Materialism: Atoms and Void
Episode #9 of the course Ancient Greek philosophy by Dr. Will Buckingham
Hello and welcome back. In the previous lesson, we looked at the stoic philosophers of ancient Greece. Today, we are going to look at one of the philosophical traditions that for centuries, rivaled that of the stoics: the philosophy of the ancient materialists.
Atoms and Void
We’re accustomed to thinking of the universe as being made up of countless atoms as a distinctively modern idea. But it is almost as old as philosophy itself. In fact, the word “atom” is a Greek word, meaning “uncuttable.” Today, we can observe atoms through microscopes, and we also know that atoms can indeed be cut. But for the ancient Greek philosophers, atoms were not something that they could observe. Instead, they were a hypothesis about how the world was constructed.
The Greek atomist school was founded by a philosopher called Leucippus. We don’t know much about him, only that he lived around the 5th century BCE and that he had a student called Democritus. We know more about Democritus because he wrote over 50 books, although nothing that he wrote survives to the present day. As a result, most of Democritus’s ideas we know secondhand, mostly due to Aristotle.
Democritus the Dissector
From the records that remain, we know that Democritus was a prolific philosopher whose thinking extended from questions about the ultimate structure of the universe to ethics and ideas about language, society, and religion. But he is most famous for his arguments about atomism.
Democritus’s conclusion that the world must be made up of atoms was based not on observation, but on reasoning. For Democritus, we know from observation that everything in the world is made up of smaller parts. But what is the smallest possible part? Either this smallest possible part has no magnitude (which means that things are infinitely divisible) or it has some magnitude (which means there is a point at which you can divide things up no longer). Democritus claimed that it makes no sense to have a world built from parts that have no magnitude, because when you add together an infinity of zeroes, you still get zero. He concluded that when you divide things up, you must eventually get to the smallest possible part, beyond which things cannot be further divided: a fundamental unit that is uncuttable—in other words, an atom.
On the back of this argument, Democritus proposed that everything was made up of void and atoms. The void, he proposed, was infinitely big and filled with an infinity of atoms. Everything that exists, he said, was made up of this combination of “being” (atoms) and “non-being” (void).
Epicurus: Freeing Ourselves from Turbulence
One later Greek philosopher who took up Democritus’s ideas was Epicurus (c. 341-270 BCE), who founded his own school of philosophy called the Garden. This was a philosophical community based just outside Athens.
Epicurus’s philosophy was rooted in Democritus’s atomist view of the universe. He imagined the world and everything in it as a turbulent cascade of atoms through the void. As the atoms fall, they swerve, collide, and clump together to form larger bodies. For Epicurus, everything is made of these clumping, falling atoms. This means that the world is always in motion, unstable, and in a state of flux.
This might seem like a terrifying picture. But Epicurus believed that this idea had the power to free us from all kinds of anxieties. Many people in the Greek world believed that the gods had an influence over human life. But Epicurus argued that if we understand the simple mechanisms behind the complexity of the world, we will find ourselves freed from our superstitious worries.
For Epicurus, the best way of living is to bring calm, steadiness, and order to this great cascade of atoms and void. We can do this, he says, by living quietly and cultivating simple pleasures that do not lead to further turbulence. His examples include friendship, simple food, a small glass of wine, a refusal to get involved in politics. “Send me a little pot of cheese,” Epicurus once wrote to a friend, “so that I can indulge in extravagance when I wish.” It is a line that Epicurus’s followers often quoted to show that although he thought pleasure was the only thing important in life, in his own pursuit of pleasure, he was quite restrained.
Democritus and Epicurus’s challenge to think about the world as simply made of material stuff is one that continued to resonate for centuries. From the 16th century, many philosophers in Europe started to rediscover ancient atomist ideas, but it was not until John Dalton put forward his scientific theory of the atom in the early 19th century that atomism really made a return.
In the final class, we’ll be looking at how Greek philosophy continues to influence us even today.
• Here’s a TED-Ed video on the 2,400-year search for the atom.
• Travels with Epicurus by Daniel Klein is an accessible journey in search of Epicurus’s theory of the good life.
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