supreme God, yet one cannot help but be struck by the full-throated advocacy of the downtrodden and egalitarian morality put forth in masterpieces such as The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant. But Karatani’s characterization of Hesiod as proto-Wobbly fits with his Marxist humanism and the labor theory of value: “The Athenian philosophers lacked love of techne. This was because they did not have sufficient love of humanity.”[12] In this respect Karatani when adores Herodotus for interpreting custom (nomos) as a superstructure arising out of nature (physis) as its base, it’s impossible not to see Karatani deeming Herodotus an honorary historical materialist. But then there’s this passage I found in Herodotus, which Karatani does not cite:

Divine providence is wise, as one would expect, and it looks as though it has arranged things so that all timid and edible creatures produce young in large quantities, because otherwise they might be eaten into extinction, while all fierce and dangerous creatures produce young in small quantities.[13]

I wonder what Karatani would make of the quasi-Leibnizian theodicy Herodotus offers us here, interwoven as it is with the view that events in nature are the result of benevolent design by a supreme divinity with a clear vision. He sees a simple homology between a society’s theology and its social structure, and this is no doubt common enough and highly instructive, but my experience with liberation theology has taught me to notice that social structures are never quite so monolithic, nor are their theologies. Progressive and regressive elements exist alongside one another in religions, and everything rests upon how we acknowledge and motivate the terms of this dissent, instead of placing one side as possessing uniformly progressive elements and another side as possessing all the regressive ones. Observe what Karatani does in this passage toward the end of Chapter Two:

In Ionia, though, even if the people attained some degree of leisure, their life did not then become contemplative. In Asia, the contemplative or theoretical arts were advanced by the priesthood. In both Mesopotamia and Egypt, the concept of a transcendental God was established along with the patrimonial bureaucratic state. The priests who were in charge of religion also advanced inquiries into nature, such as astronomy, mathematics, and so forth. In Ionia, there was no ruler or bureaucracy, nor the idea of a transcendental God. Though there were ritual specialists and priests, they held neither power nor authority. In a society of isonomia, there is no recognition of a transcendental position.[14]

Karatani characterizes Athenian democracy and its philosophical defenders (Plato and Aristotle) as the ideological products of a loafer class of religious explainers, and Ionian isonomy and its philosophical pioneers as the open-minded free spirits coming up naturally out of a working class of humanist producers. Because the Ionians valued labor and technology, they wrested themselves free from the shackles of mythology and the hierarchies inevitably built up when there are gentlemen of leisure. Yet, following Marcuse, I find these orthodox Marxist dichotomies to be uninteresting and unimaginative. What if technology were not simply enabling individual artisans to exit and set up shop in colonies in what I will call the “paleoliberalism” Karatani admires, but instead techne could enable us to engage in mythopoiesis that retains the hieros (sacred) as the arche (rule) instead of some lord ruling (hierarchy without kyriarchy)? Marcuse had no time for the sacred, but his vision of a future form of work as artistic play leads the way:

Then, art, may have lost its privileged, and segregated, dominion over the imagination, the beautiful, the dream. This may be the future, but the future ingresses into the present: in its negativity, the de-sublimating art and anti-art of today’s ‘anticipate’ a stage where society’s capacity to produce may be akin to the creative capacity of art, and the construction of the world of art akin to the reconstruction of the real world—union of liberating art and liberating technology.[15]

What if, instead of assuming that there are artisans on the one side and mythmakers (i.e., storytellers, or artists) on the other, we found a way to combine labor and leisure, technology and reverence, isonomy and free time? What would such a story that combines them look like? Perhaps it would have to be a new story, a new myth for an age that thinks of new and myth as antonyms. Perhaps it would rhyme with an old story, a very old one, about a divine craftsman who forges a golden shield, on which we find juxtaposed in living tension and vivacity a death-dealing and a life-giving way of organizing our communities and our individual aspirations, free and free for all time.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, in Untimely Meditations, trans. Daniel Breazeale. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. Page 67.

[2] Nietzsche 61.

[3] Nietzsche 70-71.

[4] Kōjin Karatani, Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy, trans. Joseph A. Murphy. Durham and London: Duke University Press. 2017. “The usual distinction is that philosophy is rational, while religion is nonrational or beyond reason. Further, philosophy is Greek in origin and religion Hebraic. However, such divisions thwart our understanding not just of philosophy but of religion” (8).

[5] Karatani 46.

[6] Karatani 35.

[7] Karatani 36-37. I don’t understand how this is the slam dunk Karatani seems to think it is, but nonetheless it is clear that it is one of many slams against Plato in Karatani’s book. Karatani almost seems constitutionally incapable of admitting Plato could be a good philosopher, an overcorrection for the history of philosophy being nothing but footnotes to Plato, for which Karatani fights back on behalf of the footnotes.

[8] Karatani 37.

[9] Karatani 50.

[10] Karatani 51.

[11] Karatani 53.

[12] Karatani 41.

[13] Herodotus, The Histories III.108, p. 214. Trans. Robin Waterfield. Oxford University Press.

[14] Karatani 54.

[15] Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. 1969. Page 48.