I’ll be starting today several posts on the writings of Karl Marx– most particularly of the YOUNG Marx. The book, Writings of Young Marx On Philosophy And Society (translated by Loyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat) will be our guide.
I want to start with teenaged Marx, writing a school essay, as he looks out upon the world and begins to think about choosing a career. Judging by how Marx’s personality developed over the years, I think he was far more sincere in writing his essays for school than I was at that age.
Marx wrote in his essay Reflections Of A Youth On Choosing An Occupation –written when was he was only seventeen years old– that the wrong career choice “can destroy a man’s entire life, defeat all his plans, and make him unhappy,” whereas if we choose the correct vocation, “we can most shine” and our job “will never make us weary, subdue our zeal, or dampen our inspiration.” But if we make the mistake of taking on a post with responsibilities which we can not fulfill, “the most natural result then, is self-contempt”– one of life’s most painful feelings, and one the external world can do very little to alleviate.
At this point, Young Marx has not yet settled upon the term “alienation” to refer to the soul-destroying effects of the wrong work environment. For the moment, his term of choice is “self-contempt.” This concept will morph into alienation when he is in his late twenties.
(Which reminds me of the depressing and simultaneously awe-inspiring realization I had while reading the writings of Young Marx: Karl Marx had undoubtedly thought more deep thoughts by the time he was thirty than most of us think during our entire life).
Young Marx rhapsodizes upon his theme of workplace-induced self-contempt… “Self-contempt is a serpent which externally gnaws in one’s breast, sucks out the heart’s life-blood, and mixes it with the poison of misanthropy and despair.”
What does this intelligent seventeen-year-old suggest we do to avoid an occupation that will saddle us with a life-time of self-contempt? Seek dignity, instructs the Young Marx. “Only that position can impart dignity in which we do not appear as servile tools but rather create independently within our circle.”
Furthermore, one should seek employment in a field which improves, not denigrates, the lives of one’s fellow humans. We are not designed to work in opposition to the good of mankind. In fact, says Young Marx, “Man’s nature makes it possible for him to reach his fulfillment only by working for the perfection and welfare of his society.” God has placed inside the breast of each man the same goal… “to improve mankind, and himself.” It is up to each man to then “choose the position in society which is most appropriate” for furthering this great goal.
“If a person works only for himself,” says the seventeen-year-old Marx, and ignores this great goal assigned to him, “he can perhaps be a famous scholar, a great wise man, a distinguished poet– but never a complete, genuinely great man.”
And Young Marx believes his career-philosophy is backed-up by the facts… “History calls those the greatest men who have enobled themselves by working for the universal,” he states. He is also convinced that genuine happiness, not just greatness, will result from working for the greater good… “experience praises as the most happy the one who made the most people happy.”
Lastly, the Young Marx, who has not yet waxed to vexation when it comes to religion, reminds his readers of the example of Jesus Christ, “the ideal for which we are all striving,” and who sacrificed himself for the sake of humanity.
Other posts on YOUNG MARX by Hammering Shield…