Epictetus (Discourses)

This is a manual for Business Ethics 101. The following metaphor is not original to me, but imagine your life as placed on a wheel with spokes.  If you focus your life in the center, the hub, then when the wheel turns, as it must, you will be moved, to be sure, but you won’t be thrown over the place.

Epictetus exhorts the reader to develop a strong inner life.  This goes beyond merely getting your priorities right.  It means being proactive and never reactive.  It even includes a calculus for business decisions.  Know your worth. 

Epictetus does not paint a rosy picture for the reader.  Having been a slave in a cruel world, he knows how the world can be.  He does not think it will ever get any better.  If Stoicism has sometimes been accused of being resigned to despair, that criticism might have some justification with Epictetus.

He does give us the basics of a Stoic worldview. There is the standard Stoic line on rationality.  Man is midway between beasts and God.  From the former he has a body, the latter a mind.


Man’s good is a type of moral purpose, or “a disposition of the will with respect to appearances” (1.8).

On the Gods

When Epictetus uses the term “God,” he can mean the gods, Jupiter, and/or a guardian spirit within us. He believes our souls are “parts and portions of God.”  We also have a guardian genius with us.

As a good Stoic, Epictetus assumes some form of pantheism, albeit not an extreme kind.  All things are united as one (I:14).  He does not mean some form of Eastern pantheism.  His point, so it seems, is to find a reciprocal relationship between heaven and earth.  In fact, “our bodies are intimately linked with the earth’s rhythms.”  We do not have to accept his mild pantheism, but that statement is not wrong.


“Impressions” is the key word in Epictetus’s epistemology. It is not always clear what an impression is. Notwithstanding that, they come to us in four ways: “things are and appear to be; or they are not, and do not appear to be, or they are, but do not appear to be; or they are not, and yet appear to be” (I.27.1).

 The mind forms “ideas that correspond with the impressions” (I.14.8). That seems accurate enough, but Epictetus takes it a step further with his definition of reason: a collection of individual impressions (I.20.5). That does not seem right.


The goal of education is to bring our will in alignment with God’s reality and governance (I.12.15). As long as we understand that Epictetus does not mean the same thing by “God” as one normally does, it is a true enough statement. 

One strength in his approach is that there is not a sharp line between epistemology, education, and ethics.  Epistemology and education dovetail with his use of the term “impressions.”  We all have preconceptions. Our reason makes use of “impressions.”  Getting an education, therefore, is “learning to apply natural preconceptions to particular cases as nature prescribes, and distinguishing what is in our power from what is not” (I.22.9). That last clause connects education with ethics.  The wise man understands what he can and cannot control.


The goal of virtue is “a life that flows smoothly” (12).  Even though he does not use the term, he means that we should reach a state of apatheia. We can only do this by having “correct judgments about externals,” as externals are the only things outside of our control (I.29.24).


If one wants to read a primary source on Stoicism, this is as good as any.  Epictetus, perhaps in line with his own philosophy of limitations, never gets to the substance of the issue.  These are more conversations than logical analyses, and they should be judged as such.  It even seems that Epictetus commits a logical fallacy.  He writes: “God is helpful. Whatever is good is also helpful.  It is reasonable to suppose, then, that the divine nature and the nature of the good correspond” (II.8.1).  The conclusion is certainly true, but Epictetus committed the fallacy of the undistributed middle premise. We can illustrate it in a Venn Diagram.


Epictetus lacks the nobility of Marcus Aurelius and the poetic grandeur of Lucretius. In some ways, however, he is more accessible than both.


Reforming Education (Adler)

Adler, Mortimer J. Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind.

Provocative writers make you rethink assumptions.  Truly great writers make you a better human being at what you do.  Mortimer Adler is a truly great thinker.  This book is a collection of his key essays on education, what is wrong with it, and how to fix it. Behind every essay is Adler’s commitment to the Great Books program.

We define education as “the process whereby the powers of human nature become developed by good habits” (Adler 17).  An educated person is someone who is able to think through the Great Ideas.  This means that no one will be an educated person upon graduation of high school or college.  All we can reasonably hope to teach are the skills that prepare you to live as a free man. Intrinsic to Adler’s definition are a host of assumptions that will not be granted by today’s academic.  Too bad for them.  Adler assumes there is a human nature that can develop habits towards the Good. That also implies the existence of an objective, knowable Good.

Following that, if education prepares the free man for society, then there must be some end or goal that society should follow.  A good education understands what is good for man at any time in place and/or what is good for man as he is a member of a particular society (44).  As such, education cannot be severed from the virtues.  Adler asserts that the “proximate ends of education are the moral and intellectual virtues” (60). The ultimate end is the good life.

A habit, accordingly, is a development “of powers or fulfillments of capacities” that “can be said to be good if they conform to the natural tendency of the power of capacity which they development” (61).  From one, then, education is quite simple: identify the powers and capacities of a student and develop them towards the Good.

If schooling is simply the perfection of habits so that one may live a life of freedom towards some ultimate End, then we have to change the way we look at schooling.  We simply need to make “young learners” rather than degrees (138). This requires revamping entire departments.  For example, and here I speak as an English teacher, get rid of the English department.  That is the first step in bringing the humanities back to the center. English should rather be “The Great Books” plus rhetoric. Part of this is to get rid of the atomistic approach to teaching grammar.  Also worth considering are the “three negations: abolish all departments, abolish all electives, abolish all textbooks” (163).  If you can only pick one, choose the last one.  There is no point in ever using a textbook in a humanities class.

The goal of the teacher is to be, as we saw in Plato’s Thaetaetus, a midwife to the student’s ideas. This requires the teacher to avoid the pitfalls of indoctrinating lecturing on one hand, and freestyle learning on the other. Rather, the teacher must cultivate the mind of the learner.  The teacher is a cooperative artist, not a sole cause (171).

I do not praise all of the book, though.  Adler’s approach assumes not only the legitimacy of modern democracy, but even its totalizing approach.  He is consistent, though.  If you believe in democracy (or representative government), which at its basic is extending enfranchisement to the whole, then it is hard to see why public education shouldn’t be compulsory.  Of course, I do not think it is, but only because I do not grant his major premise.  

Tom Jones, A Foundling (Fielding)

Fielding, Henry.  Tom Jones, A Foundling. New York: Everyman’s Library, [1991].

The author, Henry Fielding, likely drew upon his extensive experience in legal settings to give us this delightful comedy of errors. Comedy, though, in this case means a happy ending.  The book is quite serious.

 This is one of the first novels in English.  At the time there really was not the category of novel. The author is quite clear it is a history, although it really does not function as one. This allows him to let the reader come to his own conclusions.

He tells the story of a young foundling, Tom Jones.  Tom might be free with his virtue at times, but he genuinely likes other people and will sacrifice his needs for their good. He is like Andy from Parks and Recreation.

It is hard not to love Tom.  He is not perfect, but his imperfections, namely being somewhat loose with his virtue, often come from the lack of a father figure. True, Mr Allsworthy, the functional mayor of the village, has more or less adopted Tom, but he never quite gives Tom the fatherly care he needs.

There is a theme in this work.  Love is a rational passion that seeks the good of its object. Tom must learn to cultivate the rational aspect of this virtue. It takes time and trial and error.  Without the needed father figure, it often involves more error.

The book’s reputation suggests that Tom is jumping in and out of bed with different women.  He is not.  There are only three episodes of such by my counting.  One is implied and the other mentioned in passing.  None of it is any different from the book of Proverbs’ explaining the fools’ walk the wayward woman’s house.

The ending of the book is satisfactory.  Fielding expertly ties all his loose ends.  As regarding Tom’s surprise lineage, it is not what you expect.  You will begin to have an idea of who the father is by the middle of the book.  Pay attention to one key female character (which leads to a hilariously erroneous inference by Jones’s servant Partridge).

On the Heavens (Aristotle)

The primary difficulty with this work is we are so used to a Copernican cosmology that we almost can’t understand what he is saying. His conclusions we can dismiss outright. It might be well, however, to reflect on how he set the stage for cosmology for the next 2,000 years.

His geocentrism appears, and I say it appears because I don’t always understand what he is saying here, to hinge on the argument is that the earth can’t move. We’ll try to unpack that. The heavens cannot move because they are infinite, and an infinite body can’t move in a circle because it would have to move across an infinite range in finite time.

In language anticipating Christian theism, he says heaven is eternal. Well, true. He doesn’t mean by heaven what we mean by heaven, though. What is heaven? Imagine the boundary point between our world and the next (sky, maybe?). Heaven is the substance of the circumference.

Since heaven is eternal, and heaven always has a limit, this means the earth is eternal (283b). This also explains why the earth doesn’t move. If it moves, then it must have begun in time.


He introduces numerous fascinating discussions on the concept of “infinity” that are still in play today (271b). Quite rightly, he notes that an infinite cannot be traversed.

He believes that the earth is a sphere. Sorry, flat-earthers.


He rejects the idea of a plurality of worlds (278a) since only our world contains the entirety of matter.

He says the universe is spherical. I’m not so sure, given big-bang cosmology. It’s more of a funnel-shape.

“We take it for granted that the earth is at rest” (289b).

He says imagine that there are circles within circles. The circles closest within would take longer in the revolution. You don’t need modern science to know this is false. The Greeks ran track. Any runner knows that whoever is on the outer lanes has to run longer.

He rejects the idea of the earth spinning on its axis (296a).

Augustine’s Confessions

For the most part I will try to avoid some of the more memorable scenes. You probably already know them.

Augustine begins by lamenting his learning of Virgil. Why should he weep over Dido when his teachers did not know enough for him to weep over his own soul? This might seem that Augustine is condemning classical learning, and he probably thought he was, but Augustine’s own life mirrors Aeneas’s, so there is that.

Like Aeneas, Augustine arrives in Carthage. And like Aeneas, Augustine succumbs to its pleasures. He failed to understand that true love was a calm “communion of minds” (2.2). Rather, he sought only to be in love with love.

We also get a profound meditation on the proper ordering of goods. There isn’t just one “flat” good thing in our lives. There is a gradation of goods. We sin by desiring lower goods at the expense of higher. This anticipates his later claim that evil is a lack and/or a perversion of the good.

In books three and four he meets a number of important people. He meets Cicero in a book, and Cicero teaches him to seek after higher things. Unfortunately, he also becomes a Manichee. From the Manichees he learned wrong ideas of God and evil. He thought substances must be physical, and so he could not imagine an immaterial substance (3.7).

He also met Faustus, the leader of the Manichees. Ironically, this would lead him out of Manicheanism. He was underwhelmed. Most importantly, he meets Ambrose in Italy, and in Ambrose’s rhetoric he sees that form = substance.

Although in book seven he was still struggling with Manicheanism, he found the Platonists’ books. This reoriented him to the possibility of immaterial substances. He now saw reality as a chain of being. Things are good, and the lower a good is, the more susceptible to corruption it is. This was a breakthrough. Evil couldn’t exist unless there was already a good for it to corrupt. Evil, therefore, is a lack.

Book 8 contains his famous conversion scene. It is dramatic psychology. You’ll have to read it. It also takes place in a garden. That is typology and very important.

Book 9 contains the baptisms of him, his son, Nebredius (I think), and Alypius.

Books 10-13 are extended meditations on memory, time, and creation.

In terms of reading and appreciating the Great Christian Tradition, this is the classic text with which to start.

Volume 2 of the Syntopicon (Adler)

Mortimer Adler regularly claimed that it was impossible to be educated before the age of 40.  If true, I would also suggest it is difficult to be educated without working through something like his Syntopicon.  The setup is the same as the earlier volume.    There is a ten page essay, topical indexes, and a recommended reading list.  This review will only outline his key topics, the various positions taken, and how the great thinkers interacted with their predecessors, if time permits.


Man is the only subject where the knower and the object known are the same (Adler 1).  Indeed, “the human intellect is able to examine itself.”

The Western tradition is divided on man’s essence.  The standard (and correct) view is that man differs from animals because he is rational.  His use of speech is a consequence of this rationality.  It is not the main difference.  If this is true, then there must be some distinction between reason and sense (5).


The mind is capable of self-knowledge. This is the difference between sense and intellect.  Senses do not seem to be aware of themselves (172). 

Following Aristotle, we see that if “the soul is the principle of life and all vital activities, so mind is the subordinate principle of knowledge” (173).  And the act of intellect moves as such:

1) conception
2) judgment
3) reasoning.


Adler wisely separates the principle of absolute government from monarchy, since republics and democracies can be as absolutist (205). Monarchy as an idea underwent a transformation in the Middle Ages. It did resemble an absolute system in one sense by giving power to one man, yet it placed supremacy of law in the hands of the people (207).  The only problem with this idea is that given its birth in feudalism, it did not last long in the modern age.

Hegel suggests a robust constitutional monarchy.  In this view the state is more of a corporation. The advantage of this view is that it is quite flexible with modernity and market forces  It doesn’t have any of the disadvantages that plagued medieval models.  On the other hand, it’s not always clear what Hegel is saying.

One and the Many

In line with Aristotle, unity is the first property of being.  All contraries are reducible to things like being/nonbeing, one/many, etc.  Moreover, unity belongs to the individual natural substance.  Man is a substance.  He is not made of other substances.  Machines, though, are.

This is somewhat different from Plato.  Plato’s view had problems.  The idea of the one is also one idea among many.  Plotinus corrected some of these problems.  For him, the one transcends being.  It also transcends intelligence, since knowing requires an object, which would introduce duality into the One.


Opposites do not simply distinguish, they exclude.

Plato: Everything has one opposite.  This was his idea in Gorgias and Protagoras on the unity of virtue.  This also illustrates the numerous subdivisions in Western taxonomies.

Aristotle: made the distinction between correlative opposites (double, one-half) and contrary opposites (odd/even).

Hegel: Unites opposites by reconciling their differences.  Every finite phase of reality has its own contrary.  For example, being and nonbeing imply and exclude one another.  They are united in becoming.


The words “if” and “then” indicate that reason is a motion of the mind from one alternative to another.

Plotinus: any form of thinking signifies a weakness.  It introduces duality.  Higher intelligences, by contrast, know by intuition.  Later Christian thinkers didn’t accept this extreme a view, but they did borrow his idea on intuition and applied it to angelic intelligences.

All the praise I gave of volume one also applies to this volume.

Troilus and Criseyde (Chaucer)

Imagine a high classical version of Romeo and Juliet. The characters have a higher (although not by much) IQ. If one has read Shakespeare’s version, then this will not have the same shock value (though the ending is pretty obvious in these types of situations). Chaucer writes this in “Royal Rime:” seven line stanzas in a-b-a-bb-cc.

Troilus is the son of King Priam and brother of Hector. Criseyde is the widow of a Trojan soldier. Pandar, Criseyde’s uncle, serves as the middleman between the two.

I will not spoil too much of the story; rather, I will use this space to quote Troilus’s famous monologue on Necessity vs. Free Will. Chaucer is no doubt summarizing late medieval debates about predestination and necessity. This easily surpasses most systematic theologies in terms of sophistication and clarity.

(From Book IV, stanzas 137ff)

“For all that comes, comes by necessity,
Thus to be done for is my destiny.”

This is obviously a strong version of determinism. Troilus does not actually maintain this position.

“For if there were the slightest hesitation
Or any slip in God’s foreordering,
Foreknowledge then were not a certain thing.”

This is certainly true. What Troilus does not understand is that God’s knowing of a thing does not force one’s actions. He asks the correct question: does necessity reside in the event itself?

“Of all the human things we call events
Or does necessity in them reside.
And thus ordaining cause for them provide?”

Is the event itself the causal factor? Maybe proximately.

Troilus, unfortunately, is not able to maintain the balance between necessity and contingency. He opts for fatalism:

“And by these arguments you may well see
That all things that on the earth befall,
By plain necessity, they happen all.”

In philosophical terms, Troilus committed a modal fallacy.

P1. ☐, if Christ predicted Judas’s betrayal, then Judas would betray Christ.
P2. Christ predicted Judas’s betrayal.
C1: ☐, Judas betrayed Christ.

This fallacy confuses the necessity of the inference with the necessity of the consequent (a more absolute necessity). The inference of Q from the premises ☐ (P⊃Q) is necessary in accordance with modus ponens. But Q itself, the consequent of the conditional ☐ (P⊃Q), is not itself necessary.

Take premise Q by itself (Judas would betray Christ). It does not exist in isolation. It is not a necessarily self-generating proposition. It is only necessary as a conditional necessity within the syllogism. This is what the older Reformed writers called “the necessity of the consequence,” in distinction from the necessity of the consequent thing.

Back to the book. Although this is a poem about pagan heroes, Chaucer, for whatever reason, ends with a beautiful hymn to the Trinity:

“O Thou eternal Three and Two and One
Reigning forever in One and Two and Three,
Boundless, but binding all through Father and Son,
From Foes unseen and seen deliver me;
And blessed Jesus turn our love to thee…

The Angels and Us (Adler)

Adler, Mortimer J. The Angels and Us. New York: MacMillan, 1982.

This is not a theological-exegetical treatment of angels. That is neither a criticism or a compliment. Adler’s purpose is to give a philosophical explanation, not a theological proof for angels.  One might ask, “Why can’t we just go by what the Bible says on angels and leave it at that?”  There are several problems with that idea.  I learned the hard way that people really do not want to deal with what the ancient Near East, including the Bible, says about malakim and dark spirits.   Moreover, logical deductions from sound premises are just as binding.  Philosophy is inescapable.

Mortimer Adler limits his analysis to that which philosophy allows one to say about angels.  This means at best he can give only an explanation of x, not a proof.  This is frustrating at times, but I understand why he does it. The philosophical benefit to such an approach is that it allows him to focus on the mind-body problem, since an angel is a mind without a body. One more preparatory note: I am not necessarily convinced of the Chain of Being model. I grant Adler’s rebuttal to Lovejoy, but I am not so sure he adequately dealt with Samuel Johnson’s criticisms.

Ptolemaic societies had an easier time with philosophical approaches to “planetary intelligences.” For Aristotle, these moved bodies which in turn move others seem a lot like what we would call angels. Quite obviously, “an incorporeal agent could be nothing other than a mind or intelligence.”[1] Even though angels are minds without bodies, they can assume corporeality in their missions to earth.[2] The biblical text itself is quite clear, as Abraham’s visitors ate with him and later grabbed Lot and his family.  (We will leave aside, of course, Genesis 6:1-4.)

Not surprisingly, Adler’s main guide is Thomas Aquinas, and his main guide to Thomas is Etienne Gilson.  This is as it should be. Beginning with Pseudo-Dionysius, Christian reflection saw the angels as a hierarchy. I do not think Pseudo-Dionysius is correct in his taxonomy, but the underlying principle bears reflection.  Adler notes: “The descending order of hierarchies…consists in grades of creaturely perfect…The perfection referred to is not moral, but metaphysical—a perfection in the mode of being.”[3] This is the Great Chain of Being, or one series of links in it, anyway.

This chain marks a intellectual mode of perfection. The fewer the ideas, the higher up.  This is simplicity in its classical sense.  A Seraph, for example, has fewer ideas than a malak, but he comprehends more in those fewer ideas. Is this Chain of Being really necessary?  Aquinas thinks so.  There would be a gap in reality without them. But can the Great Chain of Being survive modernity’s attacks on it, particularly in the fine book by Arthur Lovejoy?[4] Lovejoy’s actual, if not intended, target is Leibniz, not Aquinas.

When the Great Tradition speaks of a chain of being, it does not have something like arithmetical sequences in mind. Each links differs in kind, not in degree.[5] Moreover, each angel differs with the next by species, assuming, of course, that one accepts Thomas’s account of the angels.

Hell’s Angels

This is where Scripture is largely silent.  We know Satan fell.  We just do not know when. We know it was before man’s fall but after the “Everything is good” pronouncement. Angels, like Adam, were created mutable. If angels were created perfect, then some could not have fallen for obvious reasons. As best as we can tell, the angels that fell, in choosing evil instead of good, did so in the second moment of their existence. Their wills were then locked in place. The angels who obeyed were confirmed in grace.

The Substance of Angels

If a substance is a conjunction of form and matter, and angels are immaterial, then either all their forms are the same, and hence all angels are the same angel, or they must differ in some other way.  They do so by species. Each angel is its own species.[6] Each angelic species is a conjunction of form and its individual act of existence.

That angels interact with physical matter is clear.  How they do so is not as clear.  Since they are not physical, they cannot do so physically (except when they assume bodies). It does so by means of spiritual power. An angel “occupies its place intensively by surrounding it with its power.”[7] This might make more sense if we contrast it with humans.  When a man fills a place, he does so extensively, by physically occupying that place.  Not so with angels.

An angelic mind is purely intellectual.  It does not know discursively. When a man knows something, he does so by forming concepts and judgments.  Angels know with one act of intuition, but not all angels have the same knowledge. They know by virtue of infused knowledge.


Theologians and biblical scholars will wince at some of Adler’s conclusions. His philosophical reticence to affirm theological truths is annoying at times.  On the other hand, his analysis is on point and he avoids getting off topic. For those who read the Great Books, this is required reading.

[1] Mortimer Adler, The Angels and Us, (New York: MacMillan, 1982), 6.

[2] Adler, Ibid, 12.

[3] Ibid, 45.

[4] Arthur Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, (Cambridge: Harvard, 1971).

[5] Adler, The Angels, 62. This also eliminates any fear of pantheism between God and man.

[6] Ibid, 126.

[7] Ibid, 130.

A Syntopicon vol 1

Adler, Mortimer. The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon vol. 1.

I didn’t consider myself educated until I started working through this book. The program is simple: one can either read straight through multiple Great Books, and/or read through the entries in the syntopicon, gain a working understanding of the issue, and then follow up the passages at the end of the chapter. (I’ll illustrate later). Syntopical reading at its basic level is reading simultaneous books/passages about a single topic. If we go deeper, syntopical reading means interacting with what an author said about previous authors on the same topic.

The syntopical approach is what separates this volume from other anthologies. (Anthologies are about as valuable as school textbooks.)

Being, an example

Let’s take the most important philosophical concept in Western history: being. I’ll provide some brief highlights from the text and then post pictures of the reference system.

  1. With the exception of few other terms, only being is common to all kinds of things (127).
  2. A contingent being is one whose essence can be divorced from existence; a necessary being is one whose essence is identical to existence (129).
  3. Since being itself is that whereby a thing is, being belongs primarily to God and to all other things according to modes of derivation or participation.

Das Kapital (Karl Marx)

If Marx had decided to end this volume after chapter 2, he would have given us a relatively interesting philosophical analysis of labour.  It would have been completely wrong, of course. Part of the book is his labour theory of value and several theorems deduced from it.  The rest of the book is a scare tactic on how bad industry is. Whenever argument is lacking, in come the sob stories.

We should perhaps cut off one argument at the pass. You will hear some say that Marx anticipated problems in today’s marketplace.  He did no such thing.  When Marx uses terms like alienation, he means something entirely different than why the minimum wage advocate means today.

This review will focus mainly on the first part of the book.  The reason is simple: it is the heart of his argument and if it is wrong, it really doesn’t matter what he gets right.

Chapter 1: Commodities

A commodity is a thing outside of us that satisfies our wants.

“The utility of a thing is its use-value,” and this is independent of the labor that goes into it.  Consumption of a product actualizes the use-value.

A thing’s exchange-value must be equal to another commodity.  (Marx also says that exchange value is a mode of a thing’s existence.  It is a “phenomenal” form, “contained in it, yet distinguishable from it.” For someone who hated metaphysics, Marx uses many metaphysical concepts).

Marx then moves to the heart of his system, and indeed, the most fatal problem to it.  Since a thing’s exchange-value is equal to another thing’s exchange-value, how do we make this work? In other words, how do I really know that x weight of corn = y weight of iron?  Marx sees this problem, so he introduces a third term: each entity must be reducible to this third term.

What is this “something?”  Marx tries really hard to find it.  He notes that “exchange-value” is just an abstraction, and since any abstraction is as good as any other, we can do away with that.  What seems to be left is “labor.”  In language reminiscent of Renaissance alchemy, Marx notes that the “material thing is put out of sight.”

Let’s summarize the problem: there is a common substance (metaphysics-language again!) but it keeps manifesting itself as “exchange-value.”

Let’s go back to use-value.  Marx says a thing is valuable “only because human labor in the abstract has been embodied or materialized in it.” The only way we can measure this value is by the quantity of labor. I don’t think Marx is saying that the hours spent making a watch determine how much we can sell it for.  He says “the total labor power of society,” the sum total of the values, “counts here as one homogenous mass of human labor.”

That does nothing to help me find out how much to sell my watch.  Marx’s answer isn’t much different from the earlier one: we take the average sample.

Conclusion: “The value of one commodity is to the value of any other, as the labor time necessary for the production of the one is to that necessary for the production of the other.”  As Sir Roger Scruton remarked in Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands, Marx isn’t dealing with empirical data but with some occult entity embedded in the exchange. There is always a hidden essence in the exchange.  Whereas real economists would focus on how supply and demand influence pricing, Marx thought that irrelevant since it said nothing about the hidden essence.

In earlier metaphysics, either Christian or Neo Platonist, there was a cycle of exitus and redditus, of exit and return.  Imagine a circle with God (or Being or Good) at the top and a movement downwards along the circle.  That is the exitus.  There is then a return movement to the top, the redditus.  Marx does the same thing with currency and commodity.  We begin with C, Commodity.  It is exchanged for Money, M, and that money is then used to purchase another Commodity, giving us:

C → M → C

Marx takes it a step further: there are antagonisms within these oppositions.  Even more so, the commodity actually changes into the form of money.  This is alchemy. This transformation is itself an alienation (chapter 3, sect. 2).  

In the next chapter, Marx explains how this transformation completes the cycle.  We now move to M → C → M.  After further transmutations, Marx concludes that this is the general formula of capital.  All of this is very interesting, but the reader might be asking: what does this have to do with how much something should cost?  That’s the problem with Marxist economics: facts are subservient to theory.  Marx is always considering the matter in the abstract.  That’s completely backwards.

We’ll refute this in detail at the end.  It is worthwhile, in the meantime, to explain some of his other concepts:

Labour power: the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities in a human being when he produces value.  Its value is specifically determined by labour time.  If the owner sells the product at a profit, the surplus doesn’t go back to the labourer.  He is thus alienated from his labour.

The rest of the book is a collection of sob stories.  Now to the refutation:

First, as Bohm-Bawerk notes, Marx rests upon Aristotle’s theory of equality in exchange.  Aristotle said that goods of equal value are traded in an exchange.  Marx agrees but puts labor as one of the terms.  But if that’s true, then there is no reason to even exchange anything.  Nothing would disturb the equilibrium (Bohm-Bawerk 2007:70).

Further, Bohm-Bawerk continues, some goods that are exchanged do not involve any labor time: such as the soil, wood in trees, water power, coal beds, stone quarries, petroleum reserves, mineral waters, gold mines, etc.” 

There are even more damaging criticisms of the labour theory.  Labor isn’t homogenous, so how can it serve as a uniform medium of exchange?  Furthermore, Marx thinks that the businesses that are labour-intensive are the most profitable (which he has to say, since there has to be an active agent putting his labour into the product).  This means that the more machinery one employs, the less profit there will be.  Experience tells us the complete opposite.

Moreover, Marx sees all credit systems as the fat cat capitalist oppressing the poor borrower.  He never imagines a situation where the creditor lends to the government.

Marx has no concept of time-preference, where he sees production only as the gratification of immediate selfish needs.

Throughout his writings Marx says that the worker is on the side of society, and the interests of capitalists is against the interests of society, yet it is undeniable that capitalists produce technology (medicine, scientific advancements, etc) that benefit society.

It is true that there were many abuses in the Industrial Revolution.  We can be grateful for child-labour laws and the like.  None of that, however, requires a Marxist outlook on life.

Böhm-Bawerk, Eugen v. 2007. Karl Marx and the Close of His System. Auburn: Mises Institute.