Opium of the people  

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The Opium of the Intellectuals --Raymond Aron

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

"Religion is the opiate of the people" is one of the most frequently quoted statements of Karl Marx. It was translated from the German original, "Die Religion ... ist das Opium des Volkes" and is often referred to as "religion is the opiate of the masses." The quotation originates from the introduction of his 1843 work Contribution to Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right which was subsequently released one year later in Marx's own journal Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, a collaboration with Arnold Ruge. The phrase "This opium you feed your people" appeared in 1797 in Marquis de Sade's text L'Histoire de Juliette and Novalis's "[R]eligion acts merely as an opiate" around the same time. The full quote from Karl Marx is: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people".

Contents

Marx

The quotation, in context, reads as follows (emphasis added):

Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man—state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d'honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Guy Debord

In The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord parallels the Marxist conception of religion as opiate with that of marketing:

The spectacle is a permanent opium war which aims to make people identify goods with commodities and satisfaction with survival that increases according to its own laws. But if consumable survival is something which must always increase, this is because it continues to contain privation. If there is nothing beyond increasing survival, if there is no point where it might stop growing, this is not because it is beyond privation, but because it is enriched privation.

Sade

In the Marquis de Sade's Juliette, published in 1797 (trans. Austryn Wainhouse, 1968), Sade uses the term in a scene where Juliette explains to King Ferdinand the consequences of his policies:
Though nature lavishes much upon your people, their circumstances are strait. But this is not the effect of their laziness; this general paralysis has its source in your policy which, from maintaining the people in dependence, shuts them out from wealth; their ills are thus rendered beyond remedy, and the political state is in a situation no less grave than the civil government, since it must seek its strength in its very weakness. Your apprehension, Ferdinand, lest someone discover the things I have been telling you leads you to exile arts and talents from your realm. You fear the powerful eye of genius, that is why you encourage ignorance. This opium you feed your people, so that, drugged, they do not feel their hurts, inflicted by you. And that is why where you reign no establishments are to be found giving great men to the homeland; the rewards due knowledge are unknown here, and as there is neither honor nor profit in being wise, nobody seeks after wisdom.
I have studied your civil laws, they are good, but poorly enforced, and as a result they sink into ever further decay. And the consequences thereof? A man prefers to live amidst their corruption rather than plead for their reform, because he fears, and with reason, that this reform will engender infinitely more abuses than it will do away with; things are left as they are. Nevertheless, everything goes askew and awry and as a career in government has no more attractions than one in the arts, nobody involves himself in public affairs; and for all this compensation is offered in the form of luxury, of frivolity, of entertainments. So it is that among you a taste for trivial things replaces a taste for great ones, that the time which ought to be devoted to the latter is frittered away on futilities, and that you will be subjegated sooner or later and again and again by any foe who bothers to make the effort.

Charles Kingsley

Charles Kingsley, Canon of the Church of England, wrote this four years after Marx

We have used the Bible as if it were a mere special constable's hand book, an opium dose for keeping beasts of burden patient while they were being overloaded, a mere book to keep the poor in order.

Analysis and influence

One of the essays in Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) is titled "Juliette or Enlightenment and Morality" and analyzes Juliette as the embodiment of the philosophy of enlightenment.

Interpretation

Ambiguity of "opiate"

The sense in which the metaphor "opiate" is used has been interpreted in several ways, some of which may differ from the way opium is thought of today. At the time when Marx wrote this text, opium was legally available in some parts of the world, although there were attempts to regulate, legislate and prohibit its use, sale and production, due to the negative effects the substance had on individuals and society in general. According to McKinnon (2005), there seemed to have been five primary senses which opium could be used as a metaphor in the mid nineteenth century:

  1. Opium was an important medicine. It was used as a painkiller or sedative, but also for a wide range of ailments, including combatting cholera.
  2. Opium was a keyword for widespread social conflict, particularly the Opium Wars.
  3. It was the source of an important "social problem", one of the first "public health" concerns, known as "baby-doping" (giving your child opium to keep them quiet.)
  4. Opium was the source of fantastic visions of the "opium eaters" (De Quincey, the Romantic Poets, etc.)
  5. Morphine, the principal and most widely known and widely produced opiate of the day—at the time called morphium -- has at its etymology "dream-inducer". In this sense, opium is what someone is given to induce them to experience a fantasy instead of a reality. This is related to, but distinct from, the above baby-doping usage.

See also




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