Author: Mário Santiago de Carvalho
Part of: Coimbra as an International Institution (coord. by Mário Santiago de Carvalho)
Peer-Reviewed: Yes
Published: January, 7th, 2020
DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.3600446

The latest version of this entry may be cited as follows: Carvalho, Mário Santiago de, “Karl Marx and Coimbra”, Encyclopedia, Mário Santiago de Carvalho, Simone Guidi (eds.), doi = “10.5281/zenodo.3600446”, URL = “”, latest revision: January, 7th, 2020.

Karl Marx and the Conimbricenses

Son of a successful lawyer in Trier who converted to Lutheranism (in the Catholic Rhineland), Karl Marx (Trier, 1818-London, 1883), enters in 1835, at Bonn University and in 1836, at Berlin University. In January 1839, Marx begins the doctoral dissertation that he will submit by post to the University of Jena in April 1841, with the title, Differenz der demokritischen und epikureischen Naturphilosophie (The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature). This academic work was preceded by a sequence of exercises (Hefte) dealing with Stoic, Epicurean and Sceptic philosophies, dated 1839, entitled by the editors of the Marx-Engels Werke (= MEW), Hefte zur epikureischen, stoischen und skeptischen Philosophie (Marx 1968a). The subject of the “Erstes Heft”, meaning the first of the seven exercises, which gave to the young graduate student a substantial part of the philosophical material necessary to compose his doctoral dissertation, was the tenth book of Diogenes Laertius’s Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. As it is known, in this book Laertius deals extensively with Epicurean philosophy and quotes the latter’s letter to Herodotus: “In the first place, Herodotus, you must understand what it is that words denote, in order that by reference to this we may be in a position to test opinions, inquiries, or problems…” At this point precisely, the student Marx underlines the importance of Aristotle’s reflections about the place language must have in philosophical activity or in considering general things which are obscure “for the primary signification of every term employed must be clearly seen…” (again, a quotation from Epicurus). Epicurus’s letter goes on to the following difficult philosophical matters, mainly regarding the philosophy of nature and cognition: “… nothing comes into being out of what is non-existent. For in that case, anything would have arisen out of anything, standing as it would in no need of its proper germs. And if that which disappears had been destroyed and become non-existent, everything would have perished, that into which the things were dissolved being non-existent. Moreover, the sum total of things was always such as it is now, and such it will ever remain. For there is nothing into which it can change. For outside the sum of things, there is nothing which could enter into it and bring about the change. (…) [T]he whole of being consists of bodies and space. For the existence of bodies is everywhere attested by sense itself, and it is upon sensation that reason must rely when it attempts to infer the unknown from the known. And if there were no space (which we call also void and place and intangible nature), bodies would have nothing in which to be and through which to move, as they are plainly seen to move. Beyond bodies and space there is nothing which by mental apprehension or on its analogy we can conceive to exist. When we speak of bodies and space, both are regarded as wholes or separate things, not as the properties or accidents of separate things.” Dealing with this section of the letter to Herodotus by Epicurus, Karl Marx felt himself obliged to refer to three Aristotle’s texts (henceforth A., B, C) related to those issues. We know that two volumes of the Coimbra Jesuit Commentary were at that point on Marx’s working table, for he gives the three following quotations (according to MEW edition Bd. 40:

[A] “(…) das Entstehen aus dem Nichtseienden ist unmöglich; diese Meinung teilen alle, dir über die Natür schreiben (…).” Aristoteles. Physik I. Kap. 4 Kommentar des [Jesuiten-] Collegiums in Coimbra. S[p] 123[-125];

[B] “(…) in gewisser Weise ensteht etwas einfach aus Nichtseindem, in andrer Weise aber immer aus Seiendem. Denn das potentiell Seiendem, tatsächlich aber nich Seiende, muss notwendigerweise früher da sein als auf beide Weise bennantes.” Aristoteles. Won Werdem und Vergehen. Buch I. Kap. 3. Kommentar des Collegiums in Coimbra. S. 26;

[C] “Diese aber sind unteilbar und unveränderlich, wenn nicht alles in das Nichts vergehen soll.” S. [32-]33. “… das All ist unendlich. Denn was begrenzt ist, hat ein Äusserstes (…)” S. 33. “…das All ist unendlich durch die Vielheit der Körper, durch die Grosse des Leeren.” S. 33. (“…das Unendliche wird überlegen sein und das Endliche vernichten (…).” Aristoteles. Physik, Buch 3. Kap. 5 K[ommentar des Kollegiums in] C[oimbra]. Sp. 487).

Here is the English version of these three texts, according to R.P. Hardie’s and R.K. Gaye’s translation of the Physics, and H.H. Joachim’s translation of the On Generation and Corruption, respectively:

[A] “… it is impossible for it to arise from what is not (on this point all the physicists agree)…” (Physica I 4, 187a34-35);

[B] “In one sense things come-to-be out of that which has no being without qualification; yet in another sense, they come-to-be always out of what is. For there must pre-exist something which potentially is, but actually is not; and this something is spoken of both as being and as not being.” (De Generatione et Corruptione I 3, 317b 15-18);

[C] “Body is what has extension in all directions and the infinite is what is boundlessly extended…” (Physica III 5, 2014b19-20).

These three passages are an explicit testimony of the presence of the Commentarii Collegii Conimbricensis Societatis Iesu in Octo Libros Physicorum Aristotelis Stagiritae (see Barata-Moura 1999: 227) and of the Commentarii Collegii Conimbricensis Societatis Iesu in duos libros De Generatione et Corruptione Aristotelis Stagiritae in the preparation of Karl Marx’s doctoral dissertation written under the patronage of Bruno Bauer who had been Marx’s mentor from 1835 to 1841. The general bibliography (“Literaturverzeichnis”), “Werke und Aufsätze gennanter und ungennanter Autoren” (page 679 of the MEW edition) also refers the two Coimbra Jesuit volumes: In duos libros De Generatione et Corruptione Aristotelis Stagiritae (a reference to pages 30 and 31 MEW) and In Octo Libros Physicorum Aristotelis Stagiritae. Part 1 et 2 (references to pages 30, 31, 32 and 33 MEW). It is, therefore, possible to affirm that, for his PhD, Marx worked with the Aristotelian Greek text of Physica 187a34-35 [text A] and 204b 19-20 [text C], as well as De Generatione et Corruptione 317b15-18 [text B], provided by one of the various European bilingual editions of the Coimbra Jesuit Course. There is a large agreement among scholars about the importance of Karl Marx’s doctoral dissertation in the aftermath of these exercises and any PhD student will easily acknowledge the importance of the stage immediately previous to the redaction of an academic document of that kind. Nevertheless, only text [A] will be tackled again (Marx 1968b: 333). With his patron, Bruno Bauer, Marx shared the purpose of addressing Christianity in critical terms supported by a theoretical horizon mostly based on biblical criticism, Hegelian philosophy, and political radicalism. The young doctor announced his work as a “heretofore solution of an unsolved problem in the history of Greek philosophy” as well as a “preliminary to a larger work” dedicated to “the cycle of Epicurean, Stoic and Sceptic philosophy in their relation to the whole of Greek speculation” (Marx 1968b: 261-2). Despite being an original work on the materialist philosophies of Democritus and Epicurus, the thesis is an interesting philosophical exegesis, written by a professed atheist, and a contribution to the contemporary debate on the nature of authority. In the time when Hegel’s philosophy was used to examine the very Christianity that rulers took to be constitutive of their political authority, the thesis’s subject was polemical enough to think that it would be impossible to find a career in the academy, as Bauer had planned for Karl Marx. To be sure, it is impossible to overemphasize the presence of only three Coimbra quotations in these preparatory exercises. Moreover, they regard mainly Aristotle’s text and the core of the research was Epicureanism and its confrontation with the Democritean philosophy of nature (in general, Part 1, and in detail, Part 2). Thus, it is clear that Marx used the Commentarii Collegii Conimbricensis Societatis Iesu on minor issues, thus playing only a subsidiary role, and, it appears, limited to two volumes. Nevertheless, the physical presence in Jena of the Coimbra volumes was not dealt with yet. In his dissertation, Marx quotes other Aristotelian works (and mainly, Metaphysics, On the Heavens, On the Soul) without any reference to the Coimbra Jesuit volumes. In contrast, he quotes Friedrich Adolph Trendelenburg’s edition of Aristotle’s On the Soul (Jena 1833) as well as many other Ancient commentators (Simplicius, Philoponus, etc) who had been “authorities” for the Coimbra Jesuits. The MEW editors only identify the presence of Pierre Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary in relation to the article “Epicure” therein, but it is already known that Bayle’s work had lean on the Coimbra Jesuit Course for other historical and philosophical information (Carvalho 2013). Nevertheless, when Marx consulted the Commentarii Collegii Conimbricensis Societatis Iesu in Octo Libros Physicorum Aristotelis Stagiritae and the Commentarii Collegii Conimbricensis Societatis Iesu in duos libros De Generatione et Corruptione Aristotelis Stagiritae for his preliminary “Exercise”, it is likely he did not take into consideration their broader lessons thus disregarding the questions-sections (quaestiones) totally strange to the very core and main purposes of Marx’s doctoral dissertation presented above. However, if, as it happens, he was only interested in Aristotle’s texts, the philological and hermeneutical section (explanationes) of the Coimbra commentaries – lessons # 34 [for A], # 43 [for C] and # 11 [for B] – would be somehow useful, in all the three cases, for the Coimbra lesson to A (# 34, page 107) reads: “… ex nihilo autem, ut ex prima suppositione manifestum est, nihil sit …”; and the Coimbra lesson to C (# 43, page 412) reads: “… quia quod ex certis partibus terminate magnitudinis coalescit, finitum est, vel unum aliquod ex iis, aut plura, aut omnia infinitam molem vendicarent.” The best case is, however, the Coimbra lesson to B (# 11, page 25), for it respects the need emphasized by Epicurus to Herodotus, as regards “the primary signification of every term”, as well as the reference, made by Marx, as regards the importance Aristotle gave to the place of language in philosophical activity: “Enim vero non ens simpliciter, vel negat praecipuam categoriam, hoc est substantiam, quae simpliciter ens vocatur, vel removerens absolute, idest, in toto ambitu suae significationis; utrovis autem modum non ens simpliciter accipiatur, nequaquam apparet qua ratione substantia possit gigni e non ente simpliciter. Nam si priori modo usurpetur, iam substantia fiet e non substantia; posteriori, substantia fiet omnino e nihilo.” To sum up, in the time he was preparing his PhD thesis Karl Marx worked on and with two volumes of a European bilingual edition of the Coimbra Jesuit Course; he used them to have access to Aristotle’s text and, as it would be expected, he did not follow the Coimbra exegesis of them. Certainly, the Coimbra Jesuit Course was one of the bibliographical instruments at the library of Jena University that 19-century students could still use for their research on and their study of Aristotle.



  • Marx (1968a), Karl-Friedrich Engels. Ergänzungsband, Schrifte, Manuskripte, Briefe bis 1844. Erster Teil (=Werke, Bd. 40 Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus Beim SK der SED), Berlin: Dietz Verlag: 13-255.
  • Marx (1968b), Karl-Friedrich Engels. Differenz der demokritischen und epikureischen Naturphilosophie nebst einem Anhange. Erster Teil (=Werke, Bd. 40 Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus Beim SK der SED), Berlin: Dietz Verlag: 257-373.
  • Barata-Moura (1999), José. “Uma nota sobre a ‘praxis’ em Francisco Suárez”. In Francisco Suárez (1548-1617). Tradição e Modernidade, coord. de Adelino Cardoso et al. Lisboa: Colibri: 225-237.
  • Carvalho (2013), Mário Santiago de. “Pierre Bayle et la critique d’Averroès à Coimbra. Deux épisodes de l’histoire de la réception d’Averroès”, Revista Filosófica de Coimbra 22 : 417-432.
  • The Cambridge Companion to Marx, ed. by Terrell Carver, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge/New Yoek/Melbourne, 1991.
  • The Complete Works of Aristotle. The Revised Oxford Translation, edited by Jonathan Barnes, volume 1, Princeton University Press, 1995.
  • Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Ed. by R.D. Hicks. Perseus Digital Library: Tufts University (accessed in December, 2019).

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