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Tag Archives: Democritus

The Myth of Matter, p. 2

Ancient History of Atoms

How can this be a portrait of Leucippus?

Atomism was a philosophy first put forth in the 5th century BCE by the Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus which “held that the universe is composed of physical ‘uncuttables’… accounting for the origins of everything … as these atoms strike against one another, rebound and interlock in an infinite void.”[1] The atomists were only concerned with the question, “What caused this event?” eschewing questions like, “What purpose did this event serve?” In other words, atomists were materialists who disregarded philosophical concepts such as “purpose, prime mover or final cause.”[2], [3] Considering the fact that atomism did not “catch on” in the ancient world, it is fun to look back at some of their ideas and some of their contemporaries’ objections[4]

The ancient atomists had the idea that everything in the natural world was made up of combinations of tiny invisible bodies (atoms) that were completely surrounded by, or immersed in, nothingness (the void). The atomists further proposed that their namesakes the atoms were indestructible, unchangeable, and free to move around in the void, where they sometimes formed combinations with other atoms and sometimes just bounced around. So, everything in the natural world that we can see, smell, touch, hear and taste is made up of different combinations of atoms, they would have said.

Because these atom-combinations are transitory, everything in the world is transitory, except for the atoms themselves (and the void). According to the atomists, it is this constant invisible grouping, un-grouping and re-grouping that caused changes in the visible world to occur.

Atoms had different shapes and textures that affected how they could form clusters in the void. This was claimed to account for the texture, density, strength, firmness, fluidity and all the other sense perceptions we might get from large combinations of these indivisible yet tiny nuggets of matter. Even color and other visual perceptions are caused by the arrangement of atoms, not the atoms themselves, according to Leucippus and Democritus.

The idea that a bunch of colorless, tasteless atoms crashing into each other – sometimes bouncing apart and sometimes sticking together – could produce Truth and Beauty was too implausible for Plato. Plus, the abstraction of tiny particles suspended in a infinite void seemed to violate ‘known’ physical principles according to Aristotle. [5] The lone supporter of atomism, Epicurus, seems less interested in the physics of atomism and more interested in defending his philosophy that pleasure is the sole intrinsic good.

Centuries later, politically empowered Christianity sealed the fate (for a time) of the ancient atomists, perceiving them to be atheists and thus automatically rejecting their ideas. Perhaps this is why none of Leucippus’s and Democritus’s and only a small fraction of Epicurus’s writings survived the Middle Ages.


[1] Berryman, Sylvia, “Ancient Atomism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/atomism-ancient/

[3] “Teleology: (philosophy) a doctrine explaining phenomena by their ends or purposes,” wordnet

[4] Berryman, Sylvia, in SEP

[5] Wikipedia//Atomism

Crying in the Wilderness

So they said to him, “Who are you? We need an answer! What do you have to say for yourself?”

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