Deception and illusion are a lot more than transient states of failure in concentration and judgement in many famous philosophical texts. In this article, I will be analyzing how these concepts related to a false consciousness were used in "The German Ideology" by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and "The Birth of Tragedy" by Friedrich Nietzsche. At the end of this article, you will be able to articulate some of the key concepts in these important works of philosophical thought.
The first section of “The German Ideology” by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels is an elaboration on a materialistic theory of history based on the assertion that the material processes underlying the means of production of a society and the associated socioeconomic relationships establish its inner structure and course of gradual progress. Thus, the course of history develops through the reciprocal influence between the means of production and the associated socioeconomic relationships. These relationships eventually lead to a distinction between the working class and the ruling class, and with the continuous upgrading of the means of production through technological progress to achieve the ultimate production volume, the dissensions between these two classes get amplified. According to Marx and Engels, in a capitalist society where the means of production is privately owned, deception and illusion within the working class are of significant importance to the stability of the system in the short term, when the achievement of the full production volume is not close enough in time to cause large conflicts among different social classes. The ruling class has a control over not only the manufacturing and the distribution of the physical materials, but also the intellectual ones. Each ruling class introduces the critical ideas and visions for their time, and the working class wrongly interprets these ideas and visions as comprehensive for the whole society. This illusive state of mind creates a feeling of necessity for a ruling body within the society and this ensures the longevity of the system. Furthermore, another factor contributing to the stability of the system is, of course, the recreation of a new working class over time and within a capitalist society, this is also guaranteed by illusory means. The exact details of the social and economic relationships woven into the fabric of the means of production and interactions of this nature among different bodies of society are effectively obscured or blurred by the ruling class. As a result, the working class lacks the knowledge of the terms or the concepts that are descriptive of the inner workings of the society. Thus, perhaps by the Rumpelstiltskin Principle, i.e. one can have a power over something if one can name it, the working class cannot get a grasp on the actual workings of the system, and enters a state of “false consciousness” (1) characterized by an inaccurate awareness of the dynamics within the system. Hence, the next generation of the working class cannot improve itself and go vertical in the pyramid, and it is just converted to the new working class. This vicious cycle strengthened by the illusory state of the working class eventually breaks when the tensions between the working and the ruling class get high enough as the means of production improves towards the maximum production volume. In this case, the awakened working class will tear down the capitalist system and build a communist system based on the communal ownership of the means of production, per Marx and Engels.
Friedrich Nietzsche, through “The Birth of Tragedy”, takes the discussion of the concept illusion even further than Marx and Engels by asserting that illusion is the protective shield of mankind against the overwhelming bare reality. He evaluates the art of tragedy in Ancient Greece by making the distinction between the Dionysian and the Apollonian. The Apollonian emphasizes individuality, form and structure, and it is the way the physical world appears to us. According to Nietzsche, the Apollonian appearance is only an illusion and puts a distance between us and our essential emotions. The Dionysian on the other hand stimulates our chaotic emotions, attenuates our sense of individuality, makes us feel in harmony with the greater whole, and it is the “ultimate metaphysical reality” (2). Nietzsche finds that the Apollonian and the Dionysian are in continuous rivalry for more influence over human existence, but the balance between them is important. Through the Dionysian, the primordial unity is reached, which is the ecstatic state achieved when individuality is dissolved and mankind acts in harmony as one, temporarily overcoming suffering. Even though mankind can only achieve this remedial state through the Dionysian euphoria, they need the Apollonian appearances, the illusion, to disclose the nature of the Dionysian. The balance between the Dionysian and the Apollonian in life and art is crucial and the dominant exposure to one of them is not sound for individuals and the society. Per Nietzsche, the Greek tragedy was the greatest instance of art due to its impeccable blend of the Dionysian and the Apollonian bits of life, before it was compromised by Euripides who took the Dionysian elements out of tragedy, affecting the modern culture in a similar way. However, Nietzsche is hopeful that mankind will eventually be able to embrace the Dionysian reality without undermining the merits of the Apollonian appearance, the illusion.
Although the usages of the concept illusion in Marx and Engels’ “The German Ideology” and Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy” initially seem different, actually, there are surprising parallels. In Nietzsche’s work, illusion is inhibitive and not remedial for the working class, because they are dominantly immersed in it, and are devoid of the Dionysian ecstasy and thus, the primordial unity. So, this imbalance between the Apollonian and Dionysian is suppressing for the society, as it keeps the working class docile and uneducated. In Marx and Engels’ work, illusion is protective and remedial, in the sense that it’s a shield for the mankind against the overwhelming reality, but only if it is counterbalanced by the Dionysian, as emphasized by Nietzsche.
1 - Marx, Karl, Julie Rivkin, and Michael Rivkin. "Literary Theory: An Anthology." (2004) p. 653-8.
2 - Cadieux, André. "The Jungle of Dionysus: The Self in Mann and Nietzsche." Philosophy and Literature 3.1 (1979): 55-56.