At some point in the 80s, during my stint as an undergrad at Glasgow University, my philosophy tutor, the late, great Dudley Knowles, said that upon retirement he intended to tour Europe's cemeteries to visit the tombstones of his favourite philosophers. What a bizarre and rather morbid pursuit I thought at the time.
Dudley, a down-to-earth Yorkshireman, was neither bizarre nor morbid, and he had a marvellous sense of humour. For years he won GU's prize for 'Most Boring Lecture' by delivering disquisitions on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit
. Dudley accepted his annual award triumphantly. In truth, he was a superb lecturer on philosophy in general, and on the impenetrable Hegel in particular. I will never forget Dudley, nor his teaching. Nor did I forget his retirement wish which, sadly, he didn't live long enough to realise. So, I have pursued it instead. I can hear him chuckle at the thought.
Working on this project over the last two years, to date I have travelled to cemeteries in Edinburgh, London, Cambridge, Paris, Florence and Toulouse. A series of chapters, with the cumbersome working title Mighty Tombs of the Great Thinkers
is now going by the much punchier Philosophers' Stones
(suggested by the journalist Katie Grant).
Cemeteries and graveyards are fascinating places. Both designate burial grounds. A cemetery (from the Greek 'sleeping place') is a large, open burial ground not usually associated with a church, while a graveyard is usually part of a churchyard. Graveyards are smaller, quieter and slightly creepy at times, while cemeteries, like Glasgow's Necropolis (literally 'city of the dead') are places you can stroll, usually much busier, and not creepy in the slightest.
As I am staying in London for a while, it seemed a good idea to start my entries here. Like most capital cities, London is festooned with marvellous burial grounds and is the resting place of many a great thinker. Of course, not all are interred with dignity. Poor old Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, has his 200-year-old grizzly, severed head preserved and displayed at the University College London. More about that in a later piece.
Instead, I start with another great head, this one commemorated in bronze in Highgate Cemetery. Karl Marx, of course. It could be argued, and often is, that Karl Marx was not a philosopher, but an economist, sociologist and revolutionary thinker. He was all
There is no question that philosophy underpinned Marx's thinking – at his own admittance – particularly Aristotle and Hegel. Scott Meikle – another philosopher from Glasgow University: avuncular, dry-witted, and extremely funny – wrote Essentialism in the Thought of Karl Marx
. Yes, Marx was an essentialist. A vastly misunderstood term in these current superficial, ferociously atomistic times. Marx's PhD thesis, The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature
, was described as 'a daring and original piece of work in which Marx set out to show that theology must yield to the superior wisdom of philosophy'.
Meikle claims, convincingly, that the main task of the philosopher is to extract the truth of social reality from the bubble and flotsam of daily affairs. Specifically, Marx developed critical theories about how societies would progress or fail to progress. Neither Democritus nor Epicurus provide the framework necessary for the task. Instead, Marx appealed to Aristotle's essentialism. He followed Aristotle in believing that every entity has a natural trajectory to its development, a development grounded in the nature of the thing, which applies to minerals, plants, animals, human beings, as well as to societies as a whole.
By grasping the true nature of a thing or entity – thought Aristotle, Hegel and Marx – we get the explanatory tools needed to explain the changes it will naturally go through during its natural life cycle. As essentialism is deeply unfashionable these days, men of the progressive left would throw their hands up in horror.
Each gravestone, tomb or monument which marks the final resting place of a beloved family member, friend or person of renown, tells a story about the deceased, even if only a simple name and lifespan is engraved in stone. Cemeteries are also places of social standing, with a variety of gravestones in various designs and materials such as granite, slate, sandstone and cast iron, with the cheapest made of wood carved in simple crosses.
Marx's memorial, so familiar to communists, socialists and the curious, is his huge head cast in bronze atop a marble plinth. Although Marx was buried in Highgate on a small sidepath in his wife Jenny's grave in March 1883, such was his standing and influence that in 1956 he was moved – with his wife, thankfully – to a prominent location on the main path.
Marx's new memorial was unveiled by the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Harry Pollitt, the greatest leader the CP ever had (who babysat me shortly before he died in 1960). Despite having seen this monument many times in photographs, seeing it in situ stopped me short. It is huge. A small cluster of tourists had gathered.
Designed by socialist Laurence Bradshaw, the pedestal features the final line of the Communist Manifesto
: 'Workers of all lands unite'. At the bottom of the pedestal are the famous words from Marx's 11th Thesis on Feuerbach
: 'The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways – the point however is to change it'. As a philosophy student, that line has always bothered me. As I gazed solemnly at that magnificent head, I thought two contradictory thoughts: what a brilliant, enigmatic thinker he was; what havoc those ruling in his name wreaked on the 20th century. Leaving the site, I consoled myself with one of the great man's prescient lines as reported by Engels: 'what is certain is that I myself am not a Marxist'.
Finally, I took two Lewisham councillors (my daughter Joan and Kevin Bonavia – see photo below) on our day out to Highgate Cemetery. We walked down the hill from the leafy residential area of North London to its entrance on that chilly, bright November day in 2017. As we approached Marx's monument, someone vaguely familiar caught my eye to the left, opposite the famous monument, standing bowed beneath a tree, lost in contemplation. It was David Miliband, and I knew why he was there. Marx's burial ground is surrounded by deceased men and women who were inspired by him, including the prominent Marxist thinker, Ralph Miliband. My instinct was to go over and hug his son, but thank god, decency and respect prevented me.